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Wednesday, May 1, 2019


Warsaw today
I am surprised that the WW2 events that took place in the Polish capital, Warsaw, are not better known. I don’t remember learning about them at school, and despite having visited Warsaw a couple of times, it was only recently when I read Leon Uris’ 1961 historical novel Mila 18, that I really started to understand what the people of Warsaw lived through – or in many cases died through. Over half a million people from Warsaw were killed during the war, making it one of the worst atrocities that took place in any city with more deaths that even Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Warsaw 1945

It is very well known that Hitler’s decision to invade Poland on September 1st 1939 was what provoked the allies to declare war. Less well known is what the Nazis then did in Poland: all higher education institutions were immediately closed and Warsaw's entire Jewish population, several hundred thousand people and about 30% of the city, were herded into the tiny Warsaw Ghetto area. The city would become the centre of urban resistance to Nazi rule in occupied Europe.

Uris's novel, based on real events and real people, covers the Nazi occupation of Poland and the atrocities of systematically dehumanising and eliminating the Jewish people of Poland. The name ‘Mila 18’ is taken from the headquarters bunker of Jewish resistance fighters underneath the building at ulica Miła 18 (18 Mila Street. In English: 18 Pleasant Street). The courageous Jewish leaders fought a losing battle against not only the Nazis and their henchmen, but also profiteers and collaborators among themselves. Eventually, as the ghetto was reduced to rubble, a few courageous individuals with few weapons and no outside help took command of ghetto defence, formed an amateur army and made a stand. It makes for gripping reading and quite astonishing bravery. Rations in the ghetto were limited to 189 calories per day; the NHS recommends we consume 2,000-2,500 for a healthy diet; one quarter of the half million residents starved to death.

A ration card used in the ghetto allowing up to 189 calories per person per day.

Hard to understand what these poor people were prepared to do to survive and to die until you consider their only alternative was to accept deportation to ‘labour camps’ at Majdanek and Treblinka which meant almost certain death in the most degrading circumstances. The Nazi response was a violence out of all proportion brought about by the people’s surprising levels of resistance, culminating in the total destruction, block by block, of the entire ghetto area along with any remaining residents.

Warsaw Ghetto area after the Nazi destruction - Gęsia Street.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place in 1943 and the ghetto held out far longer than anyone expected although it was ultimately doomed to fail due to the strength and brutality of the Nazi army fighting civilians with few weapons. Over 250,000 Jews were deported to the concentration camps and the 13,000 who remained were virtually all burnt alive or suffocated by the end. A very small number managed to escape through the sewers.

We know a surprising amount about the ghetto given the Nazi efforts to destroy all its people and buildings. The Jews knew what was going to happen, so decided to document everything in triplicate and bury it so that the world would at some future point find out in full detail. So far some 35,000 documents including banal posters and ration cards, paintings, poems, photographs, jokes and specially written documents recording ghetto life have been discovered buried in metal containers under the rubble of the former ghetto. But it is thought that far more exist, still undiscovered today. The historian who organised these archives was Emanuel Ringelblum who did not survive the ghetto, but his archive did.

The historian Emanuel Ringelblum and his family left their picture in the hidden ghetto archive.

The following year, 1944, was when the Warsaw Uprising took place. This was an attempt by the Polish Home Army, directed by the government in exile in London to liberate the city from the Nazi occupation prior to the arrival of the Soviet army.

On 1 August 1944, as the Red Army was nearing the city, the Warsaw Uprising began. The armed struggle, planned to last 48 hours, went on for 63 days. Eventually the Home Army fighters and civilians assisting them were forced to capitulate. They were transported to PoW camps in Germany, while the entire civilian population was expelled. Polish civilian deaths are estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000. Hitler ordered the destruction of the entire city before his troops withdrew allowing the Soviets to take control. About 85% of the city was destroyed, including the beautiful historic Old Town and the Royal Castle.
Warsaw Old Town 2012 photo

You can visit the re-constructed old town of Warsaw today. It was re-built using photos that survived with as close a match as possible to the building facades. Inside, the buildings were re-constructed to modern standards at the time. Nothing of the Ghetto survives; a monument has been built at the site of the Mila 18 bunker.
Memorial stone at Mila 18 today

As if this wasn’t enough, the people of Warsaw were then ruled by the Soviets for the next 40 years with regular shootings taking place if anyone was found not playing by the communist rules. When I was in Krakow, one of our guides said that the people had suffered more under the 500 years of Soviet/Russian domination that the 5 years of Nazi rule. That’s quite something when you consider their fate between 1939 and 1945.

Soviet era statue in Warsaw

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