Memories of World War Two in Warsaw

women and children being rounded up by the Nazis in WarsawAlthough some will say that the past should be forgotten it is difficult to do so when you are in Poland and impossible to do when you are in Warsaw.

For a city that can trace it’s foundations back to the 13th Century a period of only six years cost the Polish people dearly and a period of only 63 days (the period of the Warsaw Uprising) changed the face of Warsaw forever. By 1944 the end of the war was in sight with Germany struggling to fight on both fronts. After five years of occupation the Polish Underground (Armia Krajowa-A.K.) started making plans to fight back against the Nazi occupation.

The Uprising was only meant to last seven days by which time the A.K. were certain they would receive assistance from either the Russians or the Western Allied forces.

However, the uprising lasted an astonishing 63 days. No support was ever provided by any of the Allied countries (even though the Red Army were stationed on the other side of the Vistula). The duration of the fighting is even more impressive considering that Warsaw’s insurgents numbered 40,000 but this figure included 4,000 women and even some children.The insurgents were poorly equipped and only had enough weapons for 2,500 fighters.  Without any assistance the Uprising was doomed as they had to hold out against up to 30,000 fully equipped Germans soldiers supported by tanks, planes and artillery. After the “heroic sixty three days” the AK had no choice but to surrender.

Hitler’s response was to systematically level the city of Warsaw with dynamite charges bored into the walls of buildings all over the city.

It can be said that the Uprising more than any other even of the Second World War shaped the face of Warsaw for the next half century.

In 2004 the Warsaw Uprising Museum (Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego) opened and is a must see for any visitor to Warsaw. This modern museum utilises interactive displays, video footage as well as original artifacts from this period of Warsaw’s history.

Warsaw Uprising Museum

Warsaw Uprising Museum

It’s tempting to be sentimental about these times but it’s hard to resist the thought that the older residents of Warsaw each has a story to tell.

Walking through the streets you may stumble across a bunch of flowers on the pavement propped against a wall or a red and white Polish ribbon and if you cast your eyes upwards you will invariably see a tiny plaque on the wall commemorating the spot where Poles were executed by German hit squads. The information they display generally follows the same pattern i.e. date of the execution, number of people murdered and possibly a brief description of the event that took place.

The Pawiak Museum at 24/26 Dzielna Street is another museum dedicated to these dark years and used to be a Gestapo prison during the war. Approximately 120,000 people passed through the prison gates of which 37,000 were shot to death with another 60,000 sent to German death camps.

A dead tree remains outside the museum covered in hundreds of obituaries some dating back to 1944.

At No 25, Aleja Szucha, stands the “Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom”. This unobtrusive building used to be the headquarters of the Gestapo and has since been turned into a museum in memory of those who lost their lives here. Although not very big, the museum is filled with emotion and atmosphere heightened by the fact that this was the very building where thousands of Poles were interrogated and tortured before being despatched to Pawiak. Some of the holding cells have been preserved and you can still see the bullet holes on one of the walls. There is also a well preserved “duty room” that would have belonged to a Gestapo officer complete with authentic furniture and accessories (including very crude torture devices). The museum pipes sound effects at random intervals throughout the building such as water dripping or the anguished screams of a man making the tour a truly emotive and chilling experience.

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