We are now visiting Poland with our first stop in Warsaw. There are 1.7 million people living in this city and the Polish population numbers around thirty-eight million people. It is located on the Vistula River, roughly 260 kilometres from the Baltic Sea. We had a six-hour flight from Dubai and have gone from temperatures in the low 40’s to those here of around 30 C. We were glad to get into our room after a short wait and change and shower after our 4.00 am start in Dubai.
It was an interesting drive into the city from the airport. We passed many palaces, gardens and grand buildings. We were looking forward to exploring them. Some of these grand buildings are occupied by foreign embassies and the most notable, in a huge area of gardens, is the Russian Embassy. With a history of Soviet occupancy, it seems ironic that the neighbouring building is the Polish Department of Defence.
I had not linked many of the famous names in history as being Polish, but there are lots of famous people that came from here. There are monuments to them in public places and on many buildings. Famous Poles include (just to name a few) Nicholas Copernicus (the founder of modern astronomy, Marie Curie (pioneered research into radiation), Frederick Chopin (Composer) , Arthur Rubenstein (Pianist), Joseph Conrad (Author), Werner Von Braun (Rocket Scientist) and, of course, Karol Jozef Wojtyla (Pope John Paul 2). Poland has been no slouch in contributing ability to the world!
After settling into our hotel (Le Regina) which is conveniently located just outside the old town, I went out to explore and see what I could find. Warsaw is sometimes called a ‘Phoenix’ city as when the Germans left at the end of WW2, they left the city in complete ruins. There virtually wasn’t a building left standing (other than the few that they had occupied as government buildings). Over 80% of the city was destroyed. The old town that I was walking around is, in fact, the newest old town in the world. It was completely rebuilt between 1950 and 1953. These photos show the state of the city square at the end of the war in 1945 and as I saw it today.
Not many Australians know much about the history of this country. Whilst it has a major influence in the area of Eastern Europe, it has been fought over for centuries with the Poles losing and regaining their identity and territory continuously.To understand some of the other places that we visited on our walk, and on our half-day tour this morning, it will help if I provide a brief outline of Polish history and events that have shaped the city and the country.
The written history of Poland began in the 10th century. It was invaded by the Mongols in 1241-42. By the early 14th century Poland became a strong and unified state and by the 16th century, it had become very prosperous. The 17th century was a troubled one for the country. At that time the Poles had control over the Ukrainian Cossacks. However, in 1648 they rebelled and in 1654 the Russians joined the Cossacks in a war against the Poles. In 1655 the Swedes invaded Poland (as they did in many other countries around the Baltic Sea). However, the Poles rallied and the war with Sweden ended in 1660. Through the 1700’s Poland continued its political and military decline. Prussia and Russia took advantage of the lack of strong central government to interfere and by 1793, Russia and Prussia had divided Poland and taken much of its territory. In 1794 the Poles rebelled but they were crushed by the Prussians and Russians. Finally, in 1795 Prussia, Russia and Austria divided the last part of Poland between them. The Polish king abdicated and the Polish state ceased to exist. Then it was France’s turn to become involved. In 1807 Napoleon turned some of the Polish territories into the Duchy of Warsaw, a French satellite state. In 1812 almost 100,000 Poles fought with Napoleon against Russia. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the great European powers divided up the continent. Poland was divided between Prussia, Russia and Austria. Prussia took the western and northern part of Poland while Russia took the centre and east. Poland eventually regained its freedom after the First World War. In 1916 the Germans conquered the Russian held parts of Poland. On 11 November 1918, the day of the German surrender, the Poles took charge of their country and the German troops were expelled. In 1919 Poland fought a brief war with Czechoslovakia. However a much longer war was fought against the Russia Bolsheviks between 1919-1921. Meanwhile in the 1930s Poland was threatened by both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. In 1939 the two signed a secret agreement to divide Poland between them. Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and parts of Poland were absorbed into Germany. The Russian-occupied parts of Poland were absorbed into the Soviet Union. The German-Soviet occupation of Russia meant terrible suffering for the Polish people. After Germany was defeated the Russians took over the entire country and communism was imposed on the Poles. By 1970, a series of enormous food price hikes occurred and the people demonstrated and a series of crippling strikes began. This resulted in the creation of the ’Solidarity’ movement which was led by Lech Walesa, an electrician in the Gdansk Shipyards.In 1988, the Communists gave in and talks began between them and Solidarity (which by then had been recognised as an alternate political party). In 1990, Lech Walesa was elected President and in October 1991 free elections were held. In 1997 Poland gained a new constitution and it joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.
So, as you can see, poor Poland has a long history of unrest and invasion. During many of these events, people have suffered extreme cruelty and hardness. I admire the resilience of the Polish people!
Near the centre of the city is a large 72-hectare park – the Lazienki Park. This was a royal park owned by one of the elected kings of Poland in the 1760’s. It contains the Chopin Memorial which is surrounded by beautiful lawns which are for viewing only – no games or picnics as we would assume to be natural in our own parks. It seems to have an attitude of ‘look, but don’t touch’.
In the park, there are a number of palace buildings that are beautifully set into the gardens, along with many ponds and water features. Some of these were damaged or destroyed by the Nazis but have now been renovated and rebuilt. An open air theatre sits on one side of a large lake and is reminiscent of a Roman theatre with the stage separated from the seating area by water.
To the east of the city is the old ghetto area in which the Nazis impounded the Jewish population of the city. Many Jews had escaped to Poland from the Russian Pogroms throughout the 1800’s and by 1940 around 9% of the Polish population were Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of all the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. It was established between October and November 16, 1940, with over 400,000 Jews from the vicinity forced to live in an area of 3.4 km2. The death toll among the Jewish inhabitants of the Ghetto, between deportations to extermination camps, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the subsequent razing of the ghetto, is estimated to be at least 300,000. The Polish Jewish community suffered the most in the Holocaust. About six million Polish citizens perished during the war, half of them (three million) Polish Jews.
The following occupation of Poland by the Soviets was just as bad – perhaps even worse. This Memorial commemorates millions of Polish citizens who were deported by the Soviet authorities to various parts of the USSR. Many did no return – they either died or were simply exterminated. It also commemorates twenty-two thousand Polish victims of the Katyn Massacre – an attempt by the Russians to eradicate the Polish Officer Corps. Several of 41 railway sleepers on the monument representing a railway waggon are marked with the names of the Soviet PoW camps: Kozielsk, Ostashkov and Starobielsk. From these camps, the prisoners of war (mainly Polish officers) were transported to killing sites of the Katyn Massacre at places that include Katyn, Kalinin and Kharkov respectively.
From my experience on a previous visit to an occupation museum in Riga (Latvia), my impression is that the Soviets were even worse occupiers than the Nazis. However, the Russians did rebuild the city of Warsaw and almost every historic looking building has actually been built in the last fifty years. The old Royal Pace is a good example of this (as are buildings on the beautiful ‘Royal Parade’).
By the way, the famous Warsaw Concerto was not written by one of the classical composers as many people may think. It is a short work for piano and orchestra by Richard Addinsell and was written for the 1941 British film Dangerous Moonlight, which is about the Polish struggle against the 1939 invasion by the Nazis. It is often referred to as a ‘tabloid concerto’. In performances. it normally lasts just under ten minutes. The concerto is an example of programme music, representing both the struggle for Warsaw and the romance of the leading characters in the film. It became very popular in Britain during World War II.