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The Warsaw Voice » Regional Voice » September 2, 2011
The Wrocław Voice
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Winds of Change
September 2, 2011   
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Wrocław Mayor Rafał Dutkiewicz talks to Barbara Deręgowska and Andrzej Jonas about the city’s tangled history and its distinctive character today.

Wrocław is one of those Polish cities that are particularly burdened with the legacy of World War II. Before the war Wrocław was called Breslau and was part of Germany. It became part of Poland under the terms of the Potsdam Conference. How has the city’s tempestuous history affected its present image?
Wrocław is mostly home to people who settled in the city after the war. The city’s population was 100-percent replaced. The new residents came mainly from beyond the country’s eastern border [from areas that were part of Poland before the war. Many of these people hailed from the city of Lwów, now Lviv].

There were also those who came from the eastern and central parts of the country. Two professional groups figured prominently among these people: university and secondary-school teachers, and streetcar staff. These roots are palpable to this day, manifesting themselves in speech, culture, and the way people do things. But unfortunately that special eastern sing-song manner of speech is becoming increasingly rare in our streets.

How long have you been living in Wrocław yourself?
I come from Wielkopolska and arrived in Wrocław as a student in the second half of the 1970s. Apart from some brief breaks, I have lived here ever since. As for the issue of roots, the following anecdote is an excellent illustration: In 1928, there was a soccer game in Wrocław [which at the time was called Breslau and belonged to Germany] between Pogoń Lwów [at the time Lwów was a Polish city] and FC Breslau and the score was 4-1. The question is: did we win or lose?

The great challenge for Wrocław after the war was to gain a sense of identity on one hand and a sense of stability on the other. Since when have Wrocław’s residents felt at home here?
I would say the decade of Solidarity. Between 1980 and 1990 was when Wrocław’s identity was consolidated the most strongly. A German reporter once came to our city and looked at our exhibition at the Royal Palace celebrating 1,000 years of Wrocław’s history with great interest but also amazement. The exhibition features strong German highlights related to the German language culture of Habsburg and Prussian times. He asked me why we spoke so openly about this, without any complexes. I told him it was because we feel at home here.

Wrocław has been designated as a European Capital of Culture 2016, outperforming a host of other Polish cities. Did the city’s history help it win?
As we applied for the title we deliberately highlighted the fact that the city had more than 50 different names throughout its history. Language experts say all these linguistic variations originate from the same root, so Breslau and Wrocław are only transformations due to language. When I speak German, I use the German name of my city. I am interested in showing the city’s continuity, which was broken in the social sense but always existed in the physical and spatial sense. The power of physical heritage is huge. I am actually just as strongly interested in the Lviv themes.

I recently unveiled a monument we built in Lviv to commemorate the professors killed there by the Nazis. Another project involved bringing the insignia of Jan Kazimierz University from Lviv to Wrocław for the first time after the war and unveiling a commemorative plaque dedicated to the king [Jan II Kazimierz] at the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Pres in Paris. I want to uphold the “Lwów myth.” Though in terms of civilization Wrocław looks to the West, I would still like to have that Lwów romanticism in the picture.

What about Jewish culture and its impact on the city? It’s enough to look at the list of Nobel Prize winners...
Jewish culture was very important in Wrocław’s history. Last year we renovated the White Stork Synagogue. Our Jewish Community is not very large with about 300 members, but I really wanted to make it up to these people for the rather hostile treatment they went through earlier. I’m referring to [the anti-Jewish purges of] 1968 and to the way the prewar synagogue building stood many years deteriorating in the city center. We also completed another project related to identity that I am proud of and that was initiated by my friend Grzegorz Roman. After World War II in Wrocław, over 70 percent of cemeteries were destroyed, mainly the German and Jewish ones. This is something that shouldn’t happen in civilized Europe. We decided to buy up the old gravestones found among the local tombstone carvers and announced a competition for a monument of shared memory. The effect was a monument dedicated to those who used to have graves in Wrocław but do not have them today. It incorporates old gravestones inscribed in German, Hebrew, Czech.

As we look at Wrocław today, what do you think are the distinguishing qualities of a modern-day European metropolis?
Metropolises are more involved in contacts with one another than in contacts with their own regions. Metropolises need one another in terms of exchanging ideas. We try to function in a European way. Among other things, to me this means the necessity of blending economic development with spiritual development and combine concrete thinking with abstract thinking. To develop, the city needs money, which is why we continually increase job opportunities for the residents. In the first four years after joining the European Union we created more than 150,000 new jobs. Most of them were created locally and only 30 percent thanks to external investment, but it was actually outside investors that stimulated the economy so greatly that local entrepreneurship suddenly bloomed. Our pace of economic growth is truly impressive. The gross domestic product grows by 12.8 percent annually, which is faster than in China. So that wages can grow accordingly, we support an innovative economy in which business works with university-level schools. For this to succeed, we need an educated, innovative, creative society open to new technologies. It’s also a good thing if it is mixed, international and tolerant. Moreover, you cannot build a modern economy without culture added as well. Creative entrepreneurship needs abstraction. Culture is fertile ground for investment. In this context, our application for the title of European Capital of Culture carries a dual meaning. People immersed in culture grow as themselves, and additionally there are economic grounds for investing in culture.

Wrocław is considered extremely friendly to economic development and to the people living there. This also attracts short-term visitors. Is Wrocław a role model for other Polish cities?
It’s true this is a city with its own soul. We are currently on a roll. Apart from investors, a great many tourists from all over the world come here. An extraordinary thing happened recently, involving a survey on the power of public brands. The strongest brand in Poland is still the Catholic Church, the clear winner. Second place went to Cracow, while Wrocław was very close behind. All the other public brands like the government, parliament and Warsaw were much lower down. Wrocław is associated with modernity, optimism and being European. But we don’t know if this experiment will succeed. We are still at the beginning of the road and we would like to keep our current place as long as possible.
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