11 – 12 August 2010
Having missed my intended train from Berlin I arrived in Warsaw late, it was after 11pm by the time I’d navigated my way out of the central station and to the tram stop. Laden up with all my important possessions in my backpack I found myself on a tram with a hastily scribbled set of directions for how to get to my hostel. I hadn’t written them down with the intention of finding the place in the dark; Scribbled on my paper I had the tram stop name then a right, another right and a left and then the name of the street my hostel was on. Fortunately my tram was modern with digital signs displaying the stops so I got off fine but then found myself stuck; it was dark with dodgy looking streets and I couldn’t find the first street to start my right hand turn onto.
Luck came my way when I asked a kebab shop owner, he had just setup business so didn’t know my street but described the area as “not safe to just go wondering around in” and insisted on calling his wife who got on the internet and looked the place up. Warmed by the owner’s generosity with his time and information I set out in the right direction and found my hostel. First day over, phew.
The following day was to be my only full day in Warsaw; I’d met a guy called Ken as I was leaving Berlin and he’d full heartedly recommended Krakow as a destination, noting its upbeat night life plus harrowing Auschwitz concentration camp history. With this recommendation I’d decided to rush through Warsaw to give myself a couple of days in Krakow. Meeting Ken is actually an interesting story in itself [and goes as follows]. Before leaving the hostel in Berlin I was in the common room with my backpack having checked out but briefly catching up on some internet time. On my left this guy sat down and got out his laptop, he looked ‘strangely familiar’. After a while I said that I thought I recognised him and he agreed, kind of. We soon figured out that we had both lived in Auckland and after a bit more narrowing we deduced that we had studied Property together at the University of Auckland – but never actually spoken before. He had been studying Property and Law while I had been studying Property and Commerce. Having travelled for multiple months I believe I can say with authority that travellers are more open to meeting people, but I still find it ironic that it was only in Berlin, thousands of miles from where we knew each other from that Ken and I managed to find the time to introduce ourselves.
Back to my full day in Warsaw where I was going to try experience Warsaw’s history by backpack. I set out on the tram and first stopped off at the US Embassy to try get some insight on how difficult it would be to get into the United States without an onwards ticket booked. They were polite but essentially re-stated the requirements given on their website, noting that at the end of the day it comes down to which particular guard you meet at the border crossing, and no doubt whether they’ve been having a good day so far. After the embassy I made my way to the Warsaw Uprising Museum which I recommend despite the crowds, Poland has such a war torn tragic history which I believe is epitomized in the Warsaw Uprising.
Beware, what follows is a summary of history, an eventful tragic history. The history of Warsaw from the start of WWII…
From my basic understanding of history, WWII started when the Nazi’s invaded Poland which prompted France and England to declare war on Germany; this declaration of war however did not send any help to Poland who were fending off the Nazi war machine with everything they had. The Poles will say that they were doing better than the French did against the Nazi’s when they were later invaded, but the final nail in the coffin came for the Poles when the Soviet Union broke the Soviet-Polish Non-Aggression Pact of 1932 and invaded Poland from the opposite front. So WWII starts with Stalin betraying Polish trust and the allies not being able to do anything to help.
Fast forward four years and eleven months through a period of nightmarish Nazi [And Soviet] occupation for the Polish people and you have 01 August 1944, the date the Warsaw Uprising was initiated. It is a sad testament to the cruelty and oppressive nature of the Nazi occupation that allowed the Home Army to band together so many followers who would fight with everything they had, holding nothing back; they had been placed in a position where they had nothing to lose. Between twenty and fifty thousand Poles took to arms against the oppressive Nazi occupiers in a conflict which lasted some sixty-three days with men, women and children fighting with whatever they could get their hands on against well armed and well trained Nazi soldiers. They fought on the streets, within buildings and in the sewers; and they could have won with a little support. However the nails were in the Polish coffin right from the beginning with Soviet hindrance, American selfishness and British weakness.
Essentially the Home Army had numbers and an incredible, desperate will to succeed; but they were short on supplies including munitions, food and a complete lack of heavy artillery. The goal of the uprising was simple, to liberate Poland from Nazi occupation and to establish a democratic government before the Soviet Red Army invaded who would no doubt try and establish a communist government under the Soviet umbrella. The Polish people were naturally wary of the Soviet Union having already been betrayed by Stalin at the beginning of the war, now they were officially on the same side against Fascism; but only since 1941 when Hitler broke the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 (Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact) by invading the Soviet Union.
History is disputed but accounts say Soviet tanks had approached to within fifteen kilometres from the East of Warsaw. It was in fact this presence which would be able to support the Uprising which had propelled the Home Army to initiate the operation against the Nazi’s; when the Uprising started Stalin however halted the tank advance and provided no assistance (Later on assistance was too little, too late). Stalin once again screws the Polish people. It is thought that by ordering a halt in the advancement Stalin essentially ensured that the Home Army would not succeed, later allowing the Red Army to advance in and ‘liberate’ Poland and setup Soviet communism.
The Polish government in exile frantically tried to get the Allies to provide assistance but they would not act without Soviet support. Not only were the Soviet’s not advancing their troops in assistance, but they were not allowing Allied planes on supply drop missions to Warsaw to land in Soviet controlled airports. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill telegraphed U.S. President Roosevelt on 25 August proposing sending planes in defiance of Stalin, to “see what happens”. Roosevelt, not wanting to upset Stalin before the Yalta Conference however replied “I do not consider it advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you”. Needless to say Roosevelt’s stance on this matter was a little unfortunate for the 150,000 to 200,000 civilian Poles who were mass murdered during the Uprising by advancing Nazi troops, plus the estimated 16,000 members of the Polish Home Army who were killed during the conflict.
We now know Heinrich Himmler with Hitler’s authorisation ordered “Every resident should be killed, it is not permitted to take any prisoners of war. Warsaw is to be levelled to the ground and thus create a frightening example for all of Europe”. Before the Uprising Warsaw was already in a partially destroyed state from the initial Nazi invasion and the previous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but after final surrender by the Home Army the Nazi’s brought in engineers and systematically demolished what was left of Warsaw’s buildings; block by block they levelled 35% of the city. By the end of the war 85% of the city had been completely destroyed including 94% of Warsaw’s historical buildings, over 10,000 normal buildings, 25 churches, 14 libraries and most of the cities historical monuments.
In my opinion the biggest Polish tragedy came after the war, after all their fighting for their own freedom they were still enveloped by the Soviet Union and had to endure communist rule until a peaceful revolution led to semi-free elections in 1989. For forty odd years the facts of the Uprising were ‘inconvenient’ to the communist government, not only were the efforts of the Home Army not recognised but the history was modified or completely banned.
… End of my summary on Warsaw’s tragic history.
And then I walked down the main street in Warsaw’s recreated Old Town, had a beer and dumplings and saw a museum which was once the house of Marie Curie.
And then my jandal broke. Moan.
And then my day was over…