By Rick Steves and Cameron Hewitt
To learn about Poland past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
Lonnie Johnson’s Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends is the best historical overview of Eastern Europe. Timothy Garton Ash has written several good “eyewitness account” books analyzing the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, including History of the Present and The Magic Lantern. Michael Meyer’s The Year that Changed the World intimately chronicles the exciting events of 1989, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 is a readable account of how the Soviets exerted their influence on the nations they had just liberated from the Nazis; her Gulag: A History delves into one particularly odious mechanism they used to intimidate their subjects. Tina Rosenberg’s dense but thought-provoking The Haunted Land asks how those who actively supported communism in Eastern Europe should be treated in the post-communist age. And Benjamin Curtis’ The Habsburgs: The History of a Dynasty is an illuminating portrait of the Austrian imperial family that shaped so much of Eastern European history.
For information on Eastern European Roma (Gypsies), consider the textbook-style We Are the Romani People by Ian Hancock, and the more literary Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca.
James Michener’s Poland is a hefty look into the history of the Poles. Zlateh the Goat (Isaac Bashevis Singer) includes seven folktales of Jewish Eastern Europe.
Several Polish films have won Oscars and major awards at Cannes. In Katyń (2007), Oscar-winning director Andrzej Wajda recreates the Soviet Army’s massacre of around 22,000 Polish officers, enlisted men, and civilians during World War II. Some of Wajda’s earlier works include Ashes and Diamonds (1958), The Promised Land (1979), and the two-part series Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981).
Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski made several masterpieces, including The Decalogue (1989), consisting of 10 short films inspired by the Ten Commandments. Kieslowski also filmed the multilingual Three Colors Trilogy: Red (1994), White (1994), and Blue (1993).
Among other recent films, one Polish favorite is Karol: A Man Who Became Pope (2005), a Polish-Italian biopic made in English about the humble beginnings of St. John Paul II. Another fascinating religious tale is Ida (2014), the story of a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, who — just before taking her vows — discovers a terrible family secret.
Hollywood has also had its turn with films covering key moments in Polish history. Schindler’s List (1993), Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture–winner, tells the story of a compassionate German businessman in Kraków who saved his Jewish workers during the Holocaust. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) is a biopic about the struggle for survival of Władysław Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody, in an Oscar-winning role), a Jewish concert pianist in Holocaust-era Warsaw.
Two acclaimed German movies offer excellent insight into the surreal and paranoid days of the Soviet Bloc. The Oscar-winning Lives of Others (2006) chronicles the constant surveillance that the communist regime employed to keep potential dissidents in line. For a funny and nostalgic look at post-communist Europe’s fitful transition to capitalism, Good Bye Lenin! (2003) can’t be beat.
Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook.