On my second day, I got up early to explore the city. I had a full day planned, mapping a route through some of the WW2 related sites of Warsaw.
Firstly, a bit of a primer on modern Varsovian history. Before World War II (WW2), the city was a Jewish centre. Warsaw’s prewar Jewish population of more than 350,000 was around 30 percent of the city’s total population. The population of Warsaw was about 2 million people. To Hitler, the annexation of Poland would provide “living space” (Lebensraum) for the German people. According to his plan, the “racially superior” Germans would colonise the territory, and the Polish would be enslaved. The Nazis had already annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia earlier in 1938 and 1939, without igniting hostilities with the major Allied powers. I’m guessing that Hitler hoped that his invasion of Poland would also glide by quietly.
In 1939, Germany bombed Polish airfields and torpedoed the Polish naval fleet. Hitler claimed the invasion was a defensive action, but Britain and France were not convinced. On September 3, 1939, they declared war on Germany, initiating WW2.
The Polish army mobilised a million men but was hopelessly outmatched. They hoped to hold out long enough for an offensive to be mounted against Germany. However, on September 17, the Soviets invaded from the east – as part of a secret agreement with Germany – and all hope was lost. On September 28, the Warsaw garrison finally surrendered to the German siege, and Poland was once again partitioned. During September 1939, around 31,000 Polish people died and 46,000 were injured, and 10% of the buildings were destroyed. This was, sadly, just the start.
As I mentioned in my last post, the Nazis wanted to flatten Warsaw and create their own model town for Ethnic Germans. To do this, they needed to clear out the citizens of Warsaw. From October 1940, the Germans moved the entire Jewish population of the city into the Warsaw Ghetto. Those that were not sent to the extermination camps died of starvation, or during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Nearly all the uprising leaders died, and the ghetto was eventually ‘liquidated’ by the Germans.
The British eventually gave direction to the Polish Home Army to try and fight the advancing Red Army later in 1944, and the Warsaw Uprising took place. The armed struggle, planned to last 48 hours, continued for 63 days. Eventually, the Home Army fighters and civilians assisting them were forced to capitulate, the Nazis destroyed the rest of Warsaw, and the Red Army swiftly took the city from the retreating Nazis.
700,000 people died in Warsaw. When Soviet troops ‘liberated’ the devastated Warsaw, Polish data claims that only about 174,000 people were left in the city. Approximately 11,500 of the survivors were Jews.
While that provides a very, very brief overview of the history of Warsaw, you can understand how such a city bears the scars of its tormented history. I left my apartment and wandered down Senatorska towards Chłodna Street. As I approached Chłodna, I started to notice markers on the ground indicating where the ghetto walls had stood. This map provides a useful guide. I then saw the Footbridge of Memory. Have you ever seen the movie, The Pianist? There was a famous staircase that the Jewish Ghetto inhabitants must use to cross Chłodna Street – a major thoroughfare that ran right between the small and large ghettos. The monument stands where this footbridge once stood – and is lit at night.
I continued towards the Warsaw Rising Museum. Located in an old power station building, it provides a (slightly awkwardly laid out) walk through the history of Warsaw and the uprising. I found it very interesting. Admittedly, I didn’t realise there was actually a Ghetto uprising and a Warsaw Uprising. This museum cleared this all up for me. While busy, it was modern, well equipped and had plenty of English signage. You definitely need to pay attention to the little piece of paper they give you, though, with the map. I stuffed it up and ended up in the Liberation Hall before making it to the second and third floors. Once I figured out how to work back through the exhibits in a logical order, it made way more sense. There are some particularly fascinating exhibits about factors of the war I had never heard about.. like the Polish Scouts Postal Service which ran during the Uprising.
Before you leave, you need to check out the movie “City of Ruins”. This is a six minute 3-D aerial ‘film’ which recreates a picture of the desolation of ‘liberated’ Warsaw in March 1945. It is a harrowing view of the devastation left by the Nazis. While the viewing platform was shut the day I was there, it looks like it offers a great view of the city on a nice day. I’d also recommend a walk through the memorial garden outside. It is full of art in honour of the defenders of Warsaw.
I then wandered down towards Central Warsaw. In Warsaw, you can’t help but notice monument after monument to those killed during the war. One of the monuments I passed on my walk was a memorial to Jewish insurgents of the Ghetto Uprising that escaped through the sewers of Warsaw, with the assistance of Polish sewer workers. I also saw a small and unassuming section of the Ghetto wall in the courtyard of a building on Sienna Street.
After a delicious lunch in the modern shopping mall Zlote Tarasy, I went to the Palace of Culture and Science… locally known as PKIN. The highest building in Poland, with over 3,000 rooms, I ducked into this rabbit warren.. and quickly out again. I didn’t fancy getting lost in the Russian wedding cake, and the 30th-floor observatory was nearly in the clouds that day, anyway. The building is a pretty imposing structure, and you seem to be able to see it from anywhere in the city. Built between 1952 and 1955; it was a “gift of the Soviet people to the Polish nation”, offered by Joseph Stalin. It bears a close resemblance to the seven sisters of Moscow.
I walked through the park next to the building and found a memorial to Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit), a famous Polish author and educator. He founded an orphanage in Warsaw and led various advances in the rights of children. His orphanage was moved several times during WW2, and eventually into the ghetto. He famously turned down offers to save himself, choosing not to abandon the 200 or so children under his care. There is a famous passage in Władysław Szpilman’s book The Pianist – referring to the fact that the children were about to be sent to their deaths – which reads:
He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man…
He did his very best to raise the spirits of his charges until the very end. He was last seen boarding a train at the Umschlagplatz with his orphans, and was gassed at Treblinka.
I wandered back towards the apartment, and saw the PAST building (famously fought over during the Warsaw Uprising) before entering Saxon Garden. Opened in the 1700s, it was the first park in the city opened to the public. The 18th-century Saxon Palace (Pałac Saski), which once occupied Plac Piłsudskiego (Piłsudski Square, in front of the garden), was, like so many other buildings, destroyed during WW2. The only part of it that remains is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, guarded by two Polish Army soldiers. Interestingly, Plac Piłsudskiego was also once home to a giant Russian Orthodox Church, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Built between 1894 and 1912, when completed, it was 70 metres in height – the tallest building in Warsaw. Built by the Russians to exert their influence over the Polish whilst Poland was a part of the Russian Empire, it was part of the ‘Russification’ of Poland. Though beautiful, the largely Catholic population opted to demolish it in the mid mid-1920s, less than 15 years after its construction.
I walked past the Presidential Palace, and saw the memorial to the former Polish President, who was killed – alongside his wife and many other officials – in a plane crash in 2010. That night, I met my former penpal for the first time. She was just lovely, and we went for tea in the Old Town. She even had the first letter I ever sent her… I would have been 11 or 12 years old! We chatted away for many hours. She was even so kind as to take me to a 24-hour post office, where she helped me buy stamps for postcards – and then made sure I got on the right tram back to the apartment! It was absolutely lovely to meet her after all these years, and really topped off a famous (albeit sad) day of exploring.
Stay: Design Studio (AirBnB) – Śródmieście, Warszawa. From 160AED per night.
Visit: The Warsaw Rising Museum, Grzybowska 79, 00-844 Warszawa, 20PLN. Footbridge of Memory. Sienna Street segment of the Warsaw Ghetto wall. Palace of Science and Culture, plac Defilad 1, 00-901 Warszawa, 30PLN to visit the observation deck.
Eat: Same Fusy Tea Shop, ul. Nowomiejska 10, Old Town. From 10PLN.