Last week I spent four days in Warsaw as part of my two week trip to Poland/Germany for the holiday break. It was my first time in Poland during the winter (I usually go during the summer) and despite the cold and short days, the trip reminded me how much I loved the capital (not to mention, how awesome it was to have some Polish food again after living in Spain for a few months). Admittedly not the most aesthetic European city, but its rich history more than makes up for it. Poland has a rich, albeit turbulent history, but at the end of WWII the Nazis burned down more than 85% of Poland’s capital. The reconstruction of Warsaw post-WWII created a mixture of elaborate pre-war reconstruction, war memorials, and the stark buildings symbolic of the communist era.
1. The Old Town
The most touristic and prettiest part of Warsaw is… you guessed it – the Old Town! While the Old Town doesn’t look particularly different from other European Old Towns, it’s important to remember that most of its original construction has been ruined. Therefore, the current Old Town is a reconstruction of what it used to be…. from the Baroque Church in the center, to the Royal Palace next to the entrance of the Old Town. After the communist party came into power after the end of the war, they were reluctant to rebuild the Old Town, which was a symbol of aristocracy and entirely contradicted the communist ideology that everyone is equal. However, after much negotiation with the government, the Warsaw Reconstruction Office was created in 1945. The Office worked to recreate the Old Town as it was in the late 18th century by using old documents and archives. Warsaw natives and later Poles from all around the country would come to the Old Town to give a helping hand to the reconstruction. Even in my own family, my grandfather donated 100 złoty for the reconstruction of the Royal Castle. The reconstruction continued into the 1960´s and officially ended with the completion of the Royal Castle in 1986. Eventually, after many years, the Square was finally completed and the hard work and perseverance was honored by UNESCO in 2011.
2. The Warsaw Uprising Memorial
As one of the biggest memorials in Warsaw, it stands to commemorate the Polish soldiers that fought in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. It was Poland’s last attempt to fight for their liberation, knowing that the Nazis were losing the war and the Red army was making its way towards Poland from the East. Unfortunately, the Uprising was a failure, as the Polish army was poorly equipped against the Nazis and the Soviet Army refused to aid them in the uprise. Stalin directed his army to wait, believing that helping the Poles win their liberation would threaten his planned expansion of the Communist ideology. The Uprising lasted for 63 days and resulted in the death of 16,000 resistance fighters and 150,000-200,000 civilian deaths (The reason civilian death was so high was because the Nazis would systematically kill Polish civilians in effort to force the insurgents to give up…known as the Wola Massacre).
It was not until towards the Communist regime ended in Poland in 1989 that the Uprising was commemorated by the Polish government. The two part memorial pays a tribute to the bravery and sacrifices of the resistance soldiers. In the first piece, the soldiers are running from under a bridge towards battle with the meager weaponry that they had – guns and homemade grenades, symbolizing the lack of equipment the uprisers had in their possession. The soldiers are all young and in mismatched clothes, reflecting how the Uprising was composed of young and untrained patriots that wanted to do their part in trying to save their country. Unsurprisingly, without proper equipment to match the superiority of the Nazi’s war machinery and as well as the absence of aid from the Soviet Union, the Uprising soon took a bloody turn. The second half of the memorial shows symbolizes this slow bleeding out to the end of the Uprising. By then, morals are low and soldiers are simply trying to save themselves by escaping through the sewers. Unfortunately, the Nazis were aware of this and often filled the sewers with poisonous gases, suffocating hundreds of Poles underground.
3. The Warsaw Ghetto Boundary Markers
Probably the greatest atrocities of WWII is the systematic killing of the Jewish people and during WWII, Warsaw housed the largest Jewish Ghetto in Nazi-occupied land. Prior to the war, Warsaw had a Jewish population of more than 350,000, which was about 30% of the city’s population. In October 1940, the Nazis announced the creation of the Ghetto. It was surrounded by a 10 foot wall topped with barbed wire and was about 1.3 square miles (3% of the capital). The Ghetto was overcrowded, unsanitary, and lacked the food necessary to feed all of about 400,000 Jews inside. Two uprisings occurred in the ghetto. After the second uprising in 1943 (which was also the largest single revolt by the Jewish population during WWII), the Nazis leveled the Ghetto by burning it to the ground.
Today, you’ll find parts of the Ghetto wall preserved in different locations in Warsaw and you’ll also find a golden outline of the Jewish Ghetto on the floors. The orientation of the wording informs people to know whether they are standing inside or outside the former ghetto. Those that can read the wording would be standing outside out the former ghetto walls and those that see the lettering upside down would be standing inside the Ghetto.
All throughout Warsaw, you’ll find metal plaques on the wall that honor past buildings that once stood there or commemorate battles or those executed during WWII. The origin of the plaques date back to 1948, when a national competition was created in search for an original design to commemorate all those lost and killed under Nazi occupation. The sculptor Karol Tchorek won the competition and set off the installation of the plaques around the city in the 1950’s (they’d be installed all the way up to the 1980’s). While a lot of the original plaques have been removed (due to the modernization of the city), there are still more than 160 around Warsaw. Unfortunately they are written in polish, but just acknowledging a plaque is acknowledging that you are standing in a place of historical significance (aka very cool).
For the most part, the plaques honor victims of roundups and the Warsaw Uprising. Roundups (łapanki in Polish), was a widespread Nazi tactic to randomly ambush civilians. By doing so on almost a daily basis, the Nazi instilled fear and deterred resistance among civilians in Warsaw. At the wrong place and at the wrong time, any civilian that was caught between the Nazis vehicles during a roundup was deported to a labor camp, sent to a concentration camp, or executed on the spot. The roundups were worst between 1942-1944, when some sources suggest that anywhere between 400 to 1,000 civilians fell victim to the roundups. And interesting fact: While many of the plaques are in honor of civilians and resistance fighters killed during the Warsaw Uprising of WWII, it would be hard to make this inference from the wording of the plaques. This was intentional, given that after the war the Polish government was a puppet of the Soviet Union and used propaganda to downplay the Warsaw Uprising.
5. The FOOD
Okay I will admit that Polish food is available all around Poland and not just Warsaw, but Polish food is GREAT. Beyond regular restaurants, Warsaw is filled with Milk Bars (or Bar Mleczny in Polish). These are cheap cafeteria-styled restaurants that were created in the late 1800’s, but became popular after WWII among workers who wanted affordable meals. Some of them are still opened around Warsaw and in them you’ll find traditional and cheap Polish dishes (around 3-5 euros). So where ever you are in Poland, it’s of extreme importance to the soul to try and explore polish cuisine, whether its pierogi, barszcz, kielbasa, or gołąbki! (Personal favorite is potato and cheese pierogi 🙂 )
So there you have it, Warsaw my favorite history book! While I went over some historical anecdotes and facts briefly, there is plenty of information that I skipped out on and I encourage you to dive into more research about Warsaw and its WWII/Communist history and I hope that you have the chance to visit!