It would have been timely had I posted this yesterday. But yesterday, I was seeing my son off on a two-week long camp. It was only when I heard the sirens at 5 pm that I remembered August 1st is the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.
This 63-day face-off with the occupying Nazi army in 1944 changed the look and feel of Warsaw dramatically and incurred tragic costs. The nitty-gritty details can be found in the pages of Norman Davies’ account in Powstanie 44. The title is translated as “Rising 44” which might explain why the museum commemorating this battle is called Warsaw Rising Museum instead of Warsaw Uprising Museum.
Below is a review of the Warsaw Rising Museum I wrote way back in May 2006 when the museum was newly reopened.
Click here to see a photo of marking the anniversary.
(Warsaw Insider, May 2006)
It was uncanny for me, at the end of the tour, to find Blikle’s sweets in the museum’s café. The last thing anyone would think of was cakes and sweetbreads. But my journey into the history of the Warsaw Uprising started four months earlier in Blikle’s flagship café on ul. Nowy Świat. On its menu’s hardcover are the words ‘Sapere Aude’ – Dare to Know. The words that dared me to learn some aspects of Warsaw’s past which I had lacked the courage to delve into.
The museum reopens this month after extension works in March and April. Among the new exhibits is a life-sized replica of WWII airplanes that delivered airdrops to the city in the autumn of 1944. Visitors can now watch documentaries in its new cinema. It also added a section for temporary exhibitions.
A route guides you through the different sections of the three-storey museum. Each section addresses an aspect of the uprising – from the underground press and ammunition productions to the schoolboys who delivered ‘Insurgent Mails’ to separated members of families.
At the end of it, you come away with an understanding of the social, political and military impetuses that precipitated the uprising. You see the many facets of daily life and the ferocity of the reprisals during the 63-day struggle; and witness the attempts to erase the city’s architectural heritage in the aftermath of the revolt. And you decide whether the Allies couldn’t help or weren’t able to help. You find out the ordeal that continued to plague the insurgents after the war ended as the triumphant powers exerted their agendas. Chances are when you leave the museum, you’ll see the resurrected city in a different light as you uncover the scars beneath.
Wartime artifacts, photographs and newsreels provide close-up views of this tumultuous chapter. The comprehensive coverage is in a dignified tone. ‘Drastic scenes’ are placed in a square ‘well’. You have to lean over the walls to look into the ‘wells’, making it a conscious decision to see these graphic images. Having said that, segments of a newsreel in the Ghetto section and a blown-up picture in the ‘German Room’ were chilling images that caught me off-guard.
The museum also serves as a memorial to the insurgents and civilians who perished. Faces from the past line the walls in the ‘Death of the City’ section. Weather-permitting, walk into the ‘Freedom Park’ of the museum’s grounds to read the names of insurgents on the ‘Memory Wall’. More than 6,000 names are inscribed. And more are still being added as family members come forward with evidence.
Although most of the exhibits are bilingual (Polish and English) and it is possible to do without a guide, it’s a tremendous amount of reading to assimilate the information. As my guide walked me through the museum, her voice was now and then drowned out by sounds of low-flying planes and bullets rattling. She filled the gaps in my knowledge of wartime history and provided a coherent picture which I otherwise wouldn’t have obtained on my own. Though she gave only brief outlines on some sections, the tour lasted an exhausting two hours.
“There were many occupations in our history,” she said. “We do not know what will happen in the future. This museum is a reminder of our tradition to preserve independence.” And a heart-wrenching reminder of the human toll – figures so staggering that my courage shuddered and my mind refused to fully comprehend. Sapere aude – in your own time.