Travel Tip: Navigating your way around Poland isn’t as easy as in some other areas of Europe, so, if you go (and you should) I strongly recommend a good local travel agent. I was fortunate to find one of the best, and can make this recommendation without reservation: Anna Ostrowska/ INTOPOLAND / http://intopoland.com
January 19th – 20th Warsaw
If you were Polish, young or old, you’d know who this guy is…
- Józef Piłsudski, number one Polish hero, with a bullet (literally), and the most amazing eyebrows in rcorded history. Bymost accounts its a shame Pilsudski died shortly before the Nazi’s really took hold in Germany, because people think that he had such international stature that he could have done something to head off the catastrophe, both for Poland and the world.
- Lazienski Park is the oldest of the parks in Warsaw and one of the oldest in all of Europe. It was the refuge of choice for European nobles on the lam. They spared no expense on the palaces that dot the park, and they have been maintained well. Most of them are now in the Public Trust, but a few remain in the hands of families that go back many generations.
- During our walk in Lazienski Park, our guide took pride, it was clear, in showing us these original structures in this pristine setting. Her words were tinged with sadness, however, since it is these buildings– and only these– that survived the war. The rest of the city was systematically leveled byt he Nazi’s, building by building, as we would see when our tour left the park…
I was shocked. I hadn’t known. I thought I knew, but I didn’t, I was mistaken and misinformed.
As it turns out, that’s no accident…
I thought the “Warsaw Uprising” referred specifically and exclusively to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the one that occurred from April 19th to May 16th, 1943, and was the largest single revolt by the Jews during the war, taking place in the walled—off areas of the Jewish quarter of Warsaw.
The ghetto had become a squalid, desperate and horrific penitentiary, a holding area, really, (and this they all came to understand) while awaiting the inevitable deportation to the death camps. From July 23 to September 21, 1942, between 250,000 and 300,000 people from the Ghetto had been sent to their deaths at Treblinka.
Then, with unimaginable bravery, they took up arms. As a kid I had read Leon Uris’ 1961 novel Mila 18—Mila 18 being the Warsaw street address of the Jewish Resistance’s secret headquarters and, ultimately, the scene of ferocious, albeit futile, fighting. Still a remarkable and evocative book, it played a large role in bringing that event to the consciousness of the world after the war had ended.
So, when I earmarked some time to spend at the “Museum of the Warsaw Uprising”, I assumed it was about the Jewish uprising in the Ghetto, the one Uris had written about.
It’s not. It’s about what is locally more often referred to, in translation, as “The Rising” and it involved tens of thousands of resistance fighters, known as the Polish Home Army, throughout Warsaw, an army that had been secretly cadging arms and supplies and building underground hiding places for years, learning to navigate through the sewer system, waiting for the opportune moment to strike at their captors, with that moment being defined as the time when doing so, knowing the toll it would take, would most be most likely to lead to liberation, to riddance, and, even better, extinction, of these detested Germans, forever.
Here are some statistics, to give you an idea:
It is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians died, mostly from mass murders conducted by troops fighting on the German side. German casualties totaled over 2,000 soldiers killed, 7,000 missing, and 9,000 wounded.
The museum itself is astonishing and award-winning, with all kinds of inter-active displays as well as moving and poignant details. For example, there are large walls consisting of nothing but the red and white armbands, hundreds of them that the underground soldiers all wore. There is a concentrated effort to collect as many as possible, from attics and pressed between diary pages all over Poland. As you look at this display, you remember that each one was worn proudly and with inconceivable bravery by men, women and even children throughout Warsaw during the rising. You notice, from time to time, the unmistakable rust-brown residue of blood stains. The red badge of courage, indeed…
Afterwards, when it was over, the resistance crushed, the makeshift hospitals torched while full, when it was quiet again, when there was nothing further to be lost or gained by either side, it was then that the Nazi’s essentially threw a tantrum and set about leveling any building or item that had any use or cultural significance to the Poles. From corner to corner, they brought Warsaw to the ground.
Eisenhower had seen many devastated cities as he swept across Europe, but when he got to Warsaw, even he was shocked. “I have seen many towns destroyed, but nowhere have I been faced with such destruction,” he said, and it was true.
So why have we in the West not heard more of this?
Prior to 1989, even the Poles, at least the ones who weren’t there and didn’t live through it—heard almost nothing about it. The communists, during their “soft communism” occupation of Poland beginning right after the war (actually, before the war even ended, officially) that lasted until ’89, completely cleansed all mention of it from the histories and the schools.
It is only since then that the truth has been emerging, slowly at first and then with increasing momentum and burgeoning pride within the Polish Patriots, and now it is beginning to form a central core of Polish self-understanding.
We haven’t heard of it because its ultimate futility, the fact that, arguably, it accomplished absolutely nothing other than the meaningless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the complete destruction of one of Europe’s oldest and most beautiful cities. And we haven’t heard of it because that very futility was not born of a lack of determination or courage or planning or strategy on the part of the Poles. It flowed from a betrayal so profound, primarily on the part of the Russians but also, secondarily and no less shamefully on the part of the British and the Americans, that the Russians have actively tried to suppress information about it while the Westerners have left it to benign neglect, moving on to other things, pretending it’s shadowy presence in our peripheral vision doesn’t grow so intrusive that we actually pay any attention to it—because doing so would say nothing good about our behavior, nothing good at all.
You see, the Russians were on the outskirts of Warsaw. A large, well-equipped, fully capable Russian army was within a few Kilometers of the center of Warsaw, and they were ready and able to attack the Germans in the city.
That’s why the Polish Resistance pushed the button and unleashed “The Rising”. They would wreak havoc behind the lines, pull the rug out from underneath the Germans while the Russians gave them the knockout punch, and that should take only a few days and then this long, horrible nightmare will be over and Poland can be Poland again.
But the Russians never came. They stood by and watched while the people were slaughtered and the city was leveled and it went on day after day and week after week and the resistance held out and kept fighting against absurd odds, and they died and they bled and they begged the Russians to make their move.
But the Russians stood fast, and that’s why some call this the first battle of the Cold War.
You see, the Russians didn’t want to liberate Warsaw with the Polish, or even worse, help the Polish liberate Warsaw for themselves. The Russians wanted to take Warsaw from the Germans—because then it would be theirs, as spoils. So they let the Germans take care of their little political problem, by eliminating any Polish capability, by laying waste to Polish morale, so that the Poles couldn’t have any ideas of deserving or having “won” self-governance or independence. No, let’s let the Germans eliminate the Poles, and only then will we, the Russians, eliminate the Germans.
The West, for reasons that have been speculated about and argued about for decades, did nothing.
So the Russians came in afterwards and then there was the Warsaw pact, and it was all over for the Polish, and they lived under a dark gray blanket of communism for the next forty years, until Russia got weak, piece by piece, step by step, and Poland got strong, piece by piece and step by step, and someone who had a bit of the same charisma as Pilsudsky, a Pope, as it happens, and, too, someone else who rose from obscurity and entered the history books, someone named Lech Walesa, they all rode the big shoulders of Solidarity, the great polish union, to freedom.
And now everything has changed, again. There is brightness and commerce and hope and most of the young people already know English and many of them are learning Russian because “That’s where the business is; that’s where the money is” even though the long years of Russian domination has created in them the firm belief that Russians are, basically, clowns, but clowns that had too much power then and have a lot of natural resources now, and there’s money and opportunity and… well, that’s what capitalism is all about.
And many of the Poles think to themselves, in quiet moments, about fathers and grandfathers and the women of the day, of that day, and they think—if only, if only those thousands who died in Warsaw in those dark and exhilarating days, if only some of them had lived to see the day…
A book worth noting:
Quiet Hero by Rita Cosby
A fighter nearly lost to history, like so many others…
They are collecting the armbands, the scarlet and white armbands that they made by the thousands and then the tens of thousands and stored away until the day the word went out, that day, finally, in August of 1944 and they put them on and began to fight back against the Nazis, in what would become, some say, the most magnificent display of doomed courage that the world has ever known. 200,000 Polish fighters and civilians would die, and 20,000 German occupiers, in 63 days.
They are asking people to look for the armbands, to seek them out, even after all these years, to find them in the attics and dust-covered boxes and tattered suitcases that have been shut for decades, to seek out these armbands, as many as possible, and send them to the museum, the one they were finally allowed to make in Warsaw after the Russians weren’t there anymore to prevent it, to prevent it so that the world would know as little as possible about The Rising, the one that should have lasted a few days, just long enough for the Russians to come in from across the river where they were encamped, and where the resistance fighters knew they were encamped. The Russians had arrived, finally, yes, better the Americans, but at least someone was there to liberate them from this long, grotesque nightmare. They were there, the Russians, and that’s why the armbands were snatched from their thousands of hiding places and put on with pride and hope and a ferocious determination. They would knock the Germans on their heels, soften things up and then the Russian army would come in and take care of the rest, because they were right there, the Russians…
But it didn’t last a few days, this “Rising”, it lasted 63, until more than 200,000 died and the city lay in ruins, because the Russians decided to sit and watch. It was politics that anticipated cold war strategy, and if there is a forgiving God, maybe they can be forgiven, but it’s hard to imagine.
So you can go to the Museum, the Museum of The Rising, and you can see hundreds of these armbands displayed under glass on a large wall that goes to the ceiling, and some of them, a few of these armbands, have rust-colored stains, as they sit in the case under the glass in the museum, and as you look you understand that these stains are blood from over sixty five years ago, and you know that each armband and each bloodstain holds a story and a great drama. Each one holds the story of a life, a particular life, and now all that is left is the armband and the stain, here and there, and you wish that each armband could miraculously transmogrify into the whole person and you could say to them, “Tell me your story. Tell me what happened”, because you sense that buried in the agony and the despair and the stupefying heroism represented by each armband is some sweet, precious truth, something we need to know, something it’s important not to lose, if only we could reach out and reach in and tease it from these utterly heartbreaking artifacts.
Rita Cosby’s father wore one of those armbands. His story, at least, we now have, and we can treasure it and be grateful to Ms. Cosby for embarking on the painful and ultimately enriching personal journey that captured it before it could disappear forever, leaving only the armband and a suitcase full of enigmatic clues behind.
That it was, at the same time, a journey to understand, finally, the father she never knew, provides the tale with even greater depth and dimension, so that it becomes not only about the armbands and the people who wore them, but about the courage it takes for a child to be willing to, in some measure, parent the parent, and, by so doing, to heal the wounds of both.
The facts, the story, the drama of her courageous father and his fellow child warriors, are all here, well told. When you finish it you will like Rita Cosby even more, you will have learned something about a time and a place that need to be better known, you will wonder how many seemingly unremarkable octogenarians that you see shuffling this way and that might actually have a story as astonishingly powerful and moving and inspiring as Ryszard Kossobudzki, Rita’s father, and, too, even without the encouragement that Rita herself provides, you will begin to wonder about the people in your own life, your own parents, and others, and what secrets and stories and dramas and truths their lives are freighted with, just waiting, waiting for someone to do the one thing that is so obvious and so hard in so many ways—and that is to ask. “Tell me your story; tell me what happened.” Just that.
It is a splendid place, Warsaw, and it is good to be there and to get to know it some.
Still, I think to myself that I am excited to get on the train to Krakow because I know that it is as it was, and it is authentic, so I wonder if it will feel different.
At the same time, I know that as I head for Krakow, I go that much closer to the place I most want to see, the impetus for this trip, and the place I most dread seeing.