by Eric Mietz
When I traveled to Warsaw, Poland for the first time three years ago, I found myself in the middle of a dynamic social and cultural landscape, an environment that was in the midst of a transition. Warsaw defines itself not as a city lost in a tragic past or as a jungle of monolithic Soviet buildings, but rather, as Central Europe’s rising metropolis – a city experiencing progress due to increasing international investment and extensive redevelopment.
I had the opportunity to return to Warsaw this past summer to work at an international relations and defense policy think tank. There, I learned about Poland’s position as a role model for Belarus and Ukraine in economic and political development. I also researched how Warsaw is striving to earn its place on the international business map as the economic hub of Central and Eastern Europe. By doing so, the city hopes to attract considerable foreign investment to drive its fast-paced modernization. It was my exploration outside of the office, however, that truly exposed the reality of my research on Warsaw’s — and Poland’s — visible economic and social progress.
Warsaw has undeservedly earned the reputation of being a boring city, a place reputed to be filled with rigid, utilitarian building blocks and wide Soviet-planned boulevards jammed with rattletrap Fiat cars. In reality, the derelict Stalinist dumps are overshadowed by high-end malls and commercial towers, and these days, the wide avenues are more often clogged with BMWs, Land Rovers and even a few Bentleys owned by Warsaw’s rising elite.
The landscape of Warsaw’s bustling commercial center is dominated by Stalin’s towering gift to Poland: the Palace of Science and Culture, a building Varsovians love to hate. The Russian Wedding Cake (one of many names locals have for the monstrosity) remains the tallest building in Warsaw, although it looks oddly out of place among neighboring buildings — shiny new financial towers, hotels and the ultra-modern Złote Tarasy shopping center covered by an undulating glass roof. The juxtaposition of this Stalinist relic with its sleek, modern neighbors seems to mock the failure of Communism in Poland; Warsaw is lauded as the capitalist success story of the former Eastern Bloc.
Even with Warsaw’s desire to embrace modernity, the city contains plenty of reminders of its troubled past. Most evident is the history of German and Russian occupation during World War II that culminated in both the destruction of 85 percent of the city and the murder of Polish Jews. Ulica Próżna, located in the business district, is the only street of the former Warsaw Ghetto where all original Jewish tenement houses still remain. Today, the empty buildings serve as a testament to the hundreds of thousands of Jews that died in the largest Nazi-occupied ghetto.
Nearby is the Warsaw Uprising Museum, dedicated to the Polish resistance movements that unsuccessfully attempted to liberate Poland from Nazi Germany in 1944. In the memorial garden, chilling photographs show the mass evictions of Jews and the destruction of Warsaw.
Following the Uprising, the German Army systematically bombed Warsaw’s Old Town, which was meticulously reconstructed to its original state after the war. On a warm summer day, the cafés on the nearby Nowy Świat make for the perfect place to enjoy the stately elegance and romance of the Old Town in its restored glory.
Warsaw is a city of contrasts, a place where old, gray Soviet relics coexist with cosmopolitan and lively neighborhoods. For a city that was no more than a pile of rubble 65 years ago, Warsaw has transformed itself into a city that is today the rising phoenix of the former Eastern Bloc.