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Reflections on Warsaw in the Autumn

English: Destroyed Warsaw, the capital of Pola...

English: Destroyed Warsaw, the capital of Poland, January 1945 Polski: Stare Miasto po Powstaniu Warszawskim. Widok na Kanonię i Rynek. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Warsaw: Tuesday 23rd October 2012

The Photoplastikon

Never can a tourist attraction have been better concealed or more designed to deter the tourist. In a small grotto, entered through a nondescript door, hidden within an archway on the other side of a domestic courtyard, lies one of Warsaw’s  treasures and curiosities, the Fotoplasticon (, a 19 Century device utilising an early form of 3D technology to bring to life pictures. Seeming to defy modern tourism in its unpretentiousness and quirky charm, it is, none-the-less, for me, one of the must see attractions of Warsaw.

It is reputed to be one of the only surviving examples of such a machine anywhere in the world, and the only one occupying its original location. This all adds to its charm. There is no room to accommodate a tourist shop and relatively few people seem to find it, ensuring that there is no danger of having to wait for a seat.

Indeed its discrete appointment may very well be the reason why it has survived at all. According to the website, it appears to have served as a quiet and intimate place in which to carry out illicit activities against oppressive regimes or simply to indulge in nostalgia for more optimistic times.

Through it you are able to glimpse images of the City of Warsaw taken between 1901 and 1915. You are treated to a mixture of images including family pictures of a bourgeois Warsaw family at play and various images of the city’s streets and people.  Some of these are charmingly familiar. In one picture a mother poses with her two daughters, the eldest of which, perhaps 6 years old, sulks visibly, the injustice of her little life etched across her face for posterity, the picture of infant discontent. In another picture, a short young lad little more than a boy appears to have been stopped in his hurried tracks by the sudden realisation that he is passing this curious contraption. Evidently, in a hurry, it is easy to imagine, him moving on about his business seconds later, perhaps never to contemplate whether his image has been captured or whether it will be gazed upon by curious foreigners a century hence.

To me, most haunting are the images of children, gathering around this curious contraption with curious and sometimes amused expressions. It was a time of optimism, when the world was alive with new inventions, promising betterment to their lives. Some of these were mechanical, some political or ideological, some medical.

Their lives were to be 20th Century lives. And gifted the benefit of hindsight denied them by the camera’s oblique lens, we are left with the knowledge, that for many of those young individuals, cheeky, sulky, defiant or proud in the face of this new technology, that the 20 century would be an impossibly cruel and scarring century in which to live.

One girl in particular stands out, for me. Clad in a shawl, plump and unpretty, she stands brazen and bold; standing at an angle to the camera, she none-the-less returns the lens’ impartial gaze, unabashed and clear about the person she is. It seems to me that hers is the face of Warsaw in the 20 century, the face that would turn itself with heroism and reckless bravery and optimism to the torments thrust upon this city by the forces of ideology, industrialisation and mechanised war. An honest, face with little visible pretence but a ready and shameless self-possession, uncomplicated and ready to stand up to the judgements of the camera’s eye.

Whatever became of this girl, who in probability only ever had one image cast of her during her entire life? The answer, given the succession of indignities that were to befall her city during the natural span of her life, may be too terrible to contemplate.

warsaw overview

Warsaw overview (Photo credit: comzeradd)

Busy, Autumnal Warsaw

For the third day running, the Polish Capital has a deeply autumnal feel. A thick blanket of insulating cloud hangs over the city. Its grey featurelessness is misleading, hinting at cold but bathing the city in its own residual humidity. Consequently several of the city’s residents appear uncomfortable, wrapped in winter clothes they do not in fact need. The city’s coffee shops bear witness to the multiple misjudgments, their coat stands, laden with scarfs, hats and thick insulated coats. Though far from warm, the air is damp and still, clingy.

The last time I wrote of this city it was summer and Warsaw was expansive and willing to bask; alive with laconic, colourful youth and a certain lazy fertility. Now, much as it was on my first visit, just over a year ago, Warsaw seems to have retreated into itself as though preparing to hibernate. The damp falling maple leaves, their yellow core and brown extremities, form an insulating carpet along the pavement of Grzybowska Street, where lunching office workers scurry off for a stolen hour of sandwiches or coffee, quieter, and speedier than they were in the summer; less willing to linger now that the sun cannot caress their skin.

Warszawa’s residents are brisk and business-like (Although, they are, as always unfailingly polite and friendly); its streets are now work-a-day and unglamorous.

Warsaw has decided collectively to forget the pleasures of the summer and to focus on the immediate task of getting things done. Like the red squirrels in Lazienkowski Park, this is a busy time for the Warsaw citizenry. Winter is coming.

Compared to most European Capitals, Warsaw is a hard-working place. It takes fewer holidays and works longer hours. And yet, Warsaw does not seem, to me at least, to be affected by the ruthless ambition and drive of a New York or a London. It is somehow humbler, less spangly and macho, driven by a subtly different ethic.

This appears to have affected the course of Warsaw’s relentless expansion. A trip to the viewing gallery at the top of the Palace of Culture and Science allows you to look out over the rapidly evolving skyline along the northerly thoroughfare of Jana Pawla II, where sky-scrapers, and the concrete skeletons of soon-to-be sky-scrapers give meaning to the term by brushing the low clouds with their climbing form work or illuminated signage. The new additions are slowly taking shape, cladding themselves in glass and steel, as shy women clad themselves in the grey morning light; with perfunctory delicacy, deliberately oblivious to the prying, admiring eyes fixed upon them.

The view from the top of the palace of Culture is complimented by a long wrap-around, Perspex clad photograph of the same view taken in the year 2000. None of the high-rise buildings were present and it takes a moment to orientate the mind to these very different views of the same space. Where now there is a large shopping centre, then there was merely a road system servicing the concrete barn of Warszawa Centralna Railway Station. Where now there is the gravity defying Intercontinental Hotel Building, then there had been only a nondescript office block.

And the expansion here is unremitting and unsentimental. When I first visited here, just over a year ago it was to support my partner in a job interview. While she was being interviewed, I crossed the road and drank coffee in the foyer of the Mercure Frederik Chopin Hotel, an elegantly understated place serving delicious cakes and fondant’s with cultured understatement. Now it is no  more. The demolition men are in the final stages of reducing the remaining concrete shell of this (relatively modern) hotel to its foundations. Before the Autumn is out, the site will be ready to be claimed by a contractor, and the next chapter of Warsaw’s high rise renaissance will commence.

Warsaw appears to be in a state of permanent renewal and regeneration, slowly transforming itself into a front-line Central European Financial and Service Centre. Yet it is a transformation of a strictly limited kind. The rapid development of the Central Business District is not reflected by equivalent redevelopments of the grand Communist folly of Marszal Kowska Avenue, whose wide boulevard and grandiose facades, adorned with the Socio-Realist images of the foot soldiers of revolution, seem tailor-made for an equivalent retail led renaissance.

Perhaps this will come in time, driven by market demand rather than the pioneering vision’s whose good intentions have so often scarred this city.

My first impressions of Warszava were of a deeply sad place, never quite shedding the collective pain of its virtual destruction during the war. Yet a year on, I have been privileged to get to know this city a wee bit better, develop, what I hope is a more nuanced view.

What seemed like sadness is, I think, only a single layer of the onion. And with each act of renewal and embrace of modernity, with each tearing down of the old and erecting of the new, Warsaw performs a sort of mental consecration, adding layers of memory and colour against which to contrast its blackest collective memories.

For Warsaw defies easy descriptions. And despite the constant rebuilding and renewal, each era leaves its mark, a fresh layer to be pulled back. The 20 Century unleashed upon Warsaw a traumatic series of revolutions so seismic in their ideological and violent scale, that the mere fact of the city’s continued existence is a testament.

Warsaw a century ago

Were we to visit the Warsaw of 1912, we would enter a different place, altogether, the great ideological forces of Bolshevism, fascism, nationalism and liberalism were all there in proto-form, awaiting their moment. The world was changing, Warsaw had by then, its first motor car, purchased in 1905. But walking through Saski Park, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, you would have been greeted with an impression of a cosily complacent provincial city, quietly prosperous, with a wealthy bourgeois presiding over a poor peasantry.Saski

It was not the Polish capital. There was no such place as Poland. Rather this formed a beautiful regional city of the Tsar’s Russian empire. Although Polish was spoken, the signs above the shops would have been in Cyrillic, the newspapers, and coins would have been likewise. To get on in Warsaw would have required a working knowledge of Russian and the complex system of patronage required in any large country. Yet, to the north lay East Prussia, to the south Silesia, and to the west, Saxony. German power both militarily and geographically, was within touching distance.

Within three years, Warsaw would be in German hands, lines of Prisoners wearing Russian uniforms, some of them Poles, would be led through the city by pumpernickel wearing Prussians, some of whose homes now lie within Poland’s modern borders.

Less than two years after that, The Bolshevik revolution would sweep away the country of Russia. A year after that, Germany too, would be defeated and in 1919, Poland herself would return to the concert of nations. By 1920, Poles would be invading The Soviet Union, asserting the opportunity of the Bolshevik Civil War to enhance her own territorial integrity. In that same year, the great orthodox cathedral that had stood in Saski Square, would be pulled down, the era of Russian orthodoxy, both religious and political had ended. In fewer than three years, Warsaw had been part of three countries. Yet this development, while rapid and elegiac in scale, was really little more than the opening chapters in the struggle for Warsaw and Poland’s future.

The destruction of the orthodox cathedral, would have appeared within a context of the gradual reassertion of Polish ethnic, political and national identity. Cyrillic would give way to Roman script, Russian to Polish as the language of bureaucratic governance. Yet this new Poland, would in 1920 have just 19 years to assert itself before the next great schism would arrive in the form of blitzkrieg.

The Mauzoleum Walki i Meczenstwa: The former Gestapo interrogation cells

In a basement beneath what is today the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Education, on Al. Szucha in the pleasantly leafy and prosperous south of the city, lies a mausoleum. The building itself is curious, portraying a funny sort of faceless, blank power, designed to impress by scale rather than detail. Yet its previous function was the antithesis of impersonal bureaucracy implied by its facade. For what went on in this building was intimate, excruciating and deeply invasive.

The accusatory recording played in English and Polish as you enter, reminds you that you are on consecrated ground. It goes on to inform you that this was the headquarters of the Gestapo (Nazi Secret police) between 1939 and 1944. It advises that the terrible interrogations and ordeals inflicted in the cells here and in interrogation rooms throughout the building, were in many cases just the start of cruelties which would continue in the notorious Pawiak Prison and lead to concentration camps.

Modern, interactive screens outline in terrible detail the sheer scale of murder that went on in the city and in its surrounding villages (Now clean, modern suburbs populated by young families). First in the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, then in the suppression of the Warsaw rising of 1944, and continually, on a lower level in the months of the occupation, murder was systemic, retributive, and unceasing.

Buildings upon which now hang signage facia’s and satellite dishes, instead saw the hanging of people in a medieval warning against descent. Horrifying statistics about the weight of human ashes recovered at the end of the war, remind us on a curiously inhuman level, that more than a third of Poles ceased to exist during the five years of World War II.

The Mauzoleum Walki i Meczenstwa, is just one of the memorials to this time which exist in every corner of this city. Yet, what interested me about it more than anything was the character of the visitors on this overcast, still Sunday. Overwhelmingly, they were Polish, young, couples, at a guess between 20 and 30. I can only speculate as to their reactions. Perhaps some left outraged, others saddened, others scared. Perhaps some left with a new idea of the indignity of human suffering or the capacity of people to behave as humans seldom allow ourselves to believe we can.

Whatever the reaction, be it reflective, angry, maudlin, despairing or patriotic, it is rare to see the young so intimately engaged in an act of remembrance; rarer still to see it voluntarily committed as an act of pilgrimage on a normal, run-of-the-mill Sunday.

The Nazi’s never valued Warsaw, or saw any reason for a city on this spot as part of their wider vision. Little wonder then that the map of pre-war Warsaw is so difficult to marry to its modern incarnation.

Its rebuilding, can be (and frequently is) celebrated as a triumph of the will of its people to renew and to overcome the horrors that had befallen their nation. The tragic heroism of the Poles in rising against the Nazi’s in 1944 and their betrayal by their allies, most blatantly by the Red Army, who occupied the suburb of Praga on the eastern bank of the Visla (Vistula) River and could have intervened at any time they chose,  is well told elsewhere.

Yet to my mind this narrative is too trite, too self-satisfied, and it leaves something unstated that continues to pervade Warsaw today.

For there remains something empty at the heart of Warsaw; something which truly becomes apparent at this time of year, when the leaves fall and the still air seems to carry the whispers of those who suffered, lost, lived and died.

For no hunger leaves a whole in the belly so great as guilt, and all of Warsaw seems to carry on in the face of a collective fear of this emotion. It is articulated in the grand artistic optimism of Communist inspired architecture, in the empty chocolate box perfection of the rebuilt Old Town, in the hurried way the people of Warsaw pass about their business crossing memorials to the Ghetto, or the sacrifices at monte Casino, or the rising. It whispers to you in the veneration of the Polish Pope and the conscientiousness of the Polish work ethic. Most of all, it reveals itself in the goodness of the Poles I have met, and in the sad optimism which seems to characterise their day-to-day conduct.

That whispering guilt: it echoes in the minute ripples of a dead leaf on its final spiralling journey:  Forget us a-while, engrossed in your daily toils, we persons of the last century. Forget us and build a better tomorrow, for we shall stare out at you from the old photos and quiet corners and sit in silent judgement upon those for whom the devil makes work.

The guilt of Warsaw lives not  in the thought that one might forget at all, but in the knowledge that one must temporarily forget in order to do justice to the memory at all.

2 comments on “Reflections on Warsaw in the Autumn

  1. Good day! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of
    my previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this.
    I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read.
    Thank you for sharing!

  2. I quite like reading through an article that can make people think.
    Also, many thanks for allowing for me to comment!

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