The Polish capital of Warsaw is a truly inspiring place. I’m amazed to find such a vibrant city after what this place has been through.
Poland was practically ground zero in World War II. The Germans started the war here, built their most horrific concentration camps here, and subjected most of Poland to six brutal years of occupation. Poland lost more of its population (16% to 20% of the national population, depending who you ask) than any other country, including Germany (8 to 10%).
On August 1, 1944, as the German war effort was collapsing and the Soviet Union was moving through Poland toward Warsaw and eventually Berlin, the citizens of Warsaw rose in rebellion against their German occupants. In the first days of this Warsaw Uprising they took command of key parts of central Warsaw amid general euphoria. But over the next six weeks the Germans fought back with vastly superior weapons and resources, forcing a surrender by the brave people of Warsaw on September 23.
In reprisal, Heinrich Himmler ordered the complete destruction of Warsaw and the murder of every single inhabitant. German troops spent October through January systematically destroying every building in Warsaw — homes, churches, offices — with special attention to any archives or monuments of historical importance. A city of 1.3 million inhabitants in 1939 was reduced to barely 1,000 people living among rubble by 1945.
To make matters worse, Soviet troops sat just on the outskirts of Warsaw through all of this destruction, resisting please for help from their Polish “allies” in the city’s darkest hours. Stalin apparently hoped the Germans’ efforts would make the Soviet subjugation of Poland after the war a little easier. And of course, the ultimate destruction of Nazi Germany was of little consolation to the beleaguered Poles, who were then subjected to 45 years of Soviet Communist domination.
The destruction of Warsaw was so devastatingly thorough that Poles had to debate whether to move their capital after the war. But instead they committed to stay and rebuild. In parts of central Warsaw, especially the Old Town, they spend the subsequent decades rebuilding everything precisely as it appeared before the war. They painstakingly re-built blocks and blocks of apartments, shops, churches, and even the Royal Palace from pre-war photographs and historical records.
In 1989, Poland’s decades of struggle against their last oppressor, the Soviet Union, came to an end. They since joined NATO and the European Union and the modern European world. Warsaw is now a thriving capital of 1.7 million people. I wander these streets in amazement of the human spirit.