THE WARSAW UPRISING MUSEUM includes an exhibit where visitors walk through a passageway resembling the city’s sewers, which served as lifelines for the insurgents and civilians encircled by Nazi forces during World War II. As I wended my way through these pseudo-sewers, the claustrophobia induced by the tight space, coupled with the sounds of exploding grenades and recorded voices warning of poisonous gas didn’t quite match the haunting quality of Andrzej Wajda’s film Kanal (1957), yet felt real enough to make me sprint toward the light as quickly as possible. Feeling lucky not to be counted among those who perished in the sewers, I went back through the exhibit at least five times, as if to reaffirm my survival.
All the same, it’s hard to say whether I left the museum wishing to remember or to forget what had happened. It wasn’t just the sewer exhibit that felt claustrophobic but the entire experience. The sewer exhibit and the giant replica of a B-24J Liberator suspended from the ceiling brought home the totality of war, which was fought both underground and in the skies. When I finally left the building, I couldn’t help but imagine Warsaw the way Polish poet and survivor of the Uprising Anna Świrszczyńska did: “The place where a million people had lived / became the emptiness of a million people.” Momentarily, the hustle and bustle of a sprawling European capital disappeared.
In her introduction to Świrszczyńska’s volume Building the Barricade, which documents and testifies to the trauma of the Warsaw Uprising, the Irish poet Eavan Boland calls the work “an agent of change, for us as well as her. Stanza by stanza we see the speaker transformed, stripped of anything but the terrible truths she is recording.” The book’s very structure performs this transformation. It is a triptych, giving an equal number of poems to each of the Uprising’s three stages, as Świrszczyńska saw them. Readers are made to relive the experience chronologically, from the firing of the first shot and the subsequent explosion of enthusiasm and patriotic fervor, through the middle stage of urban warfare when the Germans began to isolate and eliminate pockets of resistance, all the way to the inevitable defeat. As the pages turn, the city burns and turns to rubble. Translating the book into English revised my views of the Uprising: its heroism and carnage became more real, more harrowing with each poem. The Uprising was the central event in Świrszczyńska’s life, yet she had waited 30 years to write about it — because writing about it meant reliving the horror:
Man and Centipede
I will survive.
I’ll find the deepest basement,
shut myself inside, won’t let anybody in,
I’ll dig a hole in the ground,
chew out the bricks,
I’ll hide in the wall, I’ll go into the wall
like a centipede.
Everyone will die, and I
In Poland, where possessing and exercising historical consciousness is just as important as being kind and honest, Polish kids learn about their country’s past and its influence on the present from both textbooks and their surroundings. Embodied in countless monuments, busts, and plaques, the country’s heroes and martyrs point their swords at tourists and locals alike. Unlike archives, monuments shape and interact with the space they occupy and involve casual passersby in the ritual of remembrance. Needless to say, what gets memorialized is hugely influenced by the present political climate. The Warsaw Uprising Museum is as a perfect example of this, presenting an unequivocally patriotic and nationalist reading of the 63-day battle; it makes no mention of, among other things, the fact that some Poles, then and now, have viewed the Uprising as foolish, suicidal, and even criminal.
Warsaw itself, which saw nearly 80 percent of its structures destroyed at the end of World War II, was redesigned under the communist regime with the view to commemorate some aspects of its past while obscuring others; the goal was to control the people’s attitude toward their city, their nation, and their history. To that end, Warsaw’s boulevards and squares were widened to accommodate military parades and propagandist rallies. In his excellent study Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings (2015), Owen Hatherley identifies a boulevard able to accommodate both people and tanks as a “magistrale.” There are several of them in Warsaw. Their grand sweeps are punctuated and reinforced by symbolic monuments. For example, the Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa (or MDM) features colonnades, themselves harking back to antiquity,
lined with giant workers — miner, construction worker, textile worker, steelworker and more, all with the tools of their trade. They’re enormous, displaying the peculiarly angular, reductive approach to anatomy and facial features typical of the time — giant, rugged faces made out of straight unbroken planes, granite cheekbones you could cut yourself on.
These outdated communist idols may seem tragic or simply silly now.
I often think about the marching Lenin from Nowa Huta, the district of Kraków where I grew up. The statue’s marble base bore just two words: a Polish version of Vladimir Ulyanov’s first name and infamous pseudonym, “Włodzimierz Lenin.” Since Polish uses the Latin alphabet, while Russian uses Cyrillic, the transliterated inscription served to domesticate the Soviet leader; it brought Lenin down to earth, so to speak, even while his body towered over the landscape. Writing the name in Cyrillic would have complicated the picture; it would have cemented the image of Lenin as a foreigner, thus an oppressor. By the way, the statue of Poland’s national poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855) in Lviv, a major western Ukrainian city that was once part of Poland, still bears the poet’s name in the Latin script, not in Ukrainian Cyrillic. This is surprising; it may be indicative of divided interests between nationalist aspirations and dependence on Polish support. On the other hand, the statue of Adam Mickiewicz in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania — another city that was once contested by Poles and Lithuanians — features the poet’s name in Lithuanian, clearly suggesting that Lithuanians claim Mickiewicz for themselves and don’t give a hoot about offending the Poles.
Monuments, which seem so solid, are in fact quite vulnerable. Their stability depends entirely on which way the political winds blow. Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe have been toppling old monuments and erecting new ones obsessively since the end of the communist era. Religious statues in Poland, for instance, have been springing up like mushrooms after the rain, and one fears this has less to do with genuine expressions of faith than with political and cultural propaganda. As for the Lenin statue — my Lenin, if you will — the one in whose shadow I grew up, it continues to haunt me. I recall the very first time I felt brave enough to march through the middle of the square where he had stood, half expecting to bump into him. Watching a YouTube video of the square the other day, I saw more people walking along the perimeter than taking the obvious shortcut through the center. His continued presence and the people’s insistent circumvention seemed to epitomize the divergent narratives that continue to shape Polish politics and culture.
But even long-gone monuments, no matter how thoroughly they have been erased, may still retain their power. In The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation (2013), Los Angeles–based writer and curator Louise Steinman describes a photograph she saw at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków. This particular picture, taken in a small village, depicts a grove of trees in the middle of a plowed field, marking the site of an old Jewish cemetery. This photographed monument leads Steinman to conclude that “the presence of the past is kept alive by the observance of absence.”
Elsewhere in her memoir, Steinman writes of the city of Lublin in eastern Poland where, in 1942, the Germans had set up their headquarters for Operation Reinhard, “the main German effort to exterminate Jews in occupied Poland.” What the Germans didn’t destroy the communists finished off, building, in 1953, a parking lot on the site of the Jewish ghetto. “The work was so shoddy that the basements and foundations of the former Jewish houses were still there, underneath the asphalt.” Fast forward to a few years ago, when a team of artists and “memory workers” restored part of the area and staged a major installation:
The audience of several thousand walked from the brightly lit Christian side of the Old Town through the Grodzka Gate into the darkened area. Light flooded heavenwards from each of the seventy wells [after the manhole covers had been removed], as did the amplified recorded voices of Lubliners giving testimony about those who once lived there. Memory broke the concrete. Emptiness was given a voice. The participants followed the illuminated path to the spot where the Great Synagogue stood before the war.
The disembodied voices of those who perished rung out through the participants as they prayed, gave speeches, and conversed.
One of my favorite monuments in Kraków is the prehistoric burial mound of Princess Wanda, who chose to throw herself into the river rather than marry a German. Though marked as a burial ground, the ziggurat-like mound doesn’t command the kind of solemn attention that tombs do; here, visitors can be forgiven for forgetting where they stand. Do I prefer Wanda’s Mound to other monuments because it is so unimposing, and because its story seems apocryphal? Perhaps. But the place and the story are no less fraught with nationalist and historical obsessions than any other grand marker on the land. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon immortalized the mound and its pull in “A Journey to Cracow,” from the 1999 volume Hay. The poem is a pantoum that continuously turns on itself while advancing down the page by way of refrains. Here are the first and last of the poem’s seven quatrains:
As we hightailed it across the meadows
toward what might have been common ground
we were dragged down by our own shadows
through a dance floor near Wanda’s mound
whatever that might be. For an instant, even
we were dragged down by our own shadows,
my love, in some polka or mazurka or Cracovienne
as we hightailed it across the meadows.
Ultimately, no matter how charged monuments are with political and historical meaning — how weighed down they may be with “official” significance — we build our own stories around them. They are a part of our day-to-day lives. I have never attempted to dance atop Wanda’s Mound, or felt the need to flee it. I always touch base with it, so to speak, when returning to Kraków after a long absence; like a lighthouse, it signals that I have arrived safely. On clear days, the view from atop the mound stretches across the entire city, its structures and meadows, and into the foothills of the Tatra Mountains. I’m certain that, for decades to come, teens will play hooky or have their first taste of alcohol — toasting Princess Wanda? — on its grassy slopes after sundown.