History on streets

Warsaw on foot

History on streets

As one emerges from the central station in Warsaw, Poland’s capital that was flattened after World War II, one is immediately hit by a series of contrasts. On the one hand are the dark reminders of a painful history, on the other is the glass and glitz of the modern times. Nowhere is this contrast more obvious than on the street where the beautiful but controversial Palace of Culture and Science looms large over a sea of contemporary steel and chrome structures. As one stares at the city’s tallest building, which doesn’t allow the Poles to forget the dark days of Soviet dictator Stalin’s rule, one can’t help but wonder: ‘what were the city planners thinking? How can such incongruent structures share space on the same street?’

Soviet remains

The traditional building was conceived as a “gift from the Soviet people to the Polish nation”, and was completed in 1955. The structure that took three years to come up has been designed by the Soviet architect Lev Rudnev. Stalin is said to have sent his secret emissaries to study the Empire State Building in the US, which served as its inspiration. Architecturally, the Palace of Culture and Science is a mix of Stalinist architecture, also known as Socialist Classicism, and Polish historicism inspired by American art deco skyscrapers. At present, it serves as the headquarters of several companies and public institutions, including cinemas, theatres, libraries, sports clubs, universities, scientific institutions and the Polish Academy of Sciences.

“There had been a discussion in those times,” informs Norbert, a friend who was showing the sights and sounds of his country, “on whether Stalin should gift us this structure or an underground metro. We wish he had decided on the latter. At least it would have been of use to us.”

However, to the tourist, the historic building is fascinating, one that offers breathtaking views of the city from the top, the Poles are clearly not too happy with it. They’d much rather look at the newer constructions that have come up in the last three decades, those that represent a free country; an independent rule. Nonetheless, it has not stopped them from putting the building to good use. In addition to housing offices, the Palace of Culture and Science has a huge mall that spills all the way into the huge and labyrinth-like underground network, which connects the city centre with the rest of Warsaw.

“In Poland, people love to shop,” remarks Norbert, stating what is probably a global truism. “Perhaps, this is so because capitalism is relatively still very new to us,” he adds. Norbert is right. Poland could only manage to wrest out of Soviet control in 1989, with the breakdown of the USSR. Yet, in a span of 25 years, it has attracted substantial global business and investment. The signs are everywhere. It’s normal to find huge, swanky stores by big international brands nearly on every street corner, and the large, spread-out malls are always humming with hordes of happy shoppers.

Of course, for the tourist, it’s not the many malls but the quaint local markets that are the primary attraction. To pick up souvenirs from Poland, Old Town is the place to go. It has a wealth of shops and restaurants to potter around in. Several buildings are strikingly beautiful, particularly around the Old Town Square. Here, painters, musicians and all kinds of entertainers easily mingle around. A few charming eateries serve a selection of sumptuous pierogis, or Polish dumplings, which come with a variety of fillings from meat, savoury cheeses and potatoes to fruits like strawberry, apples and blueberry. They always combine well with some hot soup.

The ugly truth

A hop and a skip away from Old Town is Jerusalem Alley, one of the most important streets in the city. Once upon a time this alley led to the Jewish ghetto where around 3,00,000 Jews had been imprisoned in a walled-off four-square-kilometre area shortly after the Nazis invaded Poland before World War II. “Large Jewish families that had been rounded up by Hitler’s men were forced to live in cramped flats, which had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bath. These were built close to each other along paths that were so narrow that it seemed like even air had to squeeze through to make its way in,” reveals Arthur, a local guide.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews living in these inhuman conditions perished of hunger and disease. Arthur adds, “Hitler had been told that if people are not given food then they will surely die. So he made sure that each person got just 30 calories per week. But the resilience of the human spirit is so strong that people still did not succumb. An infuriated Hitler then decided to send off bus loads from the ghetto directly to the gas chambers. They were told that they were being taken to a better place, but they knew…”
In the memory of those lost lives, the Polish government has built the Polin Museum on the site of the former ghetto.

The museum features a multimedia narrative about the vibrant Jewish community that flourished in Poland for a thousand years up to the Holocaust. The building, a postmodern structure in glass, copper and concrete, has been designed by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamäki and Ilmari Lahdelma. The museum’s courtyard, much of which is said to have been paved with original stones from the destroyed ghetto, has evocative murals on either side. One panel in particular is heartrending. It depicts the capture of the Jews during the Holocaust.

There are mothers holding on to their sons and daughters so tightly as though trying to make up for the separation that is inevitable. One small girl, not more than two or three years of age, is clutching her mother’s hand and looking straight into the eyes of the viewers with wonder. “There were roses planted along the way to the gas chambers,” whispers Arthur, “and the child who had only lived in the ghetto had never seen flowers before. This is how the artist has captured her wonderstruck expression.”

Warsaw is energising, and emotionally draining, all at once. If the street fairs, art openings and Chopin-inspired musical festivals up the fun quotient, then the city’s painful history certainly gives a lot of food for thought.

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