In downtown Warsaw stands a Soviet-era monolithic structure, tall and imposing, with its ambitious spire extending skywards menacingly. It is the Palace of Culture and Science built by Stalin in the 1950s as a “gift to the people of Poland by the Soviet Union”, says my guide Monica, as we drive past it the day I arrive in Warsaw in December 2015. It would certainly not be out of place in Moscow, Russia, where seven similar buildings, built by Stalin in the 1940s, stand scattered around the city and are referred to as ‘Stalin’s Seven Sisters’.
The futuristic, modern buildings around the Palace, one of which is called the Warsaw Spire, are slowly dwarfing Stalin’s gift in the Polish capital’s fast-developing skyline. But nothing has left a more telling trace of Soviet occupation in Warsaw as this landmark structure.
Perhaps no other country in Europe has witnessed such turbulent history as Poland. It has weathered repeated Russian invasions since the 1200s. Around the 15th century, the rising Ottoman and Prussian powers began to threaten its territorial integrity. Between 1772 and 1795, Poland faced successive attacks from the trio, each chipping away a bit of its borders. In 1795, the country ceased to exist and the old republic was divided between Prussia, Russia and Austria for the next 123 years, till 1918, when a brief period of Polish sovereignty ensued as the warring factions of Germany, Russia and Austria collapsed under the weight of their own turmoil.
The social fabric of Poland continued to suffer during World War II and in its aftermath,when a large number of Jews were killed, Ukrainians and Belarussians repatriated to the Soviet Union and Germans expelled. As a result, the country lost its multi-ethnic identity. As English historian Norman Davies puts it. “Poland is the most ethnically homogeneous country in the whole of Europe.”
During World War II, Poland received help from many unlikely quarters. One such came from the Maharaja of Nawanagar, Jam Sri Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja, who gave shelter to 500 exiled orphans in his summer palace at Balachadi, Gujarat. These children, who were fleeing Soviet prison camps, arrived in then Bombay in 1942 in crammed ships. While they were barred from entering India initially, Jamsaheb, as the Maharaja was called, intervened and brought them to Balachadi village, saving them from perishing. In 2012, as a sign of gratitude, the Polish government dedicated a square in central Warsaw’s Ochota district to the Maharaja. We take a detour to what is now called, ‘The Square of the Good Maharaja’. There, standing among the oak trees, is a pink marble statue with a lotus on its head, on it the felicitation engraved in Hindi, English and Polish.
As twilight fades into darkness, we arrive at the Royal Route, an 11-km stretch that once covered a number of royal residences—Plac Zamkowy (or Castle Square), Lazienki Palace and Wilanów Palace—and many other monuments and churches. The Castle Square and the Royal Castle were entirely reconstructed after getting blown up during World War II. But the Lazienki Palace—built in Baroque style with intricate stuccos and statues—had a close shave: The Nazis even bore holes in it to stuff explosives, but had a last-minute change of heart and abandoned it.
Three hours later, we are in Krakow. It is dark, but as we walk along the streets, crossing the market square, the town hall tower and the imposing St Mary’s Basilica, we can’t escape Krakow’s charm. Its beauty unfolds before our eyes the next morning as my new guide Maria takes me to its old town and streets that were lined with food carts selling Polish pretzel—obwarzanek—topped with sesame and poppy seeds.
Krakow survived several wars, from Mongolians as far back as the 13th century, and even Hitler. The city’s architectural and cultural marvels survived the Nazi and communist occupations. “Hitler loved Krakow and did not want to destroy it,” says Maria. Perhaps the same applies to the Soviet rulers who built a communist settlement only in the suburbs of Nowa Huta.
We walk up to Wawel Castle, a significant structure among Poland’s landmarks, which traces its origins back to 1000 AD. One of the main reasons the castle, located on a hill of the same name, wasn’t destroyed was because it served as the headquarters of Nazi Governor General Hans Frank during World War II. Standing by the river Vistula on the Wawel hill, its charming mansard roof is dwarfed by the copper green spires of the Wawel Cathedral on its left. In front of its lawns stand schoolchildren, in their rain jackets and selfie sticks extended to freeze frame one of the most charming monuments in Europe.
Our plan is to reach the St Mary’s Basilica in time for the bugle call so wind up our tour of Wawel and arrive at the market square. On our way, we peeked into the Collegium Maius courtyard inside the Jagiellonian University campus, where Copernicus attended classes, I am told.
At the Basilica, we join other spectators to see the trumpeter ringing the bugle call at the window of the church spire. The tune breaks midway, in memory of the trumpeter from the 13th century, who sounded the alarm and was shot when the Mongols attacked the city.