Monthly Archives: June 2014

WARSAW II: Five Days in May

Warsaw Old Town

Warsaw Old Town

We had no illusions that the days we would spend in Warsaw in the year’s merriest of months would be filled with unmitigated delight. For what could such a visit be but a heavy-duty history lesson, one not lost on people already interested in the subject and people who, although not German, have lived all their adult lives in Germany.

The tragedies suffered by the Poles did not begin in the 20th century, but as I mentioned in my last post, had already culminated in 1795 with the partitioning of the country between the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Not until the end of World War I did Poland resume its existence as a nation. Barely had it recovered its national identity when it was once again under siege by Germany, and soon afterwards, by Russia.

A morning visit to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising was an eye-opener and I covered that in my last post. The old Jewish Cemetery and the new Jewish Museum, designed to look live the wave that parted the Red Sea for the Jews to escape from Egypt, both bear witness to the rich past of the Polish Jewish population and its abrupt demise at the hands of Nazi Germany.

However, I am very pleased to be able to report, on a much more upbeat note, about what we experienced of Poland in the here and now and beyond the historic sites. It seems we had inadvertently chosen the time of our stay well. The weather was perfect with sunshine and temperatures in the high 70s centigrade. This meant the whole population was out and about enjoying their city. Everywhere we went something was going on.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Festival in the Old Town

Festival in the Old Town

Along the main thoroughfare of the old town, a children’s festival was in full swing with lots of clowns and balloons and music playing. The street restaurants and cafes were busy; the cold beer tasted refreshing as it washed down our lunch of grilled kielbasa. One thing jumped right out and struck me in the face: What a young population lived in Warsaw! Kids, teens, babies in buggies, young-marrieds and lots of young pregnant women(!) – everyone was having a good time; everyone looked well-off.

On the Sunday we crossed the Wisla River to Praga on the other side. In Praski Park, located along the river, families strolled by, on their way to or from the zoo. Kids rode bikes or whooshed by on skates. We followed the sound of music and landed at a pavilion where a 4-piece band was playing. People sat on benches, consuming their own picnics and fetching cold brews from a stand. We couldn’t resist joining them. Soon the musicians were substituted by a group of seniors who sang and danced. The dozen or so ladies all wore straw hats and gloves and floral skirts. The three token gents had cloth caps on their heads. Although the music they sang was foreign to our ears, it wasn’t to the multigenerational crowd. They sang along. One lady in the audience danced with her poodle in her arms. Others danced, too, women with women or mothers with sons. Small children wandered onto the stage and danced in circles.

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At home we are always hearing about the flood of young Poles who leave the country seeking work in western Europe or beyond. Either there are still plenty left behind or they were all back visiting on that May weekend. Assuming the latter is unlikely, we had the distinct impression that Poland will not any time soon be suffering from the demographic problem – the ageing of society – that plagues many of the world’s advanced industrialized countries.

Discovering whether the Polish baby boom can be attributed to their strict adherence to the anti-birth control policies of the Vatican, or if their fecundity is more a reflection of their deep love of family, would require a visit longer than a few days in May. What I can conclude from the visit though, is that Poland has made great strides since the walls and curtains of eastern Europe fell 25 years ago.

After all the tragic history lessons, how great it is to leave Poland with a positive feeling.

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The Warsaw Pact Takes on New Meaning

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When we were visiting Warsaw a week ago, I had no idea we were just missing Barak Obama’s arrival. After five days there, spent delving more deeply into the history of Poland in general and Warsaw in particular, I appreciate the President’s confirmation of the resolve of the US and NATO to defend, if necessary, Poland and the other former Soviet satellite states which are, indeed, now members of NATO. For the Ukraine crisis has certainly given the countries at our eastern outposts a mighty case of the jitters. And for good reason: Promises are one thing, carrying through can be quite another.

Warsaw is a city resurrected – by its own strength and resolve – from the ashes of World War II. Although under Soviet dictatorship, the citizens immediately started to rebuild their city, not a modern incarnation of it, but as it had been, as they had loved it before 1939.

Before / After

Before / After

After a visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which presented blow-by-blow the city’s last-ditch struggle to survive, I came away realizing that it wasn’t just the Germans and the Russians who raped Poland. In September 1939 when the country was invaded first from the west by the Germans and then from the east by the Russians, Poland’s allies – Great Britain and France – did not lift a finger. They were powerless; they could only let the invaders have their way.

With its low plains, Poland had always been an easy target for armies to march across. Napoleon certainly took advantage of that. And its geopolitical location between three greedy empires (Austro-Hungary, Russia and Germany) made it a tempting target. Thus in 1795 Poland became the tragic victim of its geography and topography. It was divided into pieces, like a cake, between Austria, Germany and Russia. Only at the end of the First World War did it reappear on the map as a sovereign nation.

In 1939 the German National Socialist regime was determined, once and for all, to quash Polish identity. One element of that was leveling Warsaw. In their perception, that would destroy their national identity. By 1945, 90% of Warsaw had been bombed and burned out. But they underestimated the will of the people to stay Polish, as evidenced by their final uprising in the summer of 1944. They went down but they went down fighting.

 Warsaw reborn_0002

Aerial view of a city devastated

 

During the war, the Polish government was in exile in London; Polish troops fought side-by-side with the British, French, Americans, Canadians and others. What remained of their airforce flew with the RAF. They fought bravely and believed when the war was won that they would get their country back.

At Yalta, a seaside town in then (and now once again!) Russian Crimea, in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin set the framework for the post-war political landscape of Europe. Poland was already occupied by Russia. The western allies, again, did not have enough strength to counter Stalin’s drive to secure his sphere of influence. Poland was left to Stalin. The rest is, obviously, history. My conclusion: Poland was f***ked, repeatedly, not only by her enemies but also by those she thought her friends.

Let’s hope and pray that the USA, within the scope of the NATO alliance, does in fact, this time, defend Poland and the other former Iron Curtain countries from Vladimir Putin’s latest version of Russian egomania and paranoia, should this become necessary. The rest of western Europe must move on from its tentative measures and show more backbone. For with one eye on 20th century history, it is easy to understand the nervous twitch from which Poland and her eastern neighbors are lately suffering.

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Filed under Cities, Fiction and Other Truths, German History, Great Britain, Holocaust, Politics, Remembering