A miracle as defined by Webster’s Dictionary can be ”an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.” By that definition, I know for certain that I have witnessed at least one miracle in my life, that miracle is the existence of Warsaw. The fact that the Polish capital exists today is nothing short of miraculous. Most people are familiar with the destruction wrought by the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that effectively ended World War II. Less familiar is the calamitous destruction suffered by Warsaw during the war. From the first day of the war, September 1, 1939 until the latter part of 1944, the city was repeatedly under assault with its citizens brutalized by bombs, bullets and deportation. The architectural and human toll of these attacks is difficult to comprehend. Comparing Warsaw’s plight to that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gives some idea of the immense scale of violence visited upon the city. 85% of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed during World War II, compared with 69% of Hiroshima’s and 39% of Nagasaki’s. In 1939, Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million, six years later that number had dropped to just 422,000.
Scholars put the loss of life among Varsovians at over 800,000. To put that figure into perspective, consider that is more than the combined number of casualties suffered by the United States and British forces during the war. Following the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, a failed attempt to throw off the deadly yoke of German rule, it is estimated that anywhere between 150,000 to 250,000 Poles were killed as the civilian populace was expelled from the city. There were at least two to three times the number of civilian deaths compared with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now some might say this is a skewed comparison, since casualties in those Japanese cities were the product of single bombs, while the death toll in Warsaw came from hundreds of thousands of bombs and bullets over several years. While that may be so, it does not lessen the cumulative effect of the horror visited upon the Polish capital and its inhabitants. The Uprising also led to the final atrocity against the city, namely its wanton destruction by order of the Third Reich.
Looking Old, Feeling New – On the Surface
Contemplating the unimaginable scale of the wartime destruction made the city’s resurrection that much more impressive as I began to wander around its bustling center. The Warsaw that exists today provides little hint of the horrors inflicted on it just seventy-five years ago. Oddly enough, where I sensed the destruction most was while walking around the Old Town (Stare Miasto). The entire area has been magnificently reconstructed, so much so that it looks a little too pristine. The wear, tear and grit of centuries was missing. It became apparent to me just how new the Old Town really was. I have been in many old city centers of Europe, but few have ever looked so immaculate. The one that came immediately to mind was Dresden, that city in eastern Germany that was infamously firebombed into a raging inferno by the Allies and has since been meticulously rebuilt.
In my opinion, Warsaw’s reconstruction trumps Dresden’s, in both its scale and detail. To begin with, a much wider swath of Warsaw was destroyed. Though the reconstruction used whatever remaining materials could be salvaged, much had been obliterated. One thing that had not been lost, were the twenty-six detailed urban landscape paintings, known as Veduta, done over a ten-year period in the latter half of the 18th century by Bernardo Belloto. These renderings allowed for an intimately detailed reconstruction. In fact, the Old Town that exists today has much more in common with how it looked two and a half centuries ago, rather than in the early 20th century. Despite the surreal nature of this reconstructed venerability, Warsaw’s Old Town is a resounding triumph of the Polish people’s will. It symbolizes the indomitable spirit that raised their capital city from the ashes of destruction.
Razed To Destruction – Raised To Perfection
The Nazis wanted more than anything to wipe Poland and its storied history from the face of Europe. Their efforts failed. The Polish response was to recreate the historic core of their capital city. Nothing better symbolizes that effort than the Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski) which stands at the heart of the Old Town. The elegantly styled Baroque-Mannerist castle almost deceived me into believing this was the real thing. With only minor exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth. Less than a month after German forces occupied Warsaw in 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered the castle blown up. That did not happen right away because German experts in antiquities and artistic treasures were sent to oversee a thorough looting. It was only after the Warsaw Uprising that the Nazis carried out their venal destruction of the city, including the castle. By the time demolition crews were through, all that remained of the castle were fragments of two walls standing amid a pile of rubble. Six centuries of architectural and human history looked to have been all but extinguished.
Following the cessation of hostilities, work began to rescue what material could be salvaged from the ruins. These mere fragments would serve as a starting point. Two and a half decades went by before reconstruction work began. Once it did donations poured in, chiefly from Poles now living in the United States. The citizens of Warsaw could hardly contain their enthusiasm. Case in point, when the castle’s clock on Sigismund’s Tower was restarted in the summer of 1974 thousands gathered to watch. It was set at precisely the same time as when the city was first struck by Luftwaffe bombers during the war. Ten years later the reconstruction was complete. The overriding majority of the labor, as well as the financial and artistic donations, had been voluntary. The end result was a point of Polish national pride. A nation that had been on its knees just forty years before, with the capital and all of its history at the point of extinction, had been brought back to life. That indeed was a miracle. I saw that miracle for myself while visiting Warsaw.