Transformed, in the words of historian Norman Davies, into a “lawless laboratory of Nazi racial ideology,” wartime Poland was a dark place to be – but Warsaw darker still. Viewed as a melting pot of decadence, a hotbed of dissent, a cradle of European Jewry and a symbol of Polish independence, no other city aroused as much disdain from the Nazis. From the very outset, the occupation set a new benchmark in tyranny with Polish freedom brutally suppressed. “If I had to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot,” rued Hans Frank, the Governor of the General Government, “the forests of Poland would not be sufficient to manufacture the paper.”
Denied the most basic rights, the Poles responded by forming Europe’s largest underground movement. Commonly believed to number around 400,000 members, the Home Army (Armii Krajowej) was the largest of these illicit organizations. Taking part in numerous acts of sabotage, this clandestine military movement hit global headlines when, on August 1st, 1944, they launched their biggest operation to date: the Warsaw Uprising.
Aiming to liberate the town in time for the imminent Soviet arrival, their cause was boosted by promises of Allied aid as well as the knowledge that German units had already began withdrawing from the city. Incensed by this act of Polish insolence, the Nazis reacted with savage fury and what the Poles had hoped would be a swift campaign descended into a 63-day bloodbath that claimed 250,000 lives. Seemingly abandoned by their allies, and with all hope exhausted, Warsaw’s eventual capitulation was met with orders for the population to be exiled and the city leveled. By the time the Red Army rolled in on January 17, 1945, the city lay under 20 million cubic meters of rubble with total destruction measured at 84%. Nothing would ever be the same again…
Monuments of the Rising
Still sometimes mistaken for the equally heroic 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, recognition for the ’44 insurgency has felt a long time coming. However, foreign ignorance can, in many ways, be excused. In the period that followed the war Poland’s puppet government viewed participants as ‘anti Communist adventurers’ with veterans often facing persecution, imprisonment and in some cases death. For decades, the rebellion was simply deleted from history: with even the Polish government keeping a lid on the story, it was no surprise, therefore, that those of us abroad remained none the wiser.
The first sign of change came in 1983, when the scouts founded The Little Insurgent memorial on the edge of Old Town: now established as one nation’s best loved monuments, it commemorates a 13-year-old messenger boy who was shot close by.
Then, six years later, another project was finalized, the Warsaw Uprising Monument on Krasińskich. Depicting fighters slipping in and out of the sewer network that they so successfully utilized during the battle, it’s one of the major points of national commemoration.
Since the death of communism, and the subsequent rehabilitation of combatants as heroes, numerous other monuments have sprung up, with key ones including the official symbol of the Uprising atop of a 141-meter artificial hill built from the rubble of the city. Just as poignant, is the monument on Pl. Solidarności that remembers the 50,000 civilians of Wola that were massacred in the space of days.
Buildings of the Rising
In material terms, the cost of the Uprising is almost impossible to quantify: that hasn’t stopped people trying. A 2005 estimate put the damage at $54.6 billion: given the scale of carnage, it’s astonishing to think so many physical reminders have survived. Three in particular stand out in their relevance to the battle. Classified as the tallest building in the Russian Empire when it was unveiled in 1910, the PASTa building on Zielna 37 served as a telephone exchange and was the scene of vicious hand-to-hand fighting.
When the defending Germans surrendered in the third week of the siege, it was celebrated as one of the AK’s big triumphs.
Maintaining its links to the Uprising, today it houses the Veterans Association. Next, the Prudential Tower (Powstańców Warszawy 9). Seized on the first day, the effect of seeing a Polish flag fluttering from what was by then the city’s highest building was crucial for morale.
Despite being pounded by over 1,000 shells, control of it wasn’t relinquished till the final surrender. Nowadays, work is under way to revive this art deco wonder as a 5-star hotel.
Lesser known, the former boiler house on Suzina 8 is where the first shots of the battle were actually fired. Pre-empting the order to launch the Uprising at 5 p.m., a group of young insurgents opened hostilities when they ran into a German unit while on their way to assume their position.
Murals of the Uprising
Once sad and stony silent, the walls of Warsaw have found their voice to express the feelings of the wider community through the medium of large format street art. Of the persistent themes, the Warsaw Uprising is probably the most recurrent. Oscillating in merit from basic paint jobs to stunning works of art, they’re an everyday reminder as to the depth of feeling that the battle still stirs.
Among the more famous, head to the Polonia stadium to view a black and white mural running the length of a 250-meter wall. Revealed last year, it’s literally the only Polonia-related work that the followers of Legia Warszawa refrain from vandalizing. The location, incidentally, is not accidental: looking to forge a link between the Old Town and Żoliborz, the stadium was the scene of fierce fighting.
Within walking distance, the primary school on Lewartowskiego 2 carries an exterior illustration of a helmet wearing messenger boy, his back against the ruins of the city.
Sticking to the theme of kids, the mural at ul. Wilanowska 5 is especially stirring with its depiction of iconic photographs of Uprising children.
From the recent editions, the 180 sq/m mural at Płocka 41 has become a city favorite, and marks one of the many sites where the Wola Massacre unfolded. And of course, don’t miss the works that clad the interior garden wall of the Rising Museum.
People of the Uprising
“War’s brings out the worst and the best in people,” said Captain Dick Winters of Band of Brothers fame, “they do not make men great, but they do bring out the greatness in good men.” Though witness to some of the most monstrous acts imaginable, the Uprising produced a long line of accidental heroes and everyday martyrs. From the locals, few stories are more poignant than that of Krystyna Krahelska, a 23-year-old poet on whom the mermaid statue by Metro Centrum Kopernika was modeled. Having volunteered to serve as a nurse, she was shot on the first day and later died of her wounds.
Although the ranks of the AK were naturally dominated by Poles, a number of foreigners also partook in the fighting. Two Germans are known to have switched sides (with one of them killed in action), while other unlikely insurgents included a fedora-wearing Nigerian-born jazz musician called August Agbola O’Browne. Said to have worked in the communications department, he survived the war and subsequently resumed his career playing in the clubs of Warsaw before emigrating to Britain in 1958.
And speaking of Britain, think also of Birmingham-born John Ward. Shot down over France in 1940, the officer was taken into captivity close to Leszno before escaping and joining up with the AK. Awarded Poland’s Cross of Valor, he filed over 100 battlefield reports for The Times and became a key liaison between Polish forces and the British government.
Sights of the Uprising
Rated by pretty much everyone as the capital’s No. 1 museum, the Warsaw Rising Museum (ul. Grzybowska 79, 1944.pl) leaves no stone unturned in its mission to explain the story of the struggle. Though the crowds and sheer scale of it all can make navigation tricky, it’s on the finish line with the Palace of Culture and the Old Town as part of Warsaw’s trinity of must-see sights.
Points of interest are many and include a life-size replica of a B-24 Liberator plane as well as a
claustrophobic ‘sewage tunnel’ through which visitors squeeze to get an idea of the kind of conditions soldiers faced. The devil is in the detail though, and it’s the smaller curios that really make an impact: a pair of wedding bands forged from bullets; an Omega watch, it’s hands frozen at the same moment a bomb killed its owner; and a lucky cuddly mascot made from a German overcoat.
Of course, the aftermath is also covered in heartrending detail and concludes with a 3D film that takes viewers swooping over the smoldering ruins of the capital. For more on the city’s destruction (and phoenix-like revival) don’t forget a visit to the sadly under-visited Heritage Interpretation Center (ul. Brzozowa 11-13), while couch potatoes should click to teraz44.pl to view the seamlessly merged ‘then and now’ images of Marcin Dziedzic: they’re staggering.