Stalin's *****

Stalin's "Gift" to Warsaw

FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2011 – On the road from Warsaw to Auschwitz.

President Obama is expected in Warsaw shortly. Yesterday’s evidence was a few stretches of police tape, pre-deployed caches of barriers and a military helicopter buzzing the Old Town. Other tour members found their restaurant patronized by a platoon of Polish and American Secret Service advance men. It turns out that the President is to dine there tonight: a good choice for its controllable isolation.

Warsaw Old Town Restaurant

A Restaurant in Warsaw's Old Town

Warsaw still reels from the devastation of World War II and the oppression and neglect of the “Communist Period.” What the Nazis hadn’t already destroyed they razed in their retreat. Hitler ordered Warsaw destroyed in retribution for its Polish uprising as the Russians pressed towards the city. What the Germans did not destroy escaped only because time failed. Warsaw lost half its 1.2 million inhabitants in World War II. Half the dead were Jews, who had made up a third of the prewar population.Warsaw today presents something approximating the mix of old and new that one might expect of a 700-year old city—but much of that impression is false. The Old Town has been carefully restored to look old, and escapes a Disneyland look partly through skilled art and partly through crepitude accelerated by poor construction. Photographs, paintings, architectural plans, and preserved artifacts were exploited to render the restored exteriors as faithfully as possible. Poland received no reparations from Germany for its rebuilding.

Warsaw Old Town Square

Warsaw Old Town Square Panorama

Communist Period period construction seems to deteriorate at a rate well beyond its age. Warsaw’s most prominent example is the Palace of Culture and Science—Stalin’s Gift the city (the locals use a different, vulgar word), designed by the same architect who built seven similar socialist temples in Moscow. This blackened, patched hulk, now 55 years old, appears much older.

Notebooki Serwis

Hmmm... Wonder what they do in this shop?

Only a single building, a church, survived in what had been Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto. The Nazis turned that sector to rubble after they herded its survivors—Jews who had not met death by plague, starvation, and brutality in the ghetto—to their death camps. Warsaw today holds a hundred churches—only two of them Protestant—and two synagogues. One of two Jewish Cemeteries, adjacent to the former ghetto, survives, not far from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial and the new Jewish Museum being constructed behind it (due to open in 2011—but we’d guess more likely next year).

Warsaw Jewish Cemetery

Warsaw's Jewish Cemetery

The Jewish Cemetery, as crowded with the deceased as the ghetto had been crowded with the briefly living, easily could absorb days of exploration. A shaded jumble of ancient and current headstones, some plain and some richly decorated, ends abruptly at an unmarked little field—a mass grave.

A Mass Grave in Warsaw's Jewish Cemetery

A Mass Grave in Warsaw's Jewish Cemetery

Our hotel, the Polonia Palace, sits on Jerusalem Street in the Centrum, a busy transportation, shopping, and hotel hub in the New Town. A warren of underground concourses—something like Rockefeller Center underground, with twice the people, half the breadth, and none of the polish— keeps vehicles and pedestrian limbs apart. Stalin’s tower sits nearby, next to one of the city’s many pleasant parks. A collection of eye-catching skyscrapers rises along this main drag.

Warsaw New Town Scyscrapers

Warsaw New Town Scyscrapers

A visitor constantly is drawn to think of the massacre, oppression, and devastation this soil, this city, this nation suffered during the War and its Communist aftermath. King Kazimierz the Great (1333-1370) actively recruited Jews to Poland when other nations were expelling them—believing that their presence would promote Polish prosperity. The Jews themselves prospered and multiplied (not to discount their ups and downs with the Poles). Like Israel in ancient Egypt, prospering until “a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph” rose to enslave them, Poland’s Jews enjoyed relative freedom and opportunity until the barbarian Nazis attacked Poland and virtually exterminated them, with 3 million other Poles. Even through the fields and forests along the highway from Warsaw to Krakow, one wonders what that terrain saw as Nazi tanks, trucks, and staff cars fanned out from these lanes to terrorize and decimate local populations in their Eastward drive.