Monday, June 19, 2006

Destruction and Rebirth (June 19)

Yesterday I wrote that the area around the central train station in Warsaw seemed dreary. Today, as I passed by it again on the tram, I couldn't help but compare it in my mind to Lodz. Warsaw was leveled to the ground by the Nazis so virtually the entire city was rebuilt (much of it under the charm-impaired Soviets). Lodz, by contrast, has a great number of pre-war buildings. Yet it is Warsaw that is by far the more inviting place.

There is a great deal of energy in the streets, and well-dressed people in the shops, cafes, and restaurants. I just had lunch in a small cafe, where I looked out across the tree-lined street at a scene that could just as easily have been set in the area of D.C. where I used to work (which also featured charm-impaired architecture).

The meal, by the way, was quite good. The cafe/restaurant was called Nu Jazz Bistro and since it is strawberry season, they had a special menu featuring the fruit. I had the cold strawberry soup (with almonds, mint, and I think yoghurt) to start, followed by the strawberry-less grilled salmon with vegetables and frytki (fries). It was all delicious and the whole meal (including soda water and tip) came to 42 Zl (about $14).

This morning I went to the newly opened Museum of the Warsaw Uprising, which commemorates the occupation and destruction of Warsaw, culminating in the failed attempt to free the city from the Germans in August 1944. In some ways, this is a counterpart to the Museum of Terror that I visited in Budapest, but it is a far more effective museum.

First and foremost, it is bilingual. The Hungarian museum was exclusively intended to for domestic consumption; this musuem assumes international visitors will come. It is also not as crude, nor is it as tendentious. It also acknowledges (though in a way that mostly, though not entirely, minimizes) anti-Jewish prejudices among the Poles during the war.

The layout of the museum is slightly confusing, and I found it difficult at times to figure out where I was supposed to go next. The museum begins with a quick survey of the destruction wrought during the conquest and occupation of Warsaw by the Nazis, including some moving depictions of life, suffering, and death in the Warsaw Ghetto, including the ghetto revolt of 1943. From there it moves to the main subject of the museum: the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The first floor exhibit ends with the joy of the insurgents at the early victories over the Germans at the beginning of August 1944.

An elevator takes you to the mezzanine level where you see the attempts by the Poles to reestablish government in Warsaw, supply food and water to the population, and arms to the fighters. As the fighting turns for the worse, and as the Germans massacre entire neighborhoods of Warsaw, the exhibit traces the increasingly desperate situation of the fighters and the civilians surrounded in the Stare Miasto (the old town). With only limited supplies reaching them by air drop, and as Stalin's army sits quietly on the other side of the river, the Germans level the center of the city. Finally, the insurgents are forced to retreat from the Stare Miasto through the sewers, essentially isolating the now separate sections of Warsaw still under Polish control.

As you descend to the second floor there are a series of exhibits on fighters, including an extended interview with Marek Edelman, the only surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, who describes the liberation of the concentration camp established by the Nazis on the site of the former ghetto, and how the former inmates tried to volunteer to help defend Warsaw against the Germans. Many of them, however, were turned away when they tried to join the AK (the Polish Home Army), and so Marek describes how he joined the Communist People's Army, since they would accept Jews.

The exhibit then continues through the complete defeat of the insurgents and their surrender on October 2nd. In violation of the agreement, the Nazis proceeded to level the remainder of the city, in order to satistfy an enraged Hitler's order that Warsaw be removed from the map. All Polish sites were ranked in order of cultural importance and then dynamited. The entire population was ordered out of the city into holding camps, though thousands remained illegally in secret (such as Wladislaw Szpilman, the exhibit notes, who was depicted in The Pianists). They were known as "Robinsons" -- presumably a reference to Robinson Crusoe.

In the center of the floor is a full-size replica of one of the Allied planes that dropped supplies in an attempt to relieve the city. The museum itself is incomplete. It looks like they are building a replica of a bunker. Given the implicit (as well as explicit) criticism of the Soviet Union, such a museum only recently became possible.

Then I went to have the lunch described above; afterwards I decided to see some of the city that was rebuilt after the war. I took a tour of the royal apartments at the Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski). The communists had no desire to rebuild the symbol of the Polish monarchy, but popular initiatives led to its reconstruction in the 1970s and 80s. While the physical structure itself is entirely new, most of the interior is original. The paintings, decorations, and furnishings were hid during the war.

The apartments are very 18th century: all rococo and gilded wood and marble. Most interesting was the Canaletto Room, which holds the paintings of Warsaw done (actually by Canaletto's nephew -- he was trading on his uncle's name) in the 18th century, and used as guides as to how the city center should look.

I wasn't sure how to think about the recreated city core. I had similar questions in Gdansk (which was also almost entirely destroyed and rebuilt); but it seems to me that these are all, by their very nature, constructed artifices. They do not lose or gain authenticity. Is is more authentic to leave Hitler's ruinous policies in place? In the end, I think the recreations stand or fall in their own right.

On a side note, I've been in touch with Our Roots tours in Warsaw in order to arrange an English-language tour of the former ghetto and Treblinka. It looks like it's going to run about $260. That's more than I expected, but I think I would be pence-wise and pound foolish to pass it up. Also, since it's for the purposes of planning a course of taking students to Jewish sites in Eastern Europe, I think the expense is deductible. They won't stop me from trying to find someone interested in splitting the cost.

Now, it's time to decide where to have dinner tonight. I was pleased last night to be able to sleep until 6:45 this morning (although I briefly woke up at 5). Hopefully, this is a sign of getting my sleep schedule back on track.

No comments: