I’ve been in Warsaw, Poland for a week now. This is my first time visiting and so far I’ve enjoyed what it has to offer. The people are friendly, the city has lots going, a reliable public transportation network and everything here is much cheaper than in other European capitals.
For the tourist, Warsaw’s tragic history might be this city’s biggest calling card. The Polish capital endured decades of brutality and signs of its turbulent and violent history are everywhere.
To understand the extend of hardships this city faced, a basic understanding of World War Two is helpful. The war began when Germany invaded Poland. The Nazis came in, took over everything, starved the popularion and began the systematic genocide of the country’s Jewish people and just about anyone else they didn’t like.
Here in Warsaw, the “Warsaw Ghetto” was created, a small section of the city, which crammed in 400,000 Jewish people in atrocious conditions. People died from starvation and typhus, yet somehow manage to maintain a rich cultural life.
Eventually, the Germans began deporting the Jewish inhabitants by the tens of thousands, loading them up into overcrowded boxcars, sending them to extermination camps in the countryside.
Today in Warsaw, a monument has been built at the site where the trains were loaded, which was known as Umschlagplatz.
A sobering place, I made sure to stop by. It’s a simple enough monument, meant to look like an open boxcar, but being there still hits you pretty hard. Hundreds of thousands of Warsaw residents were forced to leave their city from that spot, boarding trains to the extermination camps where they would be murdered in short order.
The other defining historical event of WWII that took place here was the Warsaw Uprising. By 1944, it was obvious to just about everyone aside from Hitler that the Allies and Soviet Union were going to win the war. US/British/Canadian troops were coming at Germany from the West, while the Soviets were reclaiming their territory in the East.
The Warsaw resistance knew that the Soviet Army would reach the city soon, it was only a matter of time. Their aim was to liberate the city from German occupation before the Soviet arrival, ensuing Poland’s sovereignty once the war was over.
On August 1st, 1944, Polish Insurgents, who were mostly unarmed began attacking strategic points in the city. They faced a fully mechanized German army. The insurgents had some success, taking over key buildings, liberating some prisoners and capturing German soldiers. The German army retaliated by killing tens of thousands of civilians and destroying the city block by block.
While this intense battle was going on, the Soviets got wind of it and stopped their advances towards the city. This part of the story seems to be a source of controversy amongst historians, but many argue that the Soviets stopped their advances because they deliberately wanted the uprising to fail, so that they could have the city for themselves.
The insurgents held out for 63 days, before surrendering. When it was all said and done, approximately 150,000 civilians died, 500,000 civilians were expelled from Warsaw and a city that was once compared to Paris, was left in ruins.
In the coming months, the Soviet Army came through, committed their own heinous crimes and forced commnunism on the country, lasting until 1989 when the likes of Lech Walesa and John-Paul II helped bring down the iron curtain.
With everything having been destroyed during the war, the rebuild took place under the communist regime and the signs are everywhere. Square, grey apartment buildings are everywhere, with wide streets cutting through the city. The Polish people I’ve spoken seem to wonder why anyone would want to come here.
Speaking to these same people, it’s clear that they all have an understanding of their country’s history. Even the younger people I’ve spoken to are all well aware of what happened before they were born. This is very different from Canada, where many if not most people are blasƒ© about our national history.
For a history buff, or someone who wants to stretch their budget while on a European getaway, Warsaw is fine destination for the travel. I plan on coming back.