Warsaw Rises From The Ashes

Trip Start Nov 14, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Flag of Poland  , Central Poland,
Monday, August 27, 2012

Mary's Impressions:
In the six trips I have made to Poland, I only visited Warsaw once with my Mom but it was a very short visit –just one day. I was very young at the time so I don't recall why it was so short. We arrived, walked a bit in the city and then got on the train to go back to my Grandmother’s home.  I never really understood why we couldn’t stay longer.  My desire for coming to Warsaw was strongly based on the stories I had heard from my parents and the history of how the city was badly devastated by the war.  Warsaw was completely destroyed during the war and then rebuilt – this was what I wanted to see.

Although I arrived in Warsaw this time knowing a little of the history of the city and Poland, I quickly realized that I didn’t have a full appreciation of what really happened during the war.  My visit to Warsaw was to be a very emotional one as I learned more about what transpired in the heart and soul of the country.

We all know that the Allies declared war against Germany when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939.  The Poles fought gallantly defending their country and especially the city of Warsaw (where hospitals, schools, market places were all deemed legitimate targets for bombing by the Germans) for 28 days before finally surrendering.  During this battle against the Germans, the Poles were also fighting against the Soviets who invaded Poland on September 17th on the Eastern Front.  When the fighting ended within the city of Warsaw, approximately 50,000 Varsovians were killed, the Royal Castle (home of past Polish Kings and Queens) was badly damaged and shortages of food, water and power supplies were critical.  Poland was now a German occupied territory.  Hitler didn’t think much of the Polish people describing them as "more like animals than human beings, completely primitive, stupid and amorphous". His grand plan was to clear out the present population of Warsaw and create a new city for Germany and its citizens.  For five years following the fall of Poland, the country and especially the city of Warsaw would suffer deeply.

The people of Warsaw endured harsh food rations (2,613 calories for Germans, 669 calories for other citizens, 184 for Jews), the indiscriminate round-up of citizens who were arrested, tortured, shot or sent to concentration camps (mostly set up throughout Poland) and of course the confinement of people of Jewish faith in the Warsaw Ghetto.  The Ghetto was formed by forcing over 380,000 Varsovians of Jewish faith (Warsaw had the second largest Jewish population in the world after New York) into a tiny area that enclosed 73 of Warsaw’s 1,800 streets.  I became very emotional when we walked in the area where a piece of the Ghetto Wall still stands - thinking about the number of people subjected to starvation, disease and despair.  However being a non-Jew in Poland did not provide any exemption from the Nazi terrorism that was rampant.  The Nazi SS declared that anyone helping Jews, anyone associated with the Resistance or holding illegal firearms would be killed along with their entire family.  Despite the risks, the Polish resistance continued to fight the Nazi aggressors.

On April 19, 1943 after the Nazis systematically cleared out most of the Warsaw Ghetto, the remaining people still living in the Ghetto rose up against the Nazis.  Badly equipped the citizens under the direction of Mordechaj Anielewicz fought against the Nazis for 19 days before finally having to surrender.  The remaining survivors of the Ghetto Uprising were either shot or sent to concentration camps.  The Warsaw Ghetto was then burned down by the Nazis eliminating any traces of the vibrant community that once existed.  Some people from the Ghetto did manage to escape and they joined the fight against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising that occurred one year later.

August 1, 1944 will forever be remembered as the date that Warsaw’s residents rose against the Germans in an attempt to free the city and the country.  Despite assurances from Stalin that troops and aid would arrive to help the Poles take back Warsaw – no one came.  Fighting continued for 2 months before the Poles had to surrender to the Nazis.  Hitler, incensed that the Poles would even imagine rising up against Germans, ordered that Warsaw be wiped off the European map and its citizens killed.  The Nazis classified buildings according to the cultural significance to Poland and then systematically dynamited those of highest value while burning and tearing down the others.   By the time the Germans retreated 85% of the buildings in Warsaw were nothing more than bricks scattered across the landscape.  At the end of the war, General Eisenhower when visiting Warsaw stated “I have seen many towns destroyed, but nowhere have I been faced with such destruction”.  The damage was so severe that there was some discussion of relocating Warsaw but the Poles would have none of that – they would rebuild their city.

Walking around the streets of Warsaw, it was hard to comprehend that everything Jeff and I were looking at was recently rebuilt – historical buildings, statues, monuments, parks and gardens.  What a magnificent piece of work was accomplished!

The most remarkable and impressive building that was rebuilt was the Royal Castle.  Fighting with the Soviet government who refused to allow this Castle to be rebuilt, the Poles were determined to have this Castle that represents Polish culture and history restored.  It was not until 1971 when the Soviet government finally relented and allowed the Poles to start rebuilding the Castle.  Funded entirely by donations from Poles living in Poland and abroad, the task began to reclaim a lost cultural icon.  Opened to the public in 1984, it speaks to the resolve of Poles who turned a pile of rubble into a masterpiece.  It’s a truly incredible sight to see walking through the Castle and its decorated painted rooms filled with period pieces and artwork.  How is this at all possible?

As difficult as it was at times to visit parts of the city (everywhere there is a story of the injustices and hardships that Poles had to endure first under Nazi occupation and then under Soviet rule) there is life and hope.  Now that Poland is a truly independent and democratic country, Poles of all backgrounds are free to live their lives as they once did.  Jeff and I noticed Jewish groups of young people travelling through the city visiting the memorials and museums – a true sign of hope.  The city is on the move and with the construction of new high-rise buildings to welcome the businesses who are investing in Poland, further signs of hope.  On one of our days of walking around the city, we came across a street festival with dancers decked out in costume entertaining the crowds (I lost Jeff briefly as he followed some of the dancers performing their routine – no surprise if you look at the photos).  People are going about working, living and playing in Warsaw.  Warsaw will probably never be the same city it once was before the war however it is a city that refused to die.  I have never felt more proud to be Polish than when I came to Warsaw.   Thank you to all those who gave your lives for the freedom of Poland – you will never be forgotten!

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