As part of my core course, Competing Narratives in Modern European History, we traveled as a class for a week to Warsaw and Berlin. Warsaw was our first stop on the trip and we spent three days in the city. This was my first time going to Poland, and I knew very little about the country and city going into the trip so I was excited to experience it. The city felt similar to Budapest in that the buildings were rather drab colors. Almost all of the city center was rebuilt in the late 1940s and early 1950s, so most of the city is only 70 years old. During WWII the city was almost completely destroyed by the Germans, so a lot of the old, authentic Polish buildings have been lost but much of the city was reconstructed to look like the original buildings. The “old” part of the city is actually only about two years older than the “new” part of the city.
Everything in Warsaw was incredibly inexpensive, which was a big relief because of how expensive everything is in Copenhagen. I wish we had more free time in the city to walk around and explore, but our days were scheduled pretty full with academic and museum visits.
We visited the Treblinka extermination camp, located about an hour outside the city. Treblinka operated between 1942 and 1943, during which the Nazis murdered almost 1 million Jews and Romani people among others. Many of the Jews who were murdered at the camp were transported from the Warsaw Ghetto. The Warsaw Ghetto imprisoned about 30% of the population of Warsaw in an area that constituted less than 3% of area of the city. Tens of thousands of Jews died from starvation or rampant diseases in the ghetto. The extermination camp was completely demolished by the Nazis in 1943 ahead of the Soviet advancement, to conceal the truth about the camp. Once the camp had been dismantled, the Nazis built a farmhouse on the land to further hide the evidence by trying to show that it was just a farm. Today nothing from the camp remains, but an extensive memorial has been constructed to honor the victims. As part of the memorial, rectangular stone slabs have been placed leading up to where the camp was located to imitate railroad ties, showing how the victims were transported to the camp. It was an incredibly moving experience to walk around the memorial, knowing that nearly one million people were murdered exactly where I was standing.
On the last day in Warsaw, we attended a lecture from a Polish political activist and a reporter. They discussed the Polish government’s view of their nations past in World War II and how they choose to hide or cover up Polish complicity. The Law and Justice Party, who are the dominate political party, have a revisionist outlook towards their past and are attempting to re-narrate their history. It was very interesting to hear from two Poles about the current political climate and the right-wing conservative government.