In the interest of expediency, here is an excerpt from the Lonely Planet Poland chapter on Warsaw:
”At the outbreak of WWII Warsaw was home to about 380,000 Jews (almost 30% of the city’s total population), more than in any other city in the world except New York.
In October 1940 the Germans established a ghetto in the predominantly Jewish districts of Muranów and Mirów, west of the city centre, sealed off by a 3m-high brick wall. In the following months about 450,000 Jews from the city and its surroundings were crammed into the area within the walls, creating the largest and most overcrowded ghetto in Europe. By mid-1942 as many as 100,000 people had died of starvation and epidemic diseases, even before deportation to the concentration camps had begun.
In a massive liquidation campaign in the summer of 1942, about 300,000 Jews were transported from the ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka. Then in April 1943, when only 50,000 people were left, the Nazis began the final liquidation of the ghetto. In a desperate act of defiance, the survivors took up arms in a spontaneous uprising, the first in any European ghetto.
From the outbreak of the uprising on 19 April it was clear that the Jews had little chance of victory against the heavily armed Nazis. German planes dropped incendiary bombs, turning the entire district into a chaos of burning ruins. Fierce fighting lasted for almost three weeks until, on 8 May, the Nazis surrounded the Jewish command bunker and tossed in a gas bomb.
Around 7000 Jews were killed in the fighting and another 6000 perished in fires and bombed buildings. The Germans lost 300 men and another 1000 were injured. The ghetto was razed to the ground except for a few scraps of wall, which survive to this day.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
While participating in a walking tour in Stockholm in September, I chatted with a British man who had joined the tour solo. When I commented how much I enjoyed the stories the tour guide shared with us, he happened to mention that he had recently been in Warsaw and had taken the ‘Warsaw, Behind The Scenes’ tour there.
He told us that a man drove him around the city pointing out places that few tourists visit, and sharing his knowledge of the history of Poland and Warsaw in particular. What made the tour really special was that he drove his guests around in a vintage Fiat automobile, a relic of the Soviet era. I was instantly intrigued. I mentioned that we planned to travel through the Baltic States and on to Poland.
Thank goodness I had a pen and paper to get the name of the tour before the gentleman hurried off to his hotel. I made a mental note as well and looked up the site once we had settled in Warsaw. Anil and my sister Donna were both keen on the tour and we were able to book a time via back and forth emails.
Marcin picked us up at our suburban apartment and regaled us with stories of the city for the next five and a half hours. The tour was supposed to last only four hours but our keen interest in the history and the places he took us seemed to spur him on. I even managed to earn a couple of bonus shots of vodka by quickly answering some ‘skill-testing’ questions.
We loved the old Fiat despite the fact that Marcin heaved a sign of relief each time he started the car, one of the seatbelts stuck and the front passenger door only opened from the outside. It got us where we needed to go, and we even managed to find parking with little difficulty.
The tour wasn’t just about history and buildings (or lack or buildings), but Marcin introduced us to a typical ‘milk bar’. Here’s what the Lonely Planet Poland has to say about these unique eateries:
” Warsaw’s booming real estate market has been rough on the city’s milk bars (bar mleczny), those dirt-cheap, canteen-like holdovers from communist times where hearty Polish meals – many vegetarian or dairy-based, hence the name - are dished out from steam tables to appreciative, hungry customers. In a town where everyone has their eye on making a złoty, it seems there’s not much room for restaurants that still calculate prices in grosze. Don’t despair: while the ranks are thinning, there are still several around town, and many in the areas of most interest to visitors.”
We had a simple lunch sampling four different varieties of soup and drinking fruit compote. Marcin kept the lunch light because he planned to take us to a bakery that reminded him very much of the one his grandmother used to take him to when he was a child. The donuts were also included in the price of the tour, but he had to call ahead to ensure that they weren’t sold out before we arrived. They are that popular.
Donna mentioned that this type of jam-filled donut is called a ‘Bismarck’ at home, but these ones would sink an aircraft carrier for sure, not just a merchant ship. I don’t mean to imply that they were ‘heavy’, they were huge, tasty and the dough was substantial. Not at all like the fluffy confections that pass for modern-day donuts at home.
Marcin took us to what little remains of the Warsaw ghetto. He showed us a photo of a Christian church standing in the middle of a wasteland. It was moving to think of all the suffering that happened in so small an area of the city. I mentioned that I had read ‘Mila 18’ by Leon Uris in my early 20s, and without hesitation, Marcin pointed to the street labelled ‘Mila’ on his map of the former ghetto. I’ve never forgotten that book, and learned that Marcin, just 27 years of age, has yet to read it. He told me that I was the first guest who had mentioned it.
As we were winding down the tour, my sister Donna happened to mention that she had read an article on the internet about ‘the world’s narrowest apartment’ that had been built in the Warsaw ghetto district, and was due to open that very day. To our surprise, we were very near to it, so Marcin spontaneously added it to the tour. When we arrived, there was a small gathering of people waiting for the grand opening.
We had a little bit of a look from the outside and posed for some photos, but nothing looked like it was about to happen so we moved on to our last stop. To our surprise, Marcin ushered us into a stand-up vodka bar, another relic of days gone by. We recognized it immediately. We had wandered in earlier in the week, looking for a restaurant our ‘landlady’ had recommended. The bar was crowded and as there were no places to sit, we carried on to another place further along the street.
Without us realizing what he was up to, Marcin ordered 5 shot glasses filled to the brim with clear vodka – one each for Anil and Donna, and three for me! I didn’t think he was serious about bonus shots for quick answers, but he was! We couldn’t rely on his support because he had to drive home and there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving, especially for people conducting tours.
Thankfully, Anil and Donna were only too happy to help me drink up. Before leaving us to our own devices, Marcin recommended a couple of great restaurants and a lovely café. Over the course of next couple of days, we tried all three and were not disappointed.
We would highly recommend visitors taking one of the tours Marcin offers. If we had more time, we would certainly have signed up for his Evening Warsaw Tour as well. The tour was great fun despite some of the more somber moments when he recounted the suffering of the ‘Varsovians’, and I really appreciated the information we gleaned before our visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum a couple of days later.