Are you planning to travel to Poland? If yes, you would most certainly want to get the most out of your visit. Do you wish to really immerse yourself in the ambiance of the country and to understand its history, culture and traditions? To also gain an insider’s perspective?
This is exactly what we are trying to achieve during our tours. But, before you arrive, there are so many things that you can do on your own! One of the best is to get to know some Polish literature. Do not stop at reading some of the travel guides, like Rick Steeves books or Lonely Planet…
Try reading some novels or reports written by Polish authors. More and more books are being translated into other languages, and the access to them should not be a problem, especially in the era of the internet and online shopping.
A thread of books about Poland has existed on our Forum for many years, and it contains a very good list of regional monographies, novels, family stories, history, etc …
Today, I will not focus on the typical history books, detailed studies or family memories. This is my personal selection of some great reads. No matter whether you are planning to travel in Poland or not, or if you have your relatives born here, I hope that in my list, you will find something interesting for you.
I have chosen some of the world’s literature classics, written by Nobel Prize winners, and some books that are not so well known, even in Poland (to my surprise), there is also one representant of the young generation of authors.
I have divided the list into three parts, just like the former partitions of Poland, and like our three regular PO tours: Galicia (Austrian Partition), Kingdom of Poland (Russian Partition) and Prussian Poland.
I hope that you will enjoy it and who knows, maybe I will continue with some more recommendations in the future…
1. The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War
by Jaroslav Hašek, Zdeněk “Zenny” Sadloň (translator)
The first book on my list is a novel written by the Czech author. This is absolutely a must read if you wish to understand the Austro-Hungarian Empire and how it influenced today’s Czech, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Western Ukraine, Southern Poland, Romania and some Balkan Countries. The novel is full of black humour, some absurd and grotesque, and it is a satire on big politics and war. The historical and geographical background of the story is real and as we can expect, some anecdotes from the book are also real stories.
During our Galicia Tour you will meet the Good Soldier Svejk in Sanok, where is one of his many monuments.
2. The Street of Crocodiles
by Bruno Schulz, Celina Wieniewska (Translator), Jerzy Ficowski (Introduction), Jonathan Safran Foer (Foreword)
In Poland, known as “Sklepy cynamonowe” (lit. “Cinammon Shops”), this is a collection of short stories about the narrator, Bruno Schulz’ childhood. This book will take you to a dreamlike journey to a Galician town, full of fantasy, mythical elements, and rich metaphoric language.
3. Tales of Galicia
by Andrzej Stasiuk and Margarita Nafpaktitis (Translator)
Andrzej Stasiuk is one of the most recognizable Polish contemporary writers. In 1986 he left Warsaw and moved to the small hamlet Czarne in Beskid Niski in Carpathian Mountains. “Tales of Galicia” is a book about a small sleepy town, somewhere in Southern Poland. Stasiuk describes the struggle and everyday life of the people, during the economic and political transformation in the 1990s. The sad picture of poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and abandoned collective farms is combined with some fantastic, fairy-tale ghosts of the past.
4. History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town
by Filip Springer, Sean Bye (Translator)
Filip Springer is the youngest author on my list, and is a reporter and journalist. “History of a Disappearance” is his debut and still this is my favourite book by him.
This is the story of Kupferberg or Miedzanka in Lower Silesia. Springer describes its glorious times since the Middle Ages, the history of the copper mines, the idyllic picture of the 19th century when it was a popular tourist resort in Germany. Passing through the shadows and anxieties of the 20th century: wars, and the gradual fall of the town, to the exodus of the German people after the war. A time when Kupferberg/Miedzianka was within the new Polish borders. His story shows the migration of people from the east, and life in Miedzianka in the communist times, to the present day. This literary reportage is a great illustration of the difficult history of the Silesians and their identity.
5. The Tin Drum
by Gunter Grass, Breon Mitchell (Translator)
“The Tin Drum” is another 20th century classic. Written in 1959, this is the story of Oskar Matzerath, living in the 20’s and 30’s, in the Free City Of Gdańsk. Oskar observes and rebels against the adult world, while facing many difficult challenges. The background of the story is the many historic events that occurred in Gdansk: the beginnings of Nazism, World War II and the destruction of the city by the Red Army. In 1979 the story was adapted into a film and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film the following year.
6. El jugador de ajedrez/The Chess Player
By Waldemar Łysiak, María Concepción García-Lomas (Translator into Spanish)
Unfortunately, this book has no English version. But “Szachista” (The ‘Chess Player’ or in Spanish ‘El jugador de ajedrez’) is one of my favourite books, so if you know Spanish (or Polish), try to find it!
This is the addictive and exciting story, a combination of historical novel, criminal and espionage story in Alexander Dumas’ style.
The title of the book comes from the real existing machine known as Mechanical Turk, constructed in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen. The action takes place in Greater Poland during the Napoleonic Wars. There is the conspiracy, a mysterious palace, monastery, enigma and the main character, who is incredibly clever, ingenious and brave. What else do you need for a great story?
Kingdom of Poland
7. The Promised Land
By Władysław Reymont, M.H. Dziewicki (Translator)
This is the novel written by our Noblist, Władysław Reymont. The action takes place at the end of 19th century in Łódź. Three friends (Pole, German and Jew) decide to build a factory and make a fortune, in a quickly developing Capitalist city.
The book is a portrait of the colorful, diverse, and multicultural city, but in fact Łódź and its industrial revolution, is shown as brutal, and exploiting the weakest, while destroying nature. This is a very interesting portrait of that times.
8. The Peasants
By Władysław Reymont, Michael H. Dziewicki (Translator)
This list cannot miss the second book by Reymont, the one that won the Nobel Prize in 1924. “The Peasants” is the story about Boryna family living in the village of Lipce. It is just an incredibly realistic description of life in the villages at the beginning of 20th century. The hard work in the fields, the Holidays and traditional celebrations, the passing of time, with life being regulated by the calendar and the seasons, the mechanisms of the small community, along with the social acceptance or ostracism. This is a recommendation not only for those of you interested in the Russian Partition of Poland, but also to anyone whose ancestors were peasants in this time and place.
9. A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising
by Miron Białoszewski, Madeline G. Levine (Translator)
There are volumes of books concerning World War II in Poland and abroad. But this one is so very special. The author, Miron Białoszewsk, was a civilian living in Warsaw during the uprising. I am sure that there are some other books written from that perspective, but this one is special. Białoszewski is a master of everyday language spoken on the streets during this time. That is why reading “A Memoir…” you will be immersed in the atmosphere of the burning city, and almost hear the conversations with people waiting in queues for some drinking water, hiding in the cellars, sharing each small piece of bread… I have to admit that I did not read the English version of the text and I am very curious how Mrs. Levine translated this book. In this book, you will not find a lot of fighting, war, military descriptions, or heroism. Just the everyday struggle of the people to survive.
To understand the modern Warsaw, it is vital to realize its past and how it had almost been entirely destroyed during the war.
10. The Bialowieza Forest Saga
by Simona Kossak, Elżbieta Kowalewska (Translator)
Simona Kossak was an unusual character. She was the member of a noble and artist family from Kraków: the granddaughter of Wojciech Kossak, great granddaughter of Juliusz Kossak (both were famous painters), niece of Maria Pawlikowska Jasnorzewska (poet) and Magdalena Samozwaniec (writer), she did not continue the family traditions. Finishing her Biology studies she left home go to the Białowiea forest, where for over 30 years she lived in a wooden forester hut. She was known for her strong personality, for persisting in an uncompromising protection of nature. She was a recognized zoologist, studying the psychology and behaviorism of wild animals. Simona wrote books and articles, and hosted a popular radio program. She had a great talent to telling her stories.
“The Białowieża Forest Saga” is full of many of them. She shares stories about kings and their hunting trips, wars, marches of troops, fires, old professions related to the forest and animal species that used to exist near Białowieża, such as wild horses, wolverines or aurochs. This is a book about the thousands of years of the relationship between humans and wild nature. It is so actual and so moving for today, when we debate whether (and how) we should interfere in the forrest’s ecosystem.
A must read before travelling to the Białowieża forest during your Kingdom of Poland Tour!
What are your favourite books about Poland? Have you read some from my list?
I look forward to read your comments.
language review: James Cybulski