Tucked in the north-west of Warsaw, the quaint, wooded Boernerowo estate is one of Warsaw’s best-kept little secrets…
You sure can trust Warsaw to keep a secret under wraps – after all, how else could you explain Boernerowo. Despite being one of the capital’s most scenic idylls, it’s unlikely you’ll know (m)any people that have even heard of it, let alone actually visited.
A sub-district of the borough of Bemowo, the area was born in the 1920s when a Tsarist era fort was purchased by the government. Handed to the Ministry of Post and Telegraphs, it was around it that the Transatlantic Radio Station was built. More than just the most significant radio communication investment of the Second Polish Republic, when it was finished the station was reputedly the most advanced in the world.
This, however, was just the beginning of the story. Aware that the station’s employees needed housing close to the station, Ignacy Boerner, the Minister of Posts & Telegraphs, pressed Prime Minister Ignacy Mościcki to green light the development of a residential estate for the workers. Receiving the go-ahead, on April 29th, 1932, an executive committee convened to select a 52-hectare site close to a pine forest. To all intents and purposes, it was this moment that signalled the birth of Boernerowo even though the district would not be named such until 1936.
Ignacy Boerner would not live to see this moment. Passing away in 1933, his untimely death at the age of 57 did not impact the construction of the area. Initially known as the First Housing Estate of Łączności, by the time Boerner died building work was already well underway – in fact, such was the breakneck speed of the project, within just six-months 56 houses had been built.
Soon enough, other stages followed with the over-arching concept authored by Adam Kuncewicz and Adam Jurewicz. Their idea was guided by the ‘garden suburbs’ that were trending around Western Europe and included plans for a school, kindergarten, sports facilities, a market and so forth.
In all, 284 building plots were created and these were filled by five types of housing designed by Wanda Boerner-Przewłocka. Defined by their charming wooden form, these ranged in size from 32.68 sq/m to 144 sq/m. Construed as a self-sufficient community, many saw it as an almost Utopian micro-world complete with its own fire commission, nighttime patrols by six guards, an artesian well, and a community newspaper edited pro bono by the handful of journalists living on the estate.
Connected to Warsaw via tram, the area – which was rechristened Boernerowo on September 28th, 1936 – also had a wooden chapel which served as an anchoring point for the local community. More than just a place of worship, it was here that meetings and concerts were held. Among those who performed there were the outstanding tenor, Michał Szopski.
Soon enough though life in this happy, little bubble would irrevocably change with the German invasion of Poland. Set to the north-west of Warsaw, the settlement came under bombardment by the Luftwaffe and was occupied on September 10th, 1939, for four days before the Wehrmacht were beaten back on the 14th. Fiercely contested between the two warring factions, its defence would last until the capitulation of the capital on the 27th. Despite seeing bitter trench warfare in the forests, the battle for Boernerowo now largely stands forgotten.
The occupation bought little respite and for the next few years Boernerowo proved a thorn in the side of the Nazis. A subversive radio station operated from Telefoniczna 18 throughout the war while a clandestine printing house was created on what is now Telewizja 35. A stash of arms were kept at Boernera 35, whilst several other houses served as meeting points or headquarters for local units of the Home Army.
Although the population numbered little more than 1,000, the residents of Boernerowo also stepped up to the plate when it came to protecting Warsaw’s Jews. Among those that sought refuge in Boernerowo were Marek Edelman, the last commander of the 1943 Ghetto Uprising. In all, six locals have since been recognised by Yad Vashem for their selfless actions, and these include Bronisław Przybysz who was executed in the woods in front of the police station that stood on what is currently Grotowska 38. Denounced by a neighbour, he was shot along with the family of four Jews he was caught sheltering. After the war, Boernerowo finally found itself officially incorporated into Warsaw in 1951, but by this stage it was already demonstrating its importance. As early as 1949, around 2,000 German prisoners were tasked with adding runways to the nascent Babice Airport.
Left off the maps, this military airfield became the source of wild rumours – some speculated that the Soviets stored atomic weapons here. Shrouded in secrecy, it was to here that Charles de Gaulle, Nikita Khruschev and Richard Nixon flew on their visits to Warsaw. In 1996, Babice was back in the news when Michael Jackson performed in front of 120,000 people.
Bizarrely, this was not Jacko’s last flirtation with the area, either. When the King of Pop entered discussions to launch a Disney-style amusement park in Poland, the airfield was the leading candidate to serve as a site – billed to become the largest such attraction in the whole of Europe, the deal was soon scuppered by the military who refused to sell the land.
Today, Boernerowo has largely faded back into obscurity, yet it feels all the better for this. Sixty-two wooden houses have survived, and both they and the surrounding woodland have made this little area a jewel to discover. Perfectly primed for weekend walks, this is truly one of the unsung treasures of the city.
Boernerowo saw its first tram in 1936, however, war damage meant it was only reconnected on September 8th, 1946. For locals, this was a red-letter day that was covered by the Warsaw press and attended by government officials and a marching band. Typical of the party-pooping attitude of the new Communist system, one of the speakers reminded residents that “the saved energy that had been used to walk to work, could now be used to increase your efforts at work.” Silly as it might sound, the tram terminus is still worth a look, ribboning as it does through the forest. Cutting a loop through the tangled woodland, it’s one of Warsaw’s more enjoyable tram rides.
In an effort to raise public awareness as to the wider area of Bemowo, last autumn saw the introduction of six bronze bears to mark local achievements and landmarks. Inspired by Wrocław’s plague of gnomes, these include Latarek, a goggled bear standing by Babice Airport and Watek close to the Military University of Technology (it was here that Poland’s first laser was built in 1963 as well as an analogue computer called ELWAT). Sitting by the bus station close to the Adameckiego roundabout is the cutest of them all, Radarek – a pint-sized radio operator celebrating the area’s historic station.
The church at Kaliskiego 49 is worth a quick detour to view the various plaques, urns, busts and banners that commemorate its role throughout the area’s history – among other things, in 1939 it served as a military field hospital. Notable for a groovy 1970s mosaic on its façade, its features include an urn of soil from Katyn and some carefully tended war graves.
The greatest pleasure in Boernerowo lies in simply walking the streets and allowing curiosity to be your guide. The best examples of wooden architecture can be found on Grotowska, Telefoniczna and Bawełniana, but the truth is no matter which direction you find yourself pointing you’ll discover leafy side streets set with charming homes. Interspersed with intriguing, luxury new build, your journey will take you past a mix of perfectly preserved chalets as well as overgrown, derelict cabins. The contrasts are captivating.
A few monuments and memorials can be found scattered around Boernerowo, including a pillar honouring Ignacy Boerner right by the church – when Boernerowo was absorbed into Warsaw it was renamed the Bemowo Estate. Its former name was only restored in 1987, the year before the Boerner bust was unveiled. Also noteworthy is an Uprising monument at the top of Westerplatte that pays tribute to the troops of the Żywiciel battle group that were massacred in 1944. In the forest just beyond traces of trenches dug in 1939 can also be spotted.
The sprawling forest directly north is filled with criss-crossing pathways that take you past clearings, picnic spots, footbridges and outdoor gym equipment. Occasionally disorienting, along the way you might find yourself bumping into snuffling boars, the occasional deer or even foxes and badgers. It was here that the transatlantic station was built and elements of this have survived. For years the Germans used it to help coordinate the movement of Kriegsmarine U-boats before destroying it in 1945. Despite this, strollers will run into abandoned guardhouses, chunks of reinforced concrete since eaten by nature as well as swampy moats ringing the old fortresses.
Feeling like the ultimate locals’ bar, Łośka on Kaliskiego 20 touts a small, terraced garden and an interior cluttered with bikes, books, benches and brickwork. Offering up a selection of mainstream and craft beers, it’s a supremely friendly spot in which to refresh yourself after a sweaty afternoon walk.