Poland: Chapter 4 – Warsaw

In the fruit and vegetable market on Warsaw's Jean Paul II boulevard we buy wild strawberries at £2 a punnet. Stalls carry bilberries at around £3 a kilo and chanterelles – wild fungus picked in the forest – at £5 a kilo. We are staying at a nearby hotel but for a moment or two we fancy it would be interesting to self cater.

Warsaw market Not that we haven't eaten handsomely in restaurants. Lunch today was at al fresco at a popular tavern: the seemingly ubiquitous zurek again – soup made of fermented rye bread with boiled egg, slice sausage and marjoram – followed by pork schnitzels big enough to hide your face behind, delicious apple pie and light cheesecake with chocolate sauce and strawberry mousse. Traditional Polish cooking is not for weight watchers.

In the morning we are reminded of a time when such a meal, for most of Warsaw's inhabitants, would have been purest fantasy.  At a small surviving section of the ghetto wall, part of the enclosures which sealed off the Jewish population until the transports to the death camps began, 91 year old Mieczyslaw Jedrusiak fetches his visitors' book. Though not Jewish he is the self appointed history of this bit of brickwork. He looks after it, he says, because he himself has known suffering, having spent three years in a Soviet gulag. The book is his fifth. Some of the messages written in them are from visitors who lost relatives in the holocaust, some from Germans clearly anxious to distance themselves from the brutality. It is hard, standing in this little yard at the foot of an apartment block, not to shed a tear.

Mieczyslaw Jedrusiak I used the word enclosures, plural, because for a time there were two ghettos – one large, the other small. We are driven down Chlodna Street, which divided them. Non Jewish inhabitants rode trams along this street. Jews had to  cross on a bridge. The  bridge is no longer there but the cobblestones and tramlines remain. We pass the orphanage run by Janusz Korczak who chose to enter the ghetto and stay with his children when he could have saved himself. Korczak was a far sighted educationalist who argued, early last century, that children should be allowed to object to domineering parents. In his book The Piano, later a film, Wladislaw Szpilman describes watching Korczak being marched off with his orphans, en route to death in Treblinka, telling them to the last that they were going for a day in the country.

Then it's on to the museum of the Warsaw uprising for more grim reminders. We walk, stooping, through an original section of the sewer system, part of which was used by Polish resistance fighters as a communications network in that brave – some would say foolhardy – battle in 1942. We watch rivetting footage filmed by the Home Army, of shooting, blazing buildings, women scurrying for cover and cooking something in a tin surrounded by rubble. In one sequence, a couple gets married, the groom with one arm in a  sling.  They survived, we learn, and emigrated to America. The result of Polish defiance as the levelling of much of Warsaw, including its old town, which was reconstrructed after the war in meticulous detail. A 3D film takes us on a "flight" over the ruins, accompanied by sombre music.

Time for someting less downbeat, a refreshing change of mood watching young people at study and play. We head for the University of Warsaw's ten year old library, close to the Vistula river. It is a lofty, airy building with a sizeable garden on the roof where we get sweeping views of the city. Below us researchers are working at laptops, connected to the internet via the library's wi-fi system. In the cental atrium you can buy old posters advertising Poland's airline, LOT.

A squall of rain threatening wind prompts a hasty retreat from the roof and a quick transfer to the nearby Copernicus Centre, opened a year ago. This is strictly for kids, though not necessarily for those under 50. State of the art exhibits include a responsive robot, an "orchestra" playing the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth where you can distinguish individual instruments such as the bassoon and clarinet by sitting next to them and equipment designed for security which detects your state of mind from your facial expression. It's bright and noisy but after all that harrowing history it seems like an oasis of hope.

  • Read Poland: Chapter 1 – Gdansk
  • Read Poland: Chapter 2 – more Gdansk
  • Read Poland: Chapter 3 – Sopot, the summer capital
  • Read Poland: Chapter 5 – more Warsaw
  • Read Poland: Chapter 6 – Zakopane
  • Read Poland: Chapter 7 – Krakow
  • Read Poland: Chapter 8 – more Krakow
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Roger Bray

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