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Warsaw, Poland

By Peter Bennett 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: March 12, 2009 
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Outside Warsaw's Centralna Station I face the grayest day I have ever seen. The fog banks that had accompanied my morning train from Berlin are now a monotonous sheet hanging from the tops of Warsaw's well-spaced buildings. Across from the station, its heights lost in the mist, the Palace of Culture and Science—an architecturally inappropriate gift from the Soviets, completed in 1955—dominates the largest square in Europe. Through the cold gray fog, the vast square exudes emptiness.

Conventional wisdom says that Warsaw was reduced to a pile of rubble during World War II. Only a few fragments of Warsaw's brutal past remain, and they can be difficult to find: resistance battles and relentless Nazi bombing destroyed 85 percent of the city's buildings, and most of what you see now has been either reconstructed or completely rebuilt. You come here expecting nothing old. Nevertheless, my interest in photographing the remnants of the war in Europe has led me to Warsaw with my battered wooden camera, a hefty tripod, and a list of the few wartime remains in the central city.

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As it turns out, powerful reminders of Warsaw's past exist only a few blocks north of the train station, at 62 Zlota Street. Here, in the quiet courtyard of a postwar apartment complex, stretch a few small sections of the wall the Nazis built in 1940 to confine Warsaw's Jewish population—Europe's largest, numbering more than 300,000—to a ghetto with an area of only three square miles (about 2.4 percent of the city). The fragments are almost striking in their ordinariness. Only a few small plaques and some memorial candles keep the brickwork from looking insignificant.

As I fiddle with my camera, a stooped old lady approaches, asking a few questions in Polish that I don't understand. She points to the wall. "Hitlerites," she exclaims bitterly, walking off to feed her nearby cats. She seems old enough to know.

Four of the old ghetto buildings still stand at the end of Prozna Street, their crumbling walls black with generations of grime. Nearby, on Twarda Street, is Nozyk Synagogue—the only one in the city to survive the war.

Slicing north through the heart of the old ghetto is Jana Pawla II Avenue, a wide, busy boulevard named for Pope John Paul II. A walk along it, with small excursions down certain side streets, reveals a few glimpses of Nazi-occupied Warsaw: on Chlodna Street, where a small wooden bridge connected one part of the ghetto to the other and forced ghetto residents to walk over the street instead of on it, only the cobbled street and a few meters of tram tracks remain. And right off Dzielna Street, the ruins of Pawiak Prison stand like a gallows. Built in the 19th century, the prison was commandeered by the Gestapo when the Nazis invaded the city in 1939. Of some 100,000 Warsaw residents taken there, less than half survived. After the war ended, the ruins of the prison were restored and converted into a museum. Today tourists can visit the prison's three restored jail cells, or read the remembrances of those wrongfully incarcerated there.

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4 Responses to “Warsaw, Poland”

  1. 1
    Lynda Allen says:

    Great article! I've been to or seen some of these places. Poland is my home away from home. Thank you!
    I'm now looking for info about the Royal Castle. It is so beautiful!

  2. 2
    hp says:

    Perhaps the lull in business can be attributed to the people in the late 20th and early 21st century who actually have faith in and a belief of the results of scientific testing via the use of precision scientific instruments.

    You know, like when the ground penetrating radar used to find the mass graves/piles of ashes of some 800,000 people, shows earth which has been undisturbed for tens of thousands of years.

    Didn't discover Nosferatu, the wolf man or Dr. Frankenstein's monster, either.

    A Golem? I'll have to get back to you on that one.


    The jig is up.

    P.S. My father was called to be a witness at Nuremberg, as he was in a recon unit which liberated more than one camp.
    Back in the 60's when this blasphemous crap came up he just laughed, shook his head and took another drink…

  3. 3
    Polacco says:

    The article is a bit disturbing, to say the least. Just the very first few lines makes you wonder, if the article is realy describing the Poland's capital, or in fact – some israeli city… Just ghettos and synagogues… FFS…

  4. 4
    Polacco says:

    I stopped my reading right there. How dare you focus on a small percentage of Capital's population, an irrelevant ethnic minority whilst describing someones National Capitol, citizens of which had suffered so much from both Germans and Soviets during WW2??
    How dare you?!

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