Thursday, August 6, 2009

Warsaw Poland (Part II)

Warsaw Poland (Part II)
Saturday, August 1, 2009

Michael and I have had a lot of good luck on this trip, ending up by accident in the right place, at the right time, and bumping into the right people. But on Saturday August 1, at 5:00 pm, our strange luck was turned up to eleven. We were seated in the middle of the oldest square in Warsaw, and two beers had just been delivered to our table. Hundreds of people milled about the square, tourists licking ice cream cones, young couples walking hand-in-hand, and vendors selling children’s games and flowers. Then, something very strange happened. At precisely 5:00 pm everyone stopped moving and fell silent. Those who had been walking stopped in their tracks. Those seated, stood up. And when I say everyone, I mean every single person stopped moving--at all. We learned later that even cars and busses and bikes on the roads had stopped.

And the whole city fell entirely silent except for the church bells, which rang for exactly 60 seconds.

I can’t begin to tell you how odd it is to see a city suddenly stop--freeze frame. People stood with ice cream cones, not licking them. People’s dogs stopped and sat down. Watching it was so surreal. At first I thought perhaps I was loosing my wits (what few wits I have left.) After one full minute the church bells quieted, and in an instant hundreds of people were moving again.

It didn’t take me long to ask the waitress what had just happened, and, as I supposed, the moment of silence was in reverence for those who died in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. By luck, we had ordered our beers five minutes before the 65th Anniversary--to the minute--of the beginning of the Uprising.

The Warsaw Uprising began when Polish Resistance fighters in Warsaw rebelled against the Nazi forces that held the town. The Polish fighters wanted to free the city from the Nazi’s before the immanent arrival of the approaching Soviet army. The fear was that if the Soviet’s took the city then Poland would be abandoned to the Soviets at the end of the war (how right they were). This rebellion happened shortly after D-Day and Polish expectations of help from the West were high. But no help came from the West, and the Soviet Army camped peacefully on the opposite side of the Vistula River and watched as Warsaw was flattened. In the end Nazi forces killed 200,000 people in Warsaw and destroyed every building in the city. The entire city was quite literally crushed. When the destruction was complete the Soviets waltzed in, kicked the Nazis out, and claimed Warsaw as their own.

In reverence to the Polish resistance fighters, each year, at precisely 5:00 pm, the people of Warsaw stop moving, fall silent and stand up for one minute. It is a beautiful, moving tradition.

What was once a flattened pile of smoky rubble is now a Unesco World Heritage site. In the 1950s, with no support from the Soviets, the people of Warsaw rebuilt their historic city centre. Using old photographs and memories, the city was painstakingly reconstructed, brick by brick. Hundreds and hundreds of buildings were rebuilt from scratch. This is a photo taken near where we were. And when looking at this photo remember that the buildings you are looking at were reconstructed from rubble in the 1950s. (Click on the image to enlarge):

And Mike offers us this film of the same area:


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