26-29 July 2014
Yesterday I walked historic Warsaw. Today, I walk through the recent history of the Warsaw Ghetto and Warsaw Rising. I leave the modern comfort of my hotel to walk the dark history of Warsaw’s sewers, death squads, and destruction.
The Palace of Culture and Science, directly across from my Palonia Palace Hotel, is the tallest building in Poland, the eighth tallest in the EU. It was a “gift” from the Soviets to the people of Poland. An unwelcome gift. It was originally called Stalin Palace but this dedication was revoked because even the Soviets eventually admitted Stalin was a murderous psychopath. Today, it is still a monstrosity, called anything from “Stalin’s Syringe” to “Russian Wedding Cake”. Like much of what the Soviets forced upon Poland, it is not appreciated. Neither the Soviets nor the Germans brought anything to Warsaw but grief.
The Little Upriser is a good place to start my walk today. Children played a critical part in the Warsaw Rising by passing along propaganda and messages. They were also shot if caught. What was the Rising?
Under brutal German occupation since 1939, not only the large Jewish population was doomed by Hitler’s mad goals, so too were the Poles. On August 22, 1939, a few days before the German attack on Westerplatte, Hitler authorized his commanders to kill “without pity or mercy, all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.” His henchman Himmler agreed “All Poles will disappear from the world…. It is essential that the great German people should consider it as its major task to destroy all Poles.”
Poland’s citizens and its Polish Home Army realized the German invasion and occupation was just the start. Citizens organized a systematic, persistent, passive resistance. An Underground State, a covert military and politically organization who coordinated with the Polish government-in-exile in London, was formed. Resistance was organized with plans to wage battle with their oppressors thru operations of sabotage and retaliation. This is known as the Warsaw Rising. Their symbol appeared around the city, that of an anchor with a P atop a W, symbolizing Poland Fighting.
The Monument to Warsaw Uprising Fighters is a moving sculpture to those who died in the August 1944 Uprising. Dedicated to the Home Army and Polish Underground, soldiers and civilians are depicted in the race for the sewers where insurgents sought safety and planned operations of resistance, published propaganda, and undertook missions of sabotage. The Home Army was the largest ever at 380k soldiers (at least 72k died) and acted as the military section. They also initiated plans to assist the Jews of Warsaw.
The Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East is dedicated to victims of Soviet aggression in the east of Poland. A pile of crosses sit atop a train platform. Along the tracks are listed the names of each town known for a massacre of Poles by the Soviets. Also included are those towns suffering deportation of Poles to Siberia after Soviet invasion. Of special note are those victims of the 1940 Katyn Forest Massacre near Smolensk in Russia, a site of the mass graves of over 4,300 Polish officers discovered by Germans in 1943. These were the officers who became POWs as a result of the Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of the Polish Eastern provinces between 1939-1941. (In fact, the Home Army fared little better with Stalin, who broke all promises to them, denigrated them and their leaders, and sent many to Siberia.)
Ghetto Heroes Monument is found in front of the awesome new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Historically, Jews were welcomed to Poland and enjoyed peace and prosperity since the time of King Kazimierz the Great in the 14th c. This ended in 1939. The 380,000 Jews, nearly a third of the population of Warsaw, were shoved into a ghetto where I stand today. More were shipped in from throughout Poland and the population grew to over a million. By summer of 1942, nearly 25% had died of disease or been murdered. Nazis began sending thousands daily to death camps. The waning population, now about 60,000, realized the truth and staged an uprising in April 1943. However, within a month the uprising was crushed, the ghetto leveled, and fewer than 300 Jews were left. 13,000 Jews were killed during the uprising (some 6,000 among them were burnt alive or died from smoke inhalation). Over 50,000 residents were shipped to extermination camps, in particular to Treblinka. There is nothing left of this ghetto, hardly a stone or brick. This monument is dedicated to the ghetto heroes who fought for the Jews and a free nation.
Nearby, in the park, is a statue of children’s author Janusz Korczak. He worked at an orphanage during this time. When his children were sent to Treblinka, he was given the choice to remain. He chose to go with his children. He too is a hero.
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, when finished, is destined to become one of the best such museums in the world. The modern facade of copper and glass is stunning. The permanent exhibit will trace the history and culture of Jews in Poland from their arrival through modern day. The finished building will house a theater, genealogy resource center, and restaurant.
Its temporary exhibit is exceptional and covers the years 1914-1920, the outbreak of war and the Jewish-Polish Legionnaire. The multi-media exhibit explains the organization of Polish legions and their march across Poland and what is now part of Ukraine to fight for their freedom and independence from Bolshevism. The propaganda against them and the Jews, the indifference of Poles themselves, is well explained. The display also chronicles the development of Jewish Youth Legionnaires. Polish support for the constitution was met with apathy. Propaganda against Jews resulted in pogroms. It was General Jósef Piłsudski who began to express appreciation for the legion’s contributions. The General is given credit as “Freedom shone forth as a bolt of lightening from the saber of the great Marshall Jósef Piłsudski who, having led his courageous legions into battle, hewed out for Poland it’s great road to independence.” Glorious words for a man who was negatively propagandized for years. However, Piłsudski is again recognized as a hero of Poland with his statue in Piłsudski Square.
From here I walk the Path of Remembrance where blocks of granite recount uprising events and heroes. Every April 19th, people follow this path to honor the uprising. Along the path is a bunker where insurgents, trapped by Nazis, preferred suicide rather than captured. The black stone monuments continue outlining this ghetto where hundreds of thousands starved to death. A monument stands at a transfer platform where Jewish families were brought to be loaded onto cattle cars, a story of W. Szpilman, a Jewish concert pianist, graphically depicted in the film The Pianist.
Pawiak Prison was a typical prison built in 1830 – until it fell into Gestapo hands. Its sadistic warders tortured prisoners and prison conditions were indecent, housing three times prisoner capacity, lacking food and water, and carrying out daily executions. Two women were shot for tearing down propaganda posters. Around 60,000 inmates were sent to death camps. Once the ghetto was destroyed, mass executions took place in the streets and cemeteries nearby. Pawiak became a symbol for insurgents and the Home Army issued death warrants, many successful, for its Gestapo warders. Germans blew up the prison complex in 1944, but remnants are now a museum and memorial to its victims.
The Jewish Cemetery is west of the prison. It is one of the largest in Europe. Established in 1806 on 83 acres, it contains 200,000 graves and massed graves of Ghetto victims. Gestapo used it for mass executions and site of mass burials for both Jews and non Jews. Despite damages of war, the cemetery survived and is a moving, peaceful place to gather thought.
The Polish Cemetery is a typical monument cemetery established in 1790. Its artistic tombstones and elite list of internments make it a who’s who of culture. Burials include actors, political leaders, Polish Presidents, and the family and piano teacher of Chopin.
Walking through what used to be the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto, only fragments remain of the Ghetto’s 9 ft. walls. The Ghetto, 758 acres, housed over a half million Jews. The Gestapo repeatedly reduced its size and the number of its occupants. These streets are now busy, clean and bright. It is difficult to imagine the horrors of the Ghetto years.
The Warsaw Rising Museum dramatically and graphically tells the story of Nazi invasion, brutal domination, and final realization that Nazi days were numbered in Warsaw. By July 1944, Soviet tanks were within 25 miles of city center. The Warsawians could have waited for the Soviet army to cross the Vistula and force the Nazis to leave, but they realistically knew that their independence would not last under Soviet “liberation.” The 400,000 strong Polish Home Army (30,000 in Warsaw), the largest underground army in military history, decided to act on their own.
The Uprisers, using the symbol of an anchor with P atop a W symbolizing “Poland Fighting,” lived in the huge network of underground tunnels and sewers. The insurgents swarmed out of the tunnels and surprised the Nazis with some success. However, the Nazis regrouped with renew vengeance, taking back the streets. When the Home Army called a cease fire two months later, some 18,000 Uprisers were dead, along with over 200,000 civilians. An angry Hitler ordered the city of Warsaw to be destroyed.
Without anti-aircraft capabilities or the ability to receive sufficient aid and support from the West, Uprisers fought but ultimately fell or retreated through the sewer system. German soldiers systematically moved through the streets destroying the city block by block until nothing remained. The Soviets? As early as May 1944, the Soviets had encouraged the citizens to fight. Yet, they sat outside Warsaw until the Nazis left before moving in to claim the rubble and survivors. With little more respect for the Poles than the Nazis, the Soviets occupied and terrorized post-war Warsaw. And what did the Soviet’s do with the courageous Home Army, their supposed allies against Germany? The facts of the Warsaw Uprising were inconvenient to Stalin and the new People’s Republic of Poland who twisted propaganda to stress the failings of the Home Army and the Polish government-in-exile, and forbade all criticism of the Red Army. In other words, denied reality. In the immediate post-war period, the very name of the Home Army was censored.
The Warsaw Rising Museum commemorates this courageous band of soldiers and citizens who fought for independence. Using photos, artifacts, film footage and interviews, the story of the Warsaw Rising is chronologically told starting with the German invasion in 1939; the Uprising, its heroes and their stories of how they fought, telling about the Wola Massacre where 40,000 people where killed in retribution for the uprising; a simulation of the sewer used by insurgents; and finally the exhibit documents capitulation and Soviet brutal post-war domination. In the background, the ever-present thumping heartbeat of Warsaw and sounds of battle.
I am mesmerized by a television showing the very buildings I have been visiting, followed by a bomb blast and scenes of its collapse, its rubble all that is left. Over and over again the scene repeats itself.
Hitler spoke in 1944, “Warsaw has to be pacified, that is, razed to the ground.” The short 3-D movie “The City of Ruins” shows how efficiently the Nazis worked. Listening to its haunting music, I fly over a totally destroyed Warsaw. Not a building is left untouched, entire blocks flattened rubble. As the film dramatically states: “In 1 Sept 1939 there were 1.3 million citizens; 1 Aug 1944 there were 900,000. After the fall of the Warsaw Rising, no more than 1000 peopled lived in the ruins.” The Germans had destroyed the city four separate times: at the outbreak of war in 1939, to surpress the Ghetto Uprising, in retaliation for the Warsaw Rising, and finally destroying anything left standing before they fled West with what they could steal.
The Soviets “liberated” a city of graves and rubble. How had anyone survived? This is the city I have been walking, resting in its parks, eating in its restaurants, enjoying its music. This is the city rebuilt not only from its own rubble, but from the bricks of Wrocław and other Polish cities. It is a city of remembrance and the warning to “Never Forget.” Knowing its history makes each step through Warsaw a pilgrimage of respect for its bravery, fortitude and endurance.