Jadwiga had a sizeable task in front of her —she had only one day to change my mind about Warsaw. She knew that I had disparaged Warsaw in my recently published book (sorry, that particular piece hasn’t appeared here, but in it I called Warsaw “a hole” when compared to Cracow) and that if I were to be convinced that Warsaw was worth a dispatch then she’d have to work hard because, let’s face it, Warsaw isn’t Cracow.
“Warsaw isn’t Cracow,” she started out. "It’s not really fair. Cracow is… "
Yes, I know how wonderful Cracow is.
“But Warsaw is like that bird… a phoenix. That’s what you should write about—Warsaw is like a Phoenix.”
This, I knew, and in order to understand modern Warsaw at all, you must understand the events of the second world war.
Warsaw was the first European capital to fall to the Nazis during the war, in 1939. They quickly created a walled-off section, which became a Jewish ghetto where Jews were shipped in from the rest of the city and from the surrounding area. In 1943 the Jews took up arms and resisted the Germans for a month until they were crushed and the ghetto razed to the ground. A year later, the Polish resistance declared a general uprising and attempted to liberate the city, knowing that Soviet forces were only a few miles away and that within days, they would be seconded by the powerful Soviet army. Stalin, however, halted the advance in order to let the Germans and Poles kill each other at will, leaving him free to take total control of whatever was left.
The Soviets only entered the city in January and by then, there was nothing left at all. There were no Germans, but there were no Poles either and for that matter, there was no city. In an hysterical fit of retaliation, Hitler had ordered that the city utterly destroyed. The Nazis evacuated anyone who was still alive and then sent in engineers and methodically demolished every house, paying particular attention to anything vaguely historical. Only fifteen percent of the buildings in the city survived.
When you walk around Warsaw, you have to keep this in mind. Almost every wall you see was rebuilt after the war, and many buildings have stones bearing two dates. For instance “1664 / 1957” indicates the date on which the original construction was completed and the date of reconstruction.
You will almost certainly take a stroll down Nowy Swiat, which is a lovely street crawling with students and smelling of sausage. It’s mind-numbing to think that the 18th-century buildings that line this thoroughfare were all rebuilt fifty years ago. The scale of this undertaking is unimaginable. In many instances, only paintings and photos made before the war guided the architects of this renaissance. There had been talk after the war of just packing it in and moving the capital someplace else, but Poles can be stubborn, and one gets the impression that this was one final way to defeat Hitler… he had wanted to eradicate the city from the map, well damn it, we’re going to make sure he didn’t succeed, even if it takes years.
All of this has, however, left a city that is missing something, despite the remarkable job that was done. True, I hadn’t been in Warsaw in fifteen years, and it’s a lot livelier now than it was in the mid-nineties, but still, there’s some spark that isn’t there. Jadwiga has a theory about that.
“After the war, the original inhabitants were gone, either dead or spread all over Poland. The communists brought in new inhabitants, mostly from rural areas. They weren’t very well educated, and they had no ties to the place. The city has existed for a thousand years, but it has no history, there is no one here who can trace his family back for generations.”
That’s it exactly. There’s a fundamental sense of impermanency here.
This isn’t helped by the fact that the centerpiece of the city is the Culture Palace, a Stalinist monstrosity that looks for all the world as if some dispossessed god of bad taste had squatted over the city and deposited a great stone turd. It was even worse fifteen years ago… since then, other tall buildings have sprung up and diluted this aberration’s effect on the Warsaw skyline but still, it remains the tallest building in the city (and in the country, for that matter). This building is so soulless that it accentuates the city’s general lack of soul.
“The Nazis destroyed the city’s buildings,” Jadwiga said, “and the Soviets tried to destroy its memory.”
But neither succeeded entirely. The Nazis, for example, left a number of notable buildings, including Lazienski Palace, built by that lovable rogue Stanislaw Poniatowski, the last king of Poland (who owed his crown largely to having been the first man who could sexually satisfy Catherine the Great… but that’s along story). It’s a wonderful little palace built on a small crafted island in the middle of a pond full of ducks. They also, surprisingly, left most of the Nozyk Synagogue, largely because they used it as a stable. It’s a beautiful synagogue that is all the same pretty well hidden. They left one small street of the ghetto, four buildings in all that have never been restored and that are riddled with the scars of bullets. Jadwiga bemoaned the fact that the buildings are boarded up and destitute but I think they should stay that way. Entering that one brief stretch of street is like walking back into 1943… it’s a very scary place if you have any imagination whatsoever. The rest of the ghetto wasn’t restored, it was just filled with soviet-style apartment blocks, most of which remain. The memory of the hundreds of thousands who passed through on their way to die is focused on the three or four monuments to them, but that street is a more vivid reminder for me.
Otherwise, it’s true, the Nazis did a pretty thorough job of destroying the buildings. The Soviets, however, were less successful in destroying the memories, as became evident to the world in the 1980’s. But lord how they tried with the Culture Palace.
Part of the building was a theater, part was a place for children to engage in extracurricular activities (like learning how to chant to the glory of communism and how to best take steroids if you want to be an Olympic swimmer). There are also a couple of cinemas, some conference halls, a museum or two, and a few monumental statues of monumental people doing monumental things.
I had never entered the Culture Palace on my previous trips to Warsaw, but this time I insisted on going in.
This made no sense to Jadwiga. “I thought you wanted to be charmed by Warsaw—so why do you want to enter the culture palace?”
I responded that I hadn’t asked to be charmed, I had wanted to understand the city and let’s face it, that building, for all its ugliness, is a symbol of Warsaw. She thought about that.
I had figured that given the general awfulness of the building’s exterior, the inside must be somehow more palatable, but I was wrong. If anything, it’s more cold and impersonal than the outside. What’s more, it’s not even very impressive. The exterior is so massive that I thought you’d at least be forced into a good cower by some monumental entrance hall, but not even. The entrance is more like a third-rate train station with bad acoustics.
You need to go back outside to feel truly oppressed.
That’s Soviet architecture for you—they built as if ideology sinks in faster the greater the weight of stone behind it. Subtlety was not a Soviet specialty, which is ironic given the subtlety of Russian literature.
Sometimes I wonder why the Poles didn’t tear down the culture palace, but Jadwiga is quite right in saying that Warsaw is much like a phoenix, and after rebuilding the rest of the city I can imagine why they were loath to tear anything else down. Enough destruction already.