Tag Archives: World War II

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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Book Review: The Ice Road

The Ice Road is a remarkable book both because it tells a little-known but important story of human suffering and because it does so in a way that doesn’t leave you wanting to slit your wrists. It is the autobiographical tale of 14-year-old Polish boy Stefan Waydenfeld and his family who were exiled to Siberia during World War II. The book traces their journey in the cattle wagons and goods trains of the Soviet Union from their home in Poland to a Stalinist labour camp in the frozen north and then on to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Persia.

The mass deportations of its citizens to remote and primitive corners of the Soviet Union during World War II is of monumental importance in the history of Poland. Between September 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Poland in consort with Nazi Germany, and June 1941, when Hitler turned on Russia, the Soviet authorities forcibly exiled some 1.7 million people from the Polish territory under their control. They were sent to labour camps in the forests of northern Russia, to mines in Siberia and to arid regions of Soviet Asia. Precise figures will never be known, but it is estimated that about half of the deportees died from starvation, disease and the cold. Survivors and their descendants can still be found scattered across the fragmented Soviet empire today.

It sounds like a grim read, but it isn’t—the main reason that it isn’t being the fact that the author was a lively 14-year-old boy at the time of his deportation and, with the customary flexibility and innocence of youth, treated many of his experiences as grand adventures. The author himself explains this early in the narrative: “as is the privilege of youth, I lived my own life and only many years later; when I thought of our times in Siberia, did it strike me how ignorant I had been… of the sufferings of others and of the enormous difficulties of everyday life… I am almost ashamed to admit it, but at times I enjoyed my time in Siberia.”

The Waydenfelds were relatively lucky to find themselves assigned to an established logging encampment. A Russian inmate tells them: “You don’t know how lucky you are. When we were brought here twelve years ago this was virgin forest. We cleared it, pulled the roots out with our bare hands and built Kvasha where nothing stood before. Not many lived to see it finished.” They were also lucky not to have been sent to the Siberian mines with their horrendous mortality rates. It’s clear from Stefan’s narrative that they didn’t always have enough to eat, but nobody starves. Working conditions were harsh, especially in the minus-40-degree winter, but we don’t hear of anybody dying. It isn’t clear if this lack of tragedy is a result of the author’s confessed youthful solipsism or a realistic picture of one particularly fortunate fragment of the gulag.

There were certainly Boy’s Own adventures. Stefan recalls the thrill of bareback riding through the forests singing Russian songs and galloping from awakened bears, being sent alone into the wild to mark timber for the cutting crews, and an escape by raft that sounds too fantastical to be true. The raft episode marks a startling twist in the tale, and in history. Shortly after the Nazi invasion of Russia, Stalin released all deported Polish citizens and gave them a free pass to wherever in the Soviet Union they wanted to go—at least those that hadn’t already been shot in the back of the head or frozen to death. It was the kind of whimsical and hypocritical act of which only true dictators are capable, but it probably saved the Waydenfelds lives. A similar whimsy prompts them to name Astrakhan, a city thousands of kilometres away on the Caspian Sea, as their destination of choice.

This decision, about a third of the way into the book, is the start of a journey far more extraordinary than the one that took the family from Otwock to Siberia. It reads like an escape fantasy inspired by snow-crazed starvation, but it’s true and it was the experience of hundreds of thousands of Poles in 1941 and 1942. Stefan and his mother and father travel across the insane and panicked breadth of wartime Russia in cattle wagons, on luxury river cruisers, in buses and on foot. They live in unlikely sounding far flung cities like Chimkent and Yangi-Yul, glimpse the blue towers of Samarkand across the steppe, and bribe their way into and out of luxury and danger with alarming regularity. It’s an illuminating picture of a state in utter chaos where a few 10 rouble notes mean the difference between lice-ridden death and sleeping on feathers.

All along the way the Waydenfelds meet Poles like themselves making for rumoured Polish Army staging areas, many in rags, a few in luxury and all wondering what has happened to the officers—most of whom are in mass graves just outside Katyn. The book closes in a British refugee camp in the Iranian port of Pahlevi. Through epilogues and annexes we learn that Stefan later joined the Second Polish Corp and fought his way along the length of Italy. After the war, he married a Polish girl he met in Yangi-Yu, became a doctor and settled in London’s Kentish Town.

The Ice Road is not a sophisticated read, but it is a story you’ve never heard and would barely believe if history wasn’t there to tell you it was true. The book is published by Aquila Polonica—a publisher with the unlikely but laudable goal of telling “the greatest story never told… Poland in World War II” Read it, you won’t regret it.

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Krakow's WWII 70th anniversary ceremony: A spectator's-eye view

I attended the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II yesterday in Krakow. It was an understated but moving event.  Attendance was low and seemed to consist mainly of people who happened to be walking past at the time plus a gang of frenetic photographers. As we know, Poles have something of an aversion to parades and marching bands for entirely understandable reasons. This is a little movie I put together of a spectator’s-eye view of the event and the lead up to it. Apologies for the occasional wobbles, it was all hand-held.

I wanted to capture the reality of the day rather than try to recreate a TV-news style glossy representation. I sought out and left in details such as the ragged heel-clicking discipline, the giant confused orange woman, and the creaking flag pole not because I wanted to make fun of the event but because I felt it made the whole thing more real and human. By the way, there’s a very interesting article about events in Krakow during the first six days of the war by William Brand on the Krakow Post website.

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