June 22, 2012
Old Town still reverberates in Warsaw
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency
GDANSK - When the Poles built Narodwy Stadium in Warsaw to be the centrepiece of Euro 2012, it also became one of the iconic structures of the city itself.
It was built in a beautiful setting on the banks of the Vistula River. If you get high enough and far enough away, the stadium becomes the point that catches your eye from a distance. It is a spectacular vista, a modern stadium in a green setting.
That really represents the new Poland, the new Warsaw that is working diligently to grow and modernize.
Almost directly across the river from the stadium is a part of Warsaw that's ingrained in the country and city's emotional soul.
It's called the Old Town. It's a small section of Warsaw that runs along the river. Cars can navigate its narrow cobblestone streets, but there is nothing to encourage such a plan. In fact, it's sheer lunacy.
The cobblestones are uneven, pedestrians walking dogs use the middle of the street and quite often a dog merely walks along the centre daring a vehicle to try to get by it.
Only 15% of the Old Town is really old. That's all that was left after it was razed not only by World War II bombing but also by the German army as it attempted to quell Polish uprisings during the war.
After the war, 85% of the Old Town was rebuilt as it was before the bombings, keeping it as true to the original town as possible.
The four- or five-storey structures set one upon another, the narrow stairways leading up almost endlessly, are all part of the European charm and mystery.
Most visitors at Euro 2012 make a point of travelling to the Old Town. As you meander around the lower part of the town, it's quiet and reserved. It feels almost deserted. But walk up a series of 50 steps, through a narrow alley and before you emerges the Old Town Square, a thriving, loud, boisterous place crowded with outdoor cafes and restaurants, the antithesis of what the lower town is all about.
It looks as if you've walked into a scene captured in a snow globe only minus the snow.
It is like dozens of other European cities.
But like dozens of other European cities, it doesn't take much to imagine what the Poles of Warsaw went through during the war.
Old photographs show the mounds of rubble that at one time were five-storey structures. From there, one's imagination takes over.
Although the small basement windows are not original, one can picture faces peering out from behind lace curtains watching fearfully as German troops marched through the streets.
Warsaw became a symbol of resistance during the war and the Old Town is a symbol of its rebirth.
Warsaw was occupied by the Germans in 1939 and they remained for five years.
Hundreds of thousands were killed or were displaced.
The Warsaw Ghetto was a symbol of how Jews were treated. It also became a symbol of how people decided to fight back.
Jews were moved into the Warsaw Ghetto. They lived in horrendous conditions and faced regular transport to concentration camps.
But when word came that the Nazis were planning to transport every Jew to concentration camps, the Jews revolted and for more than a month with almost no weapons or food, held off the Germans. They fought them from basements, rooftops and sewers in the Old Town.
The end came when Germans began burning the town building by building until all who were left surrendered.
Between 200,000 and 300,000 Warsaw Jews lost their lives in the camps.
In August 1944, the Polish resistance began its Warsaw Uprising. The goal was to link up with the advancing Red Army and free Warsaw.
The bloody conflict was fought in the streets of Old Town. The resistance would have achieved its goal if political considerations between the Russians and Americans hadn't halted the Russian advance, virtually abandoning the resistance fighters. After six weeks of fighting, the Germans regained control. Reports say more than 16,000 resistance fighters died and 6,000 injured.
There are some remnants left of the bloody fighting. There are the statues honouring those who fought.
If you get high enough in the Old Town, you can see the new stadium, a symbol of the new Poland. Yet the old Poland is never far behind.
While Canadians have fought their wars, few of us can imagine what it would be like if it was fought on our streets or cities. What happened in Warsaw is incomprehensible.
The Old Town and the stadium are a powerful combination that will live as long as the structures stand. It represents the courage, desire and strength to survive along with the determination and willingness to move forward.