Much like Berlin in Germany, by the end of World War Two the city of Warsaw, Poland lay in ruins. While Berlin was turned to rubble from round the clock Allied bombing and fighting, much of the damage in Warsaw was done by the Germans themselves. Firstly during the invasion of Poland in September 1939 that started the war, then during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. They inflicted terrible punishment on the inhabitants of Warsaw, especially the once strong Jewish community that made up 30% of the city’s population.
Upon the defeat of Poland, the Germans isolated the Jewish population of Warsaw behind walls that were over 10 feet high and topped with barbed wire within the Warsaw Ghetto (established in October 12th, 1940). With the relocation of Jewish people from Warsaw and other cities over 400,000 people were crammed into an area of just 3.4 square kilometres (1.3 square miles) which equated to 7.2 people per room!
The Warsaw Ghetto was a place of starvation, disease and atrocity. Apart from death caused by disease and hunger; from 1942 onwards mass deportations to concentration camps and executions within the ghetto were a regular occurrence. By January 1943 only approximately 80,000 residents remained within the ghetto and this was halved again in May 1943 following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising!
On April 19th, 1943 Jewish resistance forces commenced the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This was the largest act by the Jewish resistance in World War Two. They were poorly armed and ill-equipped though to take on the German forces in Warsaw and by May 16th, 1943 the uprising was officially crushed when the Great Synagogue of Warsaw was destroyed. The suppression of the uprising effectively left the ghetto in total ruins.
On August 1st, 1944 the Polish resistance movement started the Warsaw Uprising which culminated into a major battle lasting 63 days. The uprising was inspired by the appearance of Soviet troops across the Vistula River, but the Soviets failed to intervene. It is said Stalin wanted the Polish resistance to be crushed, plus the battle tied up German resources. We all know he had much grander plans for Eastern Europe following the defeat of the Nazi’s and any local resistance would be a future problem to the Soviets.
The uprising involved savage street fighting, which the German army ultimately won and resulted in the area being raised to the ground and the death of 166,000 people. This also triggered the order from Hitler and senior Nazi commanders to pacify the city by razing Warsaw to the ground in punishment for the uprising.
By early 1945 some 85% of Warsaw was in ruins (around 60% of this occurred during and following the Warsaw Uprising). The city was saved from further destruction when the Soviet push resumed on January 17th, 1945 finally forcing the German army back towards Berlin. According to Polish information only about 6% of the prewar population of Warsaw remained in the city (less than 12,000 of them were Jewish)!
This is what makes Warsaw and amazing place to visit today. Rebuilding of the old town returned it to its former glory and apart from some communist era buildings much of the city has a mix of old style and modern buildings.
Warsaw today is a bustling city. A centre for commerce and tourism alike. Yes, a city with a horrifying modern history (during the reign of the Nazi’s and the Communists). A city that again, will never truly heal from its scars, but it is one that is moving on to a better and more prosperous place.