November 2-5, 2005. Here are a few words about a four-day trip Kay and I have just taken to Warsaw. It was our first trip to Poland, and we had been told that Warsaw might not have been our best choice as a destination; Krakow is Poland’s big tourist draw. Despite the warning, we loved Warsaw. It’s a modern, dynamic city, one of the fastest growing in all of Europe, yet there is much there that speaks of it’s past. And what a past it’s had! In Warsaw, World War II is not yet a distant memory, and you don’t have to be a history buff to sense the shadows of those dark days that still linger.
Because of the movie The Pianist and the well-known events of the Holocaust, much of the world is aware of the city’s enormous pre-war Jewish population, its ghettoization by the Nazis, and the ensuing uprising in 1943 that hastened the death of the Jews that remained. What’s not so well known is the uprising by the general population that followed in1944. This is a story of the almost superhuman courage and determination of a few thousand poorly armed and equipped resistance fighters against the might of the German army and air force that lasted for almost two months.
When it ended, Hitler ordered that Warsaw cease to exist, and the order was largely carried out. By the time the war ended in 1945, a beautiful and ancient city had been 85% destroyed. The pictures of this destruction are chilling; virtually nothing in the city center was left standing. Now, comes the amazing part of the story.
In the last 60 years, Poland has rebuilt Warsaw, much of it as it was before the war. An entire large area known as the Old Town that includes baroque churches, a cathedral, medieval buildings, even the Royal Castle, has been faithfully reconstructed. I can’t even imagine what this took in terms of patience, skill, money and national pride and determination. A new museum of the uprising has opened recently. It uses many different audio-visual and design techniques to tell the story of what happened during those two months in 1944 and who the participants were – men, women, and children. The hours we spent there were a moving experience, and we left with the conviction that the people of Poland know better than most the price and value of freedom.
We were very lucky during our visit that the weather was so agreeable. It was almost, but not quite cold, and the sunlight was soft and low in the sky. Our daylight hours were short (it was almost dark by 4:30 P.M.), but we made the most of them, doing a lot of walking, especially in the city’s wonderful parks and gardens. Both of us found this exercise very relaxing and made us realize we hadn’t experienced autumn days like this in a long time.
We’re looking forward to going back to Warsaw and to other places in Poland.
Bartek, a young man who we know from our Italian classes in Lecce three summers ago, works for the Polish government, writing grant proposals to the EU for money to expand and develop Warsaw. He is very knowledgeable about his country’s past and present and kindly spent time showing us some of his city’s hidden charms. It was a lovely four days.