Starting Poland Off With a Stroll in Warsaw

Starting Poland Off With a Stroll in Warsaw

by Kenneth Rayman on January 13, 2019
I arrived in Warsaw brimming with joy at the journey I was about to take. My first full day was on my own so I grabbed the map and took off. I wanted to see what made Poland unique and told it’s story so I picked a monument and headed that direction. I said in my trip introductory article that I wanted to stay away from the tortured past of the WW2 era but my hopes where dashed when I made it to that monument. It was a statue of a man with several small children, the marker said, “Janusz Korczak: A doctor, author, and teacher. He taught how to love, to understand and to respect children, a guardian of Jewish and Polish orphans, he was killed with the children under his care at the German Extermination Camp at Treblinka.” My heart dropped; right off the bat I ran into the one thing I wanted to avoid the whole trip. I would eventually look up his story and find that he was offered escape several times, including by Nazi soldiers who knew of his writing on childhood teaching and respected his views, but each time he refused to abandon his children. The last time, by the Nazi officers, was when he and the children were being taken from the ghetto. I read that he made sure the children were dressed in their best clothes and told them they were headed out to the countryside where there were beautiful flowers and rolling fields of grass for them to play in. Reading that, my heart stung as he must’ve known his and their fate upon arrival.

My next order of business was to look for the flag, capture it’s “voice,” and negate the unfortunate find I had just made. I saw that I could “easily” walk to a collection of monuments around the Polish Sejm, or Parliament, and knew I’d find the flag there. There was Charles de Gaulle standing at a street corner and then, a block away, Ronald Reagan as I was unaware the Ambassador district surrounded the Sejm. I was able to find the first monument to the Polish internal experience of WW2 outside the Sejm, of the Polish military, where I also captured the waving voice of Polish history…

Next I found the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus surrounded by the orbits of the planets known in his time. I hadn’t known that he was Polish; and would later find out that Prussia would try to amend history to say he was German, that he was of the mind the world was flat, and that he published his theory shortly before his death because he knew it would be controversial to attest that the earth was not the center of the universe.

I wanted to pay tribute at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Piłsudski Square next and on the way walked past the Presidential Palace and saw the name “Lech Kaczyński” on the wall. I made it to the Square finding another monument to Kaczyński and realized I had the wrong Lech (thinking instead of Wałęsa). I walked across the street and was greeted by a huge cross in the open square, under the cross was a quote by John Paul II where he performed a holy mass in 1979. To the left of the square was a black/grey stone slab that said “Pamięci Ofiar Tragedii Smoleńskiej.” Unable to contain my curiosity, I googled the event listed and immediately knew why I knew the name of Lech Kaczyński, albeit faintly. Kaczyński and his entire cabinet were killed in a plane crash when attempting to land in Russia. Aside from the political crisis it caused the Polish government at the time, it was portrayed, then, as another fateful example of the relationship between the two countries. The google search also confirmed why that portrayal was made, as it was to commemorate and mend relations following the anniversary of the Stalinist murder of 20,000 Polish officers in WW2, something I had just learned about before the trip.

I took a moment there to remember the event and the history around it and moved on to the Soldier’s Tomb. It was a moment that I felt solemnity for the human race and stayed silent out of respect. I was surprised I was able to get as close I was to the actual flame, just outside the facade it’s in. I tried to get a good angle for a photograph but there was a woman trying to get the perfect “selfie” with the flame in the background. As I marveled at the lack of respect, I took a look around the monument seeing that the dates weren’t just from one period but the entirety of Polish history. I gave one final moment, got my photo of the flame and moved on. As I was reading the English marker next to the facade the soldiers started to move. I looked around for the changing guards and saw none, just the two walking the perimeter and back to their spots.

It was a good day to start off my Polish adventure and even though I saw what I didn’t want to see, I’d soon realize that I wouldn’t be able to escape it entirely as Warsaw itself was the center of some of the resistance’s most fierce fighting and saw 600,000 of its citizens put into the Jewish ghettos established by the Nazi administration of the area.