The days are shortening and the temperatures are dropping – on this side of the Atlantic at least. T and I took advantage of a mild early fall and a seeming absence of coronavirus spikes to make a quick trip to Warsaw, Poland, the goals being to strengthen friendships and to fan potential business collaborations. T had never been to Warsaw before; an added incentive. We decided to take the six-hour ride on the intercity train, even though I was a bit concerned about border crossings. (I shouldn’t have been.) It felt, aside from the masks and the limited seating, a bit like The Before Times, and for that I was grateful.
I’ve been to Warsaw before, on my blitz trip through Poland in 2015, and I felt many of the same tugs and tangents on this trip as I did then. Warsaw is a complicated place in many of the same ways that lots of European cities, including Berlin, are complicated – war, devastation, rebuilding – but with a different edge that I am still struggling to explain to myself or to describe well to you. Jarring, in a way. Painful. Resilient. All this and more. Perhaps some of the images I share will help us both.
Arriving in Warsaw and exiting the train station, one is greeted, as is often the case in Poland, by a huge shopping mall, this one with a curious aquatic feel:
Once inside, it is pretty much your usual Euro-brands consumer paradise, and it is a good distraction for travelers with hours to kill. But I wanted to introduce T to some of the more, er, uniquely Polish attractions, so we remained immune to the sirens of commerce.
Our crib for this trip was the Hotel Bristol, a magnificent pile with a complicated history. First constructed in 1899-1901, it opened to great fanfare and was the gathering place of glitterati until the local German commanders saw fit to make it their own in 1939. (I am particularly fond of the place because my Uncle Bob mentions it in his letters home in 1938.) It survived the war unscathed somehow, returned to being a hotel under the new communist regime, later serving briefly a library for the local university, and then sliding into sad disrepair until being renovated in 1991-93 and then again in 2013. (The bedding is not to be believed).
I started the tour with the old town, of course, a short walk from the hotel. This part of the city was Ground Zero for the Warsaw Uprising from August through October 1944, a tragic historical note that is difficult to equal. As a result, although the Bristol kept her footing, literally every other building for miles around was leveled and more. So the charming old town that is there to be see and explored…is all a complete reconstruction of the original place and buildings. Here’s a bronze map showing the main layout:
The big squarish thing on the right is the royal castle, originally built in 1598. The market square on the left, looking like an open depression, is now the charming touristy “beer garden” seen below:
If you read my posts regularly, you’ve seen quite of few of these. I do so love the way Europe tumbles out of doors as soon as it’s even vaguely warm and stays that way until the winter storms drive the smokers away. (I even don’t mind smokers here as much.) I just love sitting and watching the world go by in this manner.
T indulged me in one of my main urban passions, and that is, of course, museum slogging. I’ve learned that city museums have some of the most intriguing artifacts and insights, and that proved to be the case that morning with the Museum of Warsaw, a wonderful resource that is actually located in and through six or so of those very same buildings you see above. Wiki tells us “The various collections in the fields of archeology, painting, graphics, iconography, sculpture, decorative arts, numismatics and architectural drawings, now exceed 250 000 objects.” And what a deliciously varied and curious set of collections they were indeed. Here T ponders….a fish, I think…
You’ll note the yellow arrows. I don’t know if these were added during corona times for proper spacing or if they’ve always been in place. This museum is a literal maze – multi-building, multi-floor, multi-tunneled, quite the wild ride. But the yellow arrows kept us on the straight and narrow, as it were.
The most hard-hitting fact we had to confront in the museum (in a well-curated wall chart) was how the local civilians were affected by World War II. In the period 1941-1944, the population of the city went from roughly 1.6 million to 160,000. Yup, you read that right. Only ten percent (*ten percent*) of the city’s inhabitants survived. And yet they persisted.
Aiding the fight, here’s someone I didn’t expect to see hanging in the portrait gallery:
Meet August Agbola O’Brown (1895-1976), a jazz drummer born in Lagos, Nigeria who came to Warsaw from London in 1922, at which point he was, mostly likely, the only African man in town, if not in the country. He found musical success, settled down, married a Polish woman and had had two children by the late 1920s. He became a soldier during the uprising and fought with the partisans under the handle “Ali.” O’Brown survived the war and re-immigrated to London at the end of the 1950s, working again as a musician. Wiki tells us “His friends and neighbors remembered him as a very intelligent, courteous person, and a polyglot (he spoke six languages).”
Another set of treasures in the museum – a collection of advertising on boxes used for all manner of everyday items, dating from the 1920s or so. I am enchanted by their gentle and colorful creativity, as well as the clever presentation:
As we were trying our damndest to navigate to the end of the exhibits, an *extremely* friendly guide buttonholed us and tried to give us a very personal tour. Before we managed to slither away, he gave us a memorable background story about this interesting piece:
In the process of designing a set of plates intended for the Hotel Bristol, Pablo Picasso was asked what his three favorite things were in life. He answered, “Art of course, the Blues, and Polish vodka,” thus obviously endearing himself to the locals for all time.
And it must take a lot of vodka to understand all the pain that this city and its inhabitants have endured. Memorials to the dead are everywhere and appear to be, for the most part, well maintained and well-floralized. Here’s one in the old town:
Warsaw Uprising August 1944
“The field hospital of the home army’s “Gustaw” battalion, commanded by Dr. “Morwa” Tadeusz Podgorski, was located here in the basements of the buildings at Kilinski Street No. 3. After the fall of the old town on September 2nd, 11 inujred people who could not be evacuated through the sewers including 2 nurses were murdered by the Germans.”
Yes. And these are frequent throughout the city, specific, painful, and clearly still deeply personally remembered. Closer to our hotel, a heartfelt memorial to the unknown fallen, this particular one the most important of all such in the country:
This venue is situated in the only remaining portion of the Saxon Palace, a ginormous pile that used to grace this spot and may again, if current hopes prevail. The guards change every hour, on the hour, every day of the year.
One more odd historical quirk – a memorial to Herbert Hoover. Yes, THAT Herbert Hoover. The one that we remember, if we remember him at all, as the overseer of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. But he has another – and perhaps more lastingly significant – role in Poland.
“After World War I, he became the head of the American Relief Administration and organized one of the biggest humanitarian initiatives in history. Its beneficiary was, to a large extent, Poland…in February 1919 alone, 16,000 freight railway cars and 500 river barges…were unloaded in Gdansk. (In addition) Hoover donated thousands of horses, cars, tractors, large quantities of dynamite and nitroglycerin, locomotives, machines, medicines, and medical equipment…American aid covered over 1.3 million Polish children fed in 3000 cities and villages, mostly in eastern Poland…Herbert Hoover received the Honorary Citizenship of the Capital City of Warsaw and Lviv in 1921 and the title of Honorary Citizen of the Republic of Poland in 1922. He also organized food aid for Poland after World War II.”
No wonder they’re happy to see Americans, in a country that never forgets.
Well, by now you’ve probably completely forgotten that the reason T and I even went to Warsaw was for fun and frolic with pens and friends. I feel duty-bound to provide you with actual evidence that that event took place as planned and anticipated, accompanied by excellent local brew and chow:
We live in interesting times. But I continue to be very grateful for all that is still available to us, particularly our good friends, whether in person (rare and all the more valuable) or increasingly through these electronic media. And the longer I live, the more I become aware of how the sufferings of others have led to the rich life we have led and are leading, even constrained as most of us are at the moment. I wish for you, my dear readers, every moment of meaning and connection you can conjure these days. Know that I appreciate you reading my thoughts more than you can imagine.