Friday, July 19, 2013

The City with Scars

When I think about my trip across Europe through the lens of what my expectations were for each country, Poland is the one that was not only the most “blank”, but also turned out to be most unlike what few pre-formed impressions I had before we set foot there.

Enjoying some raspberries
My very first thought when getting off of the train was, “Such a gorgeous day!” That may sound kind of unremarkable, but after living for 5 years in a polluted megacity, being in an urban environment that is so full of green and with clear, blue skies is something that makes quite an impact. In fact, after we checked in with our hosts, we could not help but take our time walking to the subway. We stopped at a fruit stand near the train station, relaxed in the warm sun and indulged in some (what felt like) decadent snacking as we waiting for our train into the city center.

Our goal for the first day was to walk around the Old Town section of the city. And by “Old” I mean older than Beverly Hills 90210, but not Hill Street Blues.

A little too perfect?
Warsaw’s Old Town is gorgeous. Tragically, it is merely a reproduction of what it looked like before the Nazis leveled it during WWII. As you walk around, everything is so clean and beautiful… it reminded me of a Disney version of a city. It was true to its original form, to be sure, but it had an unmistakable aura of “fakeness”. It was too perfect.

Seeing such painstaking recreations all around, it made me think about just how traumatic WWII was. On top of all of the devastation and lives destroyed, the loss of so much physical history in such an ancient country must have taken an incredible toll on the population, which was made ever more horrible by the Soviet occupation that followed.

An aerial view of Old Town after the war on display in the city castle museum.
Part of my erroneous (if limited) expectations of Poland came from this period of Soviet occupation. Having come of age during the Cold War, my mind was filled with images of gray buildings, potholed streets and drooped shoulders on uniformly-dressed people. Now, before you go getting all “But that all ended back in 1989,” on me, I KNOW that these ideas/images come from what amounts to a generation ago. I wasn’t really expecting to see an ex-Soviet satellite still grappling with crushing poverty and colorless facades everywhere. But it was all that I had.

And it’s not only me. Since my visit there, every time I’ve told folks how much I loved Poland, almost to a person they’ve been surprised. It’s not that there is a pervasive feeling out there that Poland is a crappy place to go, but people generally have no idea what to expect. It has no reputation.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum
Warsaw was like a big wake up call. On my first day I was learning that the city was not only lousy with history, much like my hometown, but that it has eerie memorials to it all over the place, of which Old Town was only the biggest. After a stop for lunch (where I was completely blown away by the food and some incredible hard cider), we went over to the city’s museum dedicated to the Uprising in 1944.

This was an awesome place, though I had actually assumed that it would be dedicated to not just the 1944 city-wide uprising, but also to the Jewish ghetto uprising in 1943. There was acknowledgement of the ghetto and the resistance there at the start of the museum, but it was more to set the stage for what came later.

The Red occupation.
For history buffs like us, it was an incredible place to lose ourselves in… which we promptly did. (This would not be the first museum that we ended up spending much more time in than we had originally budgeted.) Full of incredible artifacts and detailed testimonies of what happened during the tragic battle to liberate Warsaw from the inside, it was an exciting, moving place. The final exhibit, which acknowledges the Soviet occupation that came right after the rebellion had been crushed (and the city had been leveled as punishment by the retreating Nazi forces). It was a wonderfully evocative space that brings home the tragedy of what happened.

Just down the street from this space came what was to be my only disappointment with Poland: The Ghetto. Or, rather, the lack of it.

Only a couple of blocks from where the beautiful Uprising museum stood as a monument to heroic resistance against the Nazis, the spot where the Jews of the day made their stand -and, arguably, inspired the city-wide revolt more than a year later- has only a marker on the sidewalk and a plaque on a wall to bring attention to it.

A memorial map of the Ghetto,
giving an idea of how small it was.
Marking the wall of the Jewish
Ghetto that stood from 1940-1943

When we came across this comparatively insignificant remembrance, I remembered the warnings of some of my Jewish friends who had told me that when they’d visited Poland they detected a slight, yet clearly present, undercurrent of anti-Semitism still in the air. It made me sad.

(NOTE: This lapse was partially rectified earlier this year by the opening of the new Warsaw Jewish Museum in the area.)

After some more walking around the city we finally headed back to our hosts’ home, where we enjoyed an awesome dinner with them and shared some lovely conversation. It was such a fantastic way to end an incredible (and tiring!) day.

On day 2 we decided to rent some bikes, and it turned out to be an awesome choice. We set off early and did a kind of circuit around Old Town, venturing out into the gorgeous parks and along the city’s river. I was blown away by just how wonderful Warsaw’s green spaces were, and moved by how many reminders of WWII there were everywhere.

The mine-clearers' memorial.
Scattered all across the city are markers and monuments. Some are small, while others can be quite large. They commemorate everything from specific atrocities committed by “Hitlerites” (I love how the Poles decided to call the invaders that, instead of “Germans”), to soldiers who were killed while trying to clear the city of mines.

Our final stop on the second day was at what would be the first in a series of what I ended up calling our “Holocaust Guilt Trip,” the Pawiak detention center and transfer depot,

Since it was closed on that day, the place was abandoned and almost empty, save for a single Chinese tourist who wandered through while we were there. This seemed fitting somehow, as it was a very haunting place; a crowed would have seemed wrong. We took our time and soaked it all in. Being the history junkie that I am I knew that I’d be totally engrossed by WWII sites like this, but I wasn’t really prepared for the utter sorrow that the place evoked.


It was kind of like I was outside myself. I am aware that all of this happened in the past, so there is nothing that I can do about it. Part of me said that I shouldn’t feel saddened or angry by it, but another part of me wanted to feel it. I wanted to bear witness to what happened, in whatever limited way that I could.

And so we lingered.

After a while we drifted back towards our bikes for the ride back to the cafĂ© where we’d rented them in the morning, but we decided to stop in one more beautiful park along the way, to kind of balance out the sadness that we’d just dipped ourselves into. As if on cue, however, a rainstorm blew in and caused us to take shelter under a building on the edge of the park, forcing us to sit and stew with our dark feelings for a little while longer.

Eventually the clouds passed and we got our time in the lush beauty of yet another park before it was time to head home for the night. And as we stepped off of the train to walk back to our hosts’ home we were greeted with a brilliant rainbow, and I couldn’t help but feel like this was Warsaw in a nutshell: Gorgeous spaces with dark shadows that sometimes creep up on you, but that are never around for long before the sun returns to push them back again.

I wondered what our next stop, Gdansk, could possibly have in store to top this physically and emotionally exhausting city.
Wake me when we get to Gdansk!
*NOTE: To see the full-size version of the pictures included here and the entire album of photos from our time in Warsaw, with lots more details and stories, click here.