Warsaw: The City that Would Not Die | Travel | Smithsonian

Warsaw: The City that Would Not Die

After Hitler obliterated it, the Poles put it back together, brick by brick

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Warsaw's Golgotha began when the German Army invaded Poland in 1939. Like Carthage in the Punic Wars, the city was targeted for depopulation and destruction. Indeed by the time the Red Army finally moved into Warsaw in 1945, it was a silent field of rubble.

But like migrating birds, the survivors slowly drifted back. Warsaw began to rebuild — not with brand-new structures, but painstaking reconstructions of the old ones that had been demolished. It was a massive undertaking, but the people threw themselves into it enthusiastically. Scarcely an adult or youth didn't participate in one way or another: sweeping, digging or passing bricks. Aiding the architects were historic paintings by Canaletto the younger, which provided detailed views of the city and its landmarks.

Over the decades that followed, first the Old Town, then churches and private palaces, as well as parks and monuments were slowly restored. And as Communism entered its final free-fall in the late 1980s, a new vitality began transforming much of the resurgent city.

Last summer, as Warsaw celebrated its 400th anniversary and its symbolic rebirth with concerts, festivals and fairs, author Rudolph Chelminski revisited the city for the first time in 20 years. Much to his delight, he found that, as the Poles "hurl themselves headlong into Western-style consumerism," the city's politicians have not yet mastered the West's propensity for public relations. In spite of their best efforts to convince him otherwise, Chelminski concludes that Warsaw is on a roll.

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