When we emerged from the train station on the hilltop plaza of old-town Warsaw, something about the place didn’t feel right. We walked down the narrow, cobbled streets, surrounded by medieval buildings and the usual throngs of tourists, just like Stockholm and a half-dozen other cities we’d seen, but something was off.
“This doesn’t feel real,” I commented to Karel.
“I think this was rebuilt after WWII,” he replied, “so it may not be.” Sure enough, when we looked into the history of Warsaw, we learned that the old city, along with 85% of the entire city of Warsaw, was razed by the Nazis during the war, as punishment for the uprising. Between the sieges, starvation, uprisings, and exterminations, 700,000 citizens of Warsaw died during WWII. The communists rebuilt the old city more or less as it formerly appeared. It isn’t unusual to see extensive restoration in many European cities, but in 1950s Communist Warsaw the approach was not very sensitive, the materials and methods were not very good quality, the buildings were not occupied by the original inhabitants of the neighborhood, and some haven’t been properly cared for. About the most that can be said for them is they’re better than the rest of Warsaw, which was rebuilt in accordance with communist ideals of modern architecture.
We decided to people-watch, instead. After just a few hours you could easily conclude that half of the resident Polish women are either nuns or “church ladies.” We spotted some interesting crazy people, too, but I don’t speak Polish, so I can’t tell you what they were ranting about.
We didn’t find our group at the rendezvous for dinner, but a few minutes later Yolanda came by. That was lucky for us, because Yolanda was born in Poland and knows how to find the good stuff. We teamed up for a delicious meal at the Basilisk, then caught a cab to our hotel. The driver took us past the capital city’s highlights, such as they are.
Imagine foreign soldiers invade and loot your neighborhood. They conscript your father, send your mother to a forced labor camp, and use your house as a barracks. They lock one third of your neighbors, who happen to be Jewish, in a walled ghetto, and then proceed to starve everyone inside to death. Your brother is captured and executed for throwing a loaf of bread over the wall. After several months of this, the situation becomes so desperate, the survivors in the ghetto stage a revolt. Many of your neighbors try to help them. The uprising fails. As punishment, everyone in the ghetto is massacred and the buildings are completely destroyed. When the tide of the war turns against the invaders, and one of your allies is closing in, the remainder of the city rises in revolt. Your supposed ally watches from a short distance away, but does nothing to help you. You manage to hold out for over two months but are finally forced to capitulate. In violation of the terms of surrender, you and the entire civilian population are expelled and the city is systematically demolished. A few months later the ally who betrayed you arrives and assumes control over what’s left.
We had only a few hours in Warsaw. I could only form the sketchiest of impressions, but here they are: Sixty years after the war, the city still seems traumatized. The scale of rebuilding is impressive, but most of it is dreary, cold, and ugly, and already it looks like it’s falling apart. As for the people, if they seem a little discouraged and cynical, who can blame them?This entry was posted in Vacation 2014: Europe