A week ago we woke up on a Saturday morning in Warsaw. It was 2 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 Celsius) with a minus 15 F wind chill. It was time to get ready for our Warsaw tour, which included a walking tour of the old town. It was cold but we went.
We arrived on Friday on the Berlin-Warsaw express. Warsaw Central station does not have well marked exits, so instead of getting out onto the street we ended up exiting into a large and modern shopping mall with an undulating glass roof. I finally found my way out of the complex using the GPS on my iPhone.
When we got onto the street the Palace of Culture and Science loomed over us. The building was a gift from Stalin to the Polish people, built at the end of the Second World War. When it was built it carried Joseph Stalin’s name and was the tallest building in Europe (in remained so until 1957.) Stalin had his architect visit the Empire State Building to learn about skyscrapers, and it bears a passing resemblance to Empire, but is more like Moscow University’s iconic building in the Lenin Hills, designed by the same architect. It has been controversial since it was built. The building dwarfed everything else in Warsaw and that caused resentment. The joke was the observation platform afforded the best view in Warsaw because it was the only place in Warsaw where you could not see the building. It was variously nicknamed “The Wedding Cake” or “Stalin’s Syringe.” When Communism collapsed there was discussion of tearing it down. The Poles found a better solution. They surrounded it with other tall buildings. It was really difficult to take the palace seriously, bathed, as it was, in purple floodlight.
We visited the building on Monday for the view from the observation floor. The interior reminded Suzi of the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul and me of the Empire State Building. It had massive art deco brass doors, complimented by shoddy refurbishment and shabby maintenance. Communist public architecture of the 1950s was much like capitalist public architecture of the 1930s.
A brochure for the Warsaw Insurgency Museum (which we visited on Sunday) is headlined “Come and see why Warsaw is not as beautiful as Cracow.” The museum is a well curated multi-media experience, including a computer generated 3D flight over 1945 Warsaw, which was the most devastated city in Europe. Before World War Two Warsaw had 1,300,000 residents. After the Warsaw Ghetto rising and the deportation of the city’s 350,000 Jews (plus 45,000 other “undesirables”) the city was down to around 900,000. In August the Warsaw Insurgency lasted for two months while the Red Army sat outside the city waiting for the “local disturbance” as Stalin called it, to peter out. Well over 100,000 died in the insurgency. After that the Germans deported the remaining citizens and leveled the town. When the Red Army “liberated” Warsaw only about 1,000 residents were left. After the war many returned.
The government made the decision to restore Warsaw’s historic old town in 1948, using old pictures and plans. They salvaged as many of the original Warsaw bricks as they could and imported tons of other bricks taken from the ruins of two cities that had been in Germany before the war but were ceded to Poland, Stettin (now Szczecin) and Breslau (now Wroclaw). The Polish joke was “If you liked Breslau you’ll love Warsaw.” They did a credible job. St. John’s Cathedral, the old town market square, the Royal Palace and the Barbican fortifications look authentic. The old town is now a World Heritage site. The Royal Way, with its restored churches, museums and public buildings including the church where Chopin played his first recital, leads into the old town from downtown.
The city is full of disturbing monuments, including a monument to those deported after the Warsaw uprising. It has rows of crosses leading to railroad ties. There is also Umschlagplatz in the Warsaw Ghetto, a monument that suggests a railway boxcar in which Warsaw’s Jews were transported to Treblinka. A new Jewish Museum opens in April in the Ghetto. For me the most disturbing memorial was a statue of a child soldier wearing a helmet too big for his head, “The little insurgent.” The statue was decorated with red and white (the Polish national colors) ribbons and carnations. In Africa the developed world decries the use of child soldiers, yet, here in the EU, is a monument honoring them. I know you can both decry an institution and honor the individuals but the statue deeply disturbed me. Perhaps that makes it a good memorial.