More than a hotel, the site of the Sofitel has seen plenty of stories down through the ages… (By Stuart Dowell)
The site of the Sofitel Warsaw Victoria has been important throughout Warsaw’s past. It has been the scene of a failed assassination attempt on a major international terrorist and, before, the home to perhaps the most extravagant palace ever to grace the capital.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Victoria was the home base to many rich Arabs, who would hold court in the Opera bar with glamorous young women on their arm. On the evening of August 1st, 1981, Abu Daoud, the Palestinian terrorist who authored the plan to kidnap and murder Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, was sitting in the hotel bar. A tall, well-dressed man in sunglasses walked past him, turned around and shot Daoud five times. With blood streaming from his wounds, Daoud stood up, left the bar and chased the shooter down the stairs before collapsing in an armchair. Daoud survived the attack and died in Damascus in 2010 of kidney failure. Who was the assassin working for? To this day the mystery remains.
Prior to what we have now, the Kronenberg Palace was located on the site of the current Sofitel Victoria. It was built in 1868-71 for the sugar, tobacco, banking and railway tycoon, Leopold Kronenberg. At a cost of a million roubles, the palace far exceeded in expense and splendour anything that Warsaw had previously seen. In fact, Kronenberg referred to it as a monument to his own stupidity. However, the results, though ridiculed at the time, were impressive. Four towering stone figures welcomed visitors into 6-meter high reception rooms where guests would marvel at the rich decoration.
The palace’s days of glory were short lived. After Leopold’s death in 1878, the only one of his children with a head for business started to suffer from a mental illness. The family made several attempts to sell the over-sized pile. The best offer came in 1914 when the Prudential insurance society offered 850,000 roubles, but the outbreak of WWI put the deal on ice.
In September, 1939, incendiary bombs destroyed the palace completely, with only a chair and one other object being rescued from the interior. The shattered walls glared over the city untouched for the next twenty years while the authorities decided what to do with it.
The palace was initially offered to the German Democratic Republic as the site for their embassy but a bourgeois palace didn’t suit the socialist ideology of the GDR. The French were then offered the ruins, but they said that the rebuilding would be far too costly. The once grand palace was finally torn down in 1960-62. The remains were happily taken away by stone masons, and today many of the gravestones in Warsaw’s cemeteries once graced Kronenberg’s monument to his own stupidity.