Monday, September 23, 2013

Warsaw Re-Rising

Old Town Square today
I always knew Poland, and Warsaw in particular, had been hard hit during World War II. What I didn't realize was just how bad it was; 85% of the city was destroyed by the Nazis--first by bombing then by burning what little remained-- and 6 million Poles, 21.4% of Poland's population, were killed between 1939 and 1945.  Yes, these numbers are real and completely horrifying.  I heard these chilling facts during a walking tour of Warsaw's Old Town and I am still shaken by them.  The realization of what these statistics actually meant sunk in as I stood under bullet riddled overhangs and in front of walls pock marked by executioner's bullets.  Solemnly our guide informed us that many of these walls were the last places Warsaw residents stood before they fell victim to the Nazi's mass executions.  And ironically, these walls are the few remaining remnants of the original Warsaw that weren't burned or destroyed.  Even as I listened to stories of the horror and saw pictures of what a city that is 85% destroyed looks like, I still had a hard time wrapping my mind around all of it.  Honestly, words and even pictures, can't quite describe it all. ***  Warsaw's destruction and subsequent occupation by Stalin has haunted the city yet has made it what it is today. The cost, human, monitory, and cultural, of the War was so great that even today, close to 70 years after the last battle, Warsaw is still recovering.  And that brings us to today's Warsaw.

So how does a city that was essentially completely destroyed recover?  In Warsaw's case, it was done brick by brick.  Seriously.  After the War surviving residents returned to their city determined to rebuild what was left of the place they once called home.  The Communist influence of the Cold War saw concrete buildings being erected to address the dire shortage of of housing but before that, in the area where Warsaw's Old Town once stood, a new "Old Town" was rebuilt.  Over the course of five years, bricks were brought in from other parts of the country and ever so slowly the Old Town returned to its former glory.  Brick by brick.  No detail was too small as marketplaces, churches, and palaces were rebuilt in the same design as the ones that had been destroyed.  It took time and some details took decades to complete but it was (and is still being) built.  Ornate architectural details and even original colors and patterns were carefully replicated.  Although it wasn't without controversy since the Old Town was in fact new, in 1980 Warsaw's reconstructed Old Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and today is a proud symbol of Warsaw's rebirth.

A local musician
But the reconstruction of Warsaw has been an ongoing endeavor that is not complete and continues today. Warsavians and return visitors alike spoke to me about the gradual changes that are taking place throughout the city.  A common phrase I heard from several people was that Warsaw is changing and moving forward so something that is here today might not be here a year from now.  I heard this in reference to the bullet riddled facade of old apartment buildings, cobblestone alleyways, and a city square that was an active construction site.  At the recently opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews, built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto,  a repeated refrain was that we needed to return in a year to see how the museum develops.  As grand exhibit spaces sat unoccupied, no one seemed too sure as to what the actual exhibits paying homage to Warsaw's Jewish population would be. (The museum actually opened with no permanent exhibits and six months later this was still the case).  To me, it feels as though there is a grand vision for things but the details and the road map of how to achieve them are missing.  Or perhaps there is the fear of not getting it "right".  But then again, these things do take time.....

While the city feels vibrant, modern, and moving forward--glass sky scrapers dominate much of the skyline-- there is a feeling of sadness about Warsaw that I just could not shake.  Maybe it is because I've learned such horrifying details about her past or that the past is really a part of Warsaw's moving forward.  Regardless of its cause, it doesn't appear that Warsaw is hiding or ashamed of her history.  This is evidenced by even the darkest parts of Warsaw's history being on display in the form of picture filled outdoor museums for all visitors to see.  It is as if Warsaw is proudly showing off how far they have come in their reconstruction.  And yes, while I know that the "old" parts of the city really aren't old in the true European sense of the word, at least on the surface they look like they have been there for centuries.  And this ongoing reconstruction of the city is just the latest chapter in her history.  Perhaps I do need to follow the advice of the locals and return in a year to see what has transpired.  It could be exactly the same or it could be totally different.

*** For a brief but thought provoking look at Warsaw's destruction and subsequent reconstruction, check out Mark Krawczynski's film Out of the Ashes:  The Reconstruction of Warsaw's Old Town After World War II.

1 comment:

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