Tag Archives: Warsaw Uprising

Warsaw Uprising Museum

I had the chance a few months ago to visit the Warsaw Rising museum (Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego), while in Warsaw. I take a keen interest in history, especially of that time period, and as a result the museum was among the best I have visited. Open since the 60th anniversary of the Rising in 2004, it commemorates the efforts of Varsovians to rise against the Germans during the latter stages of World War 2, trying to give a glimpse of live during the 63 days of insurgency. The museum is styled to provide the full atmosphere of the Rising, from the sounds piped in, to video clips and photos of the time, along with items used in the Rising such as guns, papers and clothing. In a few sections of the museum, they have even laid cobblestones to replicate the streets of the time. Another area simulates the sewers with the brick walls, low ceilings and sounds to be expected, while the official museum cafe is styled out in 1940’s to match the period (although prices are at 2012 levels of course).

It is a very good museum, and well worth visiting if you might be in Warsaw and have a few hours to spare. It’s not too expensive (some days such as Sundays are free entry even) and gives an authentic feel for the Rising atmosphere and experience (also covered in Norman Davies’ book Rising ’44: Battle for Warsaw). I’ll let the below pictures speak for themselves.

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Warsaw Uprising – Book Review

The Warsaw Rising is a topic of strong historical and emotional significance for Poles, but yet is one that is not as visible for many outside of Poland, although it took place at a key time in World War 2, and can possibly be seen as a key trigger for the Cold War. I visited Warsaw a few months ago, and had the chance to visit the Uprising Museum (more to come on that later). Following on from that, I also received a present of the book Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw. It is written by Norman Davies, the pre-eminent ‘Western’ writer on Poland and its history. With a strong pedigree in presenting Polish history through examples such as God’s Playground, Davies can be trusted to tell the stories of Poland that were not recognised outside.

Davies presents the story of the Uprising as “one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century” and “a story that has never been properly told”. In order to frame the story well, it is split into the three parts. First comes before the Rising, particularly trying to focus on Poles and how they were impacted by and were impacting the war so far, in order to give an understanding where the desire for Uprising came from. In the centre of the story he tells about the Rising, chronicling the 63 days from August to early October 1944. This middle section is particularly strong and emotive, as he splices in inserts and personal experiences from those involved, mostly from the perspectives of the Varsovians, but also with German, Soviet, British and American views. And in the final section, he covers the aftermath of the Rising and what it meant for Warsaw, Poles and Poland.

The introduction focuses on Poland as the ‘First Ally’, being the reason why Britain declared war on Germany. By 1944, with the Germans on the retreat and the Soviets advancing through eastern Poland, the decision was agreed to make a break against the tyranny of oppressors and launch an insurgency. However – as Davies recounts – the Rising was beset by issues and looking back had a minimal chance of success. Politics between the Western allies, and within each country involved left the Warsaw insurgents mostly fighting alone. The Germans also chose that moment to stage a fight back, recognising Warsaw as a key defence point as the capital, trying to hold off the Soviet advance. It resulted in them preferring to demolish Warsaw than give it up. There was also the case where the Soviets mysteriously stopped their advance on the east bank of the Vistula for two months, after having made rapid gains in the preceding months. For Poles, it was a repeat of history up to and including 1939, where larger neighbours split Poland as they pleased, and allies were slow to react.

What was particularly interesting from my perspective was the presentation of what the post-war effect was. In terms of Warsaw as a city, 75% of it was destroyed. Up to 200,000 civilian deaths were estimated, meaning the population was decimated. And then with the political wrangling, the Soviets installed the Communist government which would rule for 45 years afterwards. This was the final blow for those who had fought to free Poland. The Communists denied the Uprising taking place, as the lack of Soviet involvement and support was airbrushed from history. This meant insurgents being arrested and tried as ‘anti-Soviet’ with some sentenced to   some going to the Gulags. When recognition was given later for an uprising in Warsaw, the Soviets were fine to acknowledge the Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It wasn’t until the 1980’s when Poles could begin to talk about the Rising and recognise it. This is partially why those in ‘Western’ countries have little understanding of it.

Davies’ portrayal of the events of August and September 1944 are strong, and his ties to Poland make it a particularly emotive topic. He does not hold back in criticising the bumbling of the Americans and British in trying to support, and their failings through political wranglings in trying to appease Stalin. He recognises the cold approach of the Soviets, which he notes is a fore-runner of the Soviets extending their sphere of influence ending in the Iron Curtain dividing Europe. The communist regime in Poland, and it’s re-writing of history also get criticism, while the citizens of Warsaw get some credit but ultimately it’s seen as a thankless sacrifice which was worthless in the end.

The book is a very strong retelling of the situations. Davies’ emotions shine through but one or two other choices in presentation are difficult to follow. For example, he made a point of anglicizing all Polish names involved of individuals, cities, streets and other locations. For me, this actually confused the story, as I felt I did not connect with the individuals, as the names seemed to be more nicknames or code names. But overall, it told a story I had not heard before and is one all history buffs should be aware of.

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Poles must stop living in the past

Friday, 1st of August, was a day devoted to remembrance of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Its heroism and glory, that had to be concealed during the years of communism. Now in full shine thanks to the massive media coverage… hours of live broadcasts on all news channels, metres of tape and pages of text have been devoted to various analysis, diaries, transcripts, comments, interviews…

The remembrance celebrations for the 64th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising have become another episode in an endless celebration of history while the needs of the current inhabitants of Poland are being neglected. We should be focusing on making new and innovative things happen.

So let’s dash the burden of our troubled past and start living in the present.

Celebrations of history have become festivals of pride – of Polish pride. Pride for “our” people, for “our” struggle, for “our” greatness. But history is not something I want to be proud of. This is not a real achievement of the people of this country. The fact that we decide to focus all our popular celebrations around history means that we feel we have no achievements in the present. Or no other interests. And we know it. Festivals of music, festivals of flowers, festivals of wine, festivals of anything else never get quite the coverage as dead people festivals do. Will we ever see a festival of, let’s say, art that brings the whole country to a halt? That gets the attention of the VIPs? That sees parades and concerts all around the country?

OK, we have a country, we have freedom. Very well. Many people don’t. But what do we do with it? Where are our talents of music, drama, comedy, architecture, science, literature, management, politics… etc.? Why doesn’t our system encourage creative people to do great things? Things we can be really proud of. Things we can see as real and present achievements. Where is the innovative music and style? Architecture that makes an impression. Experimental media… outstanding performances… We don’t let our talents flourish, we offer second-hand culture. Half of our television programmes are imports from the UK (while our public television pays millions for substandard soaps), most of what is shown in cinemas is American, while the music in our iPods is half British half American. The things our system and our people create don’t even appeal to ourselves, so no wonder we don’t feel proud of our creativity.

Is the past is the only area of greatness in our minds? We must stop living in the past in order to move on.

It is very difficult for Polish people to ever dare to see things this way. We are raised with certain patterns of thinking, we are socialised to certain myths, and most of our schooling concentrates on preserving our National sentiments; sentiments for partitions, war, and communism. We are manipulated into the romantic notions that surround Nation. Analysing the past we take sides and engage emotionally, instead of remaining cool observers. Television programmes, papers and books are filled with sweet-like-sugar pictures of heroes. Pictures people seem to fall for, but these are pictures I never believed. For I know life, and things are always complicated and people are full of passions and fears, truths and lies, and are never one-dimensional. We are manipulated into being hysterically Polish. Like our parents. And their parents. This leads our schooling to neglect the practicalities of life, like communication skills, tolerance, organisation, work ethics – which cost us so much trouble… Is remembering really the main task of the Polish people? Shouldn’t we primarily concentrate on developing some other qualities?

We, the people of Poland, remember our history too much, too often, we try to hard, we concentrate on it too much. We put too much emphasis, and heart, into it.

Furthermore: history and common experiences (war, pain, victories over enemies, lashes from greater powers) are a feature of a discourse that talks about Nation. And Nation talking always shifts our focus from everyday things – Nation serves romantic high purposes. Nation talk also excludes non-Poles.
I would prefer our present focus to be on the inhabitants of Poland, and their happiness. Inhabitants you will note, is a broader notion than Nation. It doesn’t exclude anyone.

Another things is that the national remembrance excitement is becoming obligatory, and I really hate when I’m being told what to think and what to feel. Just as “Słowacki was a great poet”.

“If you’re Polish and you know it,
And you really want to show it,
If you’re Polish and you know it,
Clap your hands (Clap, Clap).”

I hate these never ending celebrations of dead people. As someone said, Poland is ruled by coffins. And the coffins that rule Poland and the minds of people of this country are both the coffins of great Polish people, and of Polish victims.

But the worst thing is that all those celebrations strengthen the wrong parts of Polish thinking. They concentrate on the past, on finding those guilty for all that present Poland lacks… And provide a good excuse. An excuse that we are never reluctant to use when something substandard is pointed at. An excuse that comes very handy to all those lazy bastards who complain and complain but won’t lift a finger to change anything. I always say this to people: nothing will change itself, you have to make it happen. If you don’t like something, like for instance the slow pace in which roads are being built: associate with others who share similar opinion, create a pressure group, influence the government. That’s how democracy works. Decision makers will not take notice of you unless they have to.

And I hate to hear all those hypocrites who one moment criticize everything about Poland, and the Polish people, and then suddenly on another occasion, praise such remembrance occasions. So you celebrate the existence of this failed state that disappoints you so much? Why should you celebrate something you don’t like? Something that you never felt good with, something that causes you only headache and embarrassment?

Stop! Wake up people! We are alive, why don’t start living for eff’s sake? Concentrating on the present and the future. On work and fun.

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The Warsaw Ghetto (part 1)

THERE’S MORE LIKE THIS ON OUR NEW SITE – POLANDIAN.COM

The Warsaw ghetto was a big place so it may take a while to get through all this. When I say big, I mean the biggest Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis in WWII, not big as in spacious. It held around 440,000 people, which was around 38% of the population of Warsaw in about 4.5% of the area. It was established in October 1940 by German Governor-General Hans Frank and destroyed in April/May 1943 by a very enthusiastic lunatic called Jurgen Stroop.

Here is the smoke caused by Jurgen’s hard work. (you can click all the photos here for bigger sizes)

By all accounts, the photo above was taken from a point close to where we live today and on my route home. Needless to say it looks nothing like the above picture, today. Here’s a sat-map to give you an idea of scale.

The yellow pin shows where the photo was taken from. Red is Arkadia shopping centre, green is Gdanski rail station and purple is the umschlagplatz. The area bounded by the yellow line is the rough outline of the ghetto, from where the smoke was coming.

We should be clear on “uprisings” as the word might come up a lot. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising happened between January and April 1943 and was action by Jewish armed resistance fighters inside the ghetto against the Germans when they started the final expulsion of remaining Jews. The Warsaw Uprising (or just ‘Warsaw Rising’) was between August and October 1944 and was action by the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), also against the Germans. The German response to both uprisings was the same, kill people and destroy buildings. The Russians, who had been watching from the sidelines most of the time, finally arrived in January 1945 by which time Warsaw effectively didn’t exist.

The fact that there were, in effect, two struggles going on in the same city at the same time makes it very slightly more complicated for a tourist than it otherwise might be. The monuments and places of interest tend to overlap leading to some confusion if you’re not careful. There has been little, or no, attempt over the years to give the visitor a coherent picture of what happened, it is very much – here’s what happened to Jews and here’s what happened to everyone else. I think it’s a shame that either the Jews feel their dead are different to anyone else’s or the Poles think the Jews weren’t from Warsaw, or both. Maybe one day they’ll work it out.

To make matters worse, many of the ghetto “sights” are well hidden, so well hidden that I, as a long time Warsaw resident, had trouble finding them. Hopefully these posts will save anyone who’s not au fait with the city a lot of time and also ensure they don’t miss anything significant.

Let’s start the tour at the end, so to speak. The last point of contact between the majority of Jews and Warsaw was the “umschlagplatz”, the collection point from which they were shipped in trains to Treblinka extermination camp (yes, Treblinka, not Auschwitz).

On this fragment of a ghetto map the umschlagplatz is shown in purple colour. You can see the rail tracks leading away from it. I’ve marked the current location of Arkadia shopping centre for later reference.

Now here’s a sat-map of the same area today. Arkadia is in red again, yellow is existing rail tracks, blue is missing rail tracks. The green is the Gdanski rail station which can also be seen on the old map. The purple is the umschlagplatz and the arrows are the direction of my photos, further below.

I looked behind the umschlagplatz monument to see if I could find traces of the rail tracks but as you can see from the sat-map, everything has been redeveloped. This is a view today looking across what would have been a busy loading area

Taking a similar view in 1942 you would have seen this, with thousands of people being transported every day

Here’s the view of the umschlagplatz monument today, on ul. Stawki.

The buildings going down the street adjacent to the rail terminal used to be a hospital and were used by the Germans to hold prisoners pending transportation to the death camps.

This is a photo of Jews being taken to the umschlagplatz. Judging by the smoke in the background, this was during or at the end of the ghetto uprising.

Inside the umschlagplatz there is a lot of writing on the walls.

The comment in English reads – “Along this path of suffering and death, over 300,000 Jews were driven in 1942-1943 from the Warsaw ghetto to the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps.”

I have not done any research on who else might have been transported out of Warsaw to an uncertain fate from this terminal. The terminal was outside the ghetto so it was certainly accessible for general use and one has to assume there were non-Jewish sufferers as well. If there were, they go without comment.

Just as an example of the mixing of Jewish and other history in the same place. About ten yards to the right of the umschlagplatz is a plaque on the wall, the arrow points to it in this photo

This is what it says – “1st August 1944. In the first hours of the Warsaw Rising, after heavy fighting with SS units, 75 soldiers of the Kedyw Kolegium “A” AK – Armia Krajowa special operations commando under Lt. Stanisław “Stasinek” Sosabowski – captured this building and freed 50 Jewish prisoners. The building had formerly been the umschlagplatz, the place from which hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to their deaths. In this action, the Kedyw Kolegium “A” came into the open for the first time after a long and bitter clandestine struggle in the underground. Henceforth it would face the German enemy along a combat route stretching from Wola, Stawki and the Old City to the city centre, Czerniakow and Wilanowska street. This plaque was set up on the 46th anniversary of the rising in order to pay homage to both our fallen comrades and to the heroism of the unit as a whole.”

Lastly, for part 1, is a fantastic example of what I was saying about not being able to find anything. The point of interest is known as “Miła 18”. Miła 18 might be something you’re looking for because you’ve read the book, or just because it is a famous landmark in the history of the Warsaw ghetto. It is famous as the headquarters of the Jewish Fighting Organisation and the burial place of Mordechaj Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising.

So, off we go. Set the sat-nav to Miła 18 and it will take you here, to the apartment of Pani Kowalska.

That can’t be it, you think, so you spend 20 minutes scouring every inch of this end of ul. Miła without finding anything that looks remotely like a monument. You check the map again and find that Miła has two parts, one where you are and the other on the opposite side of Aleja Jana Pawla II. You spend a while driving around to find the other half of the street, get out and find a cute old sign a short distance down from JPII, for Miła 17

Must be getting close, you think, so you spend a while longer hunting at this end of Miła. To no avail. Almost at the point of giving up, you decide to walk to the far end, beginning actually, of Miła, just in case. You’re in luck! Miła 18 is actually directly opposite this

Natch!

Flushed with your newly found navigational skills you finally get to check out the monument. (The height of the mound is meant to be the height of the rubble that was left after its destruction)

From the top looking down to the entrance (not on ul. Miła of course!) complete with two Israeli tourists and tour guide. Well, they were speaking Hebrew at any rate.


The small stone they were standing by….

…..gives us our last inscription for this post – “Graves of the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising built from the rubble of Miła Street, one of the liveliest streets of pre-war Jewish Warsaw. These ruins of the bunker at 18 Miła Street are the place of rest of the commanders and fighters of the Jewish combat organization as well as some civilians. Among them lies Mordechaj Anielewicz the commander in chief. On May 8th 1943, surrounded by the Nazis after three weeks of struggle, many perished or took their own lives refusing to perish at the hands of their enemies. There were several hundred bunkers built in the ghetto. Found and destroyed by the Nazis they became graves. They could save those who sought refuge inside them yet they remain everlasting symbols of the Jews’ will to live. The bunker in Miła Street was the largest in the ghetto. It is the place of rest of over 100 fighters, only some of whom are known by name. Here they rest, buried where they fell, to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.”

Read The Warsaw Ghetto (part 2)


Read The Warsaw Ghetto (final – part 3)

Read The Krakow Ghetto

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