Gray Sundays in Warsaw: Warsaw After the War

It wasn’t actually gray yesterday. It was sunny and very cold! So, why the title?

I’m restarting a short series of posts I wrote in Vienna, about things we did on gray Sundays. Everyone keeps assuring me that winter here will be both 1.) colder than Prague and 2.) grayer than Vienna. Clearly, we will need a list of things to see and do if we’re going to make it to spring!

To that end, I’ve bookmarked a page listing all the museums in Warsaw, from the Museum of Polish Military Technology to the Museum of the Polish Peasant Movement. There are two museums about Pope John Paul (of course) and even a Museum of Diving. (?) I am committed to visiting many of these museums over the next few months.

We started, logically enough, with “Z,” the Zachęta National Gallery of Art. We wanted to see their current exhibit, “Warsaw After the War.” As I’ve mentioned before, I have a thing about Socialist Realist art. The exhibit did not disappoint in this regard. It was very cool. However, I am now convinced that I need to take a course, or at least read a good book, about Polish history. Man, it is complicated. The 20th century alone is enough to make your head spin!

Here’s what little I know to put this exhibit in context: Warsaw was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis during Word War II. They were very German about it, which is to say, focused, methodical, and thorough. The destruction centered on the Jewish quarter, in reprisal for the Warsaw Uprising, and the neighboring Old Town, symbol of Polish nationhood. But large swathes of the rest of the city were reduced to rubble as well.

Really, the things that went on in Warsaw, and Poland as a whole, during the war are worse than we can possibly imagine. And the Poles are not about to let anyone forget. The focus of just about all the museums and exhibits here is the 20th century. It is a stark contrast to Vienna, where most historical exhibitions peter out or stop altogether around the turn of the 20th century. WWII, if it is mentioned at all, is usually entirely blamed on Germany—even though Hitler was Austrian, and there were plenty of Austrian Nazis who were happy to go along with the program.

Each country chooses what it presents, of course. All history is somewhat subjective. I am sure that there are things that the Poles would prefer not to emphasize about their own history (pogroms, Nazi collaboration, reprisals against German-speaking Poles, and so on). It is important that we don’t forget the horrors of WWII, however, and I am glad that the Poles have made it their mission to record and present that history. It is amazing, when you think about what this country went through during and after the war, how it has rebuilt itself.

Another fact relating to this exhibit: after the war, the Allies basically picked up Poland and moved it about 100 miles to the west. This is a vast oversimplification, of course!

Thank you Wikipedia.
Thank you Wikipedia.

Between 1945 and 1950, there were many and various migrations and forced expulsions of peoples in these areas. The yellow area on the map above was originally part of Germany. All the people in that area that spoke and identified as German (this is the only way Europeans can tell each other apart, I guess!) were kicked out and replaced by Polish-speaking people, some of whom came from the pink area and were being kicked out of the Soviet Union.

So, what you have in the decade or so after the war is a deeply traumatized city lying in ruins at the head of a devastated country that is in the midst of huge forced internal/external migration. Again, vastly oversimplified, but that’s the context for the exhibit that we saw on Sunday.

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