Home again, home again, jiggety jig! At least, back to Wojtek and Alicja’s home this evening, after a long road trip–but a very goof road trip. I’ll have more to say about the many things I’ve learned on my trip to Poland over the next weeks, as there is a lot I still have to read up on, understand, ponder, and think about. But for now, let me recap this day.
We started today at a rather leisurely hour with breakfast (śniadania) in our hotel. We were in a very nice hotel, actually, and rather inexpensive at under 200 PLN per night (that’s around $70 USD). And that included breakfast. It was a buffet and with a nice selection: cereals, breads, meats, cheese, fruits, vegetables, coffee and tea, juices, and a lot of other accompaniments. It was very good and no waiting, either. We had a nice leisurely breakfast, then took a bit of time before checking out of our rooms.
The main event of the day was a visit to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Wojtek and I went. My, what an experience. I find it hard to find words to describe it. I know a bit about the Warsaw uprising–though precious little from what I learned in schools. Americans have not real understanding of Poland, the Polish spirit, and what Poles have gone through over the last 1000 years of history, much less and understand of the great human tragedy of the Warsaw uprising.
Where to begin? Maybe with a very brief, very short, much abbreviated history lesson. Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, about three weeks later, the Soviets invaded from the other side. It took Germany twice as many man and weeks longer than the anticipate to “break” Poland–and the help of the Soviets. But the end result was no Poland. Many soldiers escaped and Poland set up a government in exile. During this time, the Soviets took about 25,000 of the best of Poland, military leaders, civilian leaders, academicians, and other prominent people, and murdered them. They wanted to get rid of Poland forever. Then the Germans turned on the Russians and now all of Poland was under German control. During this time, the Nazis began the systematic extermination of the Jews and other “undesireables.” Eventually, the tide of war turned and the Russsians (by now aided by the US)began to push the Germans back. And so it happened in the late summer of 1944 that the Russians ended up at the Wisła river, just outside of Warsaw. There was an active Polish resistance and underground, and they made the decision to attack the Germans, expecting help from the nearby Russian army, and expecting to be aided by allied supplied dropped from plans. At least, that was the plan. And so the Warsaw uprising began.
For 62 days, tens of thousand of people in Warsaw took up arms against their German oppressors. At first things went well, because they caught the Nazis off guard. But, the Russian army never moved, waiting. And worse yet, the Russians refused to allow allied planes to use their airfields for supply drops. Still that allies tried, and some supplies got through. For 62 days, an oppressed and rag-tag “army” fought the Germans. They were organized, but certainly outgunned and outmanned. They used the sewers as highways. Children were messengers. And they fought, fought for a free Poland, fought, as Poles always have, to be free.
But Hitler was not amused. He sent in many many extra men and supplies. The reisistors were constantly bomparded. Sewers were doused with oil and lit on fire. When the Poles captured Germans, they were treated as prisoners of war and put to work. When the Germans capture a Polish insurgent…..well, none were ever captured, they were all executed immediately, woman, children, old people, it made no difference. The Nazis operated as they had for the last years, like inhuman barbarians, Hitler did not like the Poles and that disdain trickled down.
For 62 days, the Poles fought back against the Germans. The tied up innumerable German resources. But no one came to their aid. Tens of thousands of Poles were killed during this battle. But after 62 days, the Poles finally surrendered. And after that, Hitler ordered the systematic destruction of Warsaw. Near 90% of the city was destroyed systematically by the Germans, retribution for weeks, months, and years of Polish resistance.
Tens of thousand of Poles died in the uprising, many more in the years leading up to it. A city that at the start of the war was home to 900,000 people, by the end of the war was home to maybe 1,000 people. The Warsaw Uprising Museum is full of memorabilia and the story of the uprising, in many cases told in the words of the survivors, and in the words and deeds of the dead. The museum is full of photographs, and many more photographs of those who perished. It’ s kind of a haunting place, and not a very happy place, unless you enjoy the stories of tragedy. Of course, there are many stories of heroism among those, but often time the hero of one day was tragic victim of the Nazis days later.
One thing really stayed with me, in this case a story from a survivor. The young man, when going off to battle in the uprising, was told by his father, “Don’t die stupid.” In other words, his father was resigned to the fact that his son was going off to die, but wanted him to not die in vain, to die heroically, to “not die stupid.” Well, this man made his father proud, he survived. But so many did not, so very, very many.
So Germany razed Warsaw, expecting that would be the end of Poland, and Stalin was happy, too. But, they did not count of the spirit of the Polish people. In coming days or weeks, I may write more about the amazing story of how Poland has overcome adversity upon adversity, rising to be a prominent player in the world that it now is, a very successful and moderately prosperous country. But that story has to wait.
Tonight, as I write this, I am filled with sorrow and sadness for all those whose lives were cut short. For all those who died mostly because they were Polish, a nation that time after time has refused to die. Mothers, daughters, sons, fathers, grandfather, children, and more. All were people. All had lives. All had a future. But so many lives cut short because of hatred or jealousy or greed….the thing that causes wars. I am not sure how well I will sleep tonight. Though I am filled with pride for the Polish people, I am also filled with a sense of senseless loss, the lives that were lost, the many, many lives that were lost so senselessly so many years ago. What would the world be like if some of those lives had been lived? I guess we will never know. But I hope we will never forget…..
As for the rest of our day, we returned to Gdansk, arriving here shortly after 5 PM. It was a long trip back, but we made it back, tired after our 12 days on the road. Alicja, the ever-gracious hostess, quickly had a wonderful dinner for us, which we certainly devoured. The trip was a great trip, and my vacation and adventure is not yet over. There will be more to come tomorrow, and more to write about in the coming weeks. My story about Poland is nowhere near finished, I hope your will to read and learn is not as well….