Arthur Frommer: Rebuilding Warsaw a 50-year journey

07/17/2011 5:57 AM

07/17/2011 5:57 AM

I have just completed a visit to Warsaw, which is a large and dynamic world capital that few Americans visit. With its 43 theaters with live productions, its 32 museums, its palaces, castles, resplendent squares and countless architectural highlights, it reflects the remarkable cultural heritage and history of Europe.

And it is fully as fascinating for the evidence it provides of the ability of human beings to overcome the worst of misfortunes.

Some 90 percent of Warsaw was deliberately demolished — systematically detonated and razed to the ground by the German army — in the immediate aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising by Polish insurgents during the last weeks of World War II. When that war ended in 1945, Warsaw was almost totally in ruins. And the Poles proceeded to rebuild.

Throughout the next 50 years, they painfully reconstructed the entire city. As you wander through Warsaw, you pass every kind of architectural design. You have areas as modern as in any prosperous U.S. city. You have other areas dotted with the sterile buildings and apartment houses of the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union (Poland was Soviet-dominated from 1945 to 1989).

One building, the city's tallest, is the 40-story-high Palace of Science and Culture designed to woefully outmoded Soviet specifications and looking like a preposterous wedding cake, where you can ascend to an observation area on the 30th floor (admission charge is 20 zlotys, about $8) for a panoramic view of the city.

You could then go to the rebuilt Old City (Stare Miasto) of Warsaw, the original town within its medieval walls, where every single building was carefully reconstructed to its exact original appearance. So successfully was this done that the enchanting area — a huge market square surrounded by narrow streets of medieval and renaissance design — has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is full of European tourists, which it serves from numerous sidewalk cafes and craft shops.

Everywhere you look are monuments to the greats of Polish history: Frederic Chopin, whose several associated buildings, statues and churches are fronted by stone benches containing a button that you press to hear the piano rendition of a Chopin melody; scientist Marie Curie; the composer Jan Paderewski; Pulaski and Kosciusko of military fame; and countless others.

You pass a cathedral destroyed in the war and then also rebuilt to its original specifications; and too many reconstructed masterworks of architecture to be named.

All this is in a large, sprawling city that would take several days to fully examine. In the course of my visit, I was especially touched by the comments of several official guides, all in their 20s, who obviously had not personally experienced the German depredations of World War II or the difficult life under the Soviets in the post-war years.

I was especially alert to the obvious effort they made to explain the horrors to which the giant Jewish population of Warsaw had been subjected before they were almost totally liquidated.

I can't explain why so few American tourists go to Warsaw; it more than repays a visit. It tells you something about human beings. And it is one of the largest cities on earth to be completely rebuilt after its near-total destruction.

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