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September 22, 2018

Warsaw: A New "Old" Town

by Steve Winogradsky

Upon leaving Prague, we continued to Warsaw, Poland's capital and largest city. As with much of Poland, the history of Warsaw is complicated, made even more so by the events of World War II. Since becoming the capital in 1596, Warsaw has seen wave upon wave of foreign rulers and invaders. But after World War I, things seemed to settle down as Poland became an independent nation. While we were there, Warsaw was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Poland's independence.



But that didn't last long, as World War II brought the occupation by Nazi Germany and the havoc that came with it. Poles were persecuted unmercifully by the Nazis: not only the Jews, but non-Jews as well. At the beginning of the War, Warsaw's population was about 40% Jewish. They were forced into a ghetto under unbearable conditions, then transported to concentration camps for execution. Although they tried to resist, they were overwhelmed by the number of German troops. Towards the end of the war, the citizens of Warsaw also tried to overthrow their invaders, and were slaughtered as well. Nearly 800,000 residents were dead out of a population of about 1.2 million. Today, the city is predominately Catholic, with only about 5% of the people Jewish.

There are memorials in many parts of town remembering those who fought and those who died fighting, including the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.



On the "Royal Walk", there was an art installation commemorating the work of Janusz Korczak, who looked after 200-300 orphans as they went to the the death camps, where he died with them.

The train tracks symbolize how the Jews were transported into the camps.
As the war was ending, and the Russians were approaching to liberate the city, Hitler ordered that Warsaw be destroyed, and the city was literally leveled, with only a few buildings still standing after the Nazis left. Most of present-day Warsaw was built after WW II, first by the Communists, then by the Polish government after the Communists were overthrown. So even though there is an "Old Town" in Warsaw, it is relatively new and built on the ruins of the old city.

As such, Warsaw's landscape is a mixture of buildings that look old (but are not) and some more modern architecture. One of the most striking buildings in the city is the Palace of Culture and Science, commissioned by Stalin before his death to compete with the local Catholic churches. Based on the tower in the middle of the building, which can be seen for miles and is the tallest structure in Poland, the locals sometimes call it "Stalin's Penis", based upon their hatred of the building as an ugly symbol of Communism. But at night, when softly lit, the look changes into something softer than the harsh lines of the building in daylight.

Both photos taken from our room on the 38th floor of the Intercontinental Hotel.


This office skyscraper has a series of unusual angles to it.


One of the buildings has an old fashioned Coca-Cola sign that lights up at night.




In Old Town, the buildings were designed to replicate the style of the town that had been destroyed by the Nazis.




Even though they look like Old World structures and have details found on the originals, the buildings are relatively new, having been built since the late 1940's.





As our musical friends will know, Warsaw was the birthplace of Frederic Chopin. In places around the city, there are benches with audio chips that will play a piece by Chopin if you press "play"


Although he is mostly buried in Paris, his heart is located in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, pursuant to his wishes.


During the Warsaw Uprising, there were children who assisted in the resistance movement. As a result, there is a statue called The Little Insurgent, which includes a picture of one of the children, recognizing their efforts.


Note that this person dies at the age of 12.
Despite its troubled history, or maybe because of it, Warsaw is a beautiful city and we enjoyed visiting it. The mixture of "old world" and modern structures offers many great sights to see.


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