It would be fair to call Warsaw the city-Phoenix. The capital of Poland has been demolished several times throughout the different ages of its turbulent history, but like the legendary bird it rose from the ashes and has been completely restored every time. Today Warsaw is one of the most beautiful and modern cities in Poland and all over Europe.
After the Nazi occupation of the city was over the new revival began. Warsaw is one of the cities in former soviet countries where today there is almost no trace left of the gray and massive communist buildings. They are replaced by malls and skyscrapers. The city center has preserved its romantic medieval and Renaissance style. Walking in Warsaw is like a time lapse tour and in this article I would like to tell you the stories of five places related to Warsaw that you never imagined.
The shrines of the courtyards in old Warsaw
It is true that most of the stories from Warsaw’s history are bloody and tragic but this one will show that even in the darkest times hope remains. A story about the shrines of the courtyards in Warsaw. When the city was being rebuilt after World War II many of the buildings kept their original structure which means that a lot of the apartment buildings the courtyards were kept. Today they are very interesting places to be explored by travelers that want to “get under the skin” of the local history. In many of the courtyards can be found religious shrines that have interesting stories behind them.
A well-known shine is the Virgin Mary on Brzeska street. The place doesn’t offer anything special to the eye of the passing people, but there is a great tale to be told about it.
In 1943 the Nazis rounded up some of the residents and were going to shoot them. Such random executions were something common for those days and were used to maintain a level of terror in the local population and crush any thoughts for rebellion against the Germans.
As the soldiers were loading their rifles and preparing to murder the local residents, a woman saw what was happening from a top floor apartment. She was a German married to a Pole, and called down to the soldiers in her native language. After speaking to them , she managed to convince them to put down their guns and they left without killing anyone. The statue of the Virgin Mary was erected shortly afterwards to mark this narrow escape and has been carefully preserved since then to remind for this event.
The heart and life of Chopin
Some of you might know that the heart of Frederic Chopin is buried in Warsaw under a small monument. The dying wish of the great composer was that his heart should be buried in Poland. When he passed, Chopin’s eldest sister, complied with his request, taking the heart before his body could be buried and secreting it back to Poland. She was able to smuggle it to the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw where it was buried beneath a small monument. During World War II the Nazis stole the heart since they feared that, fearing the legacy of the composer and the love that the Polish people had (and have) for him. After the war, however they gave it back. In 2014 during a secret operation the heart was exhumed in order to check whether the tissue remains well preserved. The hearts is very emotional object to the Poles and it is extremely special for the Polish soul.
However not only the heart of Chopin has a great tale but there are some interesting facts about him as well. He was born in 1810 but still it is not confirmed on what day. Local baptism records claim the composer came into the world on 22 February, but Chopin’s parents said it was 1 March. Word of his death was also a false flag one time – while he was very sick in 1835 word had spread out in Warsaw that he had died since he was very ill and many people believed it at the time.
There is also a brand of vodka named after him. A maker of fine vodka has borrowed the composer’s name as a universal mark of quality. The excellence of their vodka isn’t inspired by other vodka brands on the market, but takes inspiration from Chopin’s boundary-breaking mastery.
Stories from the Jewish ghetto
Most of you have probably seen the spectacular movie “The pianist” by Polanski and have heard about the local Jewish ghetto. However there are many amazing stories that remain not so popular among the people that visit the country and are unknown to the wide public. The story of Janina Dawidowicz, the daughter of a Jewish policeman in Poland. She is one of the few people that have lived in the ghetto and survived. The ghetto itself has been created in 1940 as a holding place in which the Jewish population, which counted for 1/3rd of the whole population of Warsaw back in the day was forced to live. The father of Janina managed to get a job in the Jewish Law and Order service – the Jewish police and at that time it seemed like the best chance to keep his family alive and safe during the war. Janina attended illegal school (there were more of these in that period) in which the teachers would be shot if the Nazis found out about them.
By the end of the summer of 1942 more than 250 000 Jewish people were gone. The aunt and grandparents of Janina have been taken but in the last weeks of the ghetto, her parents managed to smuggle her out in another part of Warsaw. She remained hidden there and she changed her name to hide her true identity. Unfortunately, her parents left behind and she never saw them again. After the war was over she moved firstly to Australia but after a while she came back to London where she still lives today and works as a translator and a writer to tell the tale of what has happened to her and all the other pour souls in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw.
The monument dedicated to the children that fought the Nazis
If you had a walk in the old town of Warsaw you probably have seen the The Little Insurgent Monument. During the Warsaw Uprising many children, in the most part from the Gray Ranks (war-time name of the Polish Underground Scouting), distributed mail, relayed messages, and fought fires; some became line soldiers. One of the biggest phenomenon of the Warsaw Uprising was the creation of the Scout Field Post. At first it operated in one district but after that it was spread out all around the city. Post boxes with the scout symbol and sign saying “Scout Field Post” were located in 40 points of the city. The number of letters varied between 3,000 to 6,000 daily and reached 200,000 letters during 63 days of the battle.
To honor the children Jerry Jarnuszkiewicz created the design for the Little Insurrectionist in 1946, but the statue wasn’t built until 1983. Professor Jerzy Świderski, a cardiologist who was a Gray Ranks courier, unveiled the memorial on the 1st of October.
The statue represents a young boy wearing an oversized helmet and holding a submachine gun is reputed to be inspired by a child soldier called “Antek,” a 13-year old who was killed on August 8, 1944. A plaque behind the figure features the engraved words of a popular song from the period, which in translation sounds like this: “Varsovian children, we’ll head into battle/for every stone of yours, we shall give our blood”.
“Build me like one of your 18th century paintings”
What would be the connection of the capital of Poland and an Italian painter? After the World War II was over, the people of Poland mobilized and wanted to rebuild the Old Town of Warsaw that was destroyed by Hitler’s forces. The nation built the city after the destruction but they had a big problem – how could they found out how all the buildings looked like? They turned to art and more precisely to the art works of the Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto.
With more than 85% of the historic center of the city left in ruins, Varsovians (residents of Warsaw) reconstructed their city – in part from the cityscapes of the Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780). Bellotto had been a court painter for the King of Poland in the 18th century. He created beautiful and accurate paintings of Warsaw’s buildings and squares in that period. Almost 200 years later, those paintings were used to help transform the historic city centre from wreckage and rubble into what is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Thanks to Bellotto’s paintings the reconstruction of the Old Town was done in very short period of time – by 1995 most of the work had been finished. However additional construction continues even today.
Although Warsaw is a city where you can visit many museums, palaces, parks, cafes and restaurants, you can truly get to know the city in full brilliance, once you get into the local stories and feel the heart and soul of the city and its people like your own. I am sure that if you can manage to dedicate few days and read more about the unique stories that Warsaw keeps, you will fall in love in the city even more while you visit it.