Commemorating Resistance during World War 2 in Warsaw: Part 2

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Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Industry was a gift from the USSR to Poland. Built in 1955, it is one of the city’s stand-out landmarks (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A few months ago, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. Whenever I visit a new place I try to find out as much as I can about its history of radicalism and dissent, and there’s no doubt that Warsaw has plenty of that. In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May 1943, and the ways that it is remembered in Warsaw’s streets and museums. Part 2 is about the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted for 63 days in 1944. The Uprising has an entire museum dedicated to it, as well as an impressive monument.

Warsaw Uprising

During the summer of 1944, the German Army was retreating across Poland, pursued by the Soviet Army. The Polish Home Army undertook uprisings in several cities in order to help the Soviet Army, and to assert Polish sovereignty–there were fears that the German occupying force would just be replaced with a Russian one. As the Soviet Army advanced towards the Vistula river, the Home Army in Warsaw decided to begin their own uprising on 1st August. It became the largest military effort of any resistance movement during the Second World War.

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A group of Home Army soldiers pose on a pile of rubble in Warsaw (Source: Imperial War Museum).

The uprising was only ever supposed to last a few days, until the Soviet Army reached Warsaw. However, the Soviets halted their advance on the eastern bank of the Vistula, and the resistance forces ended up fighting, almost entirely unsupported, for 63 days. The Home Army, aided by other groups including the National Armed Forces and the communist People’s Army, quickly took control of large sections of Warsaw. These areas were separated from each other however, and communication was difficult. The resistance fighters had received training in guerrilla warfare, but they were inexperienced at prolonged fighting in daylight and severely under equipped.

On the 4th of August, the Germans started to receive reinforcements, and began to counterattack. The following day, they began a systematic massacre of civilians in order to crush the resistance’s resolve. The strategy backfired however, only making the people of Warsaw more determined. Resistance fighters captured the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto (see Part 1), and liberated the Gesiowka concentration camp. At the end of August, the resistance decided to abandon the Old Town; the area was evacuated through the city’s sewers, which also served as a major means of communication for the resistance. The resistance eventually surrendered to the Germans on 2nd October; the expected help from the Soviets never came. The city wasn’t captured until 17th January 1945, giving the Germans plenty of time to systematically destroy the city and transport many of its residents to work and concentration camps.

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A Home Army soldier surrenders his weapon after the uprising ends (Source: Imperial War Museum).

Life in Warsaw was very hard during the uprising, for civilians as well as resistance fighters. There were severe shortages of food; people largely survived on ‘spit soup,’ made from barley captured from the Haberbusch i Schiele brewery. The media flourished in the city however, multiple newspapers were published frequently, and 30,000 metres of film documenting the uprising was produced.

Warsaw Rising Museum

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The Warsaw Rising Museum in Wola district of Warsaw (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Warsaw Rising Museum was opened in 2004, to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising. The Museum contains more than 800 items and 1500 photographs and videos spread over 3000 square metres. It covers all aspects of the uprising, and provides visitors with a huge amount of information. It is arranged chronologically, and I would recommend following the order of the galleries carefully (you go from the ground floor to the top, then work your way back down, which could be more clearly sign posted). I think you need at least 3 hours to see everything, and I would recommend stopping halfway through for a drink and a slice of cake in the cafe, otherwise you will get too tired to take it all in properly. A highlight for me was the Kino Palladium, a small cinema that shows footage of the uprising that was used to make newsreels. I was also particularly moved by the collection of armbands. Soldiers in the uprising didn’t have uniforms, so used red and white armbands to identify themselves. Some people personalised theirs, and it really brought the human element of the uprising home to me.

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Resistance fighters wore armbands instead of uniforms to identify themselves. Some of them have been given to the museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Monuments and Memorials

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This wall in Freedom Park documents the names of more than 10,000 resistance fighters who died during the uprising.

The Uprising Museum is located in Freedom Park, where you can also find several memorials connected to the uprising. The memorial wall documents the name of more than 10,000 resistance fighters who died during the fighting. Set within the wall is a bell dedicated to General Antoni Chrusciel, one of the uprising’s leaders. There is also a memorial to the estimated 150,000 civilians who lost their lives during the uprising, as well as the 550,000 who were deported from the city after the uprising failed.

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The memorial in Freedom Park to civilians killed and displaced during and after the uprising (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Little Insurgent monument is located in Podwale Street on the outskirts of the Old Town (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Set into the city walls surrounding Old Town is the Little Insurgent, a memorial to the children and young people who served as orderlies and runners during the uprising. The statue is based on a small plaster statuette created after the war by sculptor Jerzy Jarnuszjiewicz. It was paid for by former scouts, and unveiled in 1983 by Jerzy Swiderski, a cardiologist who had served as a scout during the uprising. It is a moving reminder of how the uprising consumed every aspect of Warsaw; even children could not escape the brutality.

 

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The Warsaw Uprising Monument in Krasinki Square (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The best-known memorial to the uprising, the Warsaw Uprising Monument, is on a much grander scale. Located on the southern side of Krasinki Square, the momument was unveiled in 1989, and is up to 10 metres tall. The monument has two sections: the larger represents a group of insurgents in combat, running from a collapsing building; the smaller section, in the foreground of the above photo, shows fighters and civilian woman climbing into a manhole. This is an acknowledgment of the significance of the city’s sewer system to the uprising. The monument is impressive, and you’d be hard pushed to walk past without stopping for a closer look. Monuments and statues can often blend into the street around them, which I think defeats one of the key objectives of memorials; drawing attention to the event, person or people it is meant to commemorate. There is no danger of the Warsaw Uprising Monument failing to attract attention.

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The larger section of the Warsaw Uprising Monument, depicting resistance fighters in combat (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Like all cities, Warsaw’s past is inscribed into its streets, buildings and public spaces. Warsaw’s history is more violent than many cities–it has faced more than it’s share of death, destruction, and upheaval, and not just during the Second World War. There a number of different approaches to dealing with such a traumatic history in Warsaw: the city’s museums use different balances of objects and multimedia; and the monuments work on different scales, from the small and personal to the grand and official. Which approaches work best probably depends on personal taste, but the fact that so much effort and thought has gone into all of these commemorative practices¬† demonstrates an admirable relationship with the past.

Sources and Further Reading

Frederico. “The Warsaw Uprising Museum.” Odd Urban Things. Last modified 13th March 2017, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://www.oddurbanthings.com/warsaw-uprising-museum/

Polish Tourism Organisation. “Monument of the Little Insurgent in Warsaw.” no date, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://poland.travel/en/museum/monument-of-the-little-insurgent-in-warsaw

Simkin, John. “Warsaw Uprising.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/2WWwarsawU.htm

The Warsaw Rising Museum. “The Warsaw Rising Museum.” No date, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://www.1944.pl/en/article/the-warsaw-rising-museum,4516.html

Trueman, C N. “The Warsaw Uprising of 1944.” The History Learning Site. Last modified 18th May 2015, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-two/world-war-two-and-eastern-europe/the-warsaw-uprising-of-1944/

Wikipedia. “Warsaw Uprising.” Last modified 21st August 2018, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising

Wikipedia. “Warsaw Uprising Monument.” Last modified 28th March 2018, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising_Monument

Commemorating Resistance during World War 2 in Warsaw: Part 1

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Warsaw’s Old Town was almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War, and was rebuilt in the 1950s. The mermaid is the city’s symbol (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In July, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. The Polish capital is a vibrant city with a fascinating, if traumatic, history. As ever, I paid particular attention to the history of protest and dissent in the city, and Warsaw has plenty of that. Whilst under German occupation during the Second World War, the city experienced two significant uprisings. The first took place in the Jewish ghetto in April and May 1943, and is known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The second is known simply as the Warsaw Uprising, and engulfed the whole city between August and October 1944. In retaliation for these two events, the Nazis destroyed more than 85% of the city. The total death toll from both events is around a quarter of a million people, both combatants and civilians. It is hard to forget such awful events, but they are still actively commemorated in Warsaw, both in the city’s museums, and on the streets through memorials. This post will focus on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, whilst Part 2 will look at the Warsaw Uprising.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Captured Jews during Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Jews captured by German soldiers during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April-May 1943. This picture was used during the Nuremberg Trials, and became very well known (Source: National Archives and Records Administration).

Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was established not long after. More than 400,000 people were crammed into an area of little more than one square mile, and many died from disease and starvation. In 1942, the Germans began deporting people from the ghetto to concentration camps (mainly Treblinka) and forced-labour camps. Around 300,000 people were deported or murdered, leaving 55-60,000 fearing they would suffer the same fate. They began to develop resistance organisations; the Jewish Combat Organisation (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) decided to work together to oppose any further deportations. On 18 January 1943, the fighters manage to disrupt a deportation, and drive the Germans out of the ghetto.

Buoyed by this success, the ghetto population began to build underground bunkers in case the Germans tried any more deportations. Unfortunately, the reprieve was only temporary, and German soldiers re-entered the ghetto on 19 April. Most of the ghetto’s residents were hiding in the bunkers or elsewhere. The Germans put down the uprising by destroying the ghetto building by building, forcing people out of hiding. Resistance continued for almost a month, but on 16 May the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street was destroyed to symbolise the German victory. Almost all of the remaining Jews were deported.

German soldiers burn buildings during Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

German soldiers systematically burnt the buildings in the Warsaw ghettos to drive out the people hiding within (Source: National Archives and Records Administration).

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest Jewish uprising, and the first urban uprising, in German-occupied Europe. It inspired uprisings in other ghettos and concentration camps. Although the ghetto was destroyed during the uprising, its memory is inscribed in the urban fabric of Warsaw through various memorials. It is also commemorated in the city’s museums.

Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews

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The Museum of the History of Polish Jews was purpose-built. It is a striking building, and everything about its design is symbolic (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Opened in 2013, Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews won European Museum of the Year in 2016, and it’s clear why. It uses the latest technology to explore 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland, and it is absolutely overflowing with information. The building was constructed in the former ghetto, in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (more on this later). Personally, it was a little lacking in actual objects for my taste, but it’s still a wonderful museum. One of my favourite things about it is that it whilst it does cover the holocaust, it doesn’t dwell on it. Jewish history in Poland is so much more than World War Two, and Polin reflects that. It does, however, cover the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it does it well.

Memorials

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The Monument to the Ghetto Heroes stands opposite the Polin museum, but it has been there for a lot longer, since 1948 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There are many memorials in the area of Warsaw that used to be the Jewish ghetto, but there are two that relate directly to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The first, as I mentioned above, is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, next to Polin. Designed by Natan Rappaport and Leon Marek Suzin, the monument was built in 1948, near to the location of the first skirmish between the Jewish resistance fighters and German soldiers. It is an imposing structure, built from stone that was originally bought to Warsaw by the Nazis; it was intended to be used for monuments to Hitler’s victory. There is a bronze sculpture on the western side of the monument, depicting both resistance fighters and civilians. It represents the resistance’s struggle, and the suffering that civilians experienced. On the eastern side is a relief of women, children and the elderly being led by German soldiers.

During a state visit to Warsaw in 1970, Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of West Germany, fell to his knees in front of the Monument in a solemn gesture of apology and regret. It was a fitting location for such a significant political act; the Monument has a very grand, official feel. The second monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that I visited feels much more personal.

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The remains of the bunker at 18 Mila Street, destroyed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising with more than 100 people inside (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A few hundred metres from the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, on the corner on Mila and Dubois streets, is a large mound of earth surrounded by trees. It is all that remains on the bunker at 18 Mila Street, one of the largest bunkers built during the Ghetto Uprising. It it thought that more than 100 people died within the bunker, both resistance fighters and civilians. Many of their names are not known, but it is thought that Mordechaj Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the resistance, was killed there. Their bodies remain there, in the words of the monument, “to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.” I personally found this memorial much more moving than the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes; it feels more connected to the extent of the human tragedy experienced by Jewish people during the German occupation of Poland.

Warsaw is a city that is thriving in almost every way, but you don’t have to look far to find signs of its traumatic history. Varsovians don’t try to ignore that history or sweep it under the carpet, but neither do they dwell on it. I think it is a city that has struck a good balance between learning from the past and looking to the future.

Don’t forget to check out Part 2 of this post, about the Warsaw Uprising, here.

Sources and Further Reading

History. “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” Last modified 2009, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/warsaw-ghetto-uprising

Polin. “Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (9/11 Zamenhofa Street).” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://sztetl.org.pl/en/towns/w/18-warszawa/116-sites-of-martyrdom/52110-monument-ghetto-heroes-911-zamenhofa-street

Polin. “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Historical Information.” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at http://www.polin.pl/en/news/2017/03/17/the-warsaw-ghetto-uprising-historical-information

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005188

 

 

ICHG 2018: Some (Nice) Reflections on Academia

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The 17th International Conference of Historical Geography was held in July 2018 in Warsaw, Poland (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I recently attended the 17th International Conference of Historical Geography (ICHG) in Warsaw, Poland. I had a brilliant time– it was a week full of exchanging ideas, meeting new people, and catching up with old people. The conference is held once every three years; it was last hosted by London in 2015 and I was there, heading towards the end of the second year of my PhD. Someone commented that the cycles of the ICHG feel like markers in your career, which got me thinking about how far I have come in the last 3 years, between London 2015 and Warsaw 2018.

I have certainly got ‘better’ at big conferences; in 2015 I co-organised one session at the ICHG, in 2018 I organised 2 on my own. I am better at networking, and I have learnt that it is not just about meeting new people, but also about developing relationships with people that I have met before. I’m less afraid to use the opportunity to ask more experienced academics for advice; I have finally convinced myself that they won’t think I’m stupid and/or annoying for asking.

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The speakers in “Historical Geographies of Protest and Dissent.” From left to right: Carl Griffin, Briony McDonagh, me, Nathan Moore, Iain Robertson (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

There are other areas of academic life on which I’m making good progress. Whilst I was in Warsaw I got word that my thesis revisions had been accepted by my examiners. I won’t technically be a Doctor until I graduate, but I will be a Doctor, it’s definitely happening. In 2015, the only geography department I knew was Royal Holloway. It is a fantastic department, but it meant my experience was rather limited. Since then I have also taught and worked at Oxford Brookes University and the University of Central Lancashire. I have learnt to give lectures, run tutorials, and write and mark assessments within a variety of different academic cultures.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, not by a long shot. I had moments during my PhD when I thought I would never finish it, and there were chapters that didn’t come together for months. I’ve had conference papers rejected, and for the jobs I got, there have been many, many more that I did not. I think it is important to acknowledge our failures as well as celebrate our successes in academia; it is all part of the process.

I am only at the beginning of my academic career; I still have a long way to go. By the next ICHG in 2021, I will have published some journal articles, and be on my way to securing a permanent academic job, if I haven’t already. 3 years ago, I would have qualified those goals with ‘hope’ or ‘might.’ Now, I am more confident in myself and my abilities. Of course, I still have my moments of fear, insecurity, and doubt. But they are becoming less common.

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Celebrating making it through the conference with a cocktail and friends (Photo: Ruth Slatter).

This blog post is not meant to be a big old boast (although I do think that female academics in particular could do with being more confident about expressing our achievements). It is meant to be a message of hope. I spoke to a lot of PhD students in Warsaw, and I recognised in many of them the same insecurities I felt back in 2015. There is a lot of discussion about how hard academia is to get into, and it is. But I can also give you loads of examples of people who have succeeded, in all kinds of ways, including outside of academia. So I guess the purpose of this blog post is to say to those PhD students: don’t be too hard on yourself. It might take you longer than you think, and it might not look like you imagined, but you’ll get there.