A Monumental Effort: Walking Tour

more than a year ago

A Walking Tour of Katowice’s Monuments & Memorials

With its lack of a royal route, picturesque market square, castle or other UNESCO showpieces, Katowice can be a bit of a tough nut to crack when it comes to feeling like you’re seeing the best of the city. Any effort on our part to put together an itinerary of the city’s top attractions might leave the reader feeling a bit like they’d been taken for an expensive cab ride around Jersey City and told it was Manhattan. Well, this isn’t Manhattan, folks. This is Katowice, and a walk around town isn’t exactly a stroll through the lilacs. However, the city does have its share of stories to tell and, if you’re listening, you’ll easily hear the voice of many of them in the city’s public spaces and parks. Rather than be so brazen as to attempt to endear you to this black- and blue-collar city, we’ve put together the following walking tour as a way to engage casual visitors in Katowice’s 20th history, with the city’s various monuments and memorials as the requisite talking points. [Prepare yourself for a droll stroll, about 4km in length.]

We begin to the north with the Big Daddy of them all, the Silesian Uprisings Memorial (B-3). Though an imposing edifice considered to be one of Katowice’s prime landmarks, the Uprisings Memorial is sadly dwarfed by the magnitude of its rather over-developed surroundings in the middle of the Rondo Gen. Ziętka, including the shadow of the Easily-Identified Sedentary Object, Spodek. Nonetheless, it stands as the largest and heaviest monument in all of Poland and you can see it by taking the tram to Rondo Gen. Ziętka and having a poke around.

A little perspective: After having its lands partitioned and passed under the table between the various empires of the day in the late 18th century, the reconstitution of Poland was agreed upon by the Allies in the aftermath of World War I. Upper Silesia quickly became a bone of contention however, with Germany claiming it couldn’t pay off its war reparations without the resource-rich region creating revenue for the Rhineland. Thanks to the bungled Treaty Of Versailles, the issue would be settled with a mandated plebiscite in two years time which would determine if Upper Silesia would go to Germany or Poland. What the Allies anticipated happening during those two years if not a lot of bickering and bloodshed is unclear, but Silesian insurrections numbers one and two took place before the plebiscite could occur, provoked primarily by the German massacre of Silesian civilians and German celebrations over false reports that Warsaw had fallen to the Soviets. Both insurrections were quickly and brutally put down by Weimar Germany, but kindled pro-Polish sentiment and made it clear that the predominantly Polish region wanted to join the re-established Polish Republic.

The largest and longest of the Silesian Uprisings took place in the aftermath of the rather dubious and inconclusive results of the plebiscite finally held on March 20th, 1921. Unlike the first two reactionary insurrections, the third was carefully planned under the organised leadership of local hero Wojciech Korfanty. With the destruction of German rail bridges thwarting attempts to quickly put down the uprising, the insurgents were able to claim control over most of Upper Silesia. Twelve days after its outbreak, Korfanty offered to withdraw his troops behind a demarcation line if promised that the territory would be reoccupied with Allied troops and not Germans. The agreement was upheld and an Allied commission awarded the majority of the Upper Silesian industrial district to Poland, and it became an autonomous region for the rest of the all-too-brief interwar period.

The Silesian Uprisings hold a significant place in Polish national identity, celebrated as centrepieces of national pride to this day. The Uprisings Monument, erected in 1967, symbolises the heroism and sacrifice of the insurgents with an enormous bronze wing (alluding to Nike the Greek goddess of victory) for each uprising; the names of battlefields are vertically etched down the side. Designed by Gustaw Zemła, the monument was assembled from 350 parts and weighs a hulking 61 tonnes. The highest wing reaches 14 metres tall, making it ‘the tallest monument in PL’ if you disqualify the 32-metre high memorial cross discussed at the end of this article and probably a dozen other monuments in the country. But give it a push, it’s heavy.

Leaving the Insurgents’ Monument, we cross under that glorious underpass to the other side of al. W. Korfantego and follow it towards Katowice’s Rynek, arriving at pl. Obronców Katowic or Defenders of Katowice Square (C-3). Near the edge of the square you’ll find a small, unassuming plaque commemorating the insurgents and young scouts who were executed on September 4, 1939 in one of the courtyards of this very street. Here we’ve travelled 18 years in the space of two blocks to arrive upon the threshold of World War II; independence was indeed a short walk for Poland. After a mock attack by SS officers dressed as Polish soldiers was staged on the radio tower in the nearby German border town of Gleiwitz (Gliwice) on August 31st, 1939, Hitler used the farce as a justification for invading Poland before the news of his little charade even had time to spread. While the Schleswig-Holstein shelled Westerplatte outside Gdańsk, Nazi troops were attacking Silesia from Eastern Germany and Moravia, bearing down from the north and south. To avoid entrapment, General Szylling - commander of the Cracovian army, retreated east on September 2nd, leaving the defence of Katowice to a ragtag team of volunteers. Those volunteers would be mostly bearded veterans of the insurgency and beardless Polish boy and girl scouts. Having served limited roles in the Polish military in mostly medical capacities, the Polish scouts were nonetheless one of the largest organisations in the country in 1939 and eagerly volunteered for active duty, making them the face of the Polish Nazi resistance, particularly in Katowice which was abandoned by the army before the conflict arrived.

An easy grenade’s toss from Defenders’ Square is the abhorrent Silesia Hotel, which many might actually be tempted to destroy if not for the fine Silesian Scouts monument that stands before it on the sidewalk. Designed by Michał Brachmański, the bronze sculpture stands 4.5 by 4.1 metres and depicts four strapping young scouts stepping out of a broken wall with the inscription, “All that is ours to give, we shall give to Poland....”

As indicated by a plaque on the facade, the Silesian Theatre across the street was one of many critical defence posts the scouts quickly established throughout the city, dispatching themselves to all the highest observation points to await the Germans and rain hellfire down upon them. Among these were the 14-storey sniper station known as 'Cloudscraper' on ul. Żwirki i Wigury, and the infamous parachute tower in Kościuszko Park. If we avoid the pedestrian nightmare of Katowice’s Rynek and continue to the right down ul. 3-Maja (C-2), we pass another defensive position used by the scouts – the Skłodowska-Curie school.

If you’ve heard enough historical blather, you may want to take this opportunity to nip into one of the bars or cafes across the street on ul. Wawelska (C-2). Suddenly this has become a choose your own adventure book: Should you carry on to Freedom Square and help the scouts defend the city from the Nazis? or turn to our bars and clubs section to get an early start on obliterating the memory of your own, and Poland’s, misfortunes?)

If you’re still legging this one out, we now arrive at Plac Wolności, or the rather ironically titled ‘Freedom Square (C-1/2).’ Though at one time Plac Wolności was the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Insurgent, the centre of this square is now occupied by a Red Army memorial of two thuggish tommy-gun wielding Soviet soldiers standing atop a truly hideous pedestal; since the substitution, for whatever reason, the park has not been properly renamed ‘Soviet Oppression Square’ and the old name remains, though plans have been discussed to tear down the current monument.

To continue our story: As the front ranks of General Neuling’s fascist foot brigade approached Katowice on September 3rd from the south, they met with a spirited scout resistance before even reaching Kościuszko Park. Stymied by the upstart rifle-wielding whippersnappers, the German troops were forced to spend the night in Brynów Manor and mend their egos until the morning. Upon the dawn of September 4th, the scene shifted and a steady engagement of gunfire carried on around Freedom Square, with German troops being repelled from defensive positions on nearby Gliwicka and Mikołowska streets. If we turn down ul. Matejki we’ll pass the Insurgents’ House (C-2). One of the primary defence posts of September 3rd and 4th 1939, it was built only two years earlier. If we’re learning anything on this tour of ours it must be that history can be extremely ugly, and again this building is no exception, made even more unpalatable by the purple and fuchsia colours of the Genesis Music & Dance Club which now occupies it like a viral infection. A plaque on the outside of the club which simply reads, ‘Honour their Memory’ has been inspiring insurrections on the dance floor for several years now.

Continuing down Matejki street and under the rail bridges, we turn left onto ul. Andrzeja right in front of Katowice’s prison and court complex, on our way through the green pleasantries of Andrzeja Square (D-2). Built between 1889 and 1891, the court complex comprises some of the most handsome buildings in town and have silenced many a murdered martyr, including the leader of the underground scout organisation, Józef Pukowiec, who was beheaded here with the same purpose-built guillotine that drained the colour from most of Katowice’s formerly fresh-faced scouts. Yes, so much for suspending disbelief. After a noble and tenacious effort on the - but, wait! What’s this diversion? At the far end of pl. Andrzeja we arrive at the Katyń memorial (D-2), having seemingly lunged ahead of the plot six months to March 1940. A tragic historic incident that has only recently started to become part of the world’s collective awareness of the crimes of World War II, the memorial remembers the almost 22,000 Polish military officers, policemen, POWs and intelligentsia who were murdered by Soviet authorities in the forests of the former USSR literally six months after Germany’s invasion of Silesia. Given the deeply tragic subject of the memorial, there is something a bit strange about the three military figures in long coats, two of whom appear solemn and pensive while the third seems to think he’s a goose.

Leaving the park we walk down Skłodowska-Curie street one block before arriving at the celebrated ‘Cloudscraper’ building at Żwirki i Wigury 15 (D-2). What was once the tallest building in Poland certainly doesn’t show much more stature than its neighbours these days, but the 14th storey behemoth was once an ideal perch for organising Katowice’s resistance to the German invasion and cherry-picking enemy soldiers from the ranks at a safe distance. Which brings us back - as we continue down Skłodowska-Curie street to its end, making a left and quick right onto ul. Kościuszki - to our fearless scouts earning their merit badges by fighting back the dastardly Nazis around Freedom Square. Indeed, a noble effort was being made, but the numbers appeared to be on the side of the Nazis. Camping outside the centre seemed only to have refreshed them and redoubled their ranks and munitions, while the trembling scouts were exhausted, cold and hungry atop their makeshift skyline foxholes. First fell Freedom Square. Then fell the Rynek. As we cross al. Górnośląska into Kościuszko Park (F-1), almost all of Poland’s underground resistance had been rounded up and executed by noon of September 4th. All but the parachute tower which we now see in the park up ahead. Originally 50 metres tall, the parachute tower was built in 1937 for the training of parachute jumpers, however it found its place in the Polish national consciousness when for two days, Silesian scouts defended the city of Katowice from this tower. Exchanging fire with German troops into the evening of the September 4th, the tower was finally destroyed when the foul-playing Germans used an antitank gun to rid themselves of those darn kids. The tower that stands in the park now is a 35 metre reconstruction of the original and the only parachute tower in Poland today. The scout’s heroic defence of the tower, doomed as it was, grew so legendary that it became the literary subject of poems and songs. Today a granite obelisk commemorates their brief but noble ascent into adulthood atop that fabled tower.

Having finally put that subject to rest brings us to the final stop of our monument crawl, crossing the park parallel to the intersection of ul. Mikołowska and ul. Wincentego Pola, to the main entrance of the Wujek (‘Uncle’) coal mine. Fast forward forty-four years to December 13th, 1981. Communist Prime Minister Jaruzelski has declared martial law. The leaders of the Solidarity movement have been arrested. Workers at the Wujek coal mine hear news that their outspoken co-worker Jan Ludwiczek has been arrested and refuse to work until he arrives for work as well. As ‘pacification’ troops are deployed to crush other strikes around the country, the Wujek miners wait their turn, it finally arriving on December 16th in the form of eight companies of anti-riot troops, three army companies of ten fighting vehicles each, seven water cannons and one company of tanks. What followed was your standard Soviet show of force.

The Memorial Cross of the Wujek Miners was erected in honour of the nine pacifist miners who died during the ‘pacification’ of the mine on the same spot where the tanks rammed through the fencing of the premises. Unveiled in 1991 by Lech Wałęsa himself, the 32-metre tall monument includes the wooden cross which has stood at the site since the incident. The names of the fallen miners are inscribed on the right-hand side of the structure which also features nine cross-shaped torches interwoven to create a symbolic gateway. After over 25 years, it was only recently that some of the perpetrators of the 'Wujek Pacification' - the bloodiest incident during martial law - were sentenced to any time behind bars.

With that last bit of pleasantness pondered over, we’ll leave you to bury yourself under the burden of history in peace. (Hey, nobody said it was going to be a walk in the park.) Buses back toward the centre depart from Mikołowska street as soon as you’ve had a sobering shot of vodka at the nearest bar. That’s pacification the old-fashioned way.


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