When we arrived in Warsaw at the Frederic Chopin International Airport, we were met by our tour bus driver, who would remain with us for the entire tour. Since we were his only passengers and he knew little English and our Polish was/is non-existent, we didn’t talk much and were able to concentrate on our surroundings as we drove from the airport to the hotel. On this Sunday evening, the roads were generally free of traffic. There were a few people on bicycles, some walking, some waiting at bus stops. The roads were wide and lined with trees; we passed several parks as well. Everything was very dry, typical of a hot summer climate, I assume. We had no idea what to expect of Poland, but everything we saw was like every other European city we’ve been to. We drove first through non-business areas; we could see residences set far back from the road, behind tall fences and lines of trees. Eventually, we came to the commercial area, with office buildings and some stores that we recognized, such as Marks & Spencer and Zara.
Our driver left us at the Hotel Sofitel Victoria, which is across from a large plaza and a park with lots of trees. Not until we had to walk to our room did I realize how big the hotel is. For dinner, we walked around the block to a cute, natural-foods restaurant and enjoyed a light meal. English menus and English-speaking staff made our restaurant experience really easy.
After spending the next morning trying to recover from jet lag, we met our tour group in the hotel lobby at 1:30 as planned. It was a group of six: two single ladies, a couple from Westchester, and us. Our guide Dariusz was friendly, very competent, and enthusiastic. As we discovered over the next few days, he is the best tour guide we have ever had. We boarded our bus, drove through the city, and stopped at the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The current exhibition was entitled Journey of a Thousand Years. We spent the rest of the afternoon here, with a wonderful guide who seemed to know everything about Polish-Jewish history. Neither she nor Dariusz is Jewish, but they, along with several other guides we met on our tour, are totally committed to explaining the importance of Jewish contributions to life in Poland. After drawing our attention to the exterior of the building, a modern Finnish design, our guide accompanied us inside, where we toured the entire exhibit during the next three or so hours. Had we been on our own, it would have taken us several days to see everything. The exhibits are mostly words and pictures, with very few actual artifacts (since they were largely destroyed during the holocaust). The story is about how the Jews came to Poland, why, how they fit in to Polish society, and how the history of Jews and Poland is inextricably linked. Opened only a year before, the museum is very well done, easy to navigate, and should be on the itinerary of anyone planning to visit Warsaw.
After a short break back at our hotel, we gathered together and walked a couple of blocks to a restaurant for a dinner of traditional Polish food, which was good – and substantial. Our walk back to the hotel took in a few more sights of Warsaw: the President’s palace, a famous and elegant old hotel, a church rebuilt after the war according to a painting by Canaletto (he was the court painter for the last Polish king), statues of public figures, and a close-up view of the big plaza across from the hotel. One of the major themes of the day was how (and why) Warsaw was reduced to rubble by the Nazis, and how today all the buildings we see were built during the last 70 years, even though many look very old. We were reminded of Gdansk, in northern Poland, where the same approach has been taken to rebuilding city architecture.
Next morning, we took a drive around the main part of the city: wide streets, people walking or waiting for a bus or tram, a few bicycles, no motor scooters, several parks, some tall buildings (one by Daniel Libeskind; another, a “gift” from Stalin), a decent amount of new construction as well as ongoing renovation of old buildings. On a walking tour of the old town (Stare Miasto), we enjoyed the quaint buildings and shops but were never oblivious to the fact that everything has been built in the past 70 years. We also walked down an alleyway to the banks of the Vistula River (wide, with green spaces and banks not built up as in Paris, for example), stood in front of the birth home of Marie Curie, and passed several monuments to the WW II resistance fighters.
We next drove to the Jewish cemetery and walked around in this quiet and peaceful space for a while. The cemetery is huge with thousands of gravestones, lots of trees, and well-maintained paths. In addition to inscriptions in Polish and Hebrew, we also saw ones in English and Russian. When asked why this cemetery was not destroyed by the Nazis, Dariusz told us that they were too busy murdering people to bother.
Next, we drove to the one remaining pre-war synagogue in Warsaw. It was saved because the Nazis used it as a horse stable during the war. It is an elegant and beautiful building which was constructed in 1902. We sat inside on notably uncomfortable benches while Dariusz talked about the size of the current Jewish population in Poland: it’s about 21,000 people.
Later during the afternoon, we went to the Umschlagplatz Memorial, which is the location of the train depot where the citizens were collected before boarding trains for the camp at Treblinka. Next, we came to another of the monuments to the resistance fighters. This one was a mound within a small park. A plaque on top explained that this is the location of the bunker in which several fighters blew themselves up rather than surrendering to the Nazis. It was a moving tribute.
Our last stop of the day was through some alleyways to remnants of the ghetto wall that had been constructed during the war. It’s of red brick, very high and very intimidating, with nothing aesthetically pleasing about it at all. After such a long and emotionally draining day, it seemed that reflection was called for, but we knew that more challenging sites were ahead of us.
Museum of the History of Polish Jews
New Buildings in Warsaw’s Old Town
Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw
Warsaw Synagogue Built in 1902
Monument to Resistance Fighters
Remnants of the Ghetto Wall