The Warsaw Rising Museum

A few days ago I went to the Muzeum Powstanie, or the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which is a new (2006), world-class, ultramodern, multimedia, must-see attraction that tells the almost unbelievable story of the 1944 heroic and tragic uprising of the Polish underground against the German garrison in Warsaw. It lasted 63 days, during which 18,000 Polish Home Army soldiers died (25,000 wounded), while 180,000 citizens of Warsaw also died (mostly murdered) and what remained of the city was systematically destroyed under Hitler’s orders to wipe Warsaw off the map of Europe. (Reported German losses were 10,000 killed, 7,000 missing, and 15,000 wounded.– which were their greatest losses in any battle except on the Russian front.) To put this in perspective, 5,000 Americans & allies have died so far in Iraq & Afghanistan in five years (about 30,000 wounded) — so the American war deaths are averaging under 3 per day, while the Polish underground army deaths during the uprising were 300 per day, AND 3,000 Polish civilians dying each day. Yet this people’s army resisted longer than did the well-equipped French army in 1940 during the Blitzkrieg. The Warsaw Resistance failed after two desperate months because, not only were they poorly equipped (no planes, tanks, armored cars, artillery, or heavy mortars as the Germans had in abundance), but mainly because they were betrayed by the Russians and virtually ignored by the Allies. In the Spring 1944 Yalta Agreement, before the Uprising, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to abandon Poland to Stalin. As a result, the Polish Home Army felt politically compelled to try to liberate Warsaw from the Germans because they felt it was their best chance to avoid Soviet totalitarianism in the aftermath of WW2. They wanted to show the world that Poland would fight for its own freedom, not only from Germany but from Russia. But they failed, and thus Poland was forced to undergo Communist domination for another four decades following their five years of Nazi domination. Finally, in the 1980s another Polish uprising — the Solidarity Movement — erupted and ultimately succeeded, becoming the first crack in the Iron Curtain that finally toppled the USSR itself. One of the most horrendous aspects of this story is that the surviving Polish leaders of the Uprising were repatriated to Poland after the war, only to be arrested by the Communist government and sent to Russian prisons where they were tortured and murdered. Stalin was as bad as Hitler.

This epic story of triumph and tragedy is told in the Warsaw Rising museum in vivid and graphic detail. The exhibits include an B24 bomber suspended from the ceiling (commemorating some supplies dropped by the Allies during the siege), a 500-foot-long, Vietnam-Vets-style memorial wall engraved with the names of almost 20,000 dead, a re-creation of the brick sewer channels in which the insurgents moved supplies and escaped the incessant air raids, films and combat photographs by the hundreds, a b/w slide show on a large suspended screen showing pre- and post-uprising photos of prominent Warsaw sites, first as handsome buildings and then as piles of rubble still recognizably the same places, and much more in the way of interactive exhibits.

One of these is a video interview with Marek Edelman, a Jewish-Polish hero and leader in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, AND the 1980s Solidarity Movement (which itself was almost a decade-long struggle against Communism that finally succeeded in 1989 with the election of Lech Welesa, and the later withdrawal of Russian troops and bureaucrats). Edelman, a remarkable survivor, is still alive and lives in Warsaw, and has written several books about his experiences of a lifetime struggling against Nazi and Communist tyranny. To me, the museum testifies that resistance against the most monstrous oppression can ultimately succeed if the populace is sufficiently courageous and willing to sacrifice everything for their freedom. The motto of this museum is: “We wanted to be free — and to owe that freedom to nobody else.”

As a kind of postscript to the museum, today Joanna and I drove to Kampinoski National Park, a large forested area north of Warsaw to take a walk in the woods on a budding spring day. Before long we came to the Palmiry cemetery and execution site with 2,200 graves of murdered partisans and citizens including several mayors and even a prewar olympic medalist. Reminders of the great Polish sacrifice are everywhere. Joanna believes the Uprising was disastrous for Poland because it destroyed an entire generation of its finest young people and degraded the national gene pool, but in any case, Poland’s war dead are omnipresent and grim reminders of Poland’s modern heritage.

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