Waking up here is something else. 7 AM, the sun is barely coming up, and the streets are clean and empty. The only noise comes from the occasional passing car and jingling collar of some small terrier, out for a morning stroll with its bundled-up elderly little owner, shuffling in sync down the cold and wet sidewalk.
The changing of the guard across the street at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier, the cold neo-classical churches around the corner, and the steaming cup of coffee in my hands each remind me, “you’re a long way from home, guy.”
An hour later, the city erupts and explodes with activity in its own frantic and somber way. Subcompacts barrel down narrow city streets like speeding bullets, booming techno and American pop songs transplanted 5 years too late, long since buried in the Billboard charts. Old and new, overcast and blue, this is Warsaw, Poland.
Almost completely destroyed by retaliation of the Nazi occupation in 1944, over 85 percent of the city was reduced to rubble below eye level. Most of the buildings were rebuilt to specifications of former tenants and those seen in paintings years later, meticulously crafted with the pride of survivors.
No capital in the world has a history like Warsaw, so filled with tragedy and cruelty. Once the second-largest Jewish city in the world behind New York, with over 350,000 in residence, roughly a third of Warsaw’s total population, the city was an easy target.
Beginning in 1940, the Jewish residents were all relocated to a portioned, poor, allocated area known as the Warsaw Ghetto. Previous inhabitants were evicted, and Jewish masons were forced to build thick walls around the perimeter of the ghetto, like if death forced you to build your own casket. Now merely a series of cobblestoned parks and monuments intermingling with modern-apparent buildings, the once-sprawling ghetto was, like most of the city, completely laid to waste.
This was ancient warfare in the 20th century, from siege tactics to barbaric executions of children, 140,000 people alone died of starvation and disease.
Then in 1943, the area completely ceased to exist, with 300,000 residents deported immediately to Treblinka. An entire portion of Warsaw disappeared, like if the entire lower East side of Manhattan just suddenly blinked out of existence.
Prior to the destruction, residents of the ghetto recieved letters from loved ones who were being deported all over Europe from similar ghettos. Seeing that escape or survival was quickly turning into a fading dream, resistance began to coalesce and form. A bloody four-week battle ensued with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, where Jews hid in makeshift bunkers, waging urban guerilla warfare on Nazi guards and troops.
As we walked past small green parks where former resistance bunkers were known to be, our guide informs us that it was often impossible to light a candle there for lack of air in the overcrowded bunkers. In the end, every resistance fighter was killed, starved to death, or deported.
Almost foreshadowing the coming events of the next year, the uprising remains one of the sparkling jewels in this reoccurring theme of hope and resistence throughout the Holocaust, in spite of the bleak hopelessness.
In 1944 however, the city began to be destroyed and dismantled by the Germans, no longer merely contained to the Jewish ghetto districts. Similar to its microcosmic forebear, the city tried to resist, urged onward by the approaching Red Army.
But, once again after long weeks of fighting, the city fell, crumbled and destroyed under the boots of German soldiers while the Red Army sat in wait, not wanting to waste the bullets or the effort. And as bombs were detonated, and beautiful facades and city blocks crumbled, the Russian army sat across the river and watched Warsaw burn.
Our tour guide informs us that even today, when a new building is scheduled to begin construction, or a large renovation is planned, special crews must come in and inspect and sweep for undetonated bombs. All these years later, they are still typically found. This isn’t Laos or Vietnam, or some third-world country, this is the capital of Poland, home of Frederic Chopin and the Saxon Palace.
As we pull away from the Jewish Cemetery, which holds the remains of 250,000 Jewish men and women, the tragic history of Warsaw becomes more and more clear to me, both surreal and somber.