Warsaw: Somber and Inspiring

Warsaw, Poland
Warsaw wasn’t initially part of the plan.

And in case you were wondering, I do know Poland was never officially part of the Soviet Union. So if we want to get technical, it didn’t belong on my tour of the former Soviet republics.

But it may as well have been.

After “liberating” Poland from the Nazis at the end of World War II, the Soviets basically controlled the country for the next five decades.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Warsaw – it isn’t one of those cities that people tend to rave about. In fact, most people suggested I minimize my time in Warsaw and head to Krakow instead.

I am glad I didn’t listen.

Visiting Warsaw was a somber experience.

Almost everywhere I went in the center of the city, I saw reminders of Warsaw’s tragic history. As a few different residents showed me around, I heard a common refrain:“that was destroyed in the war.”

Twenty-one markers show where walls of the Jewish Ghetto once stood – the Ghetto created by the Nazis in 1940 that imprisoned 380,000 Jews in an area covering 18 kilometers. People lived eight to a room and were allotted less than 200 calories per day. Over 100,000 starved to death in 1941 alone.

Warsaw, Poland

The Umschlagplatz memorial on Stawki street marks the location where the Nazis loaded over 300,000 Jews into cattle wagons to transport them to the gas chambers at Treblinka, 100 kilometers northwest of Warsaw.

Umschlagplatz, Warsaw, Poland

Umschlagplatz, Warsaw, Poland

From Stawki street, additional markers lead to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, honoring those who fought in the Ghetto Uprising of 1943. By the time the uprising was quashed by the Nazis, the former Jewish quarter in Warsaw basically no longer existed.
Ghetto Uprising Monument, Warsaw, Poland

Outside of the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa street, a memorial stands where two mass graves were discovered, filled with bones of men and women from a retirement home who had been brought to the spot only to be shot and killed. The cemetery itself holds over 250,000 graves, many sadly neglected.

Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw, Poland

The Monument to the Warsaw Uprising honors those who died in the uprising in August 1944, when the people of Warsaw fought valiantly to try to take their city back from the Nazis.  Unfortunately, they were not successful and it ultimately led to the destruction of the vast majority of the city.

Warsaw Uprising Monument, Warsaw, Poland

The Little Insurgent Monument commemorates the children who served as messengers and troops in the Uprising, the figure itself inspired by a 13-year-old who was killed in action.

Little Insurgent, Warsaw, Poland

The Sapper Monument (a term that was new to me) remembers those who died after the war diffusing land mines and booby traps. An inscription reads:

“Free Warsaw will never forget those, who with their pain and blood, started the work on her reconstruction.”

Sapper Monument, Warsaw, Poland

Although I learned about World War II and the Holocaust in both high school and college, it never really hit home. We studied the numbers and the facts and the politics, with little emphasis on the tragic human realities. When nothing even remotely similar has happened in your country’s history, it is hard to fully appreciate the enormity of what took place in Warsaw (and elsewhere) during World War II.

Visiting Warsaw made it all seem a little more real.

I spent hours at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which chronicles life during the Nazi occupation, the daily events of the 1944 Uprising and the aftermath. I listened to interviews with survivors who fought for their city and their country. I watched film footage from the first month of the uprising. I saw photographs of the city after the Nazis tried to bomb it out of existence.

Warsaw Uprising Museum, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland

I visited the Pawiak Prison, where the Nazis executed nearly 40,000 prisoners and gathered another 60,000 to take to extermination camps.  I heard from a former inmate, imprisoned when he was only 15. He told us that the worst part wasn’t the beatings (they could expect the beatings), but rather listening to the screams of fellow inmates as they were beaten.

Warsaw, Poland

And while Warsaw’s lowest points were during World War II, the Soviet occupation brought Stalinist terror and decades of communist rule.

Across the street from the United States Embassy, a statue of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan portrays him standing at a podium in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 1987 when he declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  As we stopped in front of the statue, a man near my parents’ age spoke to me emotionally about Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War and “freeing Poland from Russia.”

Reagan monument, Warsaw, Poland                                                                    

As somber as it was, visiting Warsaw was also inspiring.

It would have been easy for Warsaw to quit after World War II. With 85% of the city destroyed and over half of the population killed, Warsaw could have fallen off the map.

But it didn’t. It rose from the ashes and rebuilt.

The reconstruction of the city has been nothing short of amazing. Sure, it has its share of not-so-attractive steel and glass high rises and office buildings (which are unfortunately the first thing you see when arriving by bus or train). Residents also seem to bemoan the presence of the gargantuan Palace of Culture and Science, a “gift” from the Soviets in 1955.

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland

Cobblestone lines the streets of Nowe Miasto (New Town) and Stare Miasto (Old Town). Buildings painted in yellow, green and orange look like they hail from the 19th century, not the mid-20th century. The Royal Castle, left with just one wall standing in 1944, dominates Pl. Zamkowy and, during my visit, served as an attractive backdrop for a large Christmas tree on the square.

Pl Zamkowy, Warsaw, Poland

Heading out from the Old Town, Krakowskie Przedmiescie and Nowy Swiat have a quaint charm that I don’t often find in large cities. Perhaps it was just the festive Christmas lights that adorned the lamp posts and building fronts, but I found this stretch of Warsaw’s Old Royal Road more attractive than counterparts like the Champs Elysees, Nevsky Prospekt or Las Ramblas.

St. Anne's Church, Warsaw, Poland

And of course, looming large across the Vistula River is Warsaw’s new football stadium. Together with Ukraine, Poland will host the Euro 2012 Football Championships this summer – something that would have been unthinkable just twenty years ago.

Warsaw Stadium, Warsaw, Poland

Indeed, Warsaw has come a long way.


12 thoughts on “Warsaw: Somber and Inspiring”

  1. Thanks for this post. 🙂 After my visit to Russia in 3 months I was hoping to save for a trip to Poland. My great great grandmother came to America from Poland (not sure exactly where) and didn’t learn a lick of English. I wish I could’ve met her though. I figure maybe going to Poland will be a good way to get in touch with my roots. 🙂

  2. Great post – we also found Warsaw both sobering and inspiring. Our blog post took a month to write because we wanted to properly pay respect to this amazing city. Thanks for helping to get the word out!

  3. Hi Katie, thank you for presenting my hometown Warsaw in such a positive light. I no longer live there but I miss it every day. Somebody has just said that Warsaw is like a woman, you first have to get to know her and then she will tell you all her secrets. I love my city and get sad when somebody tells me that it is sad and grey. Of course it is, with first the Nazis and thne the communists being all over it. I believe Warsaw is beautiful, in a chaotic absurd unorganized way. Love your blog, by the way!

  4. I’ve also always heard Warsaw isn’t so great. I want to go to Poland but I’m nowhere near the planning stages. I’m sure we’ll go to Warsaw, sounds like there’s a lot of history to soak up there. Thanks for the great perspective!

  5. What an incredible post Katie. You’re right…I would not have thought of Warsaw before, but you’re really changed that. We visited the Holocaust Museum in DC earlier this year, and that experience was so moving that I can’t begin to imagine seeing many of these sites in person…

  6. Having just spent a bunch of time in Israel, I visited Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem (literally, memorial & a name), Israel’s official Holocaust museum. It’s a fantastic museum that focuses more on integrating real people’s stories. They have a pretty large segment on both the Warsaw Ghetto as well as the uprising and have even taken steps to lay out the main street of the ghetto with original cobblestones and original streetcar tracks. While it’s a rather chilling experience to visit the museum, I can’t even imagine what it must be like to visit the real thing!

    1. Wow, interesting! It’s fascinating that they laid out the main street of the Ghetto with the cobblestones ad all. The markers of where the walls stood in Warsaw are so spread out, it’s hard to get a good feel for it as you’re walking around the city.

      I found the pictures and film in the museum the most moving – it really added a personal aspect to the whole thing.

  7. Great post. Reading it gave me the chills.

    I had similar feelings in both Amsterdam and Zagreb. Cities where you could feel war was there. I can’t explain it but obviously Warsaw is one of those places too.

    1. Thanks Lori! I only spent on day in Amsterdam and haven’t been to Zagreb, but will be interested to see how that compares when I get there (of course war there is even more recent!)

  8. I love your positive conclusion to this post. Warsaw has a lot of history that shouldn’t be ignored, but it deserved attention for its efforts to revive its cultural centers!

    1. Thanks Kelsey! Yeah, I really loved the city – as somber as it could be, it was a great learning experience and it’s really great to see how they’ve rebuilt. I was also impressed by how proud everyone I met was of Warsaw.

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