History Through the Viewfinder: Warsaw

Warsaw was left devastated and in ruins when the Germans retreated and the Red Army arrived 75 years ago.

Remnant of Pawiak prison gate and Monument Tree, Warsaw, Poland. Photo by Keith Huxen, PhD.

 

Perhaps no city suffered more than Warsaw during World War II. The lead image in this post is of a special place in the city: it shows the Monument Tree and part of the gate at the entryway to Pawiak prison. The tree and the gate, still standing, are singular reminders of the razing of Warsaw and the suffering the city had undergone when Hitler’s forces finally retreated from Warsaw 75 years ago.

Warsaw was the first European capital conquered by Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler rode triumphantly through the city in October 1939, a month after the commencement of the war. The Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto for the city’s Jewish population in November 1940, cramming over 400,000 people into what was in reality a 1.3 square mile cordoned-off prison. Starvation and disease soon followed. In the summer of 1942, mass deportations of Ghetto inhabitants began to the extermination camp at Treblinka, where ultimately at least 700,000 people were murdered. In April 1943, the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto chose to revolt against the Germans and hopeless odds; the Germans ruthlessly crushed those within the Ghetto before shutting it down in August 1943. When the Red Army approached to liberate the city in summer 1944, the Warsaw Poles rose up against the Germans to assist the Soviet forces—who never came. Joseph Stalin halted the Red Army on the eastern side of the Vistula River. As soon as he heard about the uprising, however, Adolf Hitler ordered the city razed. Even after the Nazis destroyed the Polish resistance fighters, the physical destruction of the city itself remained a priority. Heinrich Himmler told SS officers: “The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht. No stone to remain standing.”

After the Red Army launched the Oder-Vistula Offensive and arrived in Warsaw after five days of fighting on January 17, 1945, they found a wasteland. A beautiful city over a millennium old had been obliterated, house by house, almost even brick by brick. Thirty percent of the destruction of the now virtually leveled city had taken place after Polish capitulation to the Germans, in the last five months of 1944. Historian Alexandra Richie observed: “The destruction of Warsaw was unique even in the terrible history of the Second World War, and was the only time that Hitler actually put into practice the insane notion of erasing an entire capital city.” Needless to say, Warsaw continued to suffer under Soviet control, and Poland did not regain political independence until the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union in 1989-1991.

Today, Pawiak prison is a museum in Warsaw. In 2017, I visited there on a museum tour of Germany and Poland with Alexandra Richie. Inside the prison, I snapped this photograph of the city of Warsaw in 1945, an image which depicts its utter destruction:

Photo of Warsaw's destruction in 1945 inside the Museum of Pawiak Prison. Photo by Keith Huxen, PhD.

 

Within a Pawiak corridor lined with jail cells, I thought of Mary Berg. Her real name was Mary Wattenberg. She was a young Jewish girl who was imprisoned in the cellar of Pawiak prison, and from her cell window witnessed the raids where the Nazis gathered up Jews to be shipped to Treblinka. I thought of how she also witnessed the raid on the children’s home that was visible from her cell window. It was run by Dr. Janusz Korcszak. Berg witnessed Korcszak calmly escort the orphaned children, ranging from 13 years to toddlers only 2-3 years old, comforting and reassuring them, as they walked down the street to the Genscher cemetery, unaware of the fate that awaited them there. Korcszak chose to die with the children he looked after; the Nazis shot them all in the cemetery. Mary escaped death with her family because her mother had been born in the United States and was an American citizen. After a prisoner exchange brought them to New York, Mary’s diary was published in February 1945. Her diary was perhaps the earliest first-person account of what was happening in Warsaw during the war to reach American audiences. On another wall within the Pawiak prison museum, I saw a photograph of the entryway to the prison, which Mary Berg would have passed through and I had walked past to enter, recording what that same spot had looked like in 1945:

Photo of Pawiak prison gate and elm tree in 1945 inside the Museum of Pawiak Prison. Photo by Keith Huxen, PhD.

 

It is a haunting photograph because nothing human, not even in spirit, appears to exist there in 1945. But today in Warsaw, there are two witnesses which remain standing to the devastation on that spot 75 years ago. One simply reeks of evil: it is a remnant of the prison gate, its sharp barbed wire fangs still hanging in mid-air, a reminder of the inhumanity which took place in the prison and surrounding city. The other witness breathed battered hope into the same air: it was a white elm tree, still standing when virtually everything else was razed around it. People in Warsaw attached plaques with the names of victims to the tree after the war. After efforts to preserve the tree after it died of disease met with mixed results, in 2004 a bronze replica replaced it. The gate and Monument of the Pawiak tree today stand where they were 75 years ago, powerful reminders of a war-ravaged city and the survival of human dignity and freedom today.

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"No matter one’s age, travel is a unique and exciting educational experience. In my work, I have had the opportunity to reflect on history, events, and people in the places where they experienced life. Through the viewfinder, we can not only find history and perspective, but create memory, and evoke our evergreen past."
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum

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Keith Huxen

Since 2011, Keith has helped develop the historical exhibits in the Museum’s capital expansion plan, including the permanent exhibits in ...
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