History through the Viewfinder

A street photo and statue evoke vivid memories of war’s destruction.

The role of faith in wartime can take on many dimensions and forms. In my previous post, I wrote about the memorial to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor in his hometown of Wroclaw, Poland (Breslau, Germany when he was born there). Bonhoeffer’s memorial is a testimony to the courage and integrity of an individual, even at his own martyrdom.  

But how would most people have their faith tested during the war? The tour group that I was with the morning that we passed the Bonhoeffer memorial was on its way to a different site. We were headed to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which dated from the 13th century and was the first brick building in Wroclaw. A beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child stands before the cathedral.

After Hitler declared Breslau to be a fortress city to be defended to the death in 1944, the Red Army besieged the city from February 1945 until the German surrender in May. Fighting moved from house to house, and the city was smashed by aerial bombardment. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist sustained major damage to approximately three quarters of the building.

In various cities in Poland today, visitors to certain locations are often greeted by historical photographs showing what that site looked like at the end of World War II in 1945.  Here is a photograph on the wall alongside the cathedral:


As can clearly be seen in the photograph, the statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child stands upright and untouched amid the destruction.

The survivors of the carnage in the city took inspiration and hope from that statue. They were faced with a tremendous challenge: to rebuild all that had been destroyed. That is what they did, not only in Wroclaw, but across Poland in the postwar years. Here is a photograph I took of the statue that morning, from approximately the same vantage point as the photograph from the destroyed street in 1945.


Physical structures can be rebuilt, but the spirits of the people of Wroclaw would face even greater challenges after the war. Although Stalin had promised free elections in Poland at the Yalta conference in February 1945, the same month that the siege of the city began, these elections were not granted. Instead, the Soviet dictator imposed a new communist government, with atheism as the official religious policy of the government as dictated by its Marxist ideology. The first interior phase of reconstruction of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was completed in 1951, although it would be 40 years before the spires of the building would be restored to their original form.

The day we visited in 2017, however, our group was able to take photographs of the statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child in front of the restored cathedral in as light and easy a mood as can be imagined:


How had this historical transformation come about? How had the cathedral and the religion it housed survived decades of a hostile regime which sought to eliminate religious worship in the aftermath of World War II? At least part of the the answer to that question would surprisingly be addressed just across a bridge down the street from the statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, and will be the subject of my next post. 

This is the second of a three-post series. Read Part One. Rear Part Three


"No matter one’s age, travel is a unique and exciting educational experience. In my work, I have had the opportunity to reflect on history, events, and people in the places where they experienced life. Through the viewfinder, we can not only find history and perspective, but create memory, and evoke our evergreen past."
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum 


Keith Huxen

Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.    

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