21 Warsaw

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

I took me a while to figure out what I liked so much about the Polish people, the ones, anyway, that I met along the way. Then I realized what it was: They are utterly without pretense. They smile quickly and they smile with their eyes, the Poles do. They smile with their whole face and yet, you can see in their eyes, as in the eyes of the lovely woman at right who was my guide for four hours on a snowy day in Warsaw, you can see a deep sadness, and it is a kind of sadness, I think, that has been passed on and refined and made rich and human by generations of… endurance.
Each of them, whether helping me with my ticket at the rail station or sitting next to me at a café, was open and approachable and devoid of pretext or guile. (It was, I would later learn, the exact opposite of Istanbul).
They seem to have nothing to hide; they are who they are and, whatever that is, or whoever that is, they are comfortable with it and they make you comfortable, too.
I loved Poland. I loved the place and the people. I want to go back.
Dawn breaks on a snowy Warsaw morning. When Eisenhower came through Warsaw at the end of WWII, he said it was the most completely destroyed city in Europe. There were reasons for that…
Warsaw was systematically destroyed, building by building, house by house, street by street, to the point whree litereally nothing remained except a city-wide pile of rubble whose very removal would eventually cause its own problem.  This was done by the Nazi’s in retribution for the Warsaw “Rising”, which wasn’t what you probably think it was, and there’s a reason for that, too, the misconception and cloudy history of that equally dreadful and heroic event.  I’ll talk about it in a minute…
Polish is considered one of the three most difficult languages to learn (another is Chinese and I forget the third…) and I speak not one word of it, not even thank-you, which I tried to learn but which, even that, contains one of those impossible syllables. But you can easily find someone here who speaks English, and if you approach someone who doesn’t speak English, they, themselves, will take it upon themselves to find someone who does, a colleague or a passerby, or one of those passersby will overhear and jump in voluntarily, and soon you notice that they are all smiling, they are all smiling with their eyes.
I like these people a lot, and you wonder how they became who they are and if you do the smallest amount of research, you find out that this is a people who has been kicked around for a very, very long time.
Understand this: This is a country that was once over run and dominated by the Swedes. Who gets conquered by the Swedes? Over the centuries Poland’s borders have been in constant motion and, periodically, as the country’s lines of demarcation were shifted and transformed by successive invasions from every direction, Poland has at times ceased to exist at all, as the borders imploded on themselves from the weight of the omni-directional attacks—attacks often aimed at Poland itself but, equally as often, with Poland just getting in the way, stuck in the middle of combatants attacking each other, like street fighters flailing, and some other unfortunate caught in-between. As these events rolled along, there were times when all the borders, North, East, South and West, stumbled back on each other somewhere in the middle, and Poland disappeared as a discernable geographic body—although, of course, the people remained, “The Poles” as a cultural and ethnic entity, subsumed underneath whatever conflicts, power struggles and land-grabs were currently holding sway on the surface.
The fact that Poland endures today as it does, with sharp borders and democratic rule and a clear and distinct and unique cultural and ethnic character—Polish and purely Polish and clearly Polish—is the result of a great variety of factors and influences spanning thousands of years, but if you have to boil it down, you can look to three things that landed Poland where it is: The Nazis, Lech Walesa… and Józef Piłsudski.

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.
Józef Piłsudski had eyebrows so stupendously commanding that you wish for a new word for them, something beyond “eyebrow”, something Herculean.
On the other hand, if you’re like me, you’ve never heard of Józef Piłsudski, which says something about something, because, for Poles, he is just about as famous and revered as it gets. Polish Americans—who might be the only Americans who have heard of him—refer to him as “The George Washington of Poland”. Every Polish town and city has some kind of monument to him or street named after him, or plaza, and his eyebrow-freighted visage is everywhere.
Why all the adulation? Several reasons, the most overriding of which is that in 1918 he managed to unleash the “Polish Legions”—an army he had forged by stealth and skill and fierce personal charisma and leadership—which he deployed in such clever and adroit fashion that the result was Polish independence. It was an independence made all the more delicious by virtue of following 123 years of being essentially subsumed to conquering neighbors. In effect, prior to Pilsudski, the Poles existed as a culture but not as a state.
Admittedly, as with all European history, this gets a little complicated, but, essentially, he was a hugely smart and magnetic commander who figured out something very important, and that was that all his neighbors, near and far, hated each other sufficiently so that if he, Pilsudski, could figure out a way throw his lot in with one side against the other, and then (this is the important part) once that first enemy was on the ropes, switch his allegiance from his former allies to a third group now fighting against them, well, at the end of it all they’d all be worn out and Poland could stand by itself.
For the next couple of decades Poland, in the person of Pilsudski, would have significant political impact around Europe during a time when all those folks were essentially crazy. Importantly, and very much an author of his legend and the affection of the Polish people, was that, unlike Hitler and Stalin who were clearly tyrannical, arrogant murderous dictators, aloof from the people even as they ruled over them, Pilsudski was by all accounts decent and approachable and, more than that—beloved. He would take casual Sunday strolls along Warsaw’s main boulevards (including the one where the statue at right stands twenty feet tall), chat breezily and easily with the people who loved him, and, yes, if the many diaries of Warsaw’s locals at the time are to be believed, he really did have the most amazing eyebrows ever.
Oh, and, by the way, if you talk to the Lithuanians they might disagree a bit or a lot about Pilsudski. Is their criticism fair, that Pilsudski engineered an historical disservice to this northern neighbor? Who knows? After all, Pilsudski was himself born in Vilnius, Lithuania and many say that what he did for Poland worked out well for Lithuania, too, in the end. But this is Europe and they argue about it endlessly and to this day.
So why haven’t we heard of this guy? I’m thinking it’s part of the curse of Poland, this beautiful vibrant country, to be somehow always relegated to being part of somebody else’s history, rather than their own. Maybe that will change, someday. Maybe it already is…

Lazienski Park

“Lazienski” means “bath”, and the lovely structure, below, was, indeed, the main bath house.  It is the showplace of watsome claim is the most beautiful park in Europe, one with unique characteristics in each season.  Many locals say it is at its best in Winter, so we were fortunate to experience it on a snowy January morning.
The “Royal Baths” of Lazienski Park, dating from the 17th century. The Park sits at the center of Warsaw and is the only portion of the city that wasn’t destroyed during the war. It is, therefore, beautiful and old and redolent of history.
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…

The Rising

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…

The fighting in Warsaw during the "Rising" was furious beyond imagining. A German tank careened into this wall with such force that one of the treads became imbedded in the bricks. It is maintained as a reminder of the ferocity of the reaction of the Nazi's that the resistance fighters faced.

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.



"Old Town" in Warsaw is completely new: A meticulous recreation, done painstakingly and with affection, but, still, new. Every inch of it was leveled in the war...

... So you get a feel for what it was like, for what was lost, if you squint just a bit and let your mind take you to other times; but no matter how much you know that it is just like it was, you also know that it is not.

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.


N E X T :  Krakow

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