I’m here to convince you to book your next trip to Warsaw. Simply put, the history of Warsaw is incredible. 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 for the summers.) 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, and the history of Warsaw is a testament to this. At the end of WWII, the Nazis burned down more than 85% of Poland’s capital, effectively destroying centuries-old history. 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 was destroyed. Therefore, the current Old Town is a reconstruction of what it used to be. The Baroque Church in the center and the Royal Palace are both reconstructs. After the Communist Party came into power after the end of the war, they were reluctant to rebuild the Old Town. The Old Town was a symbol of aristocracy and entirely contradicted the communist ideology that everyone is equal.
After persistent 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 with the help of old documents and archives. While the government begrudgingly permitted the formation of the Office, it refused to allocate resources and money to the cause. Poles from around the country both donated money and traveled to the Old Town to help with 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. The history behind the historic Square led it to be honored by UNESCO in 2011.
2. The Warsaw Uprising Memorial
As one of the biggest memorials in Warsaw, it commemorates 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 closing in from the East. Unfortunately, the Uprising was a failure. The Polish army was poorly equipped and the Soviet Army refused to aid them in the uprise. Stalin directed his army to wait, believing that helping the Poles 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 for the high civilian death was because the Nazis would systematically kill Polish civilians in effort to force the insurgents to give up. This was known as the Wola Massacre.
It was not until the end of the Polish Communist regime 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. They hold meager weaponry – guns and homemade grenades, highlighting the lack of equipment during the Uprise. The soldiers are all young and in mismatched clothes, reflecting how the Uprising was composed of young and untrained patriots determined to save their country. Unsurprisingly, without proper equipment to match the superiority of the Nazi’s war machinery and the absence of the Soviet Union aid, the Uprising quickly took a bloody turn. The second half of the memorial symbolizes this slow bleeding-out 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 were the systematic killing of the Jewish people. 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 throughout Warsaw. If you look down, you can also discover a golden line on the floors of Warsaw that represent where the Jewish Ghetto once stood. The orientation of the wording informs people whether or not they are standing inside or outside the former Ghetto. Those that can read the wording would be standing outside out the former Ghetto walls. Those reading the lettering upside down would be inside the Ghetto.
All throughout Warsaw, you’ll find metal plaques on the walls. The plaques either: A) honor past buildings that once stood there, B)commemorate battles or C) remember those executed during WWII. The origin of the plaques date back to 1948. A national competition was created to develop a design to commemorate 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. The plaque are written in Polish, but simply acknowledging a plaque is to acknowledge the history of Warsaw.
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 could be caught between the Nazis vehicles during a roundup. They were either 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: Many of the plaques are in honor of civilians and resistance fighters killed during the Warsaw Uprising of WWII. However, it would be hard to make this inference from the wording of the plaques. This was intentional – after WWII, 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 (Bar Mleczny in Polish). These are cheap cafeteria-styled restaurants that were created in the late 1800’s. They became popular after WWII among workers who wanted affordable meals. Some of them are still running and in them, you’ll find traditional and cheap Polish dishes (around 3-5 euros). So wherever 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 so much more intriguing history to be learned. I encourage you to dive into more research about Warsaw and its WWII/Communist history. I hope you have the chance to visit this historical jewel!