Previous Document Next Document

Konstanty Gebert

My mother returned to Warsaw in February, 1945, after liberation. She was unable to track down the place where the house she lived in before the war had stood. The entire district was a sea of rubble - it was even impossible to tell where the streets had been. And this was not the Ghetto, but simply downtown Warsaw, bombed by the Germans in 1939, badly damaged in the Polish uprising of 1944, and then systematically razed by the Germans.

The main part of the city, on the left bank of the Vistula River, was 90% destroyed. At first, the Polish authorities thought of abandoning the ruins of Warsaw, and transferring the capital elsewhere. But the citizens began to return, settling in the ruins and making ramshackle repairs. Against all odds, the city came back to life once again. The authorities therefore decided to embark upon a huge program of reconstruction.

The ruins of the Ghetto were leveled, and a new residential district was built right on top of them, making the new buildings one level higher than the prewar buildings had been. The city's historical downtown was rebuilt - but, since all plans and blueprints had gone up in flames, eighteenth century Warsaw landscapes, painted by the Italian artist Canaletto, were used as the basis for the new plans.

Beyond the downtown area, reconstructed with loving care for historical detail, most of what was Warsaw was built over by drab, modern housing, in different styles - from socialist Realism to functionalism. Street names were renamed, to sing the glory of the Communist regime and its patrons in Moscow. A huge skyscraper - the Palace of Culture - was built where Warsaw's commercial center used to be. This Stalinist monstrosity, a gift from the Soviet Union, dominates the city's skyline. Over the last decade a number of modern high-rise office buildings have grown around it.

The history of Warsaw's reconstruction illustrates postwar Poland's characteristic mix of popular enthusiasm and official insensitivity, of care for the past and denial of it, which characterized the everyday life of the people of Warsaw. The capital of the new Communist Poland was made to dance in rhythm with the tortuous politics of the time. A monument to the Ghetto uprising was built, but not to the Polish uprising one year later, deemed "politically incorrect" by the authorities. Churches were reconstructed, but not synagogues, the remaining Jews being few and - according to official, government-controlled Jewish institutions - not interested in religion any more. The only remaining shul (synagogue) was rebuilt and rededicated only in 1984.

Jewish life nonetheless thrived in the Jewish Theater, Jewish Historical institute, publishing house, clubs - alongside just as vital Polish life. Censorship and political control notwithstanding, Warsaw became a vibrant center of culture, science and education, and the arts - a breeding ground of free, unfettered thought.

This was true in politics as well. Mass demonstrations in 1956 toppled the Stalinist leadership and set up a new Communist regime, less alienated from the people it was supposed to represent. This same regime, twelve years later, cracked down brutally on student demonstrations against censorship and for democracy. It also launched a vicious antisemitic campaign, which led to the expulsion of the remaining 24,000 Jews from Poland and to an end or so it seemed - of organized Jewish life in the country.

This anti-Jewish campaign was received with mixed feelings by the general population. On the one hand, it played up to antisemitic prejudice; on the other, it was seen by the liberal intelligentsia as an attack not only on Jews, but on basic values of democracy and freedom. The Church, too, protested, in a guarded tone. This led to the forging of an alliance which would emerge at the onset of Solidarnosc (Solidarity).

During the 1968 campaign, the workers remained passive. Two and a half years later a workers' uprising was massacred in Gdansk. This time the intelligentsia, still licking its wounds, did not react. It took almost another ten years for the crucial workers-intelligentsia alliance against the regime to begin to emerge.

While these momentous events were taking place, everyday life continued. People's attention was fixed on the availability or lack (usually the latter) of goods in shops, and on the development of the city itself. Warsaw citizens - both of pre-war stock, and those now the majority, who moved to the capital after the war - have a fierce loyalty to their city. They consider themselves to be Poland's cream, and are resented by the rest of the country, which half suspects that they might be right. The opening of a new huge housing district to ease the city's chronic housing shortage, the construction of a new bridge, or especially the rebuilding, in the early seventies, of the Royal Palace destroyed in the war, were the important events in the life of the city.

But in the late seventies, Warsaw returned to its favorite occupation ever since the nineteenth century - conspiring against the powers that be. Underground intellectual, educational, and political groups started to form and to produce their uncensored publications. Warsaw was about to become the center of a huge underground publishing industry. One of those groups, called the Jewish Flying University - so named because it met at different addresses - was set up by young assimilated intellectuals trying to come to terms with their Jewish origins. It was to become the basis of Warsaw's unexpected "Jewish renaissance" years later.

In the meantime, Solidarnosc (Solidarity) burst into life changing the entire political scene. The ten million strong independent trade union was legalized as a result of the huge Gdansk strike of 1980. it became the focus of hopes and aspirations for freedom, independence and a decent life, which had been denied for decades. For months on end, life in Warsaw concentrated around strikes, political meetings, protest marches - and the ever-present fear of a crack-down. In December 1981 the authorities did impose martial law and sent their tanks rolling through snow-covered streets, and arrested thousands. The city went underground. For the next few years, Warsaw was to become the center of the anti- Communist struggle.

Everyday life was marked by endless queues. People with their ration cards stood in line for everything, from meat and matches to shoes and refrigerators, assuming it was in the shop when your turn finally came. For many Warsaw families, it also meant being involved in the underground struggle - from clandestine printing plants to secret meeting places to the simple fear of seeing one's loved ones go to jail. And when the struggle was over, the city was too tired even to celebrate victory.

Warsawers turned to practical matters. The downfall of Communism meant also the opening of perspectives for private enterprise - and soon everyone and their uncles became businessmen. From selling smuggled cigarettes on the streets to opening huge new supermarkets, the people of Warsaw gave all their energy to this new endeavor. The face of the city changed beyond recognition.

Just as my mother, in her old age, no longer recognized the city of her youth, her adult years or even ten years back, so do my children no longer recognize the Warsaw I grew up in, and

which they know only from stories. Strata of the past lie buried deep, but not forgotten, under Warsaw's carefree surface.

Copyright © 1998, The Simon Wiesenthal Center
9760 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90035
Index to Aticles
Other Exhibits
Museum of Tolerance Learning Center - Home