Tuesday-Friday, April 24-27
We arrived Sunday in Stralsund, Germany, rented a car Monday, and got on the road early Tuesday heading east. Destination: Warsaw, Poland.
As mentioned in the earlier post we experienced Krakow in 2002, with our initial impressions of Poland one of cold leaden skies and communist undertones.
Fast forward 16 years later to a glorious spring day and you’d find us on a sleek highway with artistic overpasses,
and the compass pointing southeast for 460+ miles.
With good intentions we prepared to eat ‘healthy’ road-trip sustenance
that lasted about the first hour or so… we soon switched to gas station-cafe fare as we drove the seven hours to Warsaw, Poland’s capital and its largest city.
In spite of now being a member of the European Union, Poland’s prices still seem less than other EU countries’. That combined with a better budget meant we could afford to stay in hotels offering a full apartment, for what would cost us an average room in the states.
Not only did we have an apartment where we could make our breakfasts and dinners,
but, also–and, here I’m now belting out (in my head): a TUUUUUB!!
Trust me, other cruising friends, such as Anne, understand the luxury of having one of these to lie in. Matter-of-fact, I sent her the photo as soon as I walked into the head.
Originally having booked two nights, we soon expanded our stay to three nights and two full days. Our researched had identified two main museums of interest – Warsaw Uprising Museum and Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews- and several walking tours.
First impressions? Warsaw offers walkability (we easily covered most of our destinations via our feet),
a mix of old (albeit, reconstructed ‘old’)
and new (a lot of construction),
loads of green spaces (lovely parks and landscaping),
plenty of restaurants and shops (Vietnamese and sushi for dinner take-outs), cleanliness (we rarely ever saw any piece of litter during our entire trip in Poland), and plenty of history, beginning with our free guided tour Wednesday morning.
Arriving early we wandered around Castle Square, the center of Warsaw’s Old Town.
Established in the 13th century it was mind-boggling to realize over 85% of this had been blown to smithereens during WW II, then rebuilt exactly as it had been. It now resides on UNESCO’s (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List.
At the column of Sigismnd III Vasa
we spotted the tell-tale guide sign of a bright umbrella under which a young man stood.
He approached us and off we went with two women from Lebanon, a young Italian man, and a Micronesian with his Polish friend.
Eric (Anglicized for the non-Polish ducklings) sprinkled anecdotes and tidbits throughout his walk-and-talk tour. This fast-talking guide flooded us with the history of the Old Town and New Town, “New” being a bit of a misnomer considering it was founded in the 14th century.
We learned Sigismund III Vasa (the Swedish-Polish monarch) moved the capital from Kraków in 1596 to the Royal Castle. Completely destroyed in WWII (the Germans bombed historical symbols to demoralize the residents), the Communist government began to fundraise, appealing to Poles both in and outside the country. Within seven years individuals had contributed enough zlotys (their currency then and now) to undertake this costly endeavor.
Onto the Market Square, a location our young guide said was never frequented by locals (too touristy and bad food). Yet, this plaza boasted a famous Warsaw symbol: Syrenka, the fighting mermaid. Several legends explained why this female amphibian became the pride of the city, one involving a love-sick guy and another a greedy fisherman. You can see a peek of her behind the guide.
Eric pointed out original structures, indicated by bullet holes…
and plaques commemorating those murdered by the Nazis in specific sites. Note the symbol bottom right corner: an anchor formed by marrying a “P” with a “W”–Polska Walczyac or ‘Fighting Poland”. A resistance force started using it in 1942 and by 1944 the symbol became synonymous with Poland’s fight for independence.
After two hours we gave Eric a healthy tip for the friendly expertise he shared with us.
A two-mile stroll brought us to the first of four museums we’d tour on this road trip. The first would encompass a part of history with which I was totally unfamiliar: the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, a battle between Polish insurgents with a home-grown army of ‘soldiers’ and civilians woefully under-armed fighting the German occupiers with their superior military weaponry.
The Battle lasted 63 days, from August 1 to October 2. Initially the Home Army and other underground units managed to liberate parts of Warsaw, causing joyful celebration among insurgents and civilians alike. But, as the battle waged on, the Germans demolished the rebels strongholds, resulting in the surrender of the rebels.
Opened in 2004 this museum offered English translations of Polish descriptions as well as an audio guide. Eric had mentioned that Warsaw tourism had only recently blossomed in the past ten years; and, noting all the English descriptors alongside their Polish counterparts, we felt fortunate to be taking advantage of this recent phenomenon.
Having anticipated a fact-filled tour following our audio instructions, we felt totally overwhelmed. Plus, we must have taken some wrong turns. Instead of walking though it chronologically we stumbled our way through room after room picking up legal-size sheets of paper with even more explanation of what we were seeing.
Although we definitely learned about the “who” and “why” of this uprising, we got lost in the “where” and “when” specific fights took place as first the Poles re-took certain neighborhoods only to lose them bit by bit to the Germans.
Of course, it didn’t help that this was exam week for some of the schools, which meant those classes/grades not involved in tests had to leave the school. So, Max and I were viewing this museum amidst a sea of excitable clumps of puberty.
Yet, any visitor to this museum can’t help but be moved by these Davids battling their Goliath. Displays of actual artifacts such as armbands, some with blood stains…
an actual printing press used for promoting the insurgency
and a Polish flag that flew during the insurrection…
All provide a sense of the brave individuals who gave their lives for freedom.
This museum is a definite site to see, but, be forewarned: prepare yourself by reading about the battle before entering; and, if you’re so inclined, briefly map out your own timeline to use when following the exhibits using the museum’s road map.
Then, immerse yourself in the emotions of those who fought such a heroic battle only to lose in the end.
To further cement the feel of the heroism, visit the Uprising Monument erected in 1989. It’s near the solemn Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was flying the Australian and New Zealand flags to commemorate Anzac Day (April 25).
[an interesting side note, when checking the iPhone for directions our online access was blocked. Not knowing why we looked around and saw we were standing next to the Chinese Embassy.]
We reached the Uprising Monument with its overwhelming size. Note the scale by checking out Max standing next to the largest grouping.
It was here we found a concise description of the Uprising, one we wish we had read before touring the Uprising Museum.
While we definitely would not have missed the Uprising Museum, the layout and audio guide of the Polin (Hebrew name for ‘Poland’ as well as ‘Rest Here’) Museum of the History of Polish Jews, made it a heck of lot easier to follow and absorb the contents.
Having just opened in 2015, the founders obviously took advantage of the latest and greatest technology.
Beginning with the Middle Ages and continuing through the Holocaust, the museum beautifully presents the history of Jews in Poland. The audio guide offered excellent descriptors without being overwhelming as we strolled from one room to the next.
I didn’t think about the museum’s name until I came upon the article “We Remain: Polin, Museum of the History of Polish Jews” by Lisa Bitel (March 31, 2015). The author remarks on how the museum’s title identifies Jews as ‘neighbors’ versus fully integrated citizens. If the latter, the Museum would be about the history of ‘Jewish Poles’.
In THE ATLANTIC another news item not only addresses the power of words but also the insidious rule of the current Polish government: a recent law making it a crime punishable by up to three years imprisonment (!) “publicly and untruthfully assigns responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for Nazi crimes” (“The Truth About Poland’s Role in the Holocaust” by Edna Friedburg, February 6, 2018). In short, you can not call any WW II concentration camps in Poland “Polish death camps.” Whoa. I understand sensitivity to terms but a law such as this seems like hitting a gnat with a sledgehammer.
I’m sorry we didn’t spend a full day here. If so, I would have used the morning learning about the early history, such as a law stipulating “that the peace be kept between people of different faith and liturgy” (1573 Act of the Warsaw Confederation) and would have stood longer in rooms soaking up the ambiance created by reconstructed buildings, such as this 18th-century Gwoździec synagogue.
Splurge on lunch at the cafe followed by an afternoon wandering slowly through more history, including information on some of the accomplished women, such as Mania Wilburszewicz-Shochat (2nd from the right) who fought for social justice in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
For anyone wanting more information on this museum, click on this link. If anyone is planning on visiting Warsaw, this was top of the list for us; and, I strongly recommend one full day devoted to this museum.
But, we didn’t spend all our time inside museums. The Tourist Information office stocked pocket-size brochures with self-guided walking tours. We didn’t take advantage of The Royal Route (a lot had been covered in our Old and New Towns tour) or the Communist Warsaw walking tour but did touch on two famous Warsawians: saw the house of Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934) and spotted benches engraved with the Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) route and buttons to push for actual audio clips of his music.
and walked to his stature in Łazienki Park where free concerts are played from mid-March to September.
Another of the touring routes led you through the history of Warsaw Jews. We focused on the time of WW II when another tragic, yet inspiring, rebellion occurred, the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Anyone who’s read Leon Uris’ MILA 18 knows the story of how Jewish fighters battled the German forces from April 19 to May 16 as the Nazis began liquidating the ghetto.
Significant sites throughout the city displayed a plaque with information about the spot where we were standing.
We walked to memorials, such as a sewer hatch where where some of the Jewish fighters, including one of the leaders, Marek Edelman, managed to escape…
the 1806 Jewish Cemetery with over 100,000 graves with the above Marek Edelman’s being one of them…
the location of the footbridge constructed in 1942 when the ghetto was split into ‘large’ and ‘small’ sections–the reason for the split was the street, Chłodna Street–served as an importing communication link for the Germans…
the Noźyk Synagogue, the only remaining pre-war synagogue, one used by the Germans as a stable….
an outline of the ghetto wall…
remnants of the ghetto….
the Miła 18 bunker, now the grave of those who died there…
culminating at the Polin Museum where the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes was unveiled in 1948 (using, by the way, Swedish stone Germans had planned to use to celebrate Hitler’s Victory over the Allies). We had just missed the 75th anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising, which is why all the flowers.
Max noted that one of the differences between the 1943 and the 1944 uprisings was the ghetto fighters had no real chance of winning; they just wanted to make it as hard as possible for the Germans, and to protest the Allies for ignoring their plight. The 1944 rebels expected help from the Soviet Army massed right across the river; but Stalin didn’t want any threat of insurgency to his planned domination of Poland. Thus, he let the Germans do the dirty work before his troops moved into Warsaw.
Two uprisings; one an inspiration for the other. A perfect entree to our next port of call: Gdańsk.