Sunday, December 02, 2007

My first visit to Warsaw

I write this from Slovenia; it is December 2 and for the next two days I will be training a group of PL/SQL developers in Ljubljana for Oracle Corporation.

I flew here this AM, from Warsaw, where I taught a class to Polish developers on Thursday and Friday. That was my first visit to Warsaw and it left a deep impression.

First, something kind of funny about Poland: when I travel internationally and mention that I am Chicago, I generally get one of two responses: "Al Capone!" or "Michael Jordan!"

But in Warsaw, the response is a knowing nod of the head: "The Other Polish Capitol" was how one person put it. Chicago has an enormous Polish population, so there are lots of connections between the two cities, and everyone there seems to be very aware of Chicago.

Beyond that, I found a city in which the past is very present, especially the past known as WWII and the Soviet Occupation.

For example, outside the national library is an enormous war memorial, set of sculptures, including this one. I usually find more peaceful and "bookish" themes/scultpures at such buildings.

I was also shocked by how little I knew of the history of Warsaw during WWII. I have long been familiar with the 1943 Ghetto Uprising, in which a small number (on the order of a few hundred) of very brave Jews decided to fight the Nazis rather than submit to shipment to Treblinka and certain death.

But I never really had heard of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Here's the shocking nutshell of what took place (I learned this from a visit to the remarkable Warsaw Rising Museum):

The Germans were clearly losing and also retreating. The Polish Home Army, based in Warsaw, and surviving underground, decided it was time to attack the hated Nazis and drive them from their city. So they launched a massive uprising involving 10s of thousands of soldiers. The element of surprise and sheer numbers gave the Poles the early advantage. Then Hitler ordered a full assault with reinforcements from surrounding countries. The Home Army asked for and expected support from the Allies.

But the previous year at Yalta, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had already agreed on how they would carve up Europe (and more) - and Poland was in Stalin's playground. Stalin didn't want a successful, empowered and independent military/political base in Poland. He wanted to install his own puppet government. So his armed forces stopped their advance on the East side of the Wista River. He also refused to allow the Allies to use air fields under Russian control to resupply the Poles.

And so after a long, brutal battle throughout the city (during which the Nazis killed some 150,000 civilians - including the Wola massacre, in which 50,000 were killed in one day), the Home Army capitulated. Now, that's tragic enough. But there's more....

** Hitler was very, very pissed off and told the officers in charge in Warsaw to expel all remaining inhabitants and level the entire city (more specifically, he told them to rank buildings by their significance to Poles and destroy them in that order)! And they went about it very systematically. Warsaw was essentially completely destroyed. I had no idea.

** When the Germans were defeated and withdrew from the city, Stalin moved his forces in. He then arrested all the Home Army leadership, accused them of collaborating with the Nazis, executed many and threw the rest in prison. How twisted...

** The decision was made to rebuild the Old Town of Warsaw, buildings that had stood for hundreds of years. And so they did, so well in fact that the UN has recognized it as a World Heritage Site even though it is a reconstruction. Fair enough - but part of the way they were able to accomplish this is that the Soviet-controlled Polish government went to nearby towns and demolished their old buildings so that something like 27,000,000 million old bricks could be "donated" to the cause. Oh, so very twisted....

Whew. it is no wonder that Warsaw still shows its scars.

Don't get me wrong, though: people don't just live in the past, bitter and depressed about what was done to them. Warsaw is vibrant and growing. I very much enjoyed my time there....I just got some education along the way.

I'd like to end this post with some positive thoughts about how fortunate it is that we, humans, have moved beyond such brutality and perversion. Sdaly, I don't think the state of affairs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Tibet, Gaza and so many other places filled with pain and suffering can afford me that generosity of spirit.

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