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Warsaw: WWII, Nazis, Jewish Ghetto, Chopin

Warsaw, Poland
Contains mature topics

Warsaw, Poland’s capital, has WWII memorials commemorating the courageous uprisings in the Jewish Ghetto and the entire city against the Nazis. After the war, the Soviets claimed Warsaw. Today the city is thriving and reveres its Polish greats, including Chopin.

Complete Video Script

Warsaw — pronounced “var-SHA-va” in Polish — is Poland’s capital and biggest city. Its outskirts sprawl with Communist-built apartment blocks. Downtown has a Gotham City ambience — with busy boulevards, expansive squares, and blocky buildings.

The Palace of Culture and Science — Poland’s tallest building, at over 700 feet — is a Warsaw landmark. It was a “gift” from Stalin in the 1950s that the people of Warsaw couldn’t refuse.

Because it was to be “Soviet in substance and Polish in style,” Soviet architects actually toured Poland to absorb the local culture before starting the project.

To show their…gratitude…the people of Warsaw nicknamed it “Stalin’s penis.”

And nestled in the center of all this utilitarian concrete are plenty of urban charms. Warsaw’s Royal Way — a mostly buses- and taxis-only shopping boulevard — is a local favorite for strolling, and browsing, and ultimately leads you to Warsaw’s historic Old Town.

The castle long served as a royal palace. Sigismund III — the great king who moved Poland’s capital from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596 — stands overseeing everything. And the city’s legendary mermaid welcomes friends while keeping out foes.

The grand city of Warsaw experienced more than its share of hardships in the 20th century. As with the rest of Poland, the real tragedies came with the Nazis and World War II. During the Nazi occupation there were two heroic uprisings: First, the Jewish Ghetto Uprising. Then, about a year later, the entire city rose up against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising.

Several powerful museums are dedicated to telling the story. By the 1930s, Warsaw — with 350,000 Jews — was one of the largest Jewish cities in the world. The Nazis arrived in 1939. They crammed Warsaw’s Jews into a single neighborhood and surrounded it with a wall. As more Jewish people were moved in from the countryside, Warsaw’s ghetto was soon the miserable home of well over a million people.

By 1942, half of the Jews in the ghetto had died of disease or starvation. The Nazis began moving people out at the rate of 5,000 a day to nearby death camps like Auschwitz. The population of the ghetto was down to about 60,000 when those who remained realized that they would die even if they did nothing. They decided to stage a courageous uprising.

Hopelessly outgunned by the Nazis, the uprising was crushed, the ghetto was demolished, and its residents were killed.

Because of the ferocity of Nazi hatred, nothing remains of the ghetto except the street plan and the heroic spirit of the people who once lived here. Ghetto Heroes Square — now surrounded by bland Soviet-style apartment blocks — marks the heart of what was the Jewish ghetto. The monument commemorates those who fought and died “for the dignity and freedom of the Jewish Nation, for a free Poland, and for the liberation of humankind.”

About a year later, the rest of the city staged another ill-fated uprising: the Warsaw Uprising. By 1944, as the Soviet Army drew near, it was becoming clear the Nazis’ days in Warsaw were numbered. With the expectation of help from Soviet tanks which were gathering just across the river, it seemed like the right time to attack.

This monument recalls the 50,000 Polish resistance fighters — the biggest underground army in military history — who launched a surprise attack on their Nazi oppressors. They poured out of the sewers and caught the Nazis off-guard, initially having great success. It was rifles, knives, and Molotov cocktails against air force, tanks, and artillery as they battled courageously for 63 days.

But the Nazis regrouped, and brutally put down the Warsaw Uprising. A quarter of a million Poles were killed.

Through all this, the Soviets sat here, across the river. They watched, and waited. As the smoke cleared and the Nazis retreated, the Red Army marched in and claimed the pile of rubble that was once Warsaw.

To me, the thriving city itself is the best memorial to those Warsaw heroes. Today, as you explore, it’s hard to imagine that by 1945 nearly two-thirds of the city’s prewar population was dead, and not a building was standing in Warsaw’s “Old” Town. Virtually everything you see is rebuilt.

Before the war, Warsaw’s Old Town Square was one of the most happening spots in Central Europe. And today, even the higgledy-piggledy charm of the buildings has been painstakingly restored. The colorful architecture reminds locals and tourists alike of the prewar glory of the Polish capital.

Warsaw’s huge, idyllic Łazienki Park is sprinkled with Neoclassical buildings, peacocks, and young Poles in love. It was built in the 18th century by Poland’s very last king, King Poniatowski, who wanted it both for his own summer residence — his striking Palace on the Water — and as a place for his citizens to relax.

A monument to Fryderyk Chopin, Poland’s great Romantic composer, graces the park’s rose garden. Chopin sits under a wind-blown willow tree. He spent his last years in Paris, where he wrote most of his greatest music. But locals cherish the thought that Chopin’s inspiration came from memories of wind blowing through the willow trees of his native land, Poland.