I Visited My Grandfather’s Reborn Polish Hometown That Was Destroyed in World War II — Here’s What I Found

With lively hotels and a creative dining scene, Wroclaw has risen from the ashes.

<p>Sasha Maslov</p> From left: The Neon Side Gallery in Wroclaw; Więzienna Street.

Sasha Maslov

From left: The Neon Side Gallery in Wroclaw; Więzienna Street.

I went to Wrocław, Poland, in search of my grandfather, who was born and grew up there, back when this picturesque city on the Oder River was Breslau, Germany. With a list of his old addresses culled from the scattering of papers he’d left behind, I tried to track down his former homes. But the German street names had long since been changed to Polish, and the few buildings I was able to locate were all modern.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the frustrations of my genealogical hunt. Though Breslau — unlike other German cities like Cologne and Hamburg — made it through the first five years of World War II remarkably intact, a Soviet bombing campaign from January to May 1945 left 80 percent of the city in ruins.

<p>Sasha Maslov</p> The National Museum of Wrocław.

Sasha Maslov

The National Museum of Wrocław.

“We say only eighty percent,” Rafal Dutkiewicz, Wrocław’s mayor from 2002 to 2018, told me at the rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Monopol Wrocław, “because Warsaw was ninety percent destroyed.”

He gestured out at the pastel façades of the Neo-Baroque buildings beneath us. The Hotel Monopol — from whose balcony Adolf Hitler once spoke, and where luminaries like Marlene Dietrich and Pablo Picasso once stayed — was among the 20 percent of buildings that survived. These structures are rare enough that locals point them out, though casual visitors would struggle to differentiate between them and those that have been artfully reconstructed, often according to the original plans.

Breslau’s destruction, it should be said, was by no means inevitable. It hinged entirely on Hitler’s decision, in late 1944, to designate the city as “Festung Breslau,” Germany’s final fortress, which was to be defended at all costs against the approaching Soviets. That was why, after serving as a refuge for people fleeing areas of more intense conflict for most of the war, in the first months of 1945, Breslau was leveled by bombs and tanks. This, combined with bloody street fights, left tens of thousands of civilians dead. Hitler’s Breslau commander held out until three days before Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Soviets.

<p>Sasha Maslov</p> From left: Monopol restaurant, at Hotel Monopol; the hotel's facade.

Sasha Maslov

From left: Monopol restaurant, at Hotel Monopol; the hotel's facade.

My grandfather, a world away in Houston by that point, would never see his hometown again, but I often wondered what he must have made of the upheavals that continued roiling the region even after the war. In July 1945, at Joseph Stalin’s behest, the city was transformed from German to Polish overnight, and ethnic Poles in Lwów, which is now the Ukrainian city of L’viv, were driven from their homes and transplanted to the city rechristened as Wrocław. The more than 600,000 Germans who were living in what had been Breslau were driven west.

No wonder my grandfather’s ghost would prove elusive in such a place. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of him in Salt Market Square, outside the cantaloupe-colored Old Stock Exchange palazzo — one of the few remaining original edifices — where, a century ago, his father dealt in grain commodities. Today it looms behind an outdoor flower market that’s open 24 hours a day.

<p>Sasha Maslov</p> From left: A hot drink at Mleczarnia; Wrocław Cathedral.

Sasha Maslov

From left: A hot drink at Mleczarnia; Wrocław Cathedral.

My first night in town, I sat on a bench outside the microbrewery Spiż enjoying an IPA. (Wrocław has no shortage of microbrews, kombuchas, cold-brew coffees, and vegan/gluten-free/low-carb menu options.) I marveled at the somehow harmonious layering of past and present that surrounded me. Once an important trading outpost where the Silk and Amber Roads met, the now thoroughly Polish city has, over the centuries, been ruled by Bohemians, Hapsburgs, Prussians, Nazis, and Communists. And it is this melding of cultures and influences that makes Wrocław, the country’s fourth largest city and one of the fastest growing in the European Union, feel so magical today. Cross the Oder here — Wrocław, the so-called “Polish Venice,” boasts more than a hundred bridges — and you’re in Prague; pass through this gate and you’re in Vienna. Down this street, the towering red-brick post office recalls Weimar Germany. Look to the northeast and there’s “Manhattan,” a Brutalist complex of commercial and residential skyscrapers that’s typical of Iron Curtain–era architecture.

After my beer, I continued my explorations in the Rynek, the city’s pastel-rainbow central market square, which is built around a Gothic town hall that dates back to the end of the 13th century. In what I considered proper Polish fashion, I ordered a plate of pierogi at the upscale Pierogarnia. Over the course of the evening, I watched a Hare Krishna procession, a woman juggling fire batons, a man unicycling on a rope, and a small protest against oppression in neighboring Belarus.

<p>Sasha Maslov</p> One of Wrocław's 23 tram lines.

Sasha Maslov

One of Wrocław's 23 tram lines.

I spent the next several days on cultural excursions along the Oder, including to the National Museum of Wrocław, an ivy-covered ex-German municipal building that houses one of the country’s largest collections of contemporary Polish art, and to Hydropolis, a “water knowledge center” with educational exhibits. The rest of the time I spent enjoying almost uniformly sublime meals.

That was perhaps the biggest surprise of all for me: the consistent excellence of Wrocław’s food. There was the trout risotto at La Maddalena, which offers a stunning view across the Oder at the (reconstructed) yellow façade of the university where my grandfather earned his law degree in 1921. There were the poached eggs with chili butter and dill at Dinette, followed by a beet salad at Mleczarina, in the courtyard opposite the recently restored White Stork, the city’s only synagogue to survive Kristallnacht. And I certainly can’t neglect to mention the sunflower pâté and flaky cod at Restauracja Tarasowa, a local-ingredients-​only restaurant at the center of Wrocław’s Centennial Hall complex, which includes a massive multimedia fountain that in summer hosts wild water-and-light shows.

<p>Sasha Maslov</p> Risotto at La Maddalena.

Sasha Maslov

Risotto at La Maddalena.

On my last night in Wrocław, I wandered down an alley filled with galleries and artists’ studios to Ruska 46’s Neon Side Gallery, a cul-de-sac festooned with salvaged neon signs from defunct movie theaters, hotels, and industrial plants, which also (of course) has a delightful bar, Recepcja. Afterward, I took a long walk back toward the river, passing dozens of the kitschy bronze gnomes — the city has 600 and counting — that commemorate the Orange Alternative, the Wrocław-born opposition movement that helped topple Communism in the 1980s. I ended my night on Ostrów Tumski, the “cathedral island,” which has been inhabited for more than a thousand years. On any given evening, you can spot clusters of nuns watching the sun dip into the river, young seminarians strolling past the rebuilt 13th-century Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, or locals enjoying yet another top-notch riverside meal, this one of nouveau-Polish cuisine, at Lwia Brama.

<p>Sasha Maslov</p> The Rynek today.

Sasha Maslov

The Rynek today.

Ostrów Tumski is also home to the city’s best new luxury hotel, the Bridge Wrocław, which offers beautiful river views and (get ready for it) top-quality food. The Art Hotel, a standby in the old city, is in a converted tenement, parts of which have survived since the 14th century. Across the street is the medieval meat market, which, like so much of Wrocław today, is now a collection of small galleries and artisan boutiques. Look closely and you’ll find statues commemorating the animals butchered there over the centuries.

What would my grandfather, dead for more than half a century now, have thought of his hometown, which has undergone so many tectonic changes? An impossible speculation, I accepted early on. He’s gone now, and so is his city; even his father’s grave marker in the New Jewish Cemetery has long since vanished. But then that’s how history works — and nowhere so noticeably as in this tortured crossroads of Europe. It razes and remakes and paves over and on top of what came before. Sometimes there is continuity, sometimes rupture. But in Wrocław, a difficult past has finally given way to a place that feels thoroughly of the future.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Wroclaw Reborn."

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