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A good history of Poland for the layperson

While there are several good books on the RS recommended list for Eastern Europe, I’m more interested in a readable history of Poland 🇵🇱 . Anyone have some ideas about books they have enjoyed and learned a lot from?
I’m booked on the RS Best of Poland tour in September, fingers crossed 🤞. Trying to stay focused on the future when we will return to Europe!
Keep on Travelin’,
Judy B

Posted by
2516 posts

For an in-depth history of Poland, I would highly recommend God's Playground: A History of Poland by Norman Davies. It comes in two volumes, "Origins to 1795" and "1795 to the Present". I own both but you can buy them separately depending on which parts of Polish history you are interested in. It's certainly the gold standard for English-language books on the subject, but I found it written in an easy to read and logical manner, especially since I'm not a native English speaker!

I personally like "Origins to 1795" because I am a huge history buff for medieval history, and Poland has one of the most interesting and multifaceted medieval histories of Europe. During the 1300s it was the only major kingdom to escape the horrors of the Black Plague and actively protected its Jewish population while they were persecuted almost everywhere else.

If literature is your cup of tea, I would highly recommend looking into Poland's national writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, you may have heard of some of his great books Quo Vadis, The Teutonic Knights, On the Field of Glory, In Desert and Wilderness. Sienkiewicz also traveled extensively in the United States, and lived in Anaheim, California during the 1870s.

Podcasts are also a great way to digest history, this one is excellent albeit very in-depth

YouTube Videos are also great resources, here is a nice animated series of Polish history, I really liked:
Part 1 -

Part 2 -

For a fun blend of unique history and travel destinations in Poland (similar to Atlas Obscura): Polish Highways & Byways: Tourist Atlas

Hope this helps pass the time, especially these days :)

Posted by
2382 posts

Hi Judy B, in anticipation of my own trip to Poland this fall, where I will cross paths (figuratively speaking) with your tour when you are in Warsaw, I have just finished reading "3 Minutes in Poland" by Glenn Kurtz, and as recommended by others on this forum. While it's not a history of Poland, it is a good story of Jewish survivors from the small town of Nasielsk, including some context of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and escaping the Jewish roundups.

It took some perseverance to get through the first chapters, wondering where the story was going. I'm glad I stuck with it.

I look forward to other recommendations on this thread, even though my local library has closed as of today. Time to dust off my Kindle.

Posted by
2058 posts

Wow, Carlos, you have such a deep knowledge of Poland and obviously a passion for its history and culture. The books by Norman Davies I almost ordered on Amazon but instead got the Lonnie R. Johnson’s book: Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends. I will get the Norman Davies books next order. I love literature especially written by foreign writers. I think well-written fiction by authors from other countries gives you insight into life as experienced by people who live in another culture. Life experienced interiorly, I mean, in someone else’s consciousness. A good example I have never forgotten is The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Wow, if you didn’t know what living in a Communist country was like, read this one book and you know, because you “feel” the life as lived by the characters.
I am not familiar with the Polish writer you mention. I will look for him on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. My local library is closed until further notice.
Thanks again, Carlos.

Posted by
2058 posts

I will look for 3 Minutes in Poland, it sounds very interesting. I hope we will meet when we are in Warsaw. I’m excited to have this trip to look forward to!

I will look for God’s Playground, I just realized it’s volume 2 by Norman Davies. I hope you will be able to go on your South Italy tour, I believe it’s in May? Have you rescheduled?

Keep on travelin’,
Judy B

Posted by
291 posts

Also look at “Poland: a history” by Adam Zamoyski. It squished a thousand years into a single book, so more a broad overview rather than detail, but it was a good intro.

Posted by
2516 posts

Hi Judy, happy to help! While I am Spanish/Catalan by birth (born and bred in Barcelona), I'm also half Polish on my mother's side, so I have always had a soft spot for Poland, which is where my passion for the country comes from. I was actually set to take some Polish language courses in Krakow's Jagiellonian University (founded in 1364!) this summer. Unfortunately with the current pandemic that language program has been suspended 😔

Posted by
4939 posts

Hi, Judy B. No, we haven't rescheduled yet. The timing for this tour (yes, in May) is perfect for us, and I had already reserved hotels, trains, and excursions for both before and after the tour dates. So I'm hanging on until the bitter end. With RDE cancelling all tours through the end of April, it's not looking good.

Kim's in the same boat with her South England tour. We're still hopeful though, but starting to get twitchy.

Posted by
4939 posts

Judy B, James Michener wrote a book on Poland, called "Poland." For some reason I've never been able to get through it, but I do know that he usually researched his books thoroughly. It's fiction, but his research is usually impeccable.

Posted by
2058 posts

I’m sorry your Polish language program was cancelled. Hopefully, you will be able to take it another time. Actually I didn’t realize the pandemic had made inroads in Poland to that extent.

I would be twitchy too for a May departure. I assume you’re planning days in advance of the tour, too. I sure hope it works out for you and Kim, too.

Yes, I have read several books by James Michener, all very lengthy. I may wait until my library reopens and put it on hold. When you finish one of his tomes, you have learned so much!

Posted by
2973 posts

Hi, Judy. Assuming the world is functioning again, I will be in Warsaw when the Rick Steves tour group passes through. Thanks for starting this thread!

I read Three Seconds in Poland, too. Parts of it are definitely skimmable -- like when the author goes into great detail about film restoration. That was incredibly boring to me, but the personal stories in the book are quite remarkable. If you read it, be sure to look up the video on YouTube.

I have not read a comprehensive history of Poland yet, but I have read a few books. My trip is going to be limited to Gdansk and Warsaw. So far, I've knocked out...

  • Seeing Through the Eyes of the Polish Revolution: Solidarity and the Struggle against Communism in Poland by Jack M Bloom. A nice history of Poland's post-war years and the rise of Solidarity that relies heavily on quotations from those who experienced the events, so you hear the voice of the Polish people, not just the author's voice.
  • Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising by Alexandria Richie. A very readable history of the Warsaw Uprising that provides a nice scaffolding for processing other works on the Uprising. It was released in Europe as Warsaw 1944: The Fateful Uprising. Sadly, the US title seems to imply that in the US, Hitler sells (or people don't know what the Warsaw Uprising is?).
  • A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising by Miron Białoszewski. A 22-year-old civilian's story of the Uprising that is written in the manner of an oral recollection. I read it after Richie's work; I think it would be hard to follow without some prior knowledge.
  • The Color of Courage: A Boy at War by Julian Kulski (originally released as Dying, We Live). A powerful memoir written by the son of the mayor of occupied Warsaw during his late teen years as therapy for the PTSD resulting from his early teen years. The book chronicles small acts of rebellion at 10 years of age, joining a youth paramilitary organization at 12, Gestapo arrest at 13, participation in the Warsaw Uprising as a soldier at 15, and time in a POW camp in Germany at 16. For Kulski's later life, pair the book with Goliat - The Forgotten Hero, a documentary available on Amazon Prime Video.
  • Irena's Children: A True Story of Courage by Tilar Mazzeo. The story of Irena Sendler, one of the "Righteous Among the Nations," who used her social work credentials to obtain a pass from the Germans to enter the Warsaw ghetto, to support the Jewish community, and to coordinate the smuggling of 2,500 Jewish children out of the ghetto.

My current read: Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski. The 1944 "Report to the World" of Karski, a member of the Polish government-in-exile, who carried the first eyewitness reports of Nazi atrocities against Jews to the Western Allies, whose leaders chose to view Karski's accounts as exaggerations. Irena Sendler was his handler when he visited the Warsaw ghetto.

Posted by
2198 posts

The James Michener novel is a good choice. He does a lot of research which he folds nicely into his easily readable novels .My wife and I both read it before our first trip to Poland many years ago on what amounted to a " roots quest" for her since her ancestors emigrated from a village west of Krakow.
Could never understand why her great-great grandmother's ethnicity in the Ellis Island archives was listed as Austrian until we read the book. Unlike some of the more serious and scholarly tomes that are out there, this one is a light, educational and entertaining read if you have the interest.

Posted by
6538 posts

Carlos mentioned Henry Sienkiewicz. He won the Nobel Prize for literature for his three volume fictional series: The Deluge, Fire on the Steppe, and With Fire and Sword. They're commonly referred to as "the trilogia" (trilogy) by Poles who consider it the greatest novel written about Poland. Its an epic story of knights and wars and damsels in distress, during various invasions, revolts, and battles of the 17th century. Its three large books, so takes a while.

Anne Applebaum's book "Between East and West" describes the history and ethnic tensions of the area that used to be eastern Poland and is now mostly in Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. I didn't like the Michener book either, although some people like his style.

Posted by
722 posts

We read a few history books before our trip to Poland. They were really pretty similar. Reading a few books was helpful because Polish history was pretty unfamiliar to me and I remembered more with repetition.

Poland: A History, by Adam Zamoyski
A Traveller’s History of Poland, by John Radzilowski (actually quite a good book with nice maps)

We had a third book that was something like “a 1000 year history of Poland.” My spouse read this one. I can’t remember if I did too. The title makes it sound complete but it really covers the same period as the other two books.