Poland is well-known for its contribution to international cinema, having spawned a generation of world-renowned directors in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Poland's contribution to world literature -- at least, to English-language readers -- is limited by what's available in translation, but the Communist period was particularly rich, and the country has at least two internationally renowned poets to its credit. In music, at least in classical music, the name Chopin rises above all others. Wherever you travel in Poland, you can be certain you won't be far from a Chopin concert.
Poland's greatest contribution to popular culture, arguably, is in film. No fewer than three of the world's great postwar directors are Polish and learned their craft at the country's school of cinematography in Lódz: Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Andrzej Wajda. Lódz, incidentally, has the country's only museum devoted to cinematography, and film buffs should certainly seek it out.
Of the three, Polanski is probably the best-known abroad (though Kieslowski rates a close second), both for his films and his tragic and stormy personal life, including living through the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969 by members of the Charles Manson gang and by a conviction in the U.S. in 1977 for allegedly having sexual relations with a 13-year-old girl. Polanski's films are best known for having a dark and sinister feel. His breakout film was 1962's Knife in the Water, made in Poland, concerning a murderous ménage à trois. It was received coolly by Poland's Communist authorities but was a big international hit, securing him a filmmaking future in Great Britain and later the United States. In Britain, Polanski collaborated with French actress Catherine Deneuve to make the thriller Repulsion. Once in the U.S., in the late 1960s, he scored a series of blockbusters, including Rosemary's Baby (1968) with Mia Farrow and Chinatown (1974) with Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson. Later hits included Frantic (1987), starring Harrison Ford, and 2002's critically acclaimed The Pianist, with Adrien Brody in the lead role of Warsaw Jewish ghetto survivor Wadysaw Szpilman. That movie earned Polanski an Oscar for Best Director.
Krzysztof Kieslowski is best known abroad for his Three Colors movies: Blue (1993), White (1994), and Red (1994). Kieslowski made the films -- based on the French virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity -- after he had moved to France. However, he had already earned a formidable reputation in Poland for his ironic Socialist Realist movies of the 1970s and '80s, the best of which is probably Camera Buff (1979). He's also the director of the critically acclaimed Decalogue (1988) series (10 movies based on the 10 commandments), and the art-house favorite The Double Life of Veronique (1991).
Andrzej Wajda may be less well known to those outside Poland, but within the country, he's widely considered the most important director to emerge after World War II. He earned his reputation in the 1950s, with unsparing movies about World War II, including the tragic Ashes and Diamonds (1957). Two films depicting the abysmal quality of life in Soviet-dominated Poland -- 1976's Man of Marble and 1981's Man of Iron -- won Wajda widespread international critical acclaim. Now in his 80s, he's still going strong, and 2007's premiere of Katyn, about the mass execution of Polish officers in the Katyn forest by the Soviets in 1940, was Poland's biggest film event in years.
Movies about Poland -- In addition to movies made by Poles, there are countless movies about Poland, usually focused on World War II or the Holocaust. The best known of these is Steven Spielberg's 1993 epic Schindler's List. The movie depicts the efforts of German industrialist Oskar Schindler to shield his Jewish factory workers from deportation to the concentration camps and his subsequent actions that saved 1,000 people from a certain death at Auschwitz. Much of the movie was filmed in and around Kraków's former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, and Schindler's factory, now a museum, is still standing. Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's Polish cameraman for Schindler's List and then later for Saving Private Ryan, won Oscars for both films.
Another outstanding movie that features wartime Poland is 1982's Sophie's Choice, starring Meryl Streep and based on the William Styron novel of the same name. In the movie, Streep plays a Polish immigrant and Auschwitz survivor living in Brooklyn who finds it impossible to escape the world she left behind, and the horrific choice she had to make.
It's also worth noting that American cult filmmaker David Lynch reportedly has a love affair with Poland's film capital, Lódz. His ultra-creepy film Inland Empire was apparently inspired by a visit to the city.
Polish literature, with few exceptions, remains largely unknown to people outside the country, due mainly to publishers' reluctance to invest in translating the books into English rather than to a lack of literary merit. Poland, in fact, has four Nobel Prize winners for literature: Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905), the author of Quo Vadis; Wadysaw Reymont (1924), a now-forgotten journalist who won the prize for the book Chopi (Peasants); and poets Czesaw Miosz (1980) and Wisawa Szymborska (1996). There are also two Jewish Nobel prize laureates who it could be argued have some connection to Poland: Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1966) and I. B. Singer (1978). You might even make a case for a seventh Nobel by including German writer Günter Grass, who was born and raised in Gdansk when the city was part of Germany and known as Danzig.
For Poles, the most fruitful period in literature came during the two world wars, when writers such as Witold Gombrowicz and Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz shocked polite society with novels involving previously taboo themes like homosexuality and illicit drugs. Gombrowicz's Pornografia and Witkiewicz's Insatiability are both available in English translation and are difficult but worthwhile reads.
The Communist Period -- The post-World War II period proved to be a surprisingly productive time in Polish literature as writers reacted to the war and life under Communism. Penguin publishers' highly influential 1980s series "Writers from the Other Europe," edited by American writer Philip Roth, introduced several of the most talented Eastern Bloc writers to an international audience (you can still find many of these books on bookstore shelves or on the Internet). Writers in the series from Poland include Bruno Schulz (Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass), Jerzy Andrzejewski (Ashes and Diamonds), Tadeusz Borowski (This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen), and Tadeusz Konwicki (A Dreambook for Our Time and The Polish Complex). Though Schulz was included in the collection, he wrote mostly about Jewish life in interwar Poland and during World War II.
Arguably the biggest book (at least, in the United States and Western Europe) to come out of Poland in the postwar period was Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, which provoked a firestorm when it was published in 1965. The book tells the story of a young Jewish or Roma orphan (it's not made clear in the text) who wanders from village to village during World War II, experiencing the anti-Semitism, violence, and frank perversions of the Polish peasantry at the time. The book was banned in Poland on publication but wowed Western critics in the 1960s. It's since lost some of its luster amid controversy that Kosinski greatly embellished the stories and in fact profited from the book's association with Holocaust literature, but it still makes for a gripping read.
Other Writers -- Aside from literature, Polish writers are well known in other genres. Fans of science fiction will no doubt know the name Stanisaw Lem, the late author of the 1961 classic Solaris and dozens of other titles.
The late journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski carved out an immense reputation as a travel writer, focusing particularly on accounts in the developing world. His best-known work remains Another Day of Life (1976), about the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in Angola.
American writer Alan Furst, though not a Pole, has written several fun and worthwhile spy and noir novels set in World War II Poland or involving Polish characters. His best is probably 1995's The Polish Officer. In 2008, he published the thriller The Spies of Warsaw.
For a Polish page-turner that will have you thumbing through 8 centuries of Polish history in the course of a long afternoon, try James Michener's epic Poland (1981). The novel traces the tortured histories of three families through some 8 centuries of war and upheaval. It's a surprisingly gripping read and Michener, as usual, manages to bring to life what might in the hands of another writer be just a dry, historical account.
Holocaust Literature -- There's no shortage of great books written about the Holocaust, and bringing a few titles along with you can greatly enhance your experience as you visit former Nazi concentration camps and wartime Jewish ghettos. There are several excellent accounts written by survivors of the camps, but two of the best include Italian writer Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, an unvarnished account of Levi's arrival at Auschwitz's Monowitz camp in 1944 and what happened to him after he got there, and Rudolf Vrba's Escape from Auschwitz: I Cannot Forgive, the true account of one of the few men to have escaped from Auschwitz and lived to tell the tale: Vrba and a fellow Slovak managed to escape from Auschwitz's Birkenau camp in 1944. This book tells the incredible story of how they did it and how they later tried to tell the world about the Holocaust but found that few were willing to listen.
Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen tells the Auschwitz story from a different perspective. Borowski was a Polish political prisoner at Auschwitz and worked in the coveted "Kanada" brigade which was responsible for cleaning up and storing possessions of new arrivals as they entered the camp (meaning they always had enough food to eat). Far from the one-dimensional portraits of the victims of some accounts, Borowski paints a disturbing and unsparing picture of desperate prisoners willing to do anything it took -- including collaborating with their captors -- in order to survive. (Borowski ended up committing suicide after the war.)
Commandant of Auschwitz: The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess tells the story of Auschwitz's camp commander in his own words. Hoess, a member of the SS, wrote his autobiography in 1946 after being captured by Allied troops at the end of the war. It's chilling for its coldness and lack of regret. Hoess was hanged by Polish authorities in 1947 at Auschwitz, not far from one of the crematoria he helped to build.
In terms of better trying to understand the Nazis' extermination plans, an excellent if somewhat academic read is Christopher R. Browning's The Origins of the Final Solution. Laurence Rees's remarkable Auschwitz: A New History covers much the same ground but interweaves dozens of first-person accounts and makes for an absorbing experience.
Poetry -- Poland has produced two Nobel Prize-winning poets: Czesaw Miosz (1980) and Wisawa Szymborska (1996). Miosz, who died in 2004, spent much of his life as a professor of Slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Aside from numerous volumes of poetry, Miosz is the author the highly regarded "The Captive Mind" (1953), a long and absorbing essay that attempts to describe intellectuals' acceptance of Stalinism at the end of World War II. Szymborska is a Kraków-based poet and essayist, known for short, witty, and humorous poems on life's ironies.
Though Poland has a rich musical tradition going back centuries, it's probably best known for two contributions: the polka and Frédéric Chopin.
Crediting Poland with the polka is actually a common error, probably because of the similarity of the names. Though the polka is as popular in Poland as anywhere else in Central Europe, it actually comes from Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic.
Poles have a more legitimate claim on Chopin, though another country, France, is involved there too. Though Chopin was born in the village of Zelazowa Wola, not far from Warsaw, to a Polish mother, his father was French, and the composer spent much of his short life in Paris (and even for a time became a French citizen). To bolster the French claim, he also had a stormy affair with French intellectual George Sand (female).
Chopin is generally regarded as one of the foremost composers of the 19th-century Romantic Movement. His music is still wildly popular in Poland, and wherever you travel in the country, you're certain to be able to catch a Chopin concert somewhere nearby. Poles say that no matter where they are in the world, when they hear a Chopin piece, such as "Polonaise" Op. 53, they are immediately transported back to the Polish countryside. Chopin is most famous for his études, compositions written mainly to help students learn their instruments, but which have become concert pieces in their own right. His best-known piece of music is probably his "Funeral March" (Piano Sonata no. 2), which nearly everyone will recognize after just a few bars (imagine the somber tones they play on a cartoon when someone has to walk the plank).
Chopin died in Paris at the age of 39 of chronic lung failure brought on by tuberculosis. He is buried at Paris's fabled Père Lachaise Cemetery -- everything except his heart, of course, which was carted off to Warsaw shortly after his death and sealed in a pillar at the Holy Cross Church (Kosció Swietego Krzyza).
"For Where Thy Treasure Is, There Will Thy Heart Be Also" -- Though Chopin spent much of his life in France, his heart -- quite literally -- belongs to Poland. Shortly before his death, as the story goes, Chopin asked that his heart be moved to the country of his birth. Complying with his wishes, doctors removed the composer's heart after he died, and it was taken to Warsaw by his sister. The heart is preserved in a pillar of the Holy Cross Church (Kosció Swietego Krzyza) on Warsaw's Krakówskie Przedmiescie, beneath the inscription taken from the Bible, Matthew 6, verse 21 (the title of this box). Chopin's heart is still there. It was removed briefly during the fighting in World War II, and then restored to the church after it was rebuilt.