Chopin and Changing
Cities / Towns Visited: 48
Countries Visited: 15
Steps Taken Today: 28,577
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,670,892
We awoke to another warm day, and soon headed off into the country’s capital to see what it had to offer. Now, feeling obligated to take a little time to learn about the treatment of the Polish people in Warsaw during the atrocities of World War II, our first destination was Pawiak Prison. This site housed many political prisoners during the Nazi occupation of Poland, many of whom either died in its dismal conditions, were taken across the city to be murdered off site, or were transferred to the concentration for extermination.
Walking up to the site you are met with a rather bleak scene, very little of the original exterior remains as it was destroyed during the war, but from the small remaining section of the front wall hangs the barbed wire top of the original gate. To the left stands the bronze replica of the oak which used to stand on the grounds and onto which families, groups, and individuals hung memorial plaques for the victims of the murders at or from the prison. The tree unfortunately became sick and died some time ago, but in order to preserve the touching memorials they had a replica made to match the original exactly by making casts of the limbs as it was felled. There is something stark but appropriate about the leafless model, with its armour of plaques, and a sea of wreaths at its feet. It screams ‘You may be dead, but you are not forgotten’.
Passing the other memorial headstones lining the front wall of the building we entered the semi-subterranean building. We took our time wandering around the exhibit which displays a great deal of information on not only the prison, but also the concentration camps, and how the Nazi regime affected the entire country. From copies of devastating photos and documents from the media at the time, to many a poem by people who lived through the atrocities, to the personal affects of some of the prisoners, and a number of stories of some of the more notable prisoners.
There was a few documents in the exhibition which truly shocked and offended me, like the diagrams showing the food allowances for the different minorities in captivity in the concentration camps, with German prisoners being allowed a full portion of meat, whereas the Poles were only allowed 36% of a portion, and the Jewish prisoners none at all. There was an even more in depth version showing protein, carbohydrate, and fat allowances, literally titles ‘racial feeding’. Although it seems obvious they would have done that, it is confronting to see such racism written so blatantly on paper. I was also shocked to see the title page of a document titled ‘The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland’ addressed to the government’s of the United Nations from the Polish Ministry of Polish Affairs. Now this in and of itself is not shocking, it seems natural that Poland would call for aid from the UN in regards to such an atrocity. The shocking part; it was dated December 10th, 1942. There is no way it should have taken until 3 years into WWII for this issue to be brought before the UN. And in truth, they shouldn’t have needed an official document from the victims, they should have already have been in there helping.
Thoroughly outraged we continued on to see the cells, some of which display the living conditions of the prisoners, one which houses the petrified remains of the original oak tree, a few which house memorials for prisoners, and the last one which houses photographs of prisoners who died during or after their stay at the prison. As almost all of the documentation of these prisoners was destroyed when the prison was destroyed, or was purposely undocumented by the Nazi’s to hide evidence, the museum relies greatly on the contributions of photos and short biographies from the families of those lost. The saddest part being that there are frames sitting empty, just waiting to be filled with more tragic stories.
With heavy hearts we headed off to grab some food before we ventured to happier attractions. Finding a decent looking restaurant on the way, we sat down, and enjoying at the relative cheapness of things in Poland we indulged in a large meat platter to share, and another couple of shots of vodka. Its so much more accessible to eat out and sample the local cuisine when its not burning a massive hole in your hip pocket. Full, happy, and a little buzzed, we wandered off in the hot afternoon sun towards Lazienki Park. By the time we reached the park we were sufficiently sweaty and decided to beat the heat by buying another lody (soft serve), which are literally everywhere here. After the friendly guy serving us finished marvelling at the fact we were from Australia and making comments about poisonous snakes, we grabbed our ice creams and began our walk through the trees.
Before long we reached our destination; Lazienki Palace, also known as the ‘Palace on the Isle’, a beautiful but small 17th century building which was originally erected as a bath house, but was destroyed, although some of the original paintings and decorations survived and were incorporated later when the site was converted into a summer residence by the Polish King Stanisław in 1766. The palace narrowly escaped destruction by the Nazi’s in WWII, who had drilled holes in the walls in preparation to blow it up, but never ended up carrying out the demolition. The building itself, as you can probably ascertain from the name, sits on a little island in the middle of a lake, with beautiful parkland surrounding it; a truly picturesque setting. After grabbing our audio guides, we headed past the peacock casually roaming around outside, and into the royal residence.
Now it may be small, but its just as ornately decorated as any other European palace. The influence of its time as a Roman style bath house is clear, with quite a number of statues depicting roman gods, all naked or scantily draped with cloth, as can be expected. There are a number of rooms painted in a beautiful light green, with gilded edging, and walls filled with paintings; a tiny marble chapel in the centre of the building which has an open ceiling up to the top floor, and is flooded with natural light; a large marble hall used for royal receptions; and a marble entrance hall housing four statues of noteworthy Polish rulers.
Upstairs houses the private rooms of the former king, which are cozy, but have large windows which allow the warmth of summer to seep in while providing the space with stunning views of the lake and gardens. Amongst the many pieces of art covering the entirety of the palace, the one which caught my eye the most was a beautiful, but rather unconventional, clock in the form of a statue of Chronos (the god of time), holding an astrological globe on his shoulders with a silver strip showing the hours which mechanically rotates, and the time is pointed at by the tip of Chrono’s scythe. If I ever become rich I intend on having one made for my castle.
We took some time to wander the gardens around the palace, and to stop on the bridge to see the building in its glory across the water. The bright green trees rustled in the gentle breeze, and small patches of flowers added pops of colour to the landscape. From that vantage point it is easy to see why this is considered the most beautiful palace in Poland. For a nation that has spent a decent amount of its history being ruled and fought over by other countries, it is nice to see some remnants of a time when Poland had a history as an independent, ruled by its own monarchy, as oppose to foreign rule.
The day was wearing on, but we still had a little time up our sleeve, and with that we headed off to our last attraction for the day. Now considering the fact that we had already been to see museums dedicated to both Beethoven and Mozart, it seemed natural that we would finish the trifecta by adding the museum of Poland’s greatest composer, and someone they are so proud of they named their international airport in his honour; Frédéric Chopin. Arriving at the museum we were pleasantly surprised to discover that entry on Sunday’s is free, and thus we entered none the poorer. Now please don’t think that the museum isn’t interesting, but I will say that the layout isn’t the best. It is housed in the old Ostrogski Palace, and is spread over four floors, however there isn’t a clear route layout, so instead of the information on his life and work being in chronological order, it is a little all over the shop. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some amazing features, like listening pods to hear some of his famous compositions, as well as computers on the lower level which hold full catalogues of seemingly everything he’s ever written; and there is a piano with an interactive music stand in front of it, which if you place one of the special music books on it, it will play the assigned song.
Entrance also comes with a swipe card which is programmed to your preferred language, which you can scan at the interactive screens to learn more about the artists work. There is a rooms dedicated to Chopin’s relationships with women, which on the surface makes it wound like he was a womaniser, but its mainly about women he was close to in a non-romantic way, like former students. There is also a large array of artifacts from the artist’s life, from a lock of his hair, to a pocket watch which was given to him when he was ten, a cast of his hand, his last letter to his parents before his young death, his death mask, and dried flowers from his deathbed. I will say I feel like the museum would benefit from displaying a timeline of Chopin’s life, to make all of the information fit into place a little better, and it would be nice if you didn’t have to scroll through a large amount of text on the interactive stations to find the most obvious facts people would be interested in knowing, like the details of his death. For anyone wondering, Chopin suffered from many illnesses in his life, but his death at 39 is usually attributed to tuberculosis, and complications caused by the disease. In the end we left the museum educated on this inspiring composer, and enamoured by his works, albeit a little tired from the hunt for information. Interactive exhibits are fantastic, but they need structure to make them user friendly, and I’m sad to say this felt a little lacking.
After a rather lengthy walk back to our accommodation, and a quick home cooked meal, we were in bed before too long. As I reviewed our day in my head I couldn’t help but marvel at this historically rich country with such a turbulent past. The Polish people have been through so many changes as a nation, from being a independent, to having its territories fought over and ruled by not only the Prussian Monarchy, but also that of the Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empire. They have been occupied by the Nazi’s, and been behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Communists. They have been pushed around, and beaten down; they have had their people murdered. Yet, after all of this, in this now more peaceful time, with their borders restored, and the ability to self rule, they are, as they have always been, proudly Polish. All of the battles, all of the loss, all of the changes, have not stripped these people of their national identity, and it is something that makes this country so beautiful to visit. To see a strong and proud people just getting on with things in the wake of all of that is inspiring. They are not always the friendliest, and, especially the older generations, seem a little tentative and cold towards foreigners, but then considering their history it is hard to blame them. That being said, we have met plenty of kind and helpful Polish folk along the way; people that prove that behind their reserved nature, they are warm hearted at their core. They may still be growing economically as a nation, and the infrastructure may take some time to catch up with the wealthier west, but I would encourage you all to consider this part of the world for your travels. Immerse yourself in the layers of its history, bask in it, let it change you and make you better, and if nothing else, let it teach you that no matter what the world brings to your doorstep, never let it take away your identity.