Sunday, August 26, 2012

Searching for pre-war architecture in Warsaw

A little over a month ago I was in Warsaw visiting my relatives on my mother's side. I've been making pretty regular trips to Poland over the last several years, at least since I've been living in Eastern Europe. I wrote about my visits during my first year as an ETA in Pleven, again that summer as well as during the fall of my second year. Over the course of these visits I have become more and more interested in my family history. And this time I got to do a little more research on putting together the puzzle pieces of that story.

My Polish grandfather was born in 1909 in a small town in the south called Częstochowa, most famous for its shrine to the Virgin Mary which is believed to have saved Poland from Swedish invasion in the 17th century. We don't know much about his life there because the family moved to Warsaw when he was still a young man. His father was an auto mechanic, I imagine a lucrative profession in the first decade of the 1900s. Back then Poland was still partitioned into three sections by the Prussian, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. My great-grandfather used to travel to Russia often on business, but mysteriously disappeared on a trip there in 1914 at the onset of the First World War. His family never heard from him again and he was presumed dead, leaving his wife with four children to look after. After the war ended Poland was re-unified and became an independent country, but this was to be short-lived; in just over twenty years Nazi Germany would invade Poland and set off the beginning of World War II. At some point between the wars my grandfather's family moved to Warsaw, where they lived in an apartment on Puławska Street. I found the address on my great-grandmother's German identification document issued under Nazi occupation and while I was last in Warsaw my aunt and cousin took me to visit the building. We weren't even sure if it would still be there, but it was!

The exterior wasn't very remarkable (although it did have a fresh coat of paint, something lacking in most of the older Warsaw buildings outside of Old Town or New Town) and the ground floor on one side is currently occupied by a supermarket chain and a gym. One surprising detail was that there is a pharmacy which has been standing there since 1930. They even have a display case full of antique medical equipment. Going inside of the inner courtyard, however, was the biggest highlight. Tall, cream-colored walls surrounding curved balconies with wrought-iron railings and an open patio decorated with bright red geraniums awaited our discovery. Although I don't know the floor or apartment number where my family lived (or if the building has ever been remodeled or changed) it was still an exhilarating experience to stand there and imagine my grandfather walking into that building every day as a university student. 

After finishing his degree as a mechanical engineer at the Politechnical University, my grandfather enlisted in the air force. Just a few years later he would become one of thousands of Polish airmen who fled occupied Poland to the United Kingdom, where they were incorporated into the Royal Air Force as a separate Polish division. I recently came across military archives from his service there and found out that my grandfather was promoted twice and awarded the Polish silver cross medal of valor. Due to political reasons he was never able to return to Poland permanently after the war. I also know that he didn't like talking about what had happened; it must have been difficult leaving his life and family behind. His mother actually died on Victory Day in 1945 without knowing the fate of any of her four children (one son had been arrested as a prisoner of war and summarily executed, another had joined the Warsaw underground resistance army and her daughter was also working with the underground). There are so many stories from that turbulent time that have probably been forgotten, but as I put together details and facts that I come across it makes me feel like I'm making our family story more complete. 

On a related note, I also visited a former vodka factory that was recently converted into art galleries and loft space. It's located on the right bank of the Vistula River in the Praga District, one of the least damaged areas of the city after its destruction at the end of the war. You can still find old brick buildings left standing from the 18th and 19th centuries there, a rarity in a city that was made 90% rubble just over 60 years ago. The outside walls are covered in colorful graffiti, and inside the main building is a temporary exhibition of old photos from Praga before the war. The Museum of Praga is temporarily located in the old Koneser factory until the original building (formerly a Synagogue) reopens after restoration.  

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