Warsaw: re-birth of a culture capital

Rich in Jewish history but almost bereft of Jews, Warsaw is full of paradoxes.

By Peter Moss, November 6, 2008
Medieval yet modern: Warsaw’s colourful Old Town Square

Medieval yet modern: Warsaw’s colourful Old Town Square

The Polish capital is an utter enigma. Brooding and intense, the largely grey imprint of Stalin is writ large across the avenues and boulevards. Yet it is quite possibly the most fascinatingly, almost beguilingly, re-birthed and culturally rich European capital city.

I was in town for a concert by the greatest of all my musical heroes, the Serbian composer Goran Bregovic, at the vainglorious, yet acoustically pitch-perfect Palace of Science and Culture - known almost universally as Stalin's Wedding Cake - a building resembling one you will have seen dozens of times before across the old Soviet Union: a myopic dictator's imitation of the Empire State Building, only much smaller and with piggy-eyed little windows.

But more than the music, I was there for the history and the statistics that grow more chilling as each zero is added: three million, the number of Jews in Poland in 1939; 460,000, the number of Jews herded into the Warsaw Ghetto between 1940 and 1943; 70, the number of Jewish newspapers in Poland before the war; 1968, just four decades ago in the heady days of love, peace and flower power, that those Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, or who returned after the war, were driven from their country again, this time by a new bout of Communist-inspired anti-Zionist purges; 5,000, the number of Jews in all of Poland today; one, the number of synagogues still standing in Warsaw.

You'll pardon my very brief history lesson, but it begins to explain the resonance of Warsaw for Jewish tourists.

The Nozyk Synagogue, all lurid yellow paint on the outside, echoing marble floor and marble-pillared ark on the inside, is as much a memorial to a lost community as a functioning house of prayer.

Warsaw was destroyed during the war. Not totally, but as good as. Almost nothing remains of the Jewish Ghetto, and visitors must make a special effort to find it and read, on the remaining wall, an explanation in Hebrew, Polish and English of the Ghetto's agonising history. Nearby, is Natan Rappaport's dramatic black marble memorial to the Ghetto - twin to the one in Yad Vashem - while on Mordechai Anelevich Street stands the stark monument to the Ghetto uprising; not far away, yet another memorial marks the spot where Jews boarded trains to Auschwitz. Wherever I looked I saw Adrien Brody in The Pianist sifting through the rubble for signs of anything... or anyone. The city conjures such images.

Pockets of the centuries-old Praga district on the other side of the Vistula river remain intact, and a programme of urban regeneration is slowly breathing new life into the old warehouses and tenements, where narrow passages and wooden galleries retain an atmosphere of the overcrowded past whilst morphing into the present with the coming of bars and galleries.

But cross the river back to the city's hub and you'll discover an Old Town that is actually newer than the adjacent New Town, an entire historic quarter rebuilt in the 1960s to look medieval.

Old Town Square is approachable from all four corners, but no corner is better to approach than that heralded by the strikingly reconstructed city walls of the Barbican whose picture postcard buildings look barely distinguishable from those constructed at the turn of the 13th century.

In fact, the oldest thing on the whole people-filled square is the endearing 19th-century Mermaid fountain that looks as though it might still pump water for the masses, and the thousand-year-old cobbles on which old men crank up their barrel-organs for the steady flow of tourists.

The Old and New Towns have eight such squares, each one prettier than the next, and none more so than Pilsudski Square where legions of red poppies stand guard in front of the Tomb to the Unknown Soldier.
Warsaw resembles Prague (though it is so much richer in every sense, and way less stag-weekend tacky), its cobbled, colourful, neo-Gothic and effortlessly user-friendly heart encompassed by a tsunami of Eastern bloc concrete anonymity.

There is a certain Parisian déjà vu strolling down the Royal Route from the Royal Castle to Belvedere Palace, a stretch of Baroque churches and monasteries that remained intact, not least the unbeatable Church of the Nuns of the Visitation, upon whose boat-shaped pulpit the young Frederic Chopin would play the organ once a week.

The boulevards, studded with stylish shops and atmospheric little cafés, that carve this north-south swathe through Warsaw bear comparison with Budapest, and there can be no praise higher than that.

Warsaw is one of the greenest cities I have visited in a very long time, the long, lazy banks of the Vistula awash in parks and monuments. A tram ride north along the endless Marszalkowska Street goes through half a dozen parks before arriving at the Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East.

But the park of parks, and well worth the 20-minute ride south of town, is the lovingly tended acreage of Wilanowska, the centrepiece of which is the gorgeous Baroque-style Wilanow Palace.

Wilanowska is worth a visit also for the clean white space of the Poster Museum, possibly the only one outside of Hanoi. Warsaw is the poster capital of Europe; barely a lamppost or wall goes unadorned in the city, testimony to all the art and culture on offer around town, and a museum to house the best makes perfect sense.

Just as beautiful, and closer to the city centre, is the Royal Park at Lazienkowski, definitely one of Europe's loveliest, home not only to the exquisite Monument to Chopin, but also to the Palace-on-the-Water, the Theatre-on-the-Isle, and the unbeatable New Orangery which, with its cast iron and glass façade, exotic plants, and exclusive Belvedere restaurant, is like the Baltic lovechild of Holland Park and Petersham Nurseries.

Warsaw is just as rich in spires and domes. Such is Poland's location up by the Baltic Sea, its ecclesiastical edifices are redolent of most of its neighbours, near-neighbours, and not-so-near-neighbours.

The green dome on the Church of St Casimir is pure Helsinki; the neo-Gothic towers of the Church of St Florian that dominate the vista across the Praga district are purest Latvia; onion domes abound to remind you of Mother Russia's invasive influence; and most bizarre of all, the gables of the city's cathedral are straight out of Reykjavik, which isn't even remotely a neighbour, but at least it demonstrates a rare eclecticism in the post-war re-shaping of the city.

It wasn't my Jewish conscience that took me to Warsaw, though heaven knows that kicked in when the waiter took my order of latkas and smatana at the Menora restaurant next door the synagogue. These days there is little to ignite the Jewish flame in Warsaw but, paradoxically, it is the very absence of a Jewish life that once flourished in this intriguing city that most stoked the fires of yiddishkeit within me.

Travel facts

We stayed at the 48-storey InterContinentalHotel opposite the Palace of Science and Culture (0048 22 328 8888; www.warsaw.intercontinental.com). The views from the top floor spa and pool are stunning. A double room for two with breakfast starts from 119 euros (£000) plus tax per night. Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) offers return flights from Luton to Warsaw. Prices start from £27.99 one way including airport taxes.

Jewish Warsaw

Around 1,500 Jews remain in Warsaw, many very elderly.  The Nozyk Street Synagogue (and mikveh) is at 6 Twarda Street (0048 22 620 4324; www.warszawa.jewish.org.pl). It operates daily and Shabbat services. The same address houses Shalom Travel Service (0048 22 652 2802; shalom@jewish.org.pl).  The Jewish National Theatre, Plac Grybowski 12/16, gives occasional performances in Yiddish. The Monument to the Ghetto Heroes is on Zamenhofa Street. l Warsaw has a few "kosher" restaurants, but check with the synagogue as to which actually are kosher.

Last updated: 3:57pm, March 11 2009