Discovering historic Warsaw: The city that rose like a phoenix from the flames

Looks can sometimes be deceiving, as a visit to Warsaw proves. The squares and alleys of the bustling old town may look historic, but the majority of the buildings appreciated by visitors are actually fairly modern. It can in fact be said to be Europe’s youngest old town.

The buildings were skilfully re-built in recent decades to resemble how the city would have appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was compared favourably to places like Paris. And so successful was the restoration of the city that in 1980 UNESCO even awarded the old town world heritage status.

To understand why such a major re-building project you need go back to devastating events which began on September 1st 1939 when the Nazis began to drop bombs on Warsaw. And following the so-called Warsaw Rising in 1944, Hitler gave orders to raze the city and about 85% of buildings (95% of buildings in the old town) were wiped out. By the end of the war 800,000 people had perished. When the Red Army arrived in 1945 they found only about 1,000 people living in the ruins in Warsaw.

After the conflict was over there were a number of schemes proposed for the old town, including leaving the rubble and building a tourist railway circling it so that visitors could appreciate the destruction brought by the Nazis; turning the rubble into a pyramid or simply building new communist-style towers. But in the end, even though the government would not pay for the re-building (the old town was too closely associated with aristocracy and merchants for them), they allowed the people of Warsaw to re-build their historic buildings.


Warsaw’s origins can be traced back to 1313 when the dukes of Mazovia established a settlement where the Royal Castle is today. It became their seat of power for more than a hundred years, before being taken under direct rule of the king in Krakow.

But Warsaw was to recover to the extent that in 1596 King Zygmunt III Waza opted to move the capital there, an event commemorated by a towering monument erected in 1664 which can be found in Plac Zamkowy. And although the city suffered a devastating Swedish occupation from 1655 to 1660, it would go on to see considerable prosperity in the years that followed, particularly during the 18th century.

Unfortunately, following partition of Poland in 1795, it became a mere provincial town of the Russian Empire until 1806. And then Warsaw – as with much of the Poland – fell under Russian rule again in 1815 and it wasn’t until after the First World War that it regained its status as a capital city of a newly independent country.

And then came the devastating events of the Second World War.


When Warsaw fell to the Nazis in 1939 the German occupiers quickly sought to stamp their mark on the city. The military took over Polish owned buildings for their headquarters and other institutions were requisitioned for use by off duty German soldiers. German citizens enjoyed special privileges as well, with certain shops and other businesses reserved especially for their use.

While many Polish people were affected by the occupation, it was the 380,000-strong Jewish community in Warsaw (second only in size to the Jewish community in New York) that faced the biggest upheaval. Today only around 2,000 live in Warsaw. Jews initially needed to wear the Star of David to signify their religion. But then in October 1940, the Germans established the Warsaw Ghetto in the Muranow and Mirow districts of the city, bringing in 450,000 Jews from the surrounding areas in the months that followed.

In some respects life carried on as normal in the ghetto, with schools and theatres remaining open, and trams rattling along the streets. But a more accurate description perhaps was that of a concentration – it became extremely overcrowded and by 1942 100,000 Jews had died through starvation or disease.

Most of the traces of the ghetto have long gone, but there are surviving sections of the three metre high wall that it enclosed. Coloured stones in the ground also show the line of the wall, and at numerous positions around the city you can see whether you would be have been inside or outside the ghetto. Some 20 monuments, designed to look like sections of wall provide information about life inside the ghetto.


One of 20 monuments to the Warsaw Ghetto

Between 1942 and 1943 more than 300,000 Jews were transported from the ghetto to Treblinka, to the north of Warsaw for extermination as part of the Nazi’s Final Solution plan. The lost Umschlagplaz railway terminus from which they left is remembered in the form of a marble rectangular monument with 3,000 Jewish forenames carved into it. Its shape resembles that of a cattle truck on account of the wagons that victims travelled in.

Why such little survives of the ghetto is because in 1943 – when there were some 50,000 people left there – the Nazis decided to finally liquidate it. But the inhabitants didn’t go without a fight and in that year the Ghetto Uprising was launched. Sadly they were no match for the incendiary bombs that the Germans dropped on the district, followed after three weeks of heavy fighting by them tossing in a gas bomb. Those who lost their lives in the sad events 1943 are remembered in the vast Ghetto Heroes Monument, which stands in the park in front of the new Museum of the History Of Polish Jews.

Given the Nazis work at attempting to raise the ghetto entirely to the ground, it’s remarkable that any pre war masonry survives intact. Just three buildings survive – a hospital (now a school), SS barracks (now the psychology department of the University of Warsaw) and a church.

Some 400 synagogues were wiped out by the Nazis in Warsaw, the greatest of which stood where the blue Metlife skyscraper is today. And what was the centre of Jewish life in the city – a bustling street with numerous shops – is today merely a quiet car park, with a Pizza Hut on one side. The disused traces of tram lines in the cobbles are a reminder of how this was once a busy thorough-fare.


Once the centre of Jewish Warsaw


Site of Warsaw’s greatest synogue – wiped out during the Second World War

While for anyone who knows a little about Warsaw’s history, the Ghetto Uprising of 1943 is something they’ll be familiar of, the more famous battle took place the following year – the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. This was when the city – exactly who this consisted of was contested – decided it would have once last attempt at standing up to Germany and overthrowing the occupying forces. But sadly it was unsuccessful and as a punishment Hitler ordered that the city was raised to the ground.

“Warsaw has been destroyed, the past and the soul of Poland has been incinerated… After its loss we are nationally, culturally and spiritually impoverished,” wrote Stanislaw Cat-Mackiewicz.

The Warsaw Uprising is commemorated by a vast memorial encompassing life size bronze models depicting those who AK Home Army fighters who fought in 1944 in a bid to save their city. Across the road from here, coloured stones in the road mark the position where there would have been an entrance to the city’s sewers. It was here that 5,000 Poles managed to escape the Warsaw Uprising, but some did sadly perish – bodies were being found in the watercourses for many years.


Monument to the Warsaw Uprising

To get a fuller understanding of the Warsaw Uprising, it’s worth heading to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The order of the displays is slightly confusing, but the way the story is presented is still engaging nonetheless. Videos throughout give eye witness accounts of what it would have been like to have been there in 1944, as well as black and white pictures showing the destruction in the aftermath of the fighting. There is a Liberator bomber similar to the planes used to drop supplies to insurgents. And the museum has even attempted to mock-up what the sewers would have looked like.

What’s particularly interesting is to see the different perspective on the events in 1944, as this communist-influenced entry from the Encyclopaedia of the Second World War, published in 1975, proves: “The AK was an organization with a structure inappropriate for the needs of the ongoing fight against the German occupant, but instead intended to ensure that the Government-In-Exile could take over power in in the country through a popular uprising…. The AK command slowed down the armed struggle in accordance with the Allies’ policy of the ‘two enemies’ (Germany and the USSR). During the occupation, they conducted a policy of protection of the interests of the bourgeoise and landowners.” According to communist propaganda, it was the People’s Army that fought against the Germans, while the “London underground stood with the arms at their sides.”

Phoenix from the flames

While as already discussed, much of Warsaw’s old town was wiped out by the Nazis’ destruction, but there is one pre 1939 building that remain. St Anne’s church was only kept by the Germans because it was the highest building in the area and was used as an observation point. Today, the bell tower they used can still be visited.

The initial focus after the Second World War – between 1949 and 1963 – was on re-building the old town, while a near identical copy of the destroyed Baroque Royal Castle was completed in 1984 and boasts many original architectural fragments in its walls. Warsaw’s old town may not be as elegant as it was in years gone by, but it is still a fantastic place to visit and I think the restoration work skilfully carried out.

If people hadn’t campaigned so loudly to preserve the city’s heritage, visitors today would probably be looking at even more communist era tower blocks. It is a true phoenix that has risen from the flames.


Warsaw old town



Warsaw old town walls


Tracing the Warsaw Ghetto wall


Ghetto Heroes Monument


Categories: Poland

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