Our first week in Warsaw, Poland seemed to be all about the city’s history. I’ve heard Warsaw described multiple times as a medieval city that happens to be less than 50 years old. I think that’s pretty accurate. It certainly felt like the most modern city we’ve been to so far on the trip, even though it looked as the Old Town Market Square could have been built 300 years ago (I mean, it was, but then…).
In a lot of ways, the city has been a continuing construction project for the last 70 years. Even now, tower cranes are everywhere. Expats who have lived here just easily point out the numerous skyscrapers they’ve seen built.
Despite all the growth, the past is never far away. There are memorials – statues, monuments, plaques – on essentially every street. The best known is probably the statue of the Little Insurgent, commemorating children who aided – and sometimes fought and were killed alongside – the participants in the Warsaw Uprising. Most unsettling to me was the sheer number of simple plaques on walls or benches dedicated to massacres or battles that took place there less than a lifetime ago. The 72nd anniversary of the beginning of the Uprising was August 1, and so many were decorated with white and red flowers and flags.
To contemplate each one and the suffering a sentence or two encapsulates is crushing. It make me wonder about the difficult choices ordinary Varsovians made each day. A more optimistic route is to remember the intense patriotism and bravery and to see today’s rebuilt Warsaw as a memorial in itself.
One subtle reminder caught me particularly off guard. Walking through Krasinskich Park I happened to look down at a patterned patch on the sidewalk: inlay showing the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. The same boundary line runs not too far from our apartment, well over a mile from the other wall. It is hard to fathom the city within a city forcibly separated from the outside world but home to hundreds of thousands. And of course, as the Ghetto was emptied, a huge portion of the citizens were trained directly to death camps (from a station that stood just about three blocks from our apartment). Thousands more were murdered by starvation, disease, and violence.
Also not far from our apartment is the peaceful Powazkowski Cemetery. Though much survives from before the War (though sans records), some of its stones are still carry bullet scars. With the Polish people oppressed by foreign systems, this became a place for artists to focus their talents and it is full of beautiful statues. Families here take remembrance very seriously and there were often fresh flowers and candles, even on older graves.
To get a better idea of the events behind sites around Warsaw, we went to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (the winner of a well-deserved Museum of the Year award) and the Uprising Museum. Both are incredible.
The Jewish History Museum has interactive exhibits and covers a thousand years. Naturally there is a focus on the Holocaust, but there is a definite effort to show cultural revivals happening today as well as the deep history of Jewish culture in Polish society. My favorite part was the beautiful replica of the Gwoździec Synagogue’s ceiling.
Warsaw’s Uprising Museum is similarly visitor-involving. There are recreations of sewers that insurgents carried messages and weapons through, a replica air-drop bomber, and immersive sound and video experiences. It drove home hardships of the Uprising and the betrayal experienced when the Soviet Army did not come to their aid. It was fascinating to learn that, in spite of the fighting, daily life went on. Newspapers were published and cafes were open in some areas. Insurgents saw themselves as the restoration of a Polish government, even holding a stamp-designing contest, printing postage stamps, and delivering mail.
Finally, a less-heavy note: some art from around the city. Winged ponies on a palace lawn are almost as happy as it comes.