Treasures in the Rubble

Today we leave Krakow for Warsaw.

We are supposed to arrive at 1.20pm, but our train is over an hour late.  No idea why, the Poles don’t seem to think it is important to let passengers on their express intercity trains know in English what is going on.  Even the Polish announcement is almost inaudible.  It’s a very long and boring ride, especially because I can’t see out the window.

When we arrive in Warsaw, I am anxious that our hotel transfer may have given up waiting.  But there he is, angry face on, with a barrage of complaints about us being late (not our fault) and not waiting in the right spot (not our fault either – we can’t be expected to wait somewhere when we are not told where to wait).  I try to explain, but he keeps going on and on and on and finally I can’t take it anymore and burst into tears.  He can’t understand why and when we get to the hotel, he asks if we need a lift to the airport when we leave.  Ah, yes we do.  But not with you.

Not a good start to our time in Warsaw.

Warsaw.  This is where my father’s family hails from.  I already mentioned earlier that Dad wasn’t born here, so here’s what I do know.  There’s more to World War II in Poland than the mass extermination of Jews.  Our family were not of Jewish Faith, and yet were still persecuted due to Hitler’s hatred of the Poles and forced from to run from place to place to seek safety, food and shelter.  When the war broke out in Poland, my grandmother, who lived in Warsaw, was visiting her family in the country side.  She never made it back to Warsaw, instead beginning a long and arduous journey to safety, which ended with settlement in Australia.

So what happened and why?

The Third Reich had singled out the Poles for special punishment.  As Germans systematically reclaimed Polish towns and streets, even speaking Polish in public became forbidden; in Gdansk it was punishable by death.  The Nazi goal of more ‘living space’ or “Lebensraum” applied pointedly to Poland, where Hitler had ordered his troops to “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of Polish descent or language”.

Dad still has family here in Warsaw, which I will meet for the first time.

I don’t know what to expect of this city which was raised to the ground under the instructions of a man named Hitler, but I’m certain I am about to embark on a journey of a lifetime.

There’s a shot in Roman Polanski’s film, when its main character Wladyslaw Szpilman emerges from hiding and walks out into the streets of Warsaw.  Everything is decimated, shells of buildings scream against the skyline, everything blanketed with ash.  I’ve never identified as strongly with the history of Poland as I did in that moment.  My heart ached at the thought of the decimation that Hitler incurred on this city.

“This is really an incredible city and I want to give you an idea of it, and don’et know how I can do it. It’s a big city, see. Over one million pre war. Big as Detroit. Now it is 90 per cent all destroyed…Wherever you walk here it is hunks of buildings standing up without roofs or much sides, and people living in them. Except the Ghetto, where it is just a great plain of bricks, with twisted beds and bath tubs and sofas, pictures in frames, trunks, millions of things sticking out among the bricks. I can’t understand how it could have been done…It’s something that’s so vicious I can’t believe it”.

John Vachon, Photographer in a letter to his wife Penny in January 1946

Needless to say, the Warsaw you see today is a rebuilt version.  Some buildings show recycled rubble from the bombed city embedded in their facades.  City planners used as many original stones in rebuilding the city as possible.  Lonely Planet describes Warsaw as having ‘so many booms, cranes and construction sites, you’d think you’d landed in Beijing’ – and they weren’t joking.  Especially in our area, near the Hilton Hotel, buildings are going up everywhere.  There’s even a subway on its way.

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Warsaw also gets a bit of a bad rap from tourists as being grey and rather, well, ‘Soviet’.  After the defeat of Communism in 1989, the Poles with their characteristic humour turned the former Gestapo Headquarters into the Ministry of Education, the former KGB Headquarters into the Ministry of Justice and the Communist Party Headquarters into the Stock Exchange.

So, we are staying at the Hilton, which is about a 20 minute walk from the old town.  When we booked the hotel, I thought I had made a bit of a mistake by being located away from all the action.  BUT it was a Hilton and it is supposed to be one of Europe’s best.  And it had its own casino – not just any casino – the largest in Poland.  However, the more I researched Warsaw, I learnt we are actually in quite an interesting location – the outskirts of the former Jewish Ghetto where ghosts and memories line the streets, even though the landscape has changed.

We have a couple of hours before the family dinner tonight, so it’s the perfect time to make a trip to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which is conveniently located about a 5 minute walk away from the hotel.  Housed in a beautifully restored former trams power station, it lays on the edge of the former ghetto. It includes a brick wall with reverse views; holes through which visitors can glimpse daily life inside the Ghetto thanks to archival footage.  Opened in 2004, this is one of Poland’s best museums. It also features a short documentary entitled “City of Ruins”.  When news of the uprising reached Hitler, he ordered Himmler to send in his harshest troops, kill every Pole, and pulverise the whole city block by block, bomb, torch, and bulldoze it beyond repair as a warning to the rest of occupied Europe. “City of Ruins” shows you the result.

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“The Little Insurgent” – commemorates the children who served as messengers and frontline troops.

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On the third floor a B24 allied bomber plane replica lunges at you from the ceiling.

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The museum is brilliantly put together.  One of the best museums I’ve visited in the world.  We spent a couple of hours here and still didn’t see everything.  My only comment would be that it was a shame that all the books in the gift shop were in Polish because I would loved to have bought some, but obviously there’s no point as I don’t speak Polish.

Tonight, I get to meet some of Dad’s family at dinner.  I’m actually really nervous, not knowing what to expect and how much of the conversation I will actually be able to understand. I may find myself getting drunk – very drunk.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We are dining at Folk Gospoda (Folks Inn) which is conveniently only a block or so away from our hotel.  It is believed to be the oldest restaurant in Warsaw, although it burnt down in the 1831 Uprising and wasn’t rebuilt til 2004.  However, just months before our visit, another reason to visit occurred – Gok Wan visited Folk Gospoda.  And raved about it and well, if Gok recommends it…

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