We arrive in Warsaw to a city that appeared to be the greyest on earth. Apart from an imposing tower with gothic touches and phone masts about its highest point. Our hotel, the Regent, was a 260 bed conference centre venue next to the Russian Embassy, a late Soviet era mausoleum, and a considerable distance from the centre. That night, we ate in the hotel, not feeling like a stroll into the distant city – even though the old town, according to the guide books, promised to be worthy of the UNESCO world heritage status for a reconstructed town.
The next day, discipline was already exerting itself, and after disappointing pizzas we had booked ourselves on a tour in an 8 seater Zuk ex-fire department minibus, determined to explore the grimmest secrets of Poland’s capital. Arturo, our driver, greeted us with handshakes and bonhomie, and explaining the exotic starting procedures that got the 30 year-old Zuk underway, promised us a visit to the city’s hidden past, and lunch in an equally authentic street cafe – as much music to our ears as the egalitarian roar of the socialist engine beneath our feet.
From the moment he began to talk, Artie’s Warsaw began to live in our imaginations, and its tragic history in the second world war to take root – a story the equal of the cruelty and slaughter of the camps, and one which should place the country and its resistance against a brutal tyranny in the foremost ranks of nations.
To listen to Artie – friendly, knowledgeable, full of humour and engagement – is to realise how it is possible for the spirit of a people to survive and build again a country, and a culture, after others have attempted to erase it.
He takes us first to the Palace of Culture and Science Building – Stalin’s gift to the city in 1953, and based on the Empire State building, with vernacular frills. This was the tower that hadgreeted us on our arrival. Controversy surrounded the building after Poland escaped from the iron curtain, with opinion divided as whether it should have been demolished as a symbol of Soviet oppression. Wiser counsel prevailed so this part of the city is not entirely dominated by Novotels, T K Maxxes and the blank glass offices of enterprise culture.
Close to, and inside, the building is well made, with much stone and marble – an attempt to celebrate the role of Socialism in the lives of the people. Today, it’s big and cosy. Its theatres thrive, its bars and restaurants offer lunch and places to meet, and innumerable artists and tutors use its rooms and offices.
Communism had its uses, and may not have been the cinema villain that Reagan depicted, but you have to remember that Soviet Russia was every bit Poland’s enemy and oppressor. Warsaw’s brutalist realism- its massive blocks of offices and flats built to replace the ruins of the war – may seem insensitive and impersonal – but they are no worse that the flats and high rises of British cites, built at the same time. They were a quick fix for a serious crisis in housing and places to work. Could capitalism have stepped up to the plate, as effectively? These buildings still stand. We’re tearing ours down, or gerrymandering their refurbishment as potential death traps.
Outside the building a vast hole fills the space in front – and a gallery of modern art is planned. The issue that has faced the city in redevelopement, post Soviet era, has been ownership – so much of the city was destroyed and its current owners with it. Now claims are being made about who has the right to build on the land.The courts and the government are hammering out a compensation deal, so more soaring symbols of the new future can turn their towering faces to the sun.
We are about to exit the European Union, and Artie expresses his sadness that we should be leaving. The process has turned the real issues of membership or non-membership into a couldn’t- care-less get-it-over-with joke – a view that most of our group share. I tell Artie that for me it’s a personal tragedy – to see Europe divided again. We both acknowledge that the ideal of the EU was based on a continent living in peace after terrible conflict – and that alone is reason enough to make a marriage work.
It’s the Ghetto next, and Artie makes us look down – and there in the pavement is the brass line that demarcates the boundary between the Poles and their Jewish neighbours that the Nazis drew up. He takes us to the street that split the ghetto in two, and the columns that mark the footbridge that allowed Jews to pass from one area into the other. Nearby, the remains of the last wall standing is protected and plaqued – and is being incorporated into a new delvelopment.
Then it’s over to Praga, on the other side of the Vistula – the other Warsaw where living is cheaper, and the bruisling are rougher. It’s also here, as we are about to learn, that the Red Army, arriving in 1945, waited while the Nazis crushed the uprising that had fought bravely for weeks – supplied by its own ingenuity and courage, while attempts to supply it from the air by the RAF largely failed.
The Nazis achieved their victory, murdered 80,000 Warsovians, and demolished the city – as Hitler decreed, as a “warning to others”. Then the Red Army moved in, and took the remains – the Home Army and its government having been liquiated.
In the street in Praga where Polanski’s The Piano was filmed we took our lunch – delicious heartwarming soup and a glass of vodka.
Artie, saving the best till last, told us a little of the later, and this time successful, uprising of the Polish people, by Solidarity and the Shipyard workers of Gdansk. He spent a few days in jail for his part in that protest movement. Fortunately, the Catholic Church paid his fine, and he walked free.
The Catholic Church, his saviour on that occasion, he identifies as the reason why the Soviets never entirely dominated Poland. It was never banned, and so was tolerated as a de facto opposition. Small wonder, that, in addition to being a welcoming society, with very reasonably priced goods, it is also seriously religious. Something to contemplete as you allow the icey homemade cucumber vodka at 70% to slip down after the soup.
Artie’s tour, should you visit Warsaw, is a must. Otherwise you may be forced to believe that a large hotel, next to a largely unused Russian embassy, is as good as it gets. The name is on the side of the Zuk!