Tag Archives: World War II

Discovering Warsaw’s History on Foot

In recent days, I managed to take in some free walking tours that took me around the city and discussed a variety of topics. With several tour companies offering similar services, you simply select the tours that best match your schedule. These tours have something for everyone whether you’re into World War II history, the Jewish experience, modern-day alternative Warsaw or a foodie trail.

Personally, I took the alternative Warsaw tour, Jewish tour and the World War II historical tour. My knowledge of history is seriously lacking, so these tours combined education with sightseeing. Being able to see firsthand what’s inside history books is an experience you can’t forget.

Many stops on the tours took in memorial sites and monuments raised in the name of the fallen. Etched in the pavement where a Jewish ghetto wall once stood are dates so that no one forgets what happened there. Parks in the middle of the city have raised hills of grass under which lies the rubble of fallen buildings. Reminders of the past stand stoically amidst the hustle and bustle of this modern city.

Yet it seems that despite all the hardship the people of this city and nation have endured in the last century, they continue to look forward. Houses of worship and pillars of education stand with open doors for people seeking wisdom. The educated are no longer persecuted. Thought leaders aren’t dragged from their homes and shipped away. People are free to pursue their interests. It’s an incredible thing that I’ve just taken for granted. It’s only when listening to the stories of the past that I really understand how lucky we are today.

After spending more than eight hours a day on foot discovering Warsaw, I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. A second, in-depth visit is definitely warranted as I haven’t really been able to get out of the city or even experience what it’s like to live here as a local. To be honest, I haven’t even had time to taste the local delicacies or check out the nightlife. All I’ve had time for between tours is a quick bite at a café and an early night in so I can get up and do it all again in the morning. All too quickly, it’s time to move on to Krakow.


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Impressions of Warsaw

As I look around Warsaw, it’s difficult for me to imagine that Nazi Germany bombed this city to the ground in World War II. Warsaw is alive and bustling, the capital of Poland and the most prosperous city in the country.

Of course, almost all the buildings are from the post-WWII era during which the country was ruled by a Soviet administration. Some of the buildings, like the Palace of Culture and Science, show the Communist authority in its Eastern Bloc design.

The city is split north-south by the Vistula River, which travels through several countries before opening into the Baltic Sea. Today, when you cross the river from Warsaw’s Old Town to the Praga district, you can find pre-WWII buildings complete with bullet holes and all. This area of the city remained mostly untouched by air raids during the war and the destruction campaign that was ordered as Germany withdrew its hold on the city.

In Warsaw, I finally felt like I was in a European city. That’s not to say that the other countries I visited aren’t European, but somehow Warsaw just fit my idea of “Europe” a bit better. I look forward to getting to know its history more intimately through walking tours and am anticipating my visit to Auschwitz in a few days.

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Vilnius Walking Tour: Jewish Ghetto and Užupis

Sorry for the long delay . . . life got in the way, and I just haven’t had the time to blog for a while. But, I’m back again and talking about my second day in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Today I decided to take the city’s free walking tour, which took us around the main areas of Old Town. The guide recounted the city’s history, including the horrific events that happened during World War II.

When Nazi troops entered the city, they rounded up all the Jewish people in the area and conducted a mass execution. More than 21,000 Jews died during this raid.

Following Nazi Germany’s occupation, they decided to clear out poor, uneducated Jews and herd the more affluent Jews into a ghetto. However, they needed to clear an area out for the new ghetto, so they staged an attack on German troops then pinned it on unsuspecting Jews. This event gave the Nazis a reason to evict Jewish residents from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. In the process, the Nazis managed to kill between 5,000 and 10,000 people.

The remaining 20,000 Jews were put into what became known as the Vilnius Ghetto and separated into Large and Small Ghettos. After two years, less than a 1,000 Jews survived. Many died from starvation and disease; others shipped to concentration or extermination camps in Poland; even more were simply taken to the forest and shot.

The more we learned about Vilnius and Lithuania’s history, the more amazed we were to see how the city thrives today. Not only have they survived the Holocaust, but they have also endured multiple sieges and occupations throughout the years by the Soviet Union, Poland and other neighboring entities. 

It’s no wonder that Užupis, a neighborhood that celebrates art and creativity, formed and officially declared itself an independent republic in 1997. The Republic of Užupis began its life as a dilapidated area abandoned by the Jewish who were forced into the Ghetto and overlooked by the Soviets. Squatters and the dregs of society took up residence in the buildings. But, the area also called out to artists and bohemian looking for freedom.

Now they have their own flag, declaration of independence, currency, anthem and president. It’s not quite certain whether all of this is serious or a social commentary, especially when Užupis Day falls on April first. But, the ideals they uphold are really inspirational given the dark history that surrounds the city.

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