Warsaw was totally unexpected. We found a modern city with skyscrapers–which was rebuilt after the total devastation of the central city by the Nazis in 1944.
The “Museum of the Uprising,” often called Poland’s best museum, should be seen by everyone. It tells the story of 300,000 civilian Polish resistance fighters in occupied Poland who rose against the Nazis in August of 1944. The spirit of the resistance fighters at first caught the Nazis off guard. Then the Germans regrouped, and Warsaw experienced Nazi cruelty exceeding that they had suffered under previous centuries of Prussian and Russian domination.
In the end about 800,000 Warsaw residents died–nearly two out of three of the inhabitants of their city. Anything deemed of cultural importance was dynamited, and whole districts were set on fire.
Before WWII, 80 percent of Europe’s Jews lived in Poland. In Warsaw there were 380,000 Jews in a total population of 1.2 Million. Approximately 20,000 Jews live in Poland today: out of a total population of close to 40 million, the Jews represent at most .06%.
Although the Jews in the ghettos and the concentration camps suffered the worst, of course, we should not forget that ordinary Poles were starved, killed and executed.
The uprising was an expression of hope for freedom and that others (the West) were coming to liberate them. Two months after it started, the uprising was over, and an angry Hitler started to demolish all of Warsaw street by street to punish the resistance. Virtually nothing remained.
An expedition of American flying fortresses arrived too late and had little influence. In spite of a capitulation agreement for humane treatment, most of the rebels were sent to POW camps in Germany.
After the uprising’s failure and the people’s massacre, the Soviets moved in as early as May 1944. They dropped leaflets on Warsaw calling on the population and promising assistance. By the end, little help was received.
The story was not over. In the post-war Poland run by the Communists, Warsaw insurgents were tracked down, accused of collaboration and imprisoned or executed.
Fast forward to the future and the indomitable spirit of the Poles. In the 1980’s Lech Walesa and his Solidarity Movement helped start the fall of Communism.
In spite of the fact that more than 90 percent of Warsaw was leveled, we were amazed by their dedication in rebuilding their beloved city. Using photographs and paintings as blueprints, the Old Town was painstakingly reconstructed. It was only finished in 1962, and has now been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Royal Castle, which marks the edge of the Old Town was reconstructed from a pile of rubble at great cost between 1971 and 1974.
Even though cities like Krakow are more popular with tourists, it is great fun to hang out at cafes and watch buskers on Market square. There are many sights in the city worth seeing: the Royal Castle, King Sigismund’s Column, the Barbican, Wilanow Palace and many places connected with the Polish-born composer Fryderyk Chopin.
A defining landmark of Warsaw is the towering Palace of Culture and Science; commissioned by Stalin as a gift from the Soviet people, it was built with about 40 million bricks and was finished in 1955.
In a recent magazine article comparing European countries, we read that a remarkably high 74 percent of all Poles report that they are “quite happy”.