Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Note: this post was worked up while in Poland in August and September and then back in Canada in October and November and finally posted on November 10, 2009.

The history of Warsaw can not be readily accepted; there is just too much to take in. I think it must be pondered.

In 1939 there were just over a million people living in Warsaw of which approximately 1/3 were Jews. By the end of the war there were virtually no Jews left alive in the entire country.

Immediately after German occupation, the Nazis began a systematic execution of the cultural and intellectual leaders of Poland. Here we are not talking about Jews but rather Polish Catholics. The statistics are astounding: over 45% of all Polish lawyers and judges were murdered outright. Similar statistics cover professors, teachers, politicians, Polish royalty as well as the clergy in the amount of 25% and upward.

Throughout Warsaw plaques grace many buildings. They are are adorned with memorial flowers and candles in rememberance of places where, following the invasion, people were simply marched out, lined up against a wall and shot.

The German decrees for the life of Poles are as unbelievable as the rate of outright murder. All school levels above the 4th Grade were abolished as the Nazis believed that the Poles only required a rudimentary schooling to fulfill their destiny as the slaves of the Ubermenschen. All middle, high schools and universities were shut down and all classes ended.

As for daily life, Poles had to step off sidewalks when Germans walked on them, then bow and remove their hats as they passed. Poles were not allowed to shop in stores which served Germans. Poles were subject to a daily and early evening curfew. All food for Poles was rationed to half the daily caloric requirements of a human being. For the Jews it was far worse: around 10% of the daily requirement to live.

1 in 10 Poles died in the Second World War and 25% of the population of Warsaw was anhilitated. Altogether over six million Poles, of which three million were Jews, died under Nazi occupation.

As for the very large Polish Jewish community, soon after the invasion they were rounded up and forced into ghettos throughout the cities of Poland. In Warsaw at the height of the ghetto, 380,000 people were crammed into an area of a few blocks. After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising the entire area was razed.

The former ghetto is now a section which is home to apartment blocks with large trees planted in the 1960s and 1970s, to give the area greenery. You can still see where the ghetto walls stood: they are marked out in bronze lines showing the boundaries of wall at different times. While originally the ghetto was comprised of two sections in different parts of town, one section was ultimately closed and the inhabitants forced into the larger ghetto. The walls of that ghetto were reduced incrementally until there was virtually no room for anyone.

During the occupation the torture of Poles and Polish Jews was daily and brutal. Pawiak Prison just outside the walls of the former ghetto had over 100,000 people pass through it over five years, for torture and interogation, before being sent on to die in death camps, labour camps or concentration camps.

Chilling is the Gestapo headquarters situated in the basement of what is now the Board of Education for Warsaw. The cells stand just as they were during occupation: grey, haunted and dark. The ghosts of the dead reach out and brush against you as you pass through. Bullet holes mark the walls where soliders shot through small windows to kill the prisoners. The grafitti carved into the cells records their thoughts: "Pray for me Blessed Virgin", "They beat us so much here"

An exhibit on a wall shows you the stories of some of the women and men who died at Gestapo quarters. You can see their photos and read about what they did, how they were caught and when and how they were murdered. Most are very young and all were very brave.

Many people are not aware that there were two uprisings in Warsaw: the more famous doomed Jewish ghetto uprising but also an uprising of the City of Warsaw itself.

German reaction to that action was as brutal as that given to the ghetto. Once the city was put down, Hitler, enraged at the gall of the people to resist, ordered Warsaw to be entirely destroyed. The German army then systemically blew up 75% of Warsaw in repeated bombings and demolitions.

In the Warsaw Uprising over 40,000 fighters and 200,000 civilians died. Most of the citizens who were killed died in mass executions conducted by the Germans in reprisal. The remaining population was summarily marched out of the city and into slave labour in Germany and the German occupied territories.

No one was left in Warsaw after that but the "Robinsons", named after 'Robinson Crusoe", Dafoe's character who was ship wrecked alone on an island. The 'Robinsons' were virtually all Jewish and had been in hiding during the occupation and could not risk leaving the dead city for fear of being caught and deported to a death camp.

One such man was Wladyslaw Szpilman. He was a Polish Jew who considered himself foremost a Pole. He was a famous pianist in Poland who before the War moved in the circles of musicians, writers and intellectuals. He was hidden by Polish friends after he escaped from the ghetto and remained hidden during the Warsaw Uprising. After it ended he roamed Warsaw for months searching for food, water and warmth in the ruins until liberation came. He recorded his experiences in a book which went on to be made into the film "The Pianist" directed by Roman Polanski. After the War Spilzman stayed in Poland and continued to contribute to Polish cultural life with piano work, composition and significant work with Polish Radio.

Polanski himself half French, half Polish but also Jewish was forced with his family into the Warsaw ghetto until he was smuggled out and saved, hidden by a Catholic family. His mother died in Auschwitz as I recall. His father, also confined in a concentration camp, survived the War.

This is a history that had not been widely told in the West, rather wrath seemed always to be reserved for the Russians.

There is then another history of Poland. One which lasted over four years. One without the Russians. And on this anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I think it we should ponder it.