Main Language Spoken: Polish
Warsaw (Warzawa), is a lively, modern and bustling city lacking nothing. It is steeped in history and this only made me more eager to visit it. Warsaw survived every attempt to wipe it off the face of Earth and rose like a Phoenix from the ashes every time.
It has a myriad of museums covering a wide range of topics. I chose two museums - Warsaw Rising Museum and POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. I would love to thank these two museums for keeping leaflets which contained synopsis of the main events for handing out to tourists. These helped me in reading at leisure and understanding more. It was written in an easy to understand language as well. It helped me in writing this travel journal with accuracy.
The Warsaw Rising Museum elucidates a particular event in the history of Warsaw - the Warsaw Rising of 1944. The Germans wanted lebensraum (living space) and Hitler wanted to completely deprive Poland of independence, so Germany attacked Poland in 1939 leading to the precipitation of World War 2. Executions, round-ups and mass transportation to concentration camps or forced labour became normal. The Poles were considered ‘subhuman’ and were to serve as labourers. The Germans killed all the Polish intelligentsia and destroyed their works of art.
Underground state came into existence between 1939 and 1940. In 1944 it changed into the home army - AK army - which developed plans for armed defence against Germans. They were called the Insurgents. ‘The Rising’ began on August 1, 1944. Allied aircrafts dropped food, supplies, arms, ammunition and medicine but very little supplies reached the insurgents’ hands. Stalin’s airbases (Russia) remained closed for Allied aircrafts until September 11, 1944. Due to this there was shortage of food. Insurgents and civilians suffered from famine and depression and hopelessness grew. The Germans blocked the network of waterworks so therefore water to drink and put out fires started to run out. There was an order to build wells and they became the main source of water in the second stage of the Rising. Soviet air drops began on September 14 without parachutes so lots of weapons and ammunition was destroyed. Poland did everything they could but defeat was inevitable because of disproportion of forces. People lived in fear of death. The remaining forces fighting waited in vain for the Russian attack (the ‘ally’ acted like an audience).
There was no longer any hope of help for fighting Warsaw as the civilians and wounded soldiers found themselves in tragic positions. The home army sent peace envoys for surrender of the city. On October 2, 1944 the agreement was signed to suspend warfare and insurgents and civilians were to leave Warsaw. Soldiers were persecuted on the way and the remaining ones were not given water for a long time. Civilians passed through a camp where they were sent to forced labour in various cities. The Germans broke the provisions of the treaty and blew up everything. Only 64 out of 987 buildings in Warsaw remain untouched. More than 18000 insurgents and 180000 civilians died in the Rising.
The defeat of the Rising was also a defeat of Polish aspirations for independence. On February 1945 at the Yalta conference, USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union decided that Poland would go under communist rule. Warsaw insurgents had to decide whether to stay in exile or to go back to Poland, under the communist rule. Poland had been a key part for protecting the Soviet Union from a foreign attack so they wanted it totally under their control. Soviet control over Poland lessened after Stalin's death and ceased completely after the fall of the communists in late 1989, although some Soviet forces did not leave Poland until 1993.
The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is also very engaging and traces the 1000 year old history of Polish Jews until the end of the Holocaust. It depicts their difficulties, life and their culture through many interactive multimedia exhibits. They unravel the story of Polish Jews in such a way you can grasp every word. Poland had the highest Jewish population in Europe. During the Holocaust, out of 6 million Jews exterminated, 3 million were Polish. The Nazis decimated 90% of Polish Jews. This museum has been built on the former site of the Jewish ghetto. The ghetto was a walled area in which Nazis confined Jews and then transported them to concentration camps where they were killed in ghastly and abhorrent ways. On 19th April 1943 the people in the ghetto tried to put up a brave fight against the Nazis though they knew they were doomed to failure. The rising was crushed within a month. It was an act of heroism, desperation, reprisal and a protest against the world’s indifference. There is a monument dedicated to the Ghetto rising on the museum campus.
Warsaw Old Town was annihilated during the World War 2. After the WW2, it was rebuilt exactly how it was before the war. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the superior quality of reconstruction. It consists of 2 main squares - the Old Town market square and the Castle square. We started the walk from the Barbican gate, the last remaining part of a fortress that used to guard Warsaw. The Market square has a statue of a sword and shield wielding mermaid who is supposed to to protect Warsaw from enemies. All taxis in Warsaw have a picture of the sword wielding Mermaid. On either side of the statue there were heavy black old time water pumps that I had never seen before. The Castle Square is dominated by the Royal Castle which was residence for monarchs. Near the castle there is the King Sigismund’s column who in 1596 changed Poland’s capital from Krakow to Warsaw. Krakowskie Przedmieście, a wide and bustling street starts from Royal castle and houses the Presidential Palace and Warsaw University. I noticed that there were lots of children who were playing music for money. I felt saddened by the sight of this. Krakowskie Przedmieście runs straight into Nowy Swiat, an elegant new town street that buzzes and teems with people and restaurants.
We visited the Palace of Culture and Science. Stalin gifted this 3000 room tower which is 234m tall, the tallest building in Poland. On the 30th floor there is an observation deck from where you can get a panoramic view of Warsaw. Locals do not like this building as it reminds them of the communist era and there was a controversy about keeping it. In the Palace there were many exhibitions including one about communist era cars. Out of these the Polish communist era Fiat cars are still available for hire in the city. The small one was called the Fiat toddler and the big one was called 126p. The 126p, was the legend of Polish motors and was considered to be an indicator of a high social status and was colloquially called ‘Polski Fiat’ or ‘Maluch’ ( the little).
Milk Bars (Mlecenzy) are very unique Polish concept. They are traditional bars that locals love. They were built during the Communist era and subsided by the government for labourers. It has the word ‘milk' because at that time meat was rationed and milk was the basis for most products. It only has a menu in Polish and gives foods like soups, dumplings and pancakes.
There are also many celebrated Polish people out of which three are particularly renowned - Copernicus, Madam Curie and Chopin. Niclaus Copernicus, a mathematician and astronomer first proposed that the Earth circles around the Sun. Copernicus statue on Nowy Swiat shows him holding a model of the planets revolving the Sun. Marie Skłodowska Curie, first discovered Polonium and Radium. She was the first person and only woman to win the Nobel prize twice. Frédéric François Chopin was a composer and pianist who mostly composed for solo piano. He was a leading musician of his era. Throughout the city there are Chopin benches which you must look out for. If you press a play button on his bench it plays you a part of his compositions. We dropped in on the Lazenki Park on a Sunday which had a Chopin Piano concert going on beside his statue. This is a regular feature every Sunday evening during summers. The park was packed with people listing to the soothing music.
It was another fantastic trip as it was a history lesson packed with loads of enjoyment.