I traveled to Warsaw last week. The company I work for has some gas projects in the south of Poland, which had necessitated a trip to Krakow late last year (see my previous post You say Oświȩcim, I say Auschwitz). I hadn’t traveled to Warsaw then, and so I was now finally getting around to attending to some long overdue meetings in the Polish capital.
I visited Warsaw once before, in 1988. I was sixteen at the time, and traveled to Poland as part of a group of about thirty teenagers from around the world. We were participating in a quiz on Jewish Heroism in World War II; I was the Australian representative. The group toured the country for two weeks, culminating in the final of the quiz which was held in Warsaw.
Back then, Poland was still an Eastern bloc country, slowly waking up from forty years of communist slumber. The image of Warsaw I carried away from that trip was of derelict, Russian-style tenement buildings, drizzling gray skies, and bland, uninspiring food. I don’t know if this was accurate though – it was the first time I had travelled overseas alone, and I was overwhelmed by the adventure of it all, so I had paid little attention to where I actually was. My memory from the time is more a hazy sense of Warsaw being a grim and depressing place, rather than any specific recollections of the city itself.
So in visiting Warsaw today, almost 25 years after my visit there as a teenager, I expected that I would find this city of two million people to be gritty, run-down and concreted-over, like so many other former Soviet cities. I thought it would be long past its prime, one of those unremittingly featureless sorts of places that I dread going to, and where I count the minutes until I can leave. Yet despite, or perhaps because of these fairly low expectations, Warsaw totally blew me away. It turned out to be one of the nicest, most pleasant European cities I have ever visited.
I had taken a day off from business meetings to give me some time to explore Warsaw, as a tourist. The hotel concierge suggested I start at the Old Town (or Stare Miasto), the city’s premier attraction. It was a short taxi ride to get there, and en-route I couldn’t help but notice how organised and unexpectedly green Warsaw is. Roads are wide and well maintained, and traffic is light. Well marked bicycle lanes criss-cross the city in every direction. Manicured parks and trees are everywhere, giving the whole city a fresh, relaxed and spacious feel to it. I read later that about one-quarter of Warsaw is covered by parklands and gardens, making it one of the greenest capitals in Europe.
The Old Town is the “historic” heart of Warsaw, and is sited on a low escarpment looking out over the Vistula River. I say “historic” because during World War II, Warsaw was almost entirely destroyed, initially from the Luftwaffe’s “terror bombing” campaigns, and later as reprisal for the Warsaw Uprising. SS chief Heinrich Himmler was pretty clear in his instructions to the German army: “The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth…. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be torn down to its foundation”. As a result over ninety percent of the buildings in Warsaw were reduced to rubble.
After the war ended, the people of Poland set about the monumental task of reconstruction. The Old Town of Warsaw was painstakingly rebuilt, almost brick by brick. Wherever possible, original stones and bricks were picked out of the ruins and reused in their original place. Pre-war maps and architectural drawings of Warsaw were consulted to ensure that the rebuilt Warsaw was as true to the original as possible. Apparently, it took more than forty years to complete the job.
The result is, quite simply, spectacular. Warsaw’s Old Town is a compact zone of narrow cobbled streets, largely closed to motorised traffic, thus perfect for wandering around aimlessly. There are countless “old” churches and castles, palaces and monuments – exact replicas of what stood there before being destroyed in the 1940s. Small boutiques and trendy fashion stores are discreetly housed in and amongst cafes, restaurants offering traditional Polish dumplings (pirogi), jewellery stores selling hand-fashioned amber, art galleries and souvenir stands.
I walked through many wonderful open squares, flowers overflowing from verdant window-boxes, fat pigeons congregating on the flagstones, and old-fashioned horse-and-carriage rides available for hire. Elegant wrought-iron lamp-posts lined the streets, on each of which a pair of red-and-white Polish flags fluttered in the breeze, adding a splash of colour wherever I looked. There was not a single scrap of litter or a hint of graffiti to be seen anywhere – Warsaw, it appears, is Singapore-grade clean. And the good citizens of Warsaw, for their part, all seemed to be young, clean-cut and obscenely attractive.
If anything, Warsaw’s Old Town is almost too perfect. It felt a lot like I was walking around Poland’s version of Disneyland; a reproduction of what a historic European town centre should look like, where every detail had been meticulously planned to look like it wasn’t meticulously planned in the first place. Warsaw’s Old Town is so perfect, in fact, that UNESCO has designated it as a World Heritage site, even though in reality it is a creation of the last fifty years. According to UNESCO, it is “an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century”.
I don’t think I have ever been to a place with more statues, commemorative plaques and gloriously titled memorials – there is something on almost every street corner. I especially liked the statue of The Warsaw Mermaid, who in a rather un-mermaid-like manner brandishes a sword and shield, and that of The Little Insurgent, a cast of a young boy holding a machine-gun and wearing an oversized military helmet, in homage to the children who fought in the Polish resistance. One signpost I came across summarised perfectly the sense of war memorial overload I was starting to feel: left, to the Monument of the Warsaw Uprising, right, to the Monument of the Ghetto Uprising, or straight, to the Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East….
Statues and memorials aside, it seems that much of old Warsaw is devoted to celebrating two of the city’s favourite sons – Chopin and Copernicus. I passed by the Copernicus Centre, the Copernicus Monument, the Chopin Museum, the Chopin Drawing Room, and the Holy Cross Church (where Chopin’s heart is stored; the rest of his corpse, rather oddly, is apparently in a cemetery in Paris). Not to mention that arrival in Warsaw is into the Chopin International Airport, there are posters of Chopin everywhere, there are adverts for Chopin concerts everywhere, and a number of pedestrian crossings in Warsaw were even repainted into piano keys, in honour of the composer’s 200th birthday in 2010.
As if to prove the point, just outside of the Holy Cross Church I came across a Chopin Bench – one of fifteen black-granite benches located at various sites of Chopin-interest around the city. The benches have little silver “play” buttons embedded in them which, when pressed, cause a burst of Chopin music to start playing. There I was, in a gorgeous square in the centre of historic Warsaw, on a warm and sunny afternoon, people walking by, a light breeze blowing, and a Chopin melody was being played, just for me, by an obliging park bench. As I said before, Walt Disney himself couldn’t have done it any better, and it all felt just a teensy bit contrived.
But, it wasn’t all like that. In front of the stately Societas Scientarium Varsaviensis building I stopped at a truly excellent open-air exhibit commemorating one of Warsaw’s slightly lesser-known heroes, Janusz Korczak, a Polish educator and writer, and administrator of the Jewish Orphanage in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. Korczak famously elected to accompany the children of the orphanage on their journey to the Treblinka extermination camp, thereby condemning himself to death rather than abandon the children he loved so much. The exhibit concluded with one of Korczak’s favourite sayings, which I thought was worth noting down: “We are not allowed to leave the world as it is”.
After a few hours of wandering about, I was hungry (so what’s new?). I stopped at an open-air stall selling traditional Polish foods. It all looked delicious and I had no idea what to order, so I asked the girl behind the counter to choose for me, as long as it was something “typically Polish”. She smiled and handed me a thick-cut slice of rye bread, covered in a whitish, unctuous spread, and topped with slices of gherkin.
Tentatively I took a big first bite, and bliss – it was like an instant time-warp back to my childhood. The white spread, it turns out, was pure chicken fat, collected as the chicken is boiled, then strained and clarified, and otherwise known in every Eastern-European Jewish kitchen as “schmaltz” (literally, “fat”). Back in the days before cholesterol and trans-fats were issues, my grandmother used schmaltz on bread instead of margarine or butter, and there was always a fresh pot of home-made schmaltz in our fridge. Spread thick on bread, it was one of my favourite after-school snacks.
I must have been noticeably moaning with delight as I tucked into my fat and gherkin sandwich, because the Polish guy in the queue behind me, who had ordered the same thing, came up to me and said: “You like Polish food – good!” We started chatting, and he introduced himself as “Fifi, short for Rafael”. He asked where I was from. I replied from Australia, and his bright blue eyes lit up: “My dream is to be a forklift driver at the port in Australia” he told me. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this rather strange life ambition, so I just stuffed even more schmaltz and pickle into my mouth.
Hours later I ran into Fifi again. He was sitting on the steps of a building near the Market Square, with two other young Polish men. One was strumming the melody to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on a beat-up guitar, and Fifi was singing the lyrics, only in Polish. He had an amazing voice, and even in a foreign language, Hallelujah is a hauntingly beautiful song. It all seemed perfectly suited to the setting of the Old Town in the early evening, as the light slowly faded. I stopped to listen, and when Fifi saw me standing there he waved, interrupting his singing to call out to me: “I just want to be happy!” I waved back, and couldn’t help wondering whether they have a Polish version of American Idol. Fifi’s modest forklift-driver career aspirations coupled with his sublime voice would, I bet, be a winning combination.
Warsaw was once one of the world’s main centres of Jewish life. About 400,000 Jews lived in Warsaw in 1939 on the eve of World War II, and represented more than one-third of the city’s population at the time. So, after finishing my schmaltz sandwich, I decided to see if I could find “Jewish Warsaw”.
I headed first to the Umschlangplatz, which according to the tourist map I had picked up at the hotel was about twenty minutes walk from the Old Town, and was the spot at which Jews had been gathered up before being deported to their deaths. To be perfectly honest, I am not quite sure why I decided to go there. I almost felt like it was my obligation to do so; a form of strange pilgrimage to a site of Nazi horror and barbarity, and I don’t really know what I was expecting to find. I guess I thought perhaps at the Umschlangplatz there would be an impressive monument and a large crowd of suitably sombre visitors, which would trigger in me some emotion and reflection.
Instead, I found a modest, black-polished marble memorial in a tree-lined setting just off a main road. On it was carved a simple inscription that rather factually recorded in various languages: “Along this path of suffering and death over 300,000 Jews were driven in 1942-1943 from the Warsaw Ghetto to the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps”.
In sharp contrast to the thousands of people milling around the Old Town less than two kilometres away, the Umschlangplatz was totally deserted. In the ten minutes I stood there I was completely alone, apart from a tram that rumbled past and a few people zipping along on bicycles, making use of the marked bike-path that crosses in front of the memorial.
A few buildings on the street leading to the Umschlangplatz had small plaques on them which, in Polish and Hebrew, recorded the prior history of the site. One building stood where once there was a Jewish school; another where once there was a community hospital. On a billboard just beneath one of these plaques there were posters of half-naked men in bow-ties, advertising the impending tour to Poland of the Chippendales, an all-male strip show. And behind the Umschlangplatz memorial, less than twenty metres away across a scraggly grassed area, is a small compound of industrial warehouses. One has a big sign on the wall advertising Birkenstocks, the Swedish sandal brand.
I wondered if the workers in the warehouses, or the cyclists passing by, had any idea of the history of this place; of the crimes once committed at this very spot. I thought probably not – why would they? It seemed to me like no-one really cared; that this site of Nazi atrocity was just another one of many places of vague historic interest scattered throughout suburban Warsaw; a place that only Holocaust-obsessed Jews would make the effort to visit.
And, despite these thoughts running around inside of my head, despite having especially sought out the Umschlangplatz and having gone well out of my way just to see it, the place just didn’t do anything at all for me emotionally. I expected it to; I wanted it to; I hoped that it would. But, the Umschlangplatz failed utterly to stir up anything even remotely close to heartfelt feelings inside of me. I stood there willing myself to feel something, almost wishing that tears would flow, and instead I felt nothing – absolutely nada.
Actually, that is not quite correct. I did feel something, and that was a nagging, gnawing horrible sense of guilt at feeling nothing else. Go figure – all alone on a sunny afternoon in a Warsaw suburb, and yet I was able to make myself feel utterly wretched at the fact that I wasn’t feeling utterly wretched. We Jews really have attained a special mastery of the art of guilt.
I continued my walk, following the road south from the Umschlangplatz, into what was once the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw. In late 1940, an area in central Warsaw of roughly three and a half square kilometres was closed in: surrounded by three metre high, barbed-wire topped walls, and sealed off completely from the outside world. Into this small space – the Ghetto – more than 400,000 Jews were crammed and forced to live what remained of their lives. This meant that around 30% of the total population of Warsaw was packed into a space representing less than 3% of the city’s total land area.
Living conditions were, not surprisingly, horrific. Not counting the mass deportations to Nazi extermination camps, over 100,000 people died in the Warsaw Ghetto from disease and starvation. There were random killings, and anyone trying to escape the ghetto was shot on sight. Eventually, in April 1943, the Ghetto’s inhabitants staged an ill-fated uprising – the first mass uprising anywhere in Nazi occupied Europe. They held out against the full might of the German army for almost one month, and when the end came, like their forefathers at Masada many of the Jewish fighters opted to commit suicide rather than be captured. After the Ghetto Uprising, the Ghetto was emptied of inhabitants and just about every building was torn to the ground by the German army.
Consequently, there is almost nothing left today of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto. There are four original buildings still standing at Próżna Street; a restored synagogue is nearby; and a couple of small sections remain of what was the Ghetto wall. In a square at the corner of Anielewicz Street (named in memory of the leader of the uprising) and Zamenhof Street (named after the Warsaw-born, Jewish founder of the Esperanto language) stands an impressive bronze memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Wreaths of flowers and Yarzeit candles (traditional Jewish memorial candles) had been arranged along the foot of the memorial, some decorated with small Israeli flags.
At the far-end of the square, a huge, futuristic cube-like building is under construction; a sign informing me that when completed it will house the Museum of Polish Jewish History: “the purpose of the exhibition is to restore the Polish and Jewish memory of historical events, which are the common history of both Poles and Jews”.
Apart from these rather limited fragments, however, there is precious little left today to indicate that this whole area was once a place of immense suffering and death. And if truth be told, I found the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto, sixty years later, to be a fairly pleasant residential suburb of Warsaw. There were neat rows of apartment buildings, surrounded by open parks and green gardens. Family cars were parked along wide, well-paved streets. People were out in the late-afternoon summer sunshine, walking their dogs, riding their bikes, enjoying picnics in the shade of trees. It was, dare I say it, actually quite peaceful and lovely.
And again, like at the Umschlangplatz, I felt nothing – no emotion, no tears – only immense overpowering guilt. How could I not feel anything deep and profound here? How dare I allow myself to think that this place, of all places, where so many innocent Jews were systematically imprisoned and starved before being murdered, was anything other than awful?
The guilt became a knot in my stomach, and I really just wanted to leave as fast as I could. So I started back in the direction of the centre of town, on foot. A few minutes later, right in the suburban heart of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto, I found myself walking past a small astro-turf playing field, on which a group of five middle-aged Polish men were passing a soccer ball around between them. They were playing two-on-two, with one in the goal. They were having a great time, calling to each other and whooping wildly whenever someone scored. And for some reason, even though I was in a real hurry to leave, I paused to watch them play.
One of the men, seeing me standing there, shouted out something to me. When it became evident that I spoke no Polish and was a visitor, from faraway Australia no less, the men gathered around me, and with big smiles on their faces asked me in broken English to join the game, so it could become a three-on-three match. They wouldn’t take no for an answer, and so I reluctantly agreed. For the next thirty minutes I ran around in my jeans and sneakers, my shirt getting soaked through with sweat as I played soccer with a random group of Poles. All on a small football pitch in the middle of what was, once, the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.
It was a completely genuine, if not slightly surreal, experience. I was having fun, laughing and smiling despite where I was. And without realising it, I forgot all about my guilt. For a short while I was able to just let go; to unshackle myself from the sense of duty and handed-down obligation that had compelled me to visit the Umschlangplatz and the non-existent remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto in the first place.
Instead of guilt, what I felt while playing soccer that afternoon was something totally different, and wholly unexpected. I was kicking a football around a field that more than half a century ago would have been smack-bang inside the Warsaw Ghetto. I was dripping with sweat in the afternoon sun, shouting out loudly and high-fiving with middle-aged Polish men who were otherwise complete strangers. And in so doing, I felt light and free and happy to be alive.
For the first time that day – perhaps for the first time in my life, actually – I felt like I was at peace with the memory of those who had suffered and died in the Holocaust; with the memory of my grandmother and her lost family and her murdered infant son after whom I am named; and with the memory of all those I will never know of, who had suffered and died in the very place where I was now running around like a happy, carefree child.
What can I say? I had no expectations of Warsaw at all, yet the city gave me soccer in the Ghetto – half an hour that I will always remember.
Featured Writer: Eytan Uliel