This past Saturday night was Night of the Museums, where all of Poland's museums and art galleries, as well as some factories and government buildings, are open all night long and are free to get into. It's like that Ben Stiller movie, but better. Sure, I was wiped out by 10:00 pm, like a big American wuss, but I managed to zombie-walk through two museums and stand in line for a third before giving up. The second museum I went to was cool enough- the Polish Army Musuem. They had tanks, planes, and lots and lots of guns. They also had swords and sabres from a more civilized era, and cool military uniforms. All in all, fun. But the first museum I went to probably had a deeper impact on my understanding of Poland and its people. The first museum was the Warsaw Uprising museum. I had heard of the Warsaw Uprising last time I was in Poland - never before and not once since. But free admission does a lot to fuel curiosity, so I went. On the way there, I met a Polish guy - Sławek - who was looking for the Uprising Museum as well, and we went through the place together. I think the impact was greater seeing it with a Pole.
So the Warsaw Uprising is easily Googled for a better, Wikipedia, explanation than I could give, but to sum it up: In the fall of 1944, inhabitants of Nazi-occupied Warsaw planned and attempted an insurgent uprising from within the city to give Allied forces outside the chance to liberate the Polish capitol. It was a horrible failure. Part of the reason was that the Allied support the insurgents were promised never came through. The Russian army sat just across the Vistula River, just outside Warsaw, and refused to aid the insurgents; the Russians said the Uprising was a "Warsaw affair." The museum had weapons, photos, exhibits, films, and everything else you would expect from a quality musuem. What was striking was seeing photos and footage of areas I recognized, but with Nazis goosestepping down the street. Photos of casualties laying in front of easily recognizable landmarks. Bullet holes and bomb damage in neighborhoods I've been to. This is why it was so much more powerful to be in the museum with Sławek, a native Varsuvian. I would glance over photos only to turn back and see him studying them with rapt intensity. On second look, I would recognize streets and buldings. I would notice the faces of the Poles and the expressions of bitter resiliance they bore. And I would look aroundand realize that for the people of Poland, this was not some faraway history. The war happened in their homes, to their families. This was their city, their people. The Warsaw Uprising was their history. Sławek told me the Uprising was still a touchy subject here because the failure of the insurgents left the city open to almost complete distruction by the Nazis .Insurgents were either killed or sent to concentration camps. Warsaw was nearly wiped off the map, along with her most prominent citizens who had participated in the Uprising. As a result, Poland was vulnerable in the post-war period and couldn't avoid being swept behind the Iron Curtain and falling under the control of the Kremlin.
It's all extremely fascinating, like walking through history with the people who lived it. I'm steeling myself to take a train to Krakow one of these weekends - Krakow is just a short hop from Oświęcim, or Auschwitz, as it was called in German. Not a fun weekend, per se, but one worth experiencing. I'll keep you posted. For now, here's a picture, as promised.