I had the privilege of exploring the expansive former Jewish district of Warsaw with a local *Servas host who had an intimate knowledge of the area, having lived there most of his life. Most of the territory we visited, which had been turned into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 and then destroyed during the war, was now rebuilt, much of it with communist era block buildings.
I met Mirek one afternoon at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). The ill-fated Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 was a final act of defiance in the Warsaw Ghetto of the Jewish resistance against German-occupied Poland. The monument was located in the former Warsaw Ghetto just outside the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, a dramatic postmodern structure of glass and concrete.
After a short trolly ride we arrived in a lively area. Cast iron plates set in the pavement which marked the boundaries of the ghetto seemed to appear out of nowhere. We passed monuments and plaques commemorating events that happened in the vicinity, some of which were gruesome reminders of WWII, others that were simply intriguing. Cartoons painted on a couple of walls depicted Jewish entertainment when the area was in its prime just before WWII. It made me want to experience the vitality of the era.
We paused in front of a communist era building where Mirek raised his family in a small flat. Eventually he managed to buy a larger one in another part of town where he lives today.
Following the evacuation of Warsaw in 1945 Mirek’s family lived in a three room apartment with three other families in Praga, a district of Warsaw just over the river (the right bank) from the Old Town. Praga managed to escape the major destruction inflicted on other parts of Warsaw at the end of WWII because of its location. Many families that had been evacuated from destroyed Warsaw ended up moving into flats in Praga after the war, at least temporarily. Gradually two of the families moved out of the apartment where Mirek was living. He lived there for years.
As we parted, Mirek directed me to a historic food hall in the old Jewish district. The colorful flower market in the 19th century marketplace was bursting with activity. I changed some money at a good rate there.
Praga is a rather bohemian part of Warsaw on the right bank of the Vistula River and is gradually becoming gentrified. I could feel the energy when I alighted from the new underground subway station at a bustling corner which was at the entrance to a gleaming new mall. A beautiful multi-domed Russian Orthodox Church across the street demonstrated Soviet presence from the past. Pre World War II buildings pock-marked with bullet holes were nearby. Graffiti with a message adorned various old exposed walls. It was an area filled with contrasts, which is what made Praga so interesting.
* Servas is an international non profit peace organization of hosts and travelers http://www.USServas.org
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