Warsaw, October 2009. I just finished spending a fascinating three days in the city where it all started, so to speak. The Polish capital is a lovely place, jam-packed with buildings of 17th and 18th century vintage. The stare miasto–the “old city”–is just what its name would lead you to expect: the high city wall, the imposing statue of King Sigismund III Vasa (the Polish king who moved the capital from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596), even the old-time eateries on Bednarska Street, where the patrons eat traditional fare, family-style, at heavy oaken tables. Warsaw is like a history book, a beautifully illustrated one.
Just be sure to check the date of those “historic” buildings and statues and monuments, however. The markers surprise you by saying 1947. Or 1953. Or 1971. The old city of Warsaw is actually quite new, and in some cases it’s brand new.
Take any decent city tour, or just ask one of the locals, and you’ll hear one phrase repeated over and over again. This church “was destroyed in 1944,” and rebuilt in 1967. That hotel “was destroyed in 1944” and rebuilt in 1982. This block of buildings was “destroyed in 1944.” That theater. This school.
Few cities in the war got hit harder than Warsaw. Manila comes to mind, and of course Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But Warsaw got bombed before any of them, at the very start of the war in September 1939. The city then became a kind of ground zero for Hitler’s insane racial policies. The Germans herded the considerable Jewish population of Warsaw into an overcrowded ghetto that killed through starvation and disease. When Hitler made the decision to “liquidate” the ghetto and send its inhabitants to death camps, the Jews launched an uprising, fighting with few weapons but a great deal of courage. The Nazis crushed the uprising, leveling the entire district in the process. That was the spring of 1943. In August 1944, the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), in-country resisters to German rule, rose up in a city-wide rebellion, hoping to liberate Warsaw before the Red Army arrived. The Germans crushed this uprising as well, and systematically destroyed most of the central city, block by block. The Red Army, meanwhile, sat on the other side of the Vistula river while the Wehrmacht went about its grisly business. The more Polish patriots killed by the Germans, the better the situation for Stalin in postwar Poland. Indeed, the NKVD was already active behind Soviet lines in Poland, doing what it did best: shooting civilians.
There are moments that hit you when you’re sitting alongside the Vistula, taking in a picture perfect day in Warsaw. They come on suddenly. Moments when you realize that, no matter how much you study, you’ll never really be able to fathom the horrors of World War II.
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