Warsaw: A Tale of Two Uprisings
I went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum a few days ago. In August of 1944, thousands of Poles in Warsaw rose up against their Nazi occupiers. They lasted almost two months, when the Germans finally crushed the rebellion as Soviet tanks looked on across the Vistula, doing nothing to help the valiant Poles. According to statistics from the museum, the Germans destroyed nearly 90% of the city, and left the Polish capitol, once a city of 1.3 million, with only a few thousand inhabitants.
Needless to say, that museum did not exist when I was last in Warsaw in 1999. Even if it had, though, I wouldn’t have visited it. We stuck to Jewish sites on that trip, and this was a Polish story. It’s a Polish story that the museum tells, and rightly so. The Varsovians are justly proud of their history of resistance. Of course, being the parochial that I am, I couldn’t help but look for any mention of Jews throughout the entire museum, especially the other Warsaw uprising, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. That valiant but failed effort saw the city’s Jewish population decimated.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum had a small but tasteful section on the Ghetto Uprising, and some other Jewish content sprinkled throughout the exhibits. Only once, though, in one sentence, did a plaque mention that some non-Jewish Poles helped round up their fellow citizens and deliver them to the Germans and their ultimate demise.
Indeed, the museum had very little on any Polish collaboration with the Nazis. The Museum’s story was, in a sense, Poland’s story: fucked by the Germans, then fucked by the Russians. It happened in the 18th century, and then again in the 20th. While the Nazis were the museum’s main villains, the Soviets came a close second. The museum highlights Stalin’s refusal to come to the Uprising’s aid. In another prominent section, right by the cafe, the exhibits emphasized the brutality of the Soviet occupation, and how after the war the Soviets specifically targeted leaders of the Uprising, murdering many, to avoid facing that sort of resistance themselves.
I suppose the Museum’s staunch anti-Communism was not that surprising, and not entirely undeserved either. Yet it made me wonder: weren’t there communists among those Poles who rose up? I know that French communists played a large role in France’s resistance, a role often white-washed by more conservative historians. I know also, from reading Marci Shore’s superb book, Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968, that Polish communists had a rough time during World War 2. Prior to the war, they could safely hate the Nazis, until Stalin and Hitler ruined all that with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on the eve of the war. Soon Hitler invaded from the west, but the Red Army came from the east not long after, and Polish communists were once again caught in a bind, particularly those under Nazi occupation.
In June of 1941, the Germans began Operation Barbarossa, pushing into Soviet occupied Poland as far east as the wehrmacht would go. Devastating to most of the Allies, this moment “liberated” the Polish Communist intellectuals, who felt free to hate the Germans openly and enthusiastically now that the Nazis and the Soviets were at war. I can’t remember if Shore wrote about this precisely, but I’m sure some of these Polish communists, their passion for battle restored, participated in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
Since so much of Warsaw was destroyed following the Uprising, the Museum stands as a fine tribute to the re-energized city. It was built in 2004. Two years later, a monument was erected, this one for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Interestingly, the signage on the monument is written in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish, but not English, which adorns most tourist-oriented plaques I’ve seen in Poland.
The monument is not far from the Old Jewish cemetery, the only major Jewish site remaining from pre-war Warsaw. I’d been there in 1999, and it was raining, so I didn’t spend much time there, but I’d forgotten how enormous it is. The monument is also near Umschlagplatz, where Jews liquidated from the Ghetto were gathered, put on trains bound for Treblinka. I’d already been there too, though I don’t know remember if that spot had the current memorials when I visited 12 years ago. One thing that definitely wasn’t there, across from where the new monument to the Ghetto Uprising stands, is the massive unfinished building, soon to become Warsaw’s Jewish museum. That will obviously tell a very different story than the Uprising Museum. I wonder what story it will tell, and how much of it will be Polish instead of simply Jewish.