The Barbican fortification in Warsaw, Poland. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Scandinavian Travels 2016: Poland, Part 1

My intended travels to the other Scandinavian countries took an abrupt turn when I added Poland and the Baltic States to my itinerary. I flew from Copenhagen, Denmark to Warsaw, Poland. Poland was a place I had read so much about and wanted to visit, and since I had extra time, I took advantage of the opportunity to go there. Poland was a neighbor across the Baltic Sea from Scandinavia and Warsaw, the capital, was once called “the Paris of the north.” I checked into my hotel, centrally located within walking distance to Stare Miasto (old town) and historic parts of the city.

Across Krolewska Boulevard, in front of my hotel, is a park with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Bordering the park is a large concrete square; as I left my hotel, I saw many military units marching into a grand formation in front of a viewing stand. Dignitaries were escorted to the platform, and soon a military band began playing, while a crowd was forming. I watched in the crowd for a few minutes before turning my attention to another side of the square where a grand concert stage was being built. In the next couple of days, the stage became grander with lighting and fixtures being assembled for the arrival of the pope, who was coming in a few days for the World Youth Conference.

From the moment I stepped into Warsaw, I was reminded of the greatest tragedy in our living history. During WWII from 1939 to 1944, Poland suffered so drastically and Warsaw was made an example by Hitler, who personally ordered the entire city blown up block by block by the German army. Then it was under the control of Russia until the collapse of USSR; finally in 1989, Poland began to rebuild. The citizens of Warsaw proudly claim that they rebuilt their city without financial aid from NATO or other countries. As I walked along many streets and avenues and boulevards, I thought of this history.

I walked to Stare Miasto several times to check out the shops and eat in the small cafes. It dates back to the 14th century, of course all rebuilt as authentically as possible, in the exact size of the original buildings, with all their colors and details of facades and trim. This was difficult, as all records were destroyed with the city razed to the ground. They pieced together information from several paintings, mostly from the Royal Castle, that were hidden in caves. The castle burned in 1939 at the beginning of the war. Museum workers risked their lives to save many of the great masterpieces, furniture, and art collections. They used the heavy doors inside the castle to carry out the valuable pieces. In 1944, the city of Warsaw was bombed to the ground. The movie Monuments Men is about this castle in Warsaw. In 1971-84, the Royal Castle was rebuilt. It is grand and ominous with hundreds of rooms.

In Stare Miasto, near the Royal Castle and the Market Square, stands the Augustinian Monastery, the Church of St. Martin, the Church of Our Lady of Grace, the Barbican (a fortification), and the Gunpowder Bastion. The high protective walls were all rebuilt, as well as the town houses. The movie The Piano was filmed here. It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of destruction and death in this one city. I walked in another area of Warsaw, where on October 2, 1940, all Jews were ordered to this district. A month later 450,000 Jews were herded into this 307 hectare (3 square kilometers) part of Warsaw, with 3 meter high walls built with barbed wire on top. There were two sections, the big ghetto and the little ghetto, separated by a wooden pedestrian bridge. The conditions were deplorable and over 100,000 died there before July 22, 1944 when the rest of the thousands were taken daily by trains “to the east.” There is a Holocaust Museum at one part of this area.

My walks take me everywhere, in the cities, in the countryside, and in the mountains. Each is different and each is purposeful. In Warsaw, I remembered why we must never forget the past.

(posted November 29, 2016)