Dzien Dobry! Our first five days have been nothing short of remarkable. We arrived in Warsaw on Monday, after a long flight, and hit the ground running. We haven’t hit “pause” yet, but our excitement continues to fuel our exploration.
I am behind in posting and I apologize to those who have been patiently waiting for updates. I plan to provide more detailed posts later today, as time permits. For now, please allow me to provide a brief and succinct summary of our time in Poland, thus far.
Days 1 Warsaw
From Rick Steve’s Snapshot: Warsaw was a lovely city, full of history and generous people. We were treated with great hospitality and welcomed with smiles and kisses.:) Warsaw is the site of many significant Holocaust-related events and we visited many. We did not have time to explore everything I wanted, but those places are on the top of my list for next trip. Some of the places we visited are listed below and I will be posting pics soon.
A bit of Warsaw history: The city’s darkest days came during the Nazi occupation of World War II. First, its Jewish residents were forced into a tiny ghetto. They rose up… and were slaughtered. Then, its Polish residents rose up… and were slaughtered. Hitler sent word to systematically demolish this troublesome city. At the war’s end, Warsaw was devastated. An estimated 800,000 residents were dead—nearly two out of every three Varsovians. The Poles almost gave up on what was then a pile of rubble to build a brand-new capital city elsewhere. But ultimately they decided to rebuild, creating a city of contrasts: painstakingly restored medieval lanes, retrofitted communist apartment blocks (bloki in Polish), and sleek skyscrapers. Between the buildings you’ll find fragments of a complex, sometimes tragic, and often inspiring history. A product of its complicated past, sprinkled with the big-city style and sophistication of its present, Warsaw remains quintessentially Polish. It is a place worth grappling with to understand the Poland of today… and the Europe of tomorrow.
After landing at the Chopin airport, we were greeted by Ola, our Warsaw guide. She escorted us to our hotel and provided a nice, brief orientation to the city. We explored the Old Town and had a lovely welcome dinner at the Inn Under the Red Hog.
Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy) This lively square is dominated by the big, pink Royal Castle that is the historic heart of Warsaw’s political power. After the second great Polish dynasty—the Jagiellonians—died out in 1572, it was replaced by the Republic of Nobles (about 10 percent of the population), which elected various foreign kings to their throne. The guy on the 72-foot-tall pillar is Sigismund III, the first Polish king from the Swedish Waza family. In 1596, he relocated the capital from Kraków to Warsaw. This move made sense, since Warsaw was closer to the center of 16th-century Poland (which had expanded to the east), and because the city had gained political importance over the past 30 years as the meeting point of the Sejm, or parliament of nobles. Along the right side of the castle, notice the two previous versions of this pillar lying on a lawn. The first one, from 1644, was falling apart and had to be replaced in 1887 by a new one made of granite. In 1944, a Nazi tank broke this second pillar—a symbolic piece of Polish heritage—into the four pieces (still pockmarked with bullet holes) that you see here today. As Poland rebuilt, its citizens put Sigismund III back on his pillar. Past the pillars are great views of Warsaw’s brand-new, red-and-white National Stadium across the river.
Hotel Bristol A striking building with a round turret on its corner, the Hotel Bristol was used by the Nazis as a VIP hotel and bordello, and survived World War II. If you wander through any fancy Warsaw lobby… make it this one. Step in like you’re staying here and explore its fine public spaces, with fresh Art Deco and Art Nouveau flourishes. The café in front retains its Viennese atmosphere, but the pièce de résistance is the stunning Column Bar deeper in, past the dramatically chandeliered lounge.
Warsaw’s Jews and the Ghetto Uprising From the Middle Ages until World War II, Poland was a relatively safe haven for Europe’s Jews. While other kings were imprisoning and deporting Jews in the 14th century, the progressive king Kazimierz the Great welcomed Jews into Poland, even granting them special privileges (see here). By the 1930s, there were more than 380,000 Jews in Warsaw—nearly a third of the population (and the largest concentration of Jews in any European city). The Nazis arrived in 1939. Within a year, they had pushed all of Warsaw’s Jews into one neighborhood and surrounded it with a wall, creating a miserably overcrowded ghetto (crammed full of half a million people, including many from nearby towns). Over the next year, the Nazis brought in more Jews from throughout Poland, and the number grew by a million. By the summer of 1942, more than a quarter of the Jews in the ghetto had either died of disease, committed suicide, or been murdered. The Nazis started moving Warsaw’s Jews (at the rate of 5,000 a day) into what they claimed were “resettlement camps.” Most of these people were actually murdered at Treblinka or Auschwitz. After hundreds of thousands of Jews had been taken away, the waning population—now about 60,000—began to get word from concentration camp escapees about what was actually going on there. Spurred by this knowledge, Warsaw’s surviving Jews staged a dramatic uprising. On April 19, 1943, the Jews attacked Nazi strongholds and had some initial success. The overwhelming Nazi war machine—which had rolled over much of Europe—imagined they’d be able to put down the rebellion easily. Instead, they struggled for a month to finally crush the Ghetto Uprising. The ghetto’s residents and structures were “liquidated.” About 300 of Warsaw’s Jews survived, thanks in part to a sort of “underground railroad” of courageous Varsovians. Warsaw’s Jewish sights are emotionally moving, but even more so if you know some of their stories. You may have heard of Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish concert pianist who survived the war with the help of Jews, Poles, and even a Nazi officer. Szpilman’s life story was turned into the highly acclaimed, Oscar-winning 2002 film The Pianist, which powerfully depicts events in Warsaw during World War II. Less familiar to non-Poles—but equally affecting—is the story of Henryk Goldszmit, better known by his pen name, Janusz Korczak. Korczak wrote imaginative children’s books that are still enormously popular among Poles. He worked at an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto. When his orphans were sent off to concentration camps, the Nazis offered the famous author a chance at freedom. Korczak turned them down, choosing to die at Treblinka with his children.