Symbols of the past in Wroclaw

Tonight I am heading out for the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Wroclaw, Poland. The city is special for me because I studied abroad there in 1995. In preparing the trip, I noticed that the congress meetings are being held at the Hala Stulecia. I was quite confused at first because I didn’t remember anything with that name. Finally it hit me — they had renamed the large meeting exhibition hall in the east of the city. The building I knew had been called Hala Ludowa, the People’s Hall, but that wasn’t its original name. Designed  by German architect Max Berg as a commemoration of 1813 victory against Napoleon, it opened in 1913 as Jahrhunderthalle, or Centennial Hall. Since the mid-18th century, Wroclaw, named Breslau, had been a part of the Prussian Empire and then the German Empire. After World War II, the city and region became part of Poland and the majority German population were expelled, fled, or resettled in Soviet-occupied Germany. After the fall of Communism, the hall remained Hala Ludowa until the mid-2000s when it was renamed Hala Stulecia, the Polish translation of Centennial Hall. In 2006, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. For my historians and archivists, here are some great historical photos.

Pic of Hala Stulecia

With the debates surrounding our own monuments, it might be helpful to look at this issue from another perspective. Wroclaw and all of Poland have had a difficult history to contend with many times over, and we all know the history of Poland’s emergence and demise and reemergence (hopefully).  In addition to dealing with political changes, Poland has contended with powerful symbolic politics during its history. Hala Stulecia is great example of that attempt to confront the past through shifting memorialization.

In particular, the hall when built had a large Iron Cross built inside its dome. During the Communist period, the Iron Cross was covered with large piece of fabric. When I was there, the story was that the Cross had been built into the dome and was part of its support structure (I don’t know if this is true). The Communist authorities couldn’t remove the Cross without damaging the dome so they used the sheet. That sheet was still there in 1995. Looking at more recent pictures the sheet is gone and it appears that the Iron Cross has been removed. I can’t find a good photo that confirms that it is still there or not.

While I am certain that there are some residents who would lament the loss of this specific memorialization, removing symbols does not equate a loss of the past. Removing the Iron Cross or changing the hall’s name is a recognition that the society has changed and that the symbol no longer resonates or that it resonates in a new way in the present day. Names can change without causing harm and memorials can be rebuilt or brought down without forgetting a past. In the United States, we will always have the scars of slavery and the Civil War imprinted in our books, told in our classrooms, and reverberating in our society. We don’t need the monumental reminders that the Jim Crow era tried to re-establish a racial order many years after slavery ended. Similarly, Wroclaw doesn’t need to hide its past or keep in a public hall a symbol that was later adopted by a regime that killed millions.

I look forward to seeing Hala Stulecia again with new eyes and its new name. I hope that the Iron Cross is in the Wroclaw museum, where it belongs, and I hope IFLA attendees visit the museum to learn more about Wroclaw’s past. Because people have been asking me about this trip, I will try to blog regularly and post pictures. I am new to IFLA, but I am excited to be a part of this international community of librarians.