Warsaw, Poland's capital city -- not often included on many tourist itineraries -- deserves a fresh look. While it will never have the charm of Kraków or Gdansk, there's a spirit of rebirth here that's immediately contagious. Some 85% of the city was destroyed during World War II, and nearly everything you see, including the charming and very "old" looking Old Town (Stare Miasto), has been around only for a few decades. The Old Town was faithfully rebuilt, brick by brick, in the aftermath of the war, according to paintings, photographs, architectural sketches, and personal memories. The reconstruction was so good that in 1980 UNESCO included the Old Town on its list of World Cultural Heritage sites.
Warsaw started life as a relatively small river town in the 14th century, but within a century it had become the capital city of the Duchy of Mazovia, ruling over small fiefdoms in central Poland. The city's fortunes steadily improved in the 16th century after the duchy was incorporated into the Polish crown and Poland formed a union with Lithuania. The union greatly expanded the amount of territory under Polish influence. In 1596, King Sigismund III decided to move the capital to Warsaw from Kraków, mainly because it was easier for noblemen to travel to more centrally situated Warsaw. The subsequent centuries brought the usual mix of prosperity and disaster; the Swedes sacked the city in the 17th century, but in spite of it all Warsaw continued to grow wealthier.
The Polish partitions at the end of the 18th century relegated Warsaw to the status of a provincial town for the next 125 years. Initially, the Prussians ruled over the city, but the Congress of Vienna, in 1815, placed czarist Russia in firm control. Despite the occupation, Warsaw thrived in the 19th century as a western outpost of the Russian empire. Finally, in 1918, after Germany's defeat and Russia's collapse in World War I, Warsaw was reconstituted as the capital of newly independent Poland.
Things went reasonably well for a time until World War II, when the city -- like the rest of the country -- was plunged into a modern-day Dante's Inferno. The Nazis occupied the city in 1939 and held it for nearly the entire course of the war. The occupation was brutal; thousands of Warsaw residents were imprisoned or killed. Initially, it was the Jews who bore the brunt. The Nazis herded the city's entire Jewish population of about 300,000, as well as around 100,000 Jews from elsewhere around Poland, into a small ghetto area west of the Old Town. Nearly all of them eventually lost their lives to sickness, starvation, or -- mainly -- the gas chambers at Treblinka. In 1943, the Jews heroically rose up against their oppressors in the first of two wartime Warsaw uprisings. The uprising was quickly put down and what remained of the ghetto was completely destroyed.
A year later, in 1944, with the war going badly for the Germans, the Polish resistance fighters, the Home Army, called for a general uprising against the German occupiers. For weeks in August and September of that year, Warsaw residents fought pitched battles with the Germans throughout the city, initially recording some heroic victories. Part of the plan was to enlist the assistance of the approaching Soviet Red Army, who had advanced to the Warsaw suburb of Praga across the river. That assistance never came, and the Germans eventually crushed the uprising. Hitler was so enraged that he ordered the remaining population expelled and the city razed to the ground. By the end of the war, 85% of Warsaw lay in ruins, and two out of every three residents -- nearly 900,000 people -- had died or were missing.
The postwar years were bleak ones. Poland was cut off from Marshall Plan aid and the bulk of the reconstruction assistance initially came from the Soviet Union. With so much of the city destroyed, the Soviet-inspired planners could start from scratch. They widened the avenues to the proportions you see today and filled them with drab "Socialist-Realist"-style offices and apartment blocks. To be fair, some of these buildings aren't so awful. The area around the Plac Konstytucji, in particular, has some handsome postwar buildings. And of course the unmissable Palace of Culture and Science is the granddaddy of them all. It's a strictly love-it-or-hate-it affair, with many city residents falling squarely into the latter camp.
One notable exception to the postwar reconstruction was the Old Town. Instead of rebuilding it in modern Socialist style, Warsaw residents overwhelmingly chose to reconstruct exactly what they had lost. It's a moving story of reclaiming identity from history, and the results are phenomenal.
Since the fall of Communism, the city's fortunes have improved immensely. Warsaw, as the capital city, has grabbed more than its share of the country's newfound wealth and the city skyline is looking more and more like a sun-belt boomtown every day. The changes are every bit as dramatic on the cultural front. New clubs, theaters, performance spaces, and restaurants have opened their doors, and the city feels more vital now than it has in many, many decades
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