Wroclaw’s Anonymous Pedestrians: A Shot At Digital Eternity

Anonymous Pedestrians FI

“Once something is posted to the Internet, it’s never going away.”

For too-frank Facebookers or tipsy talkers in late night chat rooms, this digital eternity could be a problem that might just rear its embarrassing head later. But for bloggers, who are at least partially motivated by leaving a legacy of published work, it’s an investment that continues to pay off. And this is precisely what our most popular post has become.

While visiting Poland two and a half years ago we wrote a post called, Wroclaw’s Anonymous Pedestrians: Memories of Martial Law. At the time, it got the usual amount of attention, and in a couple of months it was relegated to the list of pieces that gets pinged periodically. But, thanks to the mysteries of the blogosphere, and the global reach of the internet, in the past few months it has risen to the top of our most popular list. And with over 1300 views it qualifies as an out-of-the-park hit at Gallivance.

We can’t explain this sustained popularity, but it’s gratifying to know that this post about an artist’s creative reminder of the Polish peoples’ oppression during the imposition of martial law is getting lots of attention. So if you haven’t read it, here it is:

Wroclaw’s Anonymous Pedestrians:
Memories of Martial Law

At a busy intersection just outside the historic center of Wroclaw, stands an unusual collection of sculptures. These are statues of ordinary people going about their daily business. But something isn’t right. On one corner the people are sinking into the pavement, and across the street, another group is rising out of the sidewalk. This art can be enjoyed at face value, but to truly appreciate the artist’s poignant message, it takes a glimpse at Poland’s recent turbulent history.

Pedestrians Disappearing 2

This artwork is called Przejście, which translates as passage or transition, and it’s also known in English as “The Anonymous Pedestrians.” These 14 figures were crafted by Polish artist Jerry Kalina in December 2005. In addition to being a fascinating piece of public art, it’s significant to Wroclaw because it marks the 24th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland. This was a frightening time when the military arrested ordinary civilians in the middle of the night, and many of these people were never seen again. The descending pedestrians represent the missing.

Pedestrians Appearing 1

After 2 years of military oppression, martial law was lifted, and ordinary citizens rose out of the earth on the other side of the street.

Pedestrians Appearing 2

At the time, the pro-democracy movement was gaining strength throughout Poland, and the communist government hoped that martial law would help rein in anti-communist groups like Solidarity. Anti-government organizations were banned, leaders were arrested, and thousands of soldiers patrolled the streets. A curfew was imposed, borders were sealed, phone lines disconnected, and airports were closed.

Pedestrians Appearing 3

Martial law is an extreme measure, and it hasn’t been imposed in the United States since the Civil War. But when we lived in Sudan in the mid 80s, Terri and I had a firsthand look at what life under martial law is like.

Jaafar Nimeiry

Immediately after a military coup which removed long-term dictator Jaafar Nimeiry, the army moved swiftly to take control of the city.  All borders were closed, tanks were parked on the airport runway, curfews were put into place, the phone system was shut down, and roadblocks were set up throughout the city.

Tanks on Runway in Khartoum

In Khartoum, the restrictions only lasted a couple of weeks, and we worked hard to stay off the radar. Luckily, I only had one scary encounter at a military checkpoint where I experienced my first, and hopefully last, machine gun barrel thrust into my open car window. At the other end of the gun an agitated soldier was asking what I was up to.

We were on pins and needles constantly, and I can’t imagine what Poland must have gone through for 2 years.

Today, the democratic Poland is a very different place than in the 80s. But I’m sure this sculpture is still a painful reminder for many people there. And after reading the history and the motivation for the The Anonymous Pedestrians Sculptures, it was even more emotive for us. It reminded us of a troubled time in our past, and gave us an even greater appreciation for our peaceful lives.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Anonymous Pedestrian Faces

Photo Credits:
7. Onyshchenko via Wikimedia Commons

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

63 thoughts

  1. Fascinating post. I knew nothing about this. They are wonderful sculptures with a poignant message. But Khartoum! What a time that must have been. I hope I never have to experience anything like that.

    1. Thanks Alison. Sudan was our first overseas experience and our time there taught us many things. And one of the biggest things was an appreciation for a stable, democratic government. As Americans, we’re quick to criticize our government, but as inept and ineffectual as it can sometimes be, I’ll take it any day over the alternatives. ~James

  2. Very interesting post and I have learned something new. Your experience in Khartoum must have been very scary? The sculptures are beautiful and I hope to visit this place one day.

    1. Thanks Gilda. If you get to Poland, Wroclaw should be on your list. It’s in the western part of the country, and consequently, is an interesting mix of Eastern and Western Europe. But like the rest of Poland, it suffered under the communist boot, and these sculptures are a good reminder of these turbulent times. ~James

    1. Interestingly Kathy, we should be in Spain this very minute. Unfortunately, I have a medical issue that has forced us to cancel the trip and hang around home for a few months. Our plan now is to reschedule the Spain trip in spring. ~James

    1. Peggy, Poland was on our list for years and years, and we’re happy to have finally made it. We spent three weeks there and really enjoyed it. If you get to this part of Europe, it’s definitely worth a visit. ~James

    1. Tricia, artists have never been bashful about making political statements with their work, and this the perfect example. I particularly like that the work can stand on its own as interesting art, but it makes an even stronger statement when one knows the backstory. ~James

    1. Linda, you better than most, know the impact that the communists have had in this part of the world. And as always, they aren’t know for their subtlety when it comes to dealing with alternative political views – and Poland got a huge helping of this approach. ~James

    1. Laura, the number of visits on this post is a total mystery to us. We’ve googled and searched all over the internet and can’t figure it out. We’ve had a couple of bloggers link to it, and one website featured it on a list of 25 Amazing Sculptures. But ultimately it’s a good problem to have and it’s always nice to have a successful post. ~James

  3. The sculpture is fascinating and unusual, and I’m so glad to hear the history behind it. This is the kind of thing some of my travel partners would be happy just to look at but that I would have to know the story behind! Now if I go, I will save them some impatient waiting! 🙂

    1. Lexie, after seeing this powerful sculpture and learning its history, we were surprised that it doesn’t receive more attention in the tourist info. Interestingly, the only reason we saw it was a brief mention in a brochure of things to do in Wroclaw that we picked up somewhere. And as it happened, we were going to buy bus tickets and it happened to be on the same side of town as the bus station. Funny how that happens sometimes. ~James

    1. One of the rewarding things about traveling in Eastern Europe is learning more a of its history. The entire area is now and has always been geographically trapped between east and west, and consequently, has suffered under changing governments. Before today’s democratic Poland, the communists brutally held on and this sad, turbulent time is reflected in this poignant piece of art. ~James

  4. A chilling and thought-provoking sculpture(s). Amazing how the sight of these relics, a slice of memory preserved for eternity in stone, brought up such potent memories for yourselves too.. Thanks for sharing the pix & stories.

    1. Amit, in your travels and life abroad, you’ve probably experienced your share of political upheaval. It’s easy to read about on the other side of the world, but seeing it in real life makes for quantum shifts in opinion. ~James

      1. Yes, it’s sobering. I’ve lived through some political instability, but never to the point of facing the hole-y end of a gun or losing family members under military rule, etc. Blessed & grateful am I.

  5. I returned to Liberia post-coup, in 1985. It was very different from the Liberia I’d known during the 70’s. Let us just say the advice I received, to keep my money hidden except for a small amount in my wallet for paying bribes, was useful. There were moments, of course, as when a soldier stopped the taxi I was riding in, made us get out, and, after examining my passport, declined to return it. Another bit of advice — never change expression, never show fear — seemed especially useful at that point.

    As for the sculpture, it’s wonderful. There’s no telling how such posts take on new life, but it’s wonderful when they do. I’m glad this one is being shared more widely. It deserves it.

    1. Thanks much LInda. The coping strategies that you learned in Liberia ring true to me and certainly bring back memories. Looking back on my years as an expat in Africa, it’s hard to overstate the impact that the experience had on me as a person as well as an international resident and traveler. Luckily, I was young, resilient, and my attitudes were malleable. So even though I was in danger at times, it was a fabulous learning experience which put me on a road that I still travel. ~James

  6. I loved this post the first time I read it and am so pleased it is still very popular. It is a subject appreciated universally and It is amazing how art can depict an era or situation so profoundly. When I saw the shoes of the Jewish people lined up along the Danube in Budapest, I had a similar feeling. I had heard and read about the Holocaust my whole life but that was when the reality hit me. Thanks for reposting.
    On another note, I am sorry you did not make it to Spain. It is however 42 C today in our corner so perhaps the spring will be more comfortable. Hope all is well.

    1. Thanks Darlene. I’ve seen photos of the Jewish shoes in Budapest, but for some reason we missed them when we visited. It takes an intelligent, thoughtful, and creative artist to capture so much suffering with such a simple sculpture. And thanks for your wishes for good health. My issue has a high likelihood of not being serious, but it’s one of those things that needs attention and shouldn’t be ignored. ~James

  7. I have always loved this post of yours and it was the first glimmer of wanderlust I had for Poland. Of course you likely know that you are the top hit on Google search for the keywords Wroclaw’s pedestrians and thus you are hitting the viewing jackpot. Likely a few other keywords too. 🙂
    In reading through the comments I am sorry to hear of the medical issue. Sending positive energy and wishes for that Spain trip to happen in the not too distant future. Hugs to both of you.

    1. Thanks Sue. I think that we’ve had this conversation before, but one thing that readers seem to enjoy are personal stories. And I’d like to think that our personal experience with martial law may have added some appeal for some readers. We knew of the google position and surely this must add some hits, but the real question is: Why would so many people be searching “Wroclaw’s Pedestrians?” It really doesn’t matter, we’re just happy to have the traffic on an important post, but I’m always curious. Re: my medical issue. It almost certainly isn’t serious, but could be, so I’m having it taken care of. Thanks for your well wishes. ~James

      1. Glad to hear that the issue is not serious James. Big sigh of relief on this end. Good to get it dealt with so you can be back on the road. All the very best.

  8. Congratulations on the sustained interest in this really well-done post. I want to wonder if Poland has been more in the news lately, but why can’t the interest just be due to your great work and the result??:):)

    1. Thanks Susan for your kind words. Every blogger that I know would love to know that these are the reasons for a particular post’s popularity. But if our stats are any indicator, sometimes the “fickle finger of fate” is involved, but that’s OK with me. Luck counts too. ~James

    1. Rusha, one of the rewarding things about our travels in Eastern Europe was getting a better feel for the impact of the breakup of Russia, and the struggles for independence in many of the countries in the region. Art with this level of emotional impact make the turbulent times and the suffering so much more tangible. And I guess that’s one of the aims of good art. ~James

  9. I enjoyed it the first time around, James and Teri. And the second. 🙂 It’s strange which blogs take off. I have several that consistently produce. I wrote one on a good hamburger I ate in Idaho a few years ago that guarantees at least a dozen hits a week. Some of the more successful ones are based on Google placement, or, and this surprised me, Google using one of my photos to illustrate an entry. –Curt

    1. Curt, we’ve never worried too much about stats, but I must admit when something like this happens, I’m very curious. I’m sure there are pros that I could pay to help figure it out, but one of the pleasures of a personal blog is that I don’t have to really worry about stats. Our philosophy, which I personally have fun with, is: Let’s throw it against the wall and see what sticks. I’d hate to know that my livelihood depended on predicting which posts were going to be popular. ~James

      1. Like you, it’s a matter of curiosity more than anything else that sends me over to the stats page. Weeks will go by on occasion without me looking. I do like the fact that my blog has consistently grown (certainly not by leaps and bounds) because of the work I put into it. –Curt

  10. James, I think having your stuff read and reread and passed on and read by more is something I would like to see happen. I don’t think it’s happened yet, but then, I actually don’t know how to know or where to find how many hits I get on any one post. I suppose its somewhere in the stats, but I just never look in there. And I still don’t see how the Reader is helpful. I’m pretty much a beginner at this stuff. Still, it feels good to know that you had such success with such a topic…I suppose when things need to be said, and known, people want to read it. Congrats!

    1. Thanks BF. I suspect there are as many motivations for blogging as there are bloggers. I’m sure there are bloggers out there who fret over their stats, but it sounds like you (or I) certainly aren’t one of them. It’s refreshing to hear and I suspect that there’s a case to be made that the pressure to write popular posts could stifle creativity. But having said that, I’m pleased that a serious and historically important event like martial law in Poland can get some additional attention with this post. ~James

      1. James…right. I started blogging because I want to write and was not writing, and thought blogging might get me going and continuing to write. Which it has. But I have to say, I was thrilled one day when I Googled some word, and discovered my own blog post on it as the second item in Google’s list of sites.

  11. Some truths are just always true and you have to keep reminding people of them. A good blog with great public art such as this is an effective ,way of doing it. Lack of freedom under any and all systems is terrifying – doesn’t have to be technically Martial Law. In past periods in the Philippines, in Brazil, in Argentina, in the USRR etc. fear was just the same …

    1. I totally agree Bea. Martial law is just one form of oppression, and anytime one group deprives another of their freedom, it’s unjust and frequently cruel. From Bosnia in the south to Estonia in the north, Eastern Europe’s struggles for independence and identity have been brutal, inhuman, and sometimes vicious. But other than in the Ukraine, most countries in the area seem to be on the right path – which is the result that everyone had hoped for. ~James

  12. Just fascinating! I had never heard of these sculptures that send such a poignant message. I am not surprised that this post went viral! It is always great for a city who has had a tragic past to remind its residents and tourists of where they have been, with a silent plea not to return to such a frightening time. I cannot believe you lived in Khartoum. What a frightening time that must have been.

    1. Thanks LuAnn. I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that popular posts give me a thrill, because they surely do. But it’s particularly rewarding when it’s a post with a message that we feel deserves some attention. As for Khartoum, while we were certainly in some danger, both Terri and I feel that our two years in Sudan were one of the highlights of our lives, and we wouldn’t have missed it. It changed us both in a myriad ways, and put us on a path that we still travel. It’s also proof that sometimes the “path less traveled” isn’t just a platitude. ~James

      1. Love your spirit! We are leaving for Europe in about 30 minutes. France and Italy for 2 months. We are aspiring to be just like the two of you. 🙂

  13. I never saw this piece in its first coming, but it sure is a beauty and I’m glad it’s been able to keep telling its story to a continual stream of readers!

  14. I remember this post and how striking the statues were in photographs. I can imagine how much more emotional it would be in person.
    I remember the turbulent 80s very well and learning more about Poland’s horrible history when visiting Krakow 2 years ago really left me in awe of these amazing resilient people.

    1. Joanne, if there was ever a place that demonstrates the horrific struggles the Polish people have endured it’s Krakow. Poland’s location between Germany and Russia has made it an easy target for takeover, and it’s people have suffered as a consequence. After decades of foreign domination and cruelty, it’s easy to see why independence is so important to the Polish people. ~James

      1. Especially since the world has consistently failed to support them, they’ve had to rely on their own resilience and determination. A truly remarkable people.

  15. Hi! I love your blog!!! It’s honestly so refreshing. I am also a travel blogger, so I read lots of other travel blogs, and yours is so great 🙂 Also, I noticed you posted quite a bit about Louisville! Are you from there? I’m also from Kentucky!!!

    1. Thanks for the comment Brooke and for dropping by the blog. Thanks for your kind words about our blog. Terri and I both went to UK and left KY immediately after graduation. And after years and years of moving around and living abroad, we recently moved back to Lexington. When we were students we didn’t have the time (or money) to explore our home state, and it’s great to be back with a changed perspective and the opportunity to discover more about out home state. ~James

    1. Thanks Cathy. In my experience, people like a bit of personal information. Some bloggers do it, others don’t, and I understand either way. Before Sudan, living under martial law was something that never, ever came to mind. But after the coup, it took on a whole new meaning, and it changed my attitude forever. I know now that loss of freedom tends to do that. ~James

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