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This is a subjective recommendation of the books which I believe are a very good introduction to Poland or will help you to learn more if you find the subject interesting. Originally (first edition of this website in 2005) my choice was based on authors' profession (historians, journalists) or documentary character of books. I decided however to be less strict and added some fiction books and films with a historic background which to me seem to be worth reading/watching.
Updated: January 2013
HISTORY OF POLAND
Norman Davies God's Playground (vol. I, II)
Norman Davies Heart of Europe
Norman Davies Rising '44
Norman Davies Microcosm (about the city of Wroclaw (Breslau))
Prof. Norman Davies's books are very comprehensive. He likes to look at matters from various sides and perspectives and not only from the conventional ones. He is an explorer and likes to finds reasons before he presents facts. His books except for the narrative give a wealth of information, some are presented in a very interesting way. Just looking at maps, tables, diagrams, lists presented in his books we can learn a lot. He tackles the history of Poland from the beginning of time until the 1980 - the beginnings of the Solidarity movement. His books on Poland are not only an introduction but also can serve those who would like to know more. Heart of Europe is a shorter version than God's Playground which is 2 volumes however the latter was listed on the curriculum reading lists in Polish schools.
In 2004 Poland celebrated 60th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising of 1944. For that anniversary Prof. Norman Davies wrote a very interesting account of the times of the WW2 and the uprising itself. Except for talking about the atrocities of the war the book gives us a very good idea of how little was known and understood about Poland in the world prior to the WW2 and how Polish resistance members became victims of the imposed regime after the war was over.
For sure the advantage of learning history of Poland with Prof. Davies' books is that he knows the country not only as a historian but also from the insider's point of view.
If you would like to look at history of Europe in a wider context (Europe which is seen as one continent) you can also read equally inspiring Europe, a History.
Adam Zamoyski The Polish Way
Adam Zamoyski The Last King of Poland
Adam Zamoyski Chopin
Adam Zamoyski is a historian and writer of books on history. He lives in London. He has written a number of books about Poland or subjects related to Poland and I would like to recommend his three books. The Polish Way is an introduction to the general history of the country with the emphasis put on the times between 1400 and 1800. Except the history there is a lot about the people who created it, the art of those times, residences etc. The descriptions make the history very much alive, happening almost in front of our eyes. If you would like to go deeper into say one period of the Polish history The Last King of Poland is the book. It talks about the reign of the last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, (1764-95), which was full of international intrigue at the Polish court but also the time in which many of the contemporary public institutions have their roots. For this king Bernardo Belotto (known as Canaletto) painted the views of Warsaw which were used for rebuilding of the city after WW2. If you are not afraid of too many names and too many complications, read it, it is a fascinating account of those times.
And one more book on a different yet very important 'subject' i.e. Frederic Chopin. Chopin's music helped Polish people in all difficult times of our history and it remains very important to the nation until the present time. The book by Zamoyski, Chopin, will show you composer's life, people and places important to him, will explain decisions that he took. There are many letters of Chopin to his family and his friends quoted in the book and this is why it makes the composer so very much alive and almost speaking to us from the book. Probably every edition contains a picture of Frederic Chopin taken in the last year of his life (1849).
Barbara Engelking, Jacek Leociak The Warsaw Ghetto. A guide to the perished city (Polish title: Getto warszawskie. Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście)
Publisher: Yale University Press New Haven and London
Publisher in Poland: Wydawnictwo IFiS PAN Warszawa
A unique book which presents life in the Warsaw ghetto as seen by its residents - it uses diaries of many people who were there and then and memoirs written immediately after the war. It contains maps which show us where various institutions, factories (szops), schools, kitchens, theatres and cafes were located. A must for anyone who has interest in the Warsaw ghetto and is planning to visit Warsaw in this context.
Stanislaw Krajewski Poland and the Jews
Published by Wydawnictwo Austeria, Krakow 2005, Poland
This book has an additional title: Reflections of a Polish Polish Jew (to understand what this means you have to read it). It is a collection of papers published or presented at various international conferences by the author (who teaches at the Department of Philosophy, Warsaw University) over the past 10 years in which in a personal and very objective way he addresses many issues on as he likes to call it: relations between Poland and the Jews. Among other: the significance of Auschwitz, a rather philosophical approach for which there is rarely time when you tour the camp when in Poland; Jedwabne; opinions of the Jewish people of all times about their place of living over the centuries - Poland; discussion on negative stereotypes accumulated over the years about Poland in relation to the Jews; many explanations about why certain issues are understood the way they are understood in the West as opposed to how they are understood in Poland; the manipulations of the communist regime; standing of the Roman-Catholic church, Dabru emet declaration, Polish-Jewish and Christian-Jewish dialogue.
I think this book is very important for understanding of this very broad subject. It gives a very thorough preparation for a tour to Poland especially if the Jewish context is important to you. Or it will be a very important book to read if you have already been to Poland.
To encourage you further to read this book let me quote the words of Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Poland: 'He [the author] has combined this experience both with a scholarly knowledge of this subject and the sensitivity of a deeply spiritual person. This book will add significantly to our appreciation and comprehension of a subject which is little understood'.
HISTORY OF POLAND IN EUROPEAN CONTEXT
Laurence Rees Auschwitz. The Nazis & the 'Final Solution'
Publisher: BBC Books, ISBN: 0563522968
Publisher in Poland: Proszynski i S-ka SA, ISBN: 83-7337-929-0
Publication of this book in Poland coincided with celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz. My concern when seeing the book was that it would talk exclusively about this camp. However, the book turned out to be a short and very comprehensive introduction to the mechanism of the Second World War. It describes other extermination and death camps, which were created on the territory of occupied Poland by the Nazis. It gives many facts, which are usually forgotten when talking about those times. The book is very objective. The author talks to or relates to people who were on all sides, their stories are quoted and this makes the book very realistic and important for the history of Poland and WW2. It also draws our attention in the directions rarely explored in the context of WW2.
I would strongly recommend this book to readers interested in the European history and the WW2.
Timothy Snyder Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin (Polish title: Skrwawione ziemie)
Timothy Snyder The reconstruction of nations
Tony Judt Postwar (Polish title: Powojnie)
Norman Davies Europe, a History (general history of Europe)
MEMOIRS, DOCUMENTARY, OTHER
Wladyslaw Szpilman The Pianist
This book is a memoir of the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. He was a Polish Jewish who survived WW2 thanks to among other being helped by those who in general did not help anybody. The book is an account of his survival. It is very realistic and full of documentary aspects. It is a very moving and powerful account of one man's life (who lived in the worst of all times) but at the same time it is a story about the city of Warsaw which was eventually destroyed on purpose in 1944 and shared the fate of its many inhabitants.
This book is an excellent introduction to the city and the times, which shaped its future and perception.
(please note that a film under the same title, based on the book was directed by Roman Polanski)
Ludwik Hirszfeld The Story of One Life (Polish title: Historia jednego życia)
Anatol Chari From Ghetto to Death Camp: A Memoir Of Privilege and Luck (Polish title: Podczłowiek)
Perec Opoczyński Reportaże z warszawskiego getta (English title: not published, as I understand it is being translated to be published)
Martin Pollack Po Galicji. O chasydach, Hucułach, Polakach i Rusinach. Imaginacyjna podróż po Galicji Wschodniej i Bukowinie, czyli wyprawa w świat, którego nie ma (English title: to the best of my knowledge not translated to English)
Martin Pollack Cesarz Ameryki. Wielka ucieczka z Galicji (English title: to the best of my knowledge not translated to English)
Marin Pollack, a son of high rank nazi official (this story you can read in English: The Dead Man in the Bunker: Discovering My Father) is a realization of his grandmother's worst nightmares come true. He came to study in Poland and in the end he wrote a number of books presenting the social history of Galicia (part of Poland and other countries in the region which until 1918 belonged to Austro-Hungarian Empire). About Galicja, About Hasidim, Hutsuls, Poles and Ruthenians describes life and communities of many Galician towns many of which were Jewish sztetles. Cesarz Ameryki. Wielka ucieczka z Galicji/Emperor of America. Great Escape from Galicia (my own translation of the title) is a unique book describing the burdens of emigrants from Central Europe/Galicia on their way to the promised land where streets were paved with gold - America. A must for any family historian whose roots are in Central Europe. I hope this book will be soon published in English.
Agata Tuszyńska Historia Rodzinna (possible English title: Family Story)
This book is not yet available in English, however I am adding it to the list
Agata Tuszynska is a Polish journalist and author of several books (some available in English). When she was 20 she found out that her maternal family was Jewish and at some point in life she decided to explore this path and eventually write the story of her family (both maternal and paternal, Jewish and non-Jewish) piecing together facts and information that she managed to find. Two aspects of the book are particularly interesting: pre war stories and post war reality. There is still not much written about the society of the communist times which lived with the affirmation of new reality so it is interesting in all Poland context. I would strongly recommend this book.
Pure Fiction: Zygmunt Miłoszewski A Grain of Truth (Polish State Prosecutor Szacki Investigates)
I could not resist adding this book on. First of all it is great to see a contemporary Polish fiction in translation. Second it is a great read - at least it is in Polish. The action takes place in one of the most pretty Polish towns - Sandomierz. Highly recommended.