Historical Sightseeing in Today’s Warsaw
Warsaw, like Berlin, is one of those cities where you cannot ignore the recent past. Nearly razed to the ground during World War II, rebuilt in haste under Soviet rule and now buzzing with shops, cafés and restaurants, modern history is all around. But what do today’s tourists actually see of these different historical layers? What do they do and take home with them? Alex, Vincent and Martina offer their thoughts on their recent experiences sightseeing in and around Warsaw.
Two of Warsaw’s museums in particular stand out: first of all, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (POLIN), which opened in 2013 and was awarded the “European Museum of the Year Award“ in April 2016, and secondly, the Warsaw Rising Museum, which opened in 2004. These two museums are different in how they interpret the past. While POLIN deals with the history of Jews in Poland from the Middle Ages to the present day, the Warsaw Rising Museum focuses on the years between 1939 and 1945 and the fight of the secret underground army against mainly German and later Soviet occupying forces. Though both offer a highly interactive engagement with the past, they also offer a very different image of Poland and its history.
The outer appearance of POLIN in itself is impressive. For one thing, the building is very modern. An enormous gap made of glass in the outside wall serves to symbolise the Jews’ Crossing of the Sea and attracts the attention of visitors and passersby. For another, it is located in the area of the former Jewish Ghetto, in the middle of the square with the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is therefore significant by virtue of its location alone.
Inside the museum you can find both temporary exhibitions about Jewish history and culture and a large permanent exhibition which portrays the life of the Jewish population in Poland from the Middle Ages to the present. The museum is highly interactive and experiential. Yet particularly interesting is the narrative it puts forth: it makes it clear that a history of the Jews without the influence of historical Poland is just as unimaginable as the history of Poland without the Jews. Aiming not to reduce the history of the Jews in Poland to the history of the Holocaust, this museum is a source of reflection.
The Warsaw Uprising was first acknowledged publicly after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of socialism in Eastern Europe. Now, it is thought of as a foundational moment for Poland. To represent this, one of the main elements of the Warsaw Rising Museum is ‘the pulsating heart of the Polish Rising’. As you enters, the sound of this heartbeat emerges from a metal cuboid, passes through reconstructed walls with bullet holes and mixes with wailing sirens and hollow German voices. This is an immersive experience for the visitors. As in POLIN, the modern multimedia exhibition of the Museum of the Warsaw Rising enables the visitor to touch display models and thus become part of the history for the duration of their visit.
Yet the message of the Rising Museum is very different to POLIN’s. The Rising Museum’s primary aim is to glorify the participants of the Warsaw Uprising. It thereby gives a rather simplified image of the event. The presentation of the historical sources emphasises the opponents’ barbarity and Polish heroism. This can be linked to the desire to assert the legitimacy of an independent Polish state. But the wholesale attribution of guilt and hatred towards the Soviets and the Germans, together with a strong Polish victim narrative, does not so much lead to reflection on National Socialism, the war and its causes, but rather to an uncritical emotional reaction.
Both POLIN and the Museum of the Warsaw Rising not only provide the visitor with historical information, but also encourage them to think about the way in which history is portrayed in contemporary Poland. They give insight into completely different perspectives on Polish national culture. From a German point of view in particular, this raises questions which will not find an answer during a two to three hour visit. You need time, not only due to the interactive multimedia installations, but also because of the need to reprocess what you have seen for a long time afterwards. Without doubt, a second trip would pay off.
Attending a free walking tour about communist Warsaw is, of course – despite the rather historical focus – a very touristy way of exploring the city. The tour caters to a broad spectrum of people with different levels of knowledge and interest. It therefore consists of a mixture of information, impressions and entertainment.
Nonetheless, the tour gives you the historical context for buildings and places in connection with the history of communist Poland and especially that of Warsaw from 1944 to 1989. Our guide was a history student who had been a child in 1989 but he frequently illustrated certain aspects with personal anecdotes from friends and relatives. The point was to ‘show how communism really was’.
On the one hand, these stories helped to connect communism, especially its more absurd aspects, with individual lives and fates, but on the other hand, they served to provide testified, authentic ‘facts’. Interesting at this point was also the way in which the actors were framed: there was the antagonist – the oppressive communist autocracy – and the protagonist – ‘we’, ‘the Polish people’. Instead of elucidating the complicated and interwoven status of the individual and the system, this dichotomy gave the impression of two clearly separate groups. This captures how Polish national historiography partially shapes the image of the communist period.
This leads to the question: how differentiated and reflexive should or can a touristic exploration of communism actually be? This is too large a question for such a short summary. Suffice to say that tourists expecting to hear astonishing and amusing stories will certainly not be disappointed. Even people with a more academic point of view will also be able to glean useful information and impressions. So if someone has never visited the city before, attending the free walking tour can be a good opportunity to get some basic facts about communism in Warsaw. Since this is post-communism, however, ‘free’, of course, means ‘donations are welcome’.
Compared to other historical sites of the Holocaust in Poland, Treblinka Memorial Park is frequented by a rather small number of visitors. An hour-and-a-half’s drive outside of Warsaw to the north-east, it is not really on the tourist map and hardly signposted. The site itself is less well known than others, not least because there is less to see there of the former work and extermination camps than in places such as Auschwitz and because there were so few survivors. This is nonetheless a powerful site of memory and commemoration.
The park is large because the site comprised two camps: a labour camp and a death camp. These are about two kilometres apart and in fact constitute two separate memorials. The main focus of our visit was the former death camp. The site was dismantled by the Germans in 1943, eliminating the traces of the mass murder that took place there from 1942 to 1943. In the 1960s, the area was turned into a memorial site by a Jewish artist and a Polish architect.
Situated in the midst of fields and woods, a path leads the visitor through a symbolic gate into what was once the camp. On the right hand side, symbolic rail tracks coming out of the forest lead to a ramp ahead, evoking images of the transports that brought the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto and other parts of Poland to their deaths. On the ramp, the path bears left towards a wide clearing. A large 8 metre tall monument of high-piled stones stands there.
The main monument seems to be ancient, radiating some mystical atmosphere. Actually, you do not expect to find this in a forest. But you would not expect to find a death camp there either. Surrounding the monument, some 17, 000 smaller granite stones are grouped in three areas. They symbolize a cemetery where the gas chambers and crematoria once stood. Some of the stones carry the names of annihilated Jewish communities; only one features the name of a person. The rest of the unmarked stones stand for the thousands of unknown individuals who were murdered.
Treblinka is a place of both individual and collective commemoration. Votive objects placed on top of some of the stones – which is a Jewish tradition – show the significance of the site for those who have lost family members in the Holocaust. But the use of the landscape and art provide for an emotional engagement with the past for all visitors. In its fundamental message, the memorial does not differ from other historical sites of the Holocaust. Yet, through the absence of factual information, it appeals much more directly to the visitor’s knowledge and imagination. Walking around this quiet and peaceful natural location, with the birds around chirping and being confronted with death and disruption may even be a source of deeper historical meaning; at the same time, you can easily forget where you are.