Warsaw: September 3-5

My Airbnb wasn’t quite ready, so I had coffee and a pastry at a little cafe around the corner. My flat was quite nice, within 5 minutes of the completely reconstructed Old Town, which was razed to the ground after the 1944 uprising by the Armia Krajowa AK, the Polish Home Army, which remained loyal to the London-based Polish government-in-exile and anti-communist. The AK was much larger and more effective than the French Resistance, but is not well known in the West. During the Warsaw Uprising beginning in August 1944, the AK recaptured much of Warsaw from the Wehrmacht in the hopes that the Soviet Army just across the Vistula would intervene to decisively defeat the Germans. Stalin cynically did nothing, and the Germans proceeded to crush the rebellion, reclaiming control in late September. Stalin sat by so that the Germans could defeat the AK, which Stalin saw as an armed impediment to his plan to install a post-war Soviet puppet state. The Germans eventually destroyed almost 85% of the city, including 100% of the historic center.

As in Gdánsk, the meticulous rebuilding of Warsaw was remarkable. Many of the pre-war buildings appeared as if they’d never been destroyed.

We viewed a number of the key sites on the Old Town walking tour, which began at the King Sigismund Column. There is little remaining of the Warsaw Ghetto, which was utterly destroyed by SS General Jürgen Stroop, who was executed by the Poles after the war. Only a few ruins of the wall remain. The nearby monumental memorial of The Warsaw Uprising commemorates the millions of Poles who perished between 1939 and 1945, estimated at six million, including three million Polish Jews. Several hundred thousand Poles were also deported by Stalin to Siberia and Kazakhstan during this period with few reported returnees. I recommend Bloodlands by Yale professor Timothy Snyder for a well-documented history of the millions who perished under both Hitler and Stalin.

After the tour, I had a nice lunch just outside the Old Town and made my way into central Warsaw. I wanted to see the British Prudential building that had been Warsaw’s tallest pre-war building.

Central Warsaw is filled with modern towers and government buildings, including some from the communist era. Like other Eastern European cities, the streets were litter-free and there were no signs of homeless people.

I took a long route back to Old Town where I had a light dinner before heading back to the apartment. I noticed that the weather is Warsaw was warmer than in Kraków or Gdánsk. It must be caused by its interior location.

The next morning I booked a private “Communism Tour” in a restored Soviet-made Lada. My guide not only showed me sites related to the communist era; he also showed me some areas that were untouched by the war. After we visited the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army, a military church with a wing dedicated to the Katyń Massacre, he told me the story of the murder of pro-Solidarity priest Jerzy Popieluszko. He was kidnapped in 1984 by a branch of the SB secret police known as the “Shadow People”. He was beaten to death and hurled into a reservoir. His murder galvanized the anti-communist opposition and played a role in the dictatorship’s ultimate collapse.

More on the Katyń Massacre mentioned above—on September 17, 1939 the Red Army invaded Poland as part of the deal with Hitler and took thousands of Polish Army soldiers as prisoners. Many of the enlisted men were eventually released, but the officers were taken to a prison camp outside of Smolensk, in the Katyń Forest. After six months, Stalin and his NKVD secret police commissar, Beria, ordered the 22,000 officers liquidated, fearing that they could form the nucleus of a bourgeois opposition after the war. They were executed in the NKVD manner, with a bullet in the occipital nerve and then dumped into massive trenches, where their remains were bulldozed over. In 1943, advancing German units overran Smolensk and discovered the mass graves. They invited Polish officials and the Red Cross to view the site, but the Soviets lied and claimed that the Polish officers had been murdered by the Germans. The Western Allies reluctantly accepted Stalin’s lies until the truth was admitted in 1991. The Poles always knew that the Russians were responsible and have never forgiven them. Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film Katyń is highly recommended viewing on regarding this atrocity.

One of the highlights of the tour was visiting the infamous 778’ tall Palace of Science and Culture, completed in 1955 in the Stalinist Social Realism style and proclaimed as a brotherly gift to their Polish comrades from the peace-loving peoples of the USSR! It was the backdrop for the stunning Polish Millennium military parade in 1966 that celebrated 1,000 years of Polish statehood and which was remarkably free of any communist regalia or symbolism. It’s worth a watch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c9IejeNxjU

The stately Lazienki Park features a number of neo-classical buildings, including an orangerie. The park was largely built during the reign of the last Polish king before the first partition of Poland in 1772, Stanisław August Poniatowski, who was also a lover of Catherine the Great of Russia. Lazienki Park was thankfully untouched by the war.

We ended the tour with a drive through the working-class Praga district on the right bank of the Vistula. Praga was the only section of Warsaw untouched by the war, besides Lazienki Park. Now it’s becoming a hipster area given its relatively low rents.

Since I had an early flight back to Seattle via Amsterdam the next morning, I stayed at the Marriott by the airport. I was happy to have an early dinner with an old friend from Orange County who, with his Polish wife and two daughters, had relocated to Warsaw. Even though he was born in Poland, he expressed frustration with the bureaucracy and suggested that they might return to the US.

And so ended my six-week journey through the Balkans, Ukraine and Poland, the longest foreign trip of my life. I’ll write up my 2019 trips to Mexico City and Eastern Europe next, with occasional forays into a series of essays which friends are urging me to post. I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog so far and I look forward to sharing more of my adventures and essays with you.

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