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.
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.
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.