Under the shadow of the Palace of Culture and Science I passed now into what was once the Jewish ghetto area.
There is very little to see there of historical significance, the whole area was completely obliterated and razed to the ground by the Nazis and it is now a thriving modern business area with metal and glass skyscrapers that compete architecturally and wide boulevards carving their way to and from the city centre; very different to the Warsaw suburb that became the ghetto in 1940.
Some friends and family have questioned why I would want to go there at all and my explanation is that I thought that it was important. This is a place where something dreadful happened, a place that perfectly illustrates man’s inhumanity to man and I felt that I needed to go there, breathe the air and walk on the ground where all of this happened. It is not a place to go to go and see anything, it is a place to go for a personal almost spiritual experience.
In 2008 I went to Auschwitz concentration camp for much the same reason.
Not everyone likes these stories so I will keep it short. In pre war Warsaw one third of the population (350,000) were Jews and Poland was a reasonably religiously tolerant country compared to other European countries at the time.
Within a year of occupation the Jews of Warsaw were forced to relocate into an area west of the Vistula which represented just about 5% of the total area of the city – a third of the population in just 5% of the city. They were treated appallingly, one hundred thousand died of disease and starvation and finally the survivors were moved out and murdered in the death camps. By 1945 there were no Jews in Warsaw. You can easily read about it elsewhere if you want to.
I walked the streets and sought out what small reminders there are – a piece of the ghetto wall, the footbridge of memory, a plaque, a monument, a statue but, as I said, there is very little to see.
I was making my way now to another museum, the museum of the Warsaw Uprising. It was quite a walk, much further than I was expecting and as I got close I worried that it might be closed on a Sunday. Luckily it was open for business and even better than that, entrance was free!
This turned out to be a very good museum indeed which deals in general with the war years but specifically with the 1944 Warsaw uprising. It might be surprising to some people but in 1939 Poland fielded the third biggest Allied Army and despite defeat and occupation they never stopped fighting. Unfortunately they were ultimately let down by the Allied leaders Roosevelt, Churchill and especially Stalin. Because they were not recognised as an official allied army this meant that the conventions of war did not apply to captured soldiers and prisoners and many were caught and executed. Eventually Roosevelt insisted that they be officially recognised in a belated attempt to stop the atrocities.
In 1944 the Free Polish army rose up against the Germans in expectation of support from the advancing Red Army. The support never came. The Russians stopped their advance short of the River Vistula and cynically allowed the uprising to be quashed with devastating loss of life when an estimated quarter of a million Polish civilians and soldiers were killed. When it was all over Hitler carried out his plan to destroy the city.
The Polish army officers that survived and took their units into the countryside to continue fighting were eventually rounded up by the Russians, forced to disarm and sent east to Russian labour camps. The Russians were not good allies even then it seems. Warsaw and Poland rid itself of one evil regime of occupation and found itself saddled with another that was just as bad.
What the Germans did was inexcusable, they came as open aggressors, what the Russians did was abominable, they came as fake liberators!
I spent a couple of reflective hours around the museum and believe me it is difficult not to feel guilt and shame in almost equal proportions.
It was getting dark when I left and I thought about getting a taxi back to the hotel but then I came to my senses, I hate wasting money on taxis, so I set out to walk the two or three kilometres back to the Polonia Palace. It took me about half an hour and when I got back Kim was off to the spa for a massage so I opened a bottle of wine and reflected on my day.
I thought about walking out and booking a table in a restaurant but I had done enough walking already and I was reasonably certain that there would be no problem tonight so as quickly as the thought entered my head I let it go again and decided to take a chance. Sometimes I just like the whiff of danger and the experience of living life on the edge!
Just as I thought there was no problem tonight, the Valentine’s day frenzy was over and we found an authentic Polish restaurant tucked down a back street and we enjoyed the sort of Polish cuisine that we had hoped for the previous night. It was so good that without consultation we both knew that we would be returning here again the next night.