I find her in an unremarkable part of the city, a kilometre away from the 13th century Market Square and across the Fosa Miejska, the city moat that marks the boundary of Wrocław’s Old Town. This is a city of high achievement with nine Nobel-Prize winners and the likes of Bunsen, Alzheimer and Schrödinger having passed through the gilded doors of its university. It is also a city of darker tales, of the push and pull of borders and empire in this exposed region of Central Europe. Yet a sense of defiance and a spirit of survival also pervade the alleyways and squares. Today there is little sign of the burning-at-the-stake of religious heretics or the large underground WWII bunker that lies deep beneath the flamboyant blooms of the Salt Square flower market, and the reconstructed rainbow facades of the old merchant’s homes of Market Square cheerfully hide any trace of wartime destruction.
Yet once you leave behind the frescoed vaults of the churches and ceremonial halls, and the pinnacled gables of the mediaeval town hall, it becomes a city much like any other as Ulica Świdnicka takes you southwards beyond the opera house and along the tram-tracks towards billboards and towers of gleaming glass.
I come across her here on the intersection with Ulica Piłsudskiego, with a story of her own. She is somewhat outmoded in her flared jeans, knee-length mac and slouched hat, a bag slung over her right shoulder and a package wedged beneath her arm. She seems to glance slightly to her right as I pass but I can’t quite read the expression in her eyes.
She’s anonymous. Inscrutable. Unremarkable.
Except that she is sinking. By the time I get there her feet are already obscured by the small slabs of paving that have cracked and parted to allow her passage into the ground. In front of her a young man wearing jeans, a shirt and a beanie hat is already knee-deep in pavement and further in front of him an older man has sunk to his waist. Behind them are four more, five if you include the baby in the pram that is beginning to tilt to one side where the paving has moved. They’re all going underground and within a few more metres they will have gone. Disappeared.
Around them life goes on. The trams rattle by and a man yells into his phone, a finger wedged in his opposite ear, trying to make himself heard above the traffic the drilling of the workmen across the street. No-one seems to notice the extraordinary scene unfolding as these people are swallowed by the pavement. On the other side of the intersection are more figures, this time rising from the ground, led by an elderly woman in a ragged dress, leaning on a stick. Her face looks tired and her shrouded head is tilted as if to watch her footing.
Behind her emerges an assortment of flat-caps, anoraks and knotted scarves. A youth carries a tyre over his arm and another, still ankle deep in concrete, shields herself beneath an umbrella even though it isn’t raining. Behind her, a young man pushes himself up through the paving, squinting slightly in the light, and glancing around him.
I learn that this is Przejście — Passage—or Monument to the Anonymous Pedestrian. They’ve been here for seventeen years now, these ordinary passers-by, who appeared on the intersection overnight in December 2005, twenty-four years to the day since the introduction of martial law in communist Poland. I stand amidst the noise and clatter and watch those to the east of the intersection, some making a deliberate passage underground to fight against the regime, wondering perhaps whether they might eventually emerge again to the west, and others simply disappearing. No honours, awards or glory for these ordinary people of Wrocław, doing something extraordinary. Their bronze figures are now tarnished Verdigris, battered by the elements and warmed only by the occasional handshake of a stranger.
I look at them again—more closely this time—these Martas, Irenas and Stanisławs. Defiant, rebellious, bewildered and scared. Each one of them remarkable to someone.
Theirs was a different Wrocław, a far cry from the city of creativity, discovery, and freedom of thought that we find here today amidst the signs of defiance and determination that serve as a constant reminder of more difficult times. As I turn and make my way back towards the old town to watch the lamplighter light the gas lanterns of Cathedral Island and enjoy my freedoms in an old-town bar, a man passes by and in a gesture of thanks thrusts a fresh clutch of scarlet blooms into the old woman’s fist.