Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What to do in Warsaw: Part II

I sure hope you are hankering for a history lesson today, because it’s impossible to explain the significance of the Warsaw Rising Museum and Warsaw’s beautiful Old Town without delving into the dark times of World War II.
Warsaw Rising Museum. Warsaw’s tourism district is full of museums, if that’s your thing. Since we were only there for a weekend, we only had time to visit one, and we were told it should be the Warsaw Rising Museum. This collection of artifacts pays tribute to those Polish citizens who lost their lives before, during, and after the Warsaw Uprising against the German occupation during World War II. To brush you up on some world history and give you some context for the revolt, here’s a overly-simplified recap (for a more detailed version, this is a good resource).

After losing in World War I, Germany was economically and militarily crippled by the allied victors. The depressed state of the country provided a vacuum for the Facist Nazi party to gain popularity. Essentially calling Britain and France’s bluff, German leader Adolf Hitler begins to re-militarize and annexes Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia. Not wanting to get into a violent conflict, the allied nations decide to appease Hitler and allow his troops to remain in these areas. However, in the months preceding WWII, Hilter signed a non-agression pact with the allied forces that Germany would not seek the annexation of further territory. Shortly after, Hilter ordered the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, resulting in the Britain and France’s declaration of war and thus World War II begins.

In the first few months, German troops executed several Polish officials. Wanting the Polish territory for themselves, and working in cooperation with Germany,   Stalin and the Soviets executed several more on the Eastern front in their march towards Germany. As the war goes on, Poland continues to be occupied by Germany and the Soviets, though the Soviets switch sides along the way to fight with the Allies.
In 1944, the Polish underground government decided to stage an Uprising against the German occupation, with the supposed support of the Soviets who were stationed less than 5 minutes flying time away. However, as the Uprising went on, the Soviets ignored the Poles plea for help. Since Russia controlled the airspace, the other Allied countries didn’t want to cause tension by swooping in to help the Polish civilians fight off the Germans. It’s widely speculated that the Soviets ignored the Polish pleas for aid in order to ensure that the Polish leadership was destroyed and the country was as weak as possible so that they could exert their communist influence on them after the War ended.

After about two months of fighting the Germans, a good portion of the Warsaw population had perished, 200,000 were sent to concentration and labor camps, and 85% of the buildings in Warsaw were in ruins. Remembering Poland’s passive yet geographically strategic role in World War II, made visiting the Warsaw Rising Museum a very emotional and somber experience for Jon and I.
First we toured outside the museum, spending a lot of time in the Memorial garden. Similar to the Vietnam memorial, the names off all the Polish citizens who died in the struggle and written out on a black wall. It’s hard to ignore the sheer numbers when glancing over the names.
On the opposite side of the wall lies a rose garden with photos and narrations taken during the Uprising. It was horrific to read about a photographed person’s role in the Uprising and then go on to read that they were killed 7 days after the picture was taken.
The Holocaust is certainly one of the most horrific events of modern history, and the German and Russian behavior towards the country of Poland is nothing short of pure evil. Yet, visiting Warsaw you got the sense that they’ve moved on. That they are optimistic and hopeful for the future. That they’ve forgiven, quite literally, their trespassers.  
After paying our respects in the garden, we headed inside. At first we thought we lucked out, because the museum is free to the public on Sundays. This turned quickly into a negative however, because when we got inside and could hardly move around for the sheer numbers of visitors.
Since we both get a bit claustrophobic in crowds, we hit the highlights on the museum quickly before making our way to the exits. Fortunately, the museum has handouts throughout explaining the different displays. We were able to gather these up and read about the Uprising from the comfort of a wide open park bench. And of course, we felt ridiculous for feeling so uncomfortable in a crowded museum when we reflected on the fact that the Polish people had to live in tortuous and overcrowded squalor for years on end.
Old Town and New Town. In order to cripple Warsaw during the 1939-1944 Occupation, the Germans targeted the historic, residential, and business center of Warsaw known as Old Town. When the Poles later revolted in the Warsaw Uprising, the Germans retaliated by leveling what was left of this medieval architecture. After the war, Old Town was meticulously rebuilt based on pre-War drawings and photographs of the area. Today it is Warsaw’s most popular tourist attraction and stands as a worthy tribute to Poland’s long pre-War history.

Walking through the winding cobblestone streets, it’s easy to imagine stepping back in time to a bygone Polish era. It’s easy to forget that you aren’t in one of the more glamorous European capitals, because this section of Warsaw is as pretty as anything I’ve seen in Paris or Rome.  

Adjacent to Old Town is what is known as New Town. In my opinion, ‘New Town’ seemed a bit less touristy and it was filled with shopping, diverse eateries, and Warsaw locals. The architecture is still true to the historic style, and we had fun exploring both neighborhoods.
I love pedestrian friendly European cities where we can just follow our noses and eat our way from one must see sight to the next. And of course, the minimum 6-8 miles of walking we clocked per day made the gelato and doughnut stops a little less guilt-ridden.
I’ve still got lots more to say about Warsaw, but I’ll save that for another day. For now, I need to conclude by giving a shout out to my honey on the 7th anniversary of his 21st birthday. Happy Birthday Jonathan! I can’t wait to celebrate it this weekend in England’s beautiful Lake District. I’m super glad that you were born 21 + 7 years ago!

1 comment:

  1. I love a good history lesson with me breakfast :) Very sobering to reflect on Poland's history, but thank you for sharing.

    On a happy note, That cream filled donut in Jonathan's hand is the exact same kind Brian is obsessed with eating when we are in western Europe. Mmm, he'll be jealous!