Warsaw has to be pacified, that is, razed to the ground.
—Adolf Hitler, 1944
THE HERITAGE OF WAR : WARSAW
Things have different costs in different places. In the ancient heart of Warsaw ice cream is inexpensive and on Sunday afternoons the lines in front of popular vendors are long and noisy, as grandparents, children, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and friends debate what flavors to sample. A few of these people are foreign visitors, but most of them are Poles. They purchase their ice cream on cones and stroll through the historic medieval city, which has been meticulously re-created down to the finest detail after its destruction in World War II. Surrounded by the facsimile of their lost birthright, there is a palpable feeling of pride in the air. It is one of the most wonderful urban celebrations to be found anywhere in the world.
How important is our architectural heritage? What limits will we place on the city's future in order to preserve our cultural identity? What price are we willing to pay to conserve a record of our history? Few places have given as clear an answer to these questions as Warsaw. Here people established the value of their monuments by what they were willing to sacrifice. In Warsaw, a city's inhabitants endangered their lives to save their past.
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In Warsaw they fought. That is the first and most important fact.
The Poles fought the Germans again and again and again, refusing to be subdued. They died by the hundreds of thousands in battles, concentration camps, and ad hoc daily executions. And it was here, in the Warsaw Ghetto, that members of the Jewish resistance—realizing the ultimate futility of their desperate struggle and equipped with but a few stolen guns, bricks, and homemade bombs—pitted themselves against storm troopers wielding the most modern of military hardware.
Citizens in Warsaw resisted the Third Reich, and by their dissent and death they put a price on their metropolis. They established the price they would not pay to keep it whole. They would not sell the soul of their city in order to save its body. They would not refrain from resistance in order to spare their metropolis from becoming a battleground. And once it was evident that the cost of their defiance would be the destruction of the city, Varsovian architects, planners, and teachers, in a perilous act of disobedience, documented their architectural past so it could be rebuilt sometime in an unknown but better future.
In Warsaw they fought, and as a result the city and its people were almost totally eradicated, and not just by the missiles, bombs, and bullets of combat. In Warsaw the Nazis devised a systematic program of cultural annihilation.
German architects carefully identified the historic monuments of the city: the most beautifully proportioned buildings, the buildings designed by distinguished architects, the buildings where famous Varsovians had lived, the places where important historic events had taken place, the buildings with gracious sculptural decoration, the buildings of symbolic importance, the best examples of different architectural styles, the most meaningful buildings of various periods, the proudest churches, the richest palaces, the most beautiful homes, and the neighborhoods where the architecture of Warsaw was knit into an artistic whole—the panoply of Warsaw's pride, built across seven hundred years of history. Then, having ascertained the patrimony of the metropolis, the German occupational forces sent out squads to rob these places, to strip them of their art and artifacts and, afterward, to dynamite the architectural accomplishments of Polish culture. The structural integrity of buildings was analyzed. Explosives were set and detonated from a safe distance. In World War II, it became German national policy that the culture of Warsaw be erased as a way to quash the spirit of resistance among the Polish people.
"She defies the storm!" That was the motto of the city long before the Germans attacked. Across hundreds of years of history, Warsaw and the rest of Poland had endured defeat, annihilation, betrayal, and subjugation by the Tartars, Teutonic knights, Swedes, Hungarians, Transylvanians, Russians, French, Austrians, and Germans. In European history, Poland was a country not allowed to become a nation.
Caught by geography and fate between some of the major competing continental powers, Poland was established as an autonomous kingdom in 1526, but by 1655 it had already lost its independence to the Swedes. The country was erased from the map of Europe by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in three consecutive partitions in 1722, 1793, and 1795. It was taken by the French in 1806, ruled by Russia under the Congress of Vienna, subjugated once more after the Russo-Polish War, and occupied by the Germans in World War I. Finally, in 1918, the country was given back its independence, and thereafter, until the German invasion in World War II, it experienced a brief and tantalizing era of freedom.
As in other European countries, whose continuity of preservation law is anchored in the first national statute promulgated after the emergence of the nation-state, Poland began the effort to identify and conserve its heritage immediately following its independence in 1918. A Ministry of Culture and Arts responsible for the conservation of historic monuments was established, and ten years later, in 1928, a remarkably comprehensive statute was adopted by the Polish national legislature. The new law protected landmarks, their surroundings, parks, gardens, monuments of nature, and historic districts in urban areas. This is the earliest modern preservation statute to recognize the significance of protecting entire historic neighborhoods. It predates the special zoning statutes of both Charleston (1931) and New Orleans (1932) in the United States, as well as those in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rome, and Vienna, which had formulated national preservation laws long before Poland but had not empowered conservation authorities to restrict the development of whole urban areas.
Having been denied a national identity for centuries, the Polish people had a strong desire to protect those manifestations of culture that were unique to them. Even before Polish independence, several architects and historians had attempted to identify a national architectural style and to inventory the country's singular historic buildings. One of the most important architectural clusters lay in the heart of the capital city. The environment that had evolved here embodied the historic building traditions of the nation more thoroughly than any other place in Poland.
The Old Town of Warsaw was first built up around a market square as a modest fortified trading settlement and regional administrative center sometime in the 1300s. By the fiftenth century it had become a ducal seat. In 1447 it expanded to include a New Town just to the north. As Poland took its place as the breadbasket of Europe, the burghers of Warsaw grew prosperous and transformed their wooden houses into handsome masonry structures. In 1611, during the reign of Sigismund Augustus III, the royal court was established in the city. An elegant castle was erected, based on the designs of architects imported from Italy. Numerous other noblemen's mansions soon embellished the growing capital town and its suburbs. Within a few years, there were over one hundred such elaborate residences and four grand palaces. Most of these were in the Baroque style, and before long the burghers' houses were undergoing similar stylistic transformations. The -settlement's medieval defensive walls were periodically expanded. Numerous beautiful churches were built, both within and outside the Old Town walls. Across hundreds of years of building, the city had become a cherished architectural ensemble.
There was a Great Fire in 1607. In 1620, Warsaw was struck by plague. In 1660, it was laid waste by the Swedes, Hungarians, and Transylvanians. Mansions, palaces, and churches were looted. Over 60 percent of the settlement was leveled, and 70 percent of the population was killed. There was an even more terrible fire in 1669, yet still the city did not vanish. In the midst of another attack of plague, the Varsovians rebuilt the Old Town. And the bricks, stones, and tiles of the city came to be perceived as the cultural expression of a stubborn national spirit.
After its reconstruction, the Old Town entered a long period of decline. The city was no longer the capital of a nation. Wealthy families built their fashionable houses in other parts of Warsaw, and the historic core became a district for the middle class. By the 1900s maintenance had slowed, and the number of residents in the Old Town grew as the poor moved in. In comparison with the more modern neighborhoods of Warsaw, the lack of sanitary infrastructure and amenities made the Old Town a slum. Dilapidated, worn, and frayed, the proud old buildings nonetheless retained their inherent beauty under a layer of grime.
Early in the twentieth century, Warsaw was the focal point of a Polish cultural renaissance. Theater, music, and journalism flourished. Poland briefly reassumed nationhood. Universities were established and the city became a sophisticated continental capital, frequently referred to by Poles as the "Paris of the East." The Varsovians were justly proud, for the modern industrial city that had grown up around the historic core of the Old and New Towns was an integrated artistic assemblage of traditional and classically inspired architecture, adorned with fountains, public sculptures, parks, pleasure gardens, cobbled streets, decorative ironwork, and elegant kiosks and streetlamps. In 1927 the city hosted the International Chopin Competition for Young Pianists. By the eve of the Blitzkrieg, Warsaw was one of the most beautiful cities of Europe and held about 1.3 million -people, for whom freedom was a precious and infrequent commodity.
Occupation by the Third Reich
On September 1, 1939, when the first bombs were dropped on Warsaw by the Luftwaffe, Poland had a multiethnic population of about 30 million people. Over the next five years, one-fifth of these would be killed: about 6 million Poles, including virtually all of the more than 3 million Jews. Of these many victims, it is estimated that only 600,000, or 10 percent, were combatants killed in fighting. The vast majority were executed, starved, or exterminated. There were seven German concentration camps in Poland, two of which—Auschwitz and Treblinka—were to become particularly infamous. In addition, millions of Russian prisoners were jammed into camps and left to starve. And at over four hundred other places a minimum of one hundred Polish civilians were executed at a time, without trial.
Most of these ad hoc murder locations are little known, but investigators have found that when the authorities have failed to document the position of such sites, rural neighbors have done so. Across Poland, there are unused open fields where farmers do not plow, for they know that to do so would disturb the remains of the murdered. Hidden in woodlands, there are simple homemade monuments where the anonymous living remember the anonymous dead. In Poland in World War II, the Germans perpetrated a Polish genocide, a Jewish genocide, and a Russian genocide. They reduced the country to a vast killing field and made Warsaw a city of death.
Between 1939 and 1944 some 800,000 people, or 60 percent of Warsaw's population, were killed and most of the town destroyed. The intent of this carnage was chilling. The Nazis had decided to depopulate Poland and reconfigure Warsaw to hold 130,000 German inhabitants occupying an area about 5 percent of the size of the prewar city. In Wurzburg, in Bavaria, town planners of the Third Reich drafted precise drawings identifying a historic area of "Germanic" architectural character in which select old buildings would be saved (including a historic castle to serve as Hitler's state residence), and a modern provincial city would be built up around them. The Pabst Plan, composed of fifteen drawings and a miniature architectural model, established that the new German agricultural center would be located in the sector around the Old and New Towns of Warsaw. (The Pabst Plan is named for the German army architect Friedrich Pabst, who refined the idea of destroying an enemy's national cultural identity by destroying its physical manifestations: architecture, art, and historic archives. The actual design for the new German city to be located in the former site of Warsaw was created by another German army architect, Hubert Gross.)
The first siege of Warsaw was a bitter struggle that lasted three weeks. The Polish toll was 10,000 dead and 50,000 wounded. About 12 percent of the city's buildings were extensively damaged. On September 17, the Russians advanced across the eastern border of Poland, and Stalin and Hitler partitioned the country according to a prearranged plan. Although the Soviets would not remain allied to Germany, it is estimated that during this brief period they were responsible for the death of about 1.2 million Poles.
In Warsaw, the Germans were soon creating cities within the city: a German sector, a Polish sector, and what the Nazis officially referred to as the Jewish Quarter (Judenviertel), which came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. Prior to the war, the Jewish community in Warsaw had been a thriving society of successful merchants, bankers, teachers, and professionals, with the largest urban population of Jews in Europe. The community had its own Yiddish theater, a Jewish press, and separate schools. Now the Nazis ordered that a particularly dense area of tenements be isolated, occupying about 760 acres, and that all of the city's Jews be crowded inside. A 10-foot wall was built all around the sector and guards posted on the perimeter.
The Warsaw Ghetto became a holding tank for Jews collected from the surrounding countryside. As more and more people were crowded together, more and more of the inhabitants died from lack of food and from diseases caused by the severely congested and unsanitary living conditions. It is not known exactly how many Jews died in Warsaw. Estimates of the resident population of the ghetto taken at different moments in its short but traumatic history vary from 300,000 to 600,000 people. To some extent, the inhabitants were dying as quickly as new victims could be found and packed inside. Life in the ghetto had achieved a virulent stasis with death.
For six centuries, Jewish life in Warsaw had persisted and often thrived, but in the summer of 1942, it came to an end. A message was sent to the German governor of Warsaw by Heinrich Himmler: "A general plan for the destruction of the city ghetto should be submitted to me. In any case, we must arrive at the stage in which the residential area, which exists at present for 500,000 sub-humans [Jews] and which has never been suitable for Germans, will disappear from the face of the area, and the city of Warsaw, with its million inhabitants, which has always been a center of agitation and rebellion, should be reduced in size."
The "final solution" had emerged. At the rate of about 5,000 people a day, an estimated 350,000 ghetto residents were loaded onto -cattle cars and shipped to the gas chambers. Some 60,000 Jews, weakened and primitively armed, chose another fate: at dawn on April 19, 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising commenced. They fought against insurmountable odds for twenty-eight days.
The German solution to the urban guerrilla tactics of the Jewish resistance, the ZOB (Jewish Combat Organization), was to quell the rebellion one building at a time. With armed troops in attendance to act as execution squads, the ghetto was razed structure by structure. Afterward, bulldozers pulverized and leveled the broken pieces. The Germans had in effect erased an urban area of about one square mile. No buildings remained, no sidewalks, no streets, no green—just a field of shards.
Outside the ghetto, the harshness of the occupation resulted in a determined Polish underground whose activities were in turn met by further German brutalities. Ad hoc executions began to occur throughout the metropolis. After the war, 220 commemorative markers would be erected in the city in remembrance of the thousands of victims killed out of hand. The price for resistance was death, but it also became clear that ultimately the price for submission would be the same.
Early in the occupation, the German governor of the city had received an order from Berlin requiring him to "do everything -pos-sible to strip the city of its traditional character as the focal point of the Polish Republic." Because the Pabst Plan had initially left in place select historic structures contributing to a contrived Germanic townscape, a team of town planning and architectural experts had been required to evaluate which old buildings might be saved as part of the new city. (The elimination of the Jewish ghetto had always been a constituent of this scheme.) Now the Germans used the scholarship of their experts to perpetrate an intellectual obscenity. People who had been trained to revere the beauty of architecture and of cities lent their knowledge to the destruction of the very achievements to which they aspired. In order to subdue the fighting spirit of the Poles, the Germans attempted to eradicate their culture by destroying the most profoundly meaningful aspects of Warsaw's cityscape. This is one of the most revealing moments in the history of architectural conservation, a juncture of extreme inversion of values. Perceiving the Germans' intent, the Varsovians began a cultural counteroffensive.
One of the unexpected phenomena of World War II was that in cities subject to bombardment, planners recognized the inadvertent opening of a unique possibility for advantageously restructuring the metropolis. With the Industrial Revolution, modern cities had developed complex public and private vested interests in buildings and infrastructure that made change difficult. Each alteration of the city required the simultaneous reconciliation of the needs of multiple constituencies. But during the Second World War, with the introduction of indiscriminate strategic bombardment, many explosions unintentionally eliminated this tangle of vested interests. Unbeknownst to one another, in war-torn cities across Europe, local planners were surveying the damage and developing ideas for the reconstruction. Because this work had been done while the war progressed, postwar rebuilding in many cities was substantially advanced immediately upon the cessation of hostilities.
As Varsovian town planners anticipated the damage to come, they too began a covert operation to remake the city. Compared with their counterparts in France, England, and Germany, however, the planners in German-occupied Warsaw drew up such designs at risk of their lives, for the occupational authorities had declared such activities illegal.
A covert Studio for Architecture and Town Planning was secretly located in the Cooperative Building Enterprise to study postwar needs for housing and industrialization. (Its first director, prior to his deportation to Auschwitz, was Szymon Syrkus, one of the noted pioneers of modern Polish architecture.) The planning department of the municipal council, in association with the Studio for Regional Planning, created a secret commission of town planning experts to study the redevelopment of Warsawís traffic circulation routes. Other illegal groups of architects were formed spontaneously across the city. One of their documents, a directive for Warsaw reconstruction, was written by the light of the flames of the burning city and hidden in POW camps until the end of the war, when it became a seminal reference for the reconstruction.
The most extraordinary clandestine operation occurred among members of the faculty of architecture of Warsaw Technical University. At the beginning of the century, Polish architects had begun to document the landmarks of War-saw through measured drawings and analytical studies. Once Poland became an independent nation, its conservation bureaucracy assembled surveys of the city's historic assets. Additionally, approximately a hundred photographic studios had come to exist in Warsaw prior to World War II; many of these had captured the cityscape in pictures. Now such documentation would be critical if historic Warsaw was to be rebuilt. In some instances, old paintings would also be quite useful, especially a few highly detailed portraits of the city made in the eighteenth century by the Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto, the nephew and student of Antonio Canaletto.
By command of the German occupational force, the university had been reduced to a secondary school for training in the building trades. In an act of moral resistance, the professors and students of the defunct Department of Town Planning, while pretending to do mechanical drafting exercises, continued the education of the next generation of Polish professional planners and architects. Over 150 students participated. In direct violation of the German prohibition on planning, pupils developed studies for the rebuilding of Warsaw. They predated their works so that, if they were discovered, the drawings would appear to have been created before the invasion. The documents were hidden in the monastery of Piotrków, outside the city. After the war, Warsaw Technical University would retroactively accredit twenty-three graduate papers, nine doctoral dissertations, and eight postdoctoral studies.
And in response to the waves of destruction that enveloped the city, members of the faculty undertook the task of assembling photographs, sketches, and drafted representations of Warsaw's historic structures. In a climate of frequent arrests, deportations, and public executions, and before the eyes of the gestapo, the studies continued. Methodically, the legacy of Warsaw was recorded so that the past would not be stolen from the children of the future. It is hard to imagine that ever again will such important conservation scholarship be done under such dangerous conditions.
On August 1, 1944, a second Warsaw Uprising began, this led by a contingent from the Polish Home Army. By this stage of World War II, two Polish governments-in-exile now existed. One was located in London, the other in the Soviet Union, and each claimed sovereignty over the em-battled city.
By September 17, Soviet forces had reinvaded Poland from the east, this time as an ally to the West and enemy of the Third Reich. The Soviets advanced to within 75 miles of Warsaw and stopped. Fighting in the city was furious and bloody, and the Varsovians were close to victory over the Germans. But since the Polish Home Army was associated with the London government-in-exile, the Soviets would not intercede and help. They let the Germans prevail.
Much of the fighting had occurred in the medieval cityscape of the Old and New Towns, which was decimated by hundreds of thousands of explosions. The continued insubordination by the Poles of Warsaw had caused the Germans to reconsider whether they might refashion parts of the historic city to their own uses after the war. With the Old and New Towns in ruins, Hitler issued a final punitive order to completely raze the city.
The Germans divided Warsaw into zones and began a systematic eradication of the metropolis. They had already ascertained which structures represented the most significant parts of the Polish heritage. Selected buildings and statues were officially marked for the "demolition and annihilation squads." If blockfronts had an architectural unity, they were fractured by destroying those buildings that most contributed to the artistic whole. Corner buildings—which are often more architecturally dramatic and original—were especially targeted.
As this was occurring, a professor from the Technical University, Stanislaw Lorenz, obtained a special pass allowing him and a handful of other faculty members to reenter the deserted and devastated city. Hidden in the architectural school was the amassed documentation of the historic structures of Warsaw. It required several trips in an old truck to bring the material out. This too was hidden in the Piotrków monastery, in the ancient stone coffins of dead monks.
Of 957 buildings which the Poles had classified before the war as individual monuments or structures contributing to the special ambience of historic districts, 782 were totally destroyed and 141 partly demolished. The Nazis had reduced to rubble 96.5 percent of the city's historical and architectural legacy.
Germany was not the only nation that intentionally targeted culture as a tactic. British bombing was commonly referred to by the German populace as "Baedeker bombing," in reference to the famous cultural guidebooks, and the infamous firebombing of Dresden was a deliberate act of cultural desecration in response to the German bombing of Coventry. In contrast, for much of the war in Europe, low-altitude daylight bombing missions by the United States were ten to twenty times more precise than their British counterparts and often were surgically exact with the aim of avoiding damage to cultural resources. In Japan, however, the Americans had no such scruples. Mock wooden cities were constructed in the United States to perfect the impact of incendiary bombs, and the medieval building culture of historic urban Japan was largely eradicated.
In terms of the number of explosives directed at a single city, Berlin was subject to more bombardment than any other metropolis. In all, about 100 million pounds of explosive devices were dropped on the German capital in more than three hundred Allied bombing missions in which vast armadas of planes—as many as a thousand bombers in twelve hours—passed over the target area and emptied their payloads. Additionally, some 80 million pounds of hand grenades and artillery shells were fired by Soviet ground forces during the final battle for the metropolis.
In comparision, the Germans used a relatively small volume of high explosives on Warsaw: about 12,000 pounds were dropped in the initial aerial bombardment. Yet the calculated, building-by-building destruction rendered by the German occupational force was extraordinarily more potent in its effect. In Berlin, which was about four times bigger than Warsaw, at the war's end, 70 percent of the city's buildings were lightly damaged, 9 percent were salvageable, 8 percent heavily damaged, and 11 percent totally destroyed. In Warsaw, however, 80 percent of the buildings were entirely eradicated. Large parts of the German capital, many of them quite beautiful, remained intact; in Warsaw virtually all of the beautiful aspects of the city were erased from the earth. When General Dwight Eisenhower visited Warsaw, he was appalled: "I have seen many towns destroyed during the war, but nowhere have I been faced with such extent of destruction executed with such bestiality."
For many Varsovians, there was one more hammer blow to come. With victory in hand, the Allies yielded Poland to the Soviet sphere of influence.
Each of the two governments-in-exile had adherents among the Polish population. Generally, communism found more support in agrarian areas, while opposition tended to be strongest in cities. As documented in oral interviews with surviving administrators, planners, and architects engaged in rebuilding Warsaw (collected in 1994 by Anna Naruszewicz for her doctoral thesis at the Warsaw Technical University), more than 90 percent of those who worked on the reconstruction were initially opposed to communism and experienced widely shared profound grief at the end of the war. Forsaken by the Allies, much of the population of Warsaw found that one form of foreign occupation had been bartered for another—and to the very government that had recently killed over a million Poles and then stood by, withholding its aid, as the city was obliterated.
Wounded and betrayed, the Varsovians returned to a traumatized landscape. Few people in history had been so grievously pounded by an unkind fate, yet they were not broken. From out of the ruins, they would build one of world's most remarkable urban architectural legacies . . .