Warsaw, Poland

By Peter Bennett
3/12/2009 • World War II Time Travel

That its collection is so small is no fault of the museum. Treblinka was the most secret of the death camps, and photography was verboten. As the Red Army drew closer to the camp in 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered it leveled and disguised as a farm. The orders were carried out, but the Russians were not deceived.

On my last day in Warsaw, I stroll to the Old Town, the city’s 14th-century crown jewel. Yesterday’s sunshine has turned into snow, but even on this gloomy afternoon the historic district is a splendid sight.

By rights, the Old Town shouldn’t be here. It was pummeled in the blitzkrieg and pounded in the Warsaw Uprising, the last-ditch struggle by the Polish Home Army to liberate the city in 1944. After the Home Army surrendered on October 2, Hitler ordered that the city be razed. The Old Town was hit especially hard.

But piles of original bricks remained, as well as a good supply of sketches and paintings that depicted the Old Town in its prewar state, and the entire area has been painstakingly rebuilt. Its medieval brick buildings, restored churches, and impressive reproduction of the Royal Castle have, quite rightly, earned the Old Town a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Warsaw continues to transform. Even the city’s drab communist architecture, a souvenir of its Socialist past, is giving way to the high-rises, loud billboards, and glitzy shopping malls that mark Poland’s entry into the European Union and newfound economic success. One by one, these new buildings fill the skyline, obscuring the empty spaces left by World War II.

When You Go
International travelers will likely fly into Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin Airport, where a shuttle bus takes visitors to the city every 20 minutes. Within the city, Warsaw’s public bus and tram system is the most reliable way to travel.

Where to Stay and Eat
Le Meridien Bristol, a 19th-century hotel located in the Old Town at 42/44 Krakowskie Przedmiescie, is considered one of Warsaw’s best (48 22 551 10 00; bristol.polhotels.com). Dining options include the Bierhalle, a conveniently situated pub at 64 Nowy Swiat (42 632 0376), or Zapiecek, which serves delicious pierogis in the heart of the Old Town (22 635 61 09; zapiecek.eu).

What Else to See
The Warsaw Rising Museum at 79 Grzybowska offers a moving and informative presentation of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (22 539 7905; 1944.pl). Wilanów Palace, a 16th-century royal mansion that survived the German bombing completely unscathed, is about six miles from the city center and can be reached by public bus (48 22 842 81 01; wilanow-palac.art.pl).

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