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Warsaw remembers

August 1 is a unique day for the Polish capital. Every year, at the stroke of 5 p.m., life comes to a standstill in the busy metropolis. For a minute, public transport stops, cars and pedestrians come to a halt, and the wail of sirens fills the air. Varsovians pay their respects to the heroes of an event from the times of World War II.

On this day in 1944, soldiers of Poland’s underground army rose up to fight the organised German army which had been occupying Warsaw and the whole of Poland for five years. In this way they aimed to liberate the capital prior to the arrival of the Soviet army and ensure Poland sovereignty after the war. Over 63 days of courageous fighting, a great many of them paid for it with their lives. The Germans also wreaked bloody vengeance on the civilian population and completely destroyed the city. The Warsaw Uprising, as it is known, was the greatest act of armed resistance in occupied Europe.

Although this year marks the 80th anniversary of that event, it still lives vividly in the memory of Warsaw’s subsequent generations. Ceremonial assemblies, special open-air Masses and meetings with veterans, mass rallies and marches, commemorative sporting events, concerts and performances—all these things bring the atmosphere of those days closer. Many of them take place at sites particularly connected with the uprising. The first are held in late July and the last on the evening of October 2, the day the insurgency ended. If you want to feel the spirit of Warsaw, this is your opportunity. Or rather, not just one but many.

Punkt widokowy na kopcu Powstania Warszawskiego, znak Polski Walczącej, spacerują ludzie, dookoła drzewa, dzień, lato.
Warsaw Uprising Mound, photo: Maciej Deperas

The first is a concert on July 26 in Freedom Park next to the Warsaw Rising Museum. In this special place, the atmosphere of the heroic struggle, the reality of the barricades, escapes through narrow sewers, bombs falling on hospitals and churches, and finally the total demolished, dead city can be experienced most fully. Every year, on a July evening, one of the most popular stars of Polish music puts it into the language of sound. The lyrics are often inspired by true stories or the tales of insurgents. The concert is listened to sitting on the grass under the stars.

On the last Saturday in July, in the evening when the café gardens pulse with life, rows of people line Warsaw’s streets. Some of them hold red and white flags and here and there arrangements of vigil candles can be seen. Shortly after, thousands of participants of the Warsaw Uprising Run will complete a nearby course that passes by the sites of uprising battles. Veterans of the uprising will greet them at the start. Before the run begins, they will sing ‘Rota’ (‘The Oath’—an early 20th-century, Polish patriotic song) and the Polish national anthem together. Along the route they will hear the sounds of uprising songs and see people taking part in re-enactments. Most will reach the finish line after dark.

Budynek, w części po lewej stronie ceglany, po prawej stronie zakończony wieżyczką, na której stoi maszt z białoczerwoną flagą. Przed budynkiem od lewej strony znajdują się maszty z pionowymi białoczerwonymi flagami oraz trawnik z kilkoma drzewkami. Za budynkiem widać wieżowiec.
Warsaw Rising Museum, photo: Piotr Wierzbowski

If you have ever visited Warsaw’s Old Town you surely remember the huge monument standing on Krasiński Square. Massive figures of soldiers, forged from bronze, run out from under concrete blocks, others stand by a sewer entrance. This is the Warsaw Uprising Monument and it was erected here for a reason. Right by this very crossroads is the sewer cover through which insurgents evacuated from the Old Town. Round the corner is the headquarters of the Association of Warsaw Insurgents, where they have met for several decades, and on the other side of Długa Street stands the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army. On July 31 every year, a solemn ceremony is held here. Surviving insurgents together with the President of Poland and the Mayor of Warsaw, government officials, soldiers of the Polish Army’s guard of honour, and scouts take part in a field Mass and a Remembrance Roll Call. As the shadows darken, you can hear the names of the units and surnames of those who passed on to eternal guard read out loud and the appeal “Stand for the Roll Call!” At the end, honorary gun salutes ring out and the delegations lay commemorative wreaths in front of the monument to the sound of snare drums.

Pomnik Powstania Warszawskiego na placu Krasińskich, w tle Katedra Polowa Wojska Polskiego, dzień, lato.
Warsaw Uprising Monument, photo: Tomasz Nowak

On the day the uprising started, August 1, the city fully reveals its dramatic history. While walking around Warsaw on that day, you will surely notice places commemorating the events of many years ago. Varsovians lay flowers and light vigil candles at monuments, under commemorative plaques and in cemeteries. In many of these places, commemorations are held from the morning hours. At some of them, boy and girl scouts stand guard, encouraging people to stop, pay tribute to the fallen and take a moment to reflect. Finally, 5 p.m. arrives, codenamed “W” by the insurgents, for Wolność (Freedom in Polish).

A gathering of insurgents, together with the President of Poland, the Mayor of Warsaw and the Prime Minister will pay tribute to the fallen at the Gloria Victis (glory to the vanquished) monument at the Powązki Military Cemetery. The monument’s construction was initiated by soldiers and relatives of insurgent from the ‘Radosław’ Group’. Unveiled on August 1, 1946, it is the oldest site commemorating the heroic insurrection. At a time when the communist authorities did not allow anniversaries of the uprising to be commemorated, Warsaw residents, families of the fallen, and insurgents came here to silently pay tribute to the heroes.

At exactly the same time, on Castle Square, a group of people form a living sign in the shape of an anchor with the letter P. This is Fighting Poland – the symbol of Polish resistance during the Second World War. To see it, go to the viewing point in the nearby bell tower at St. Anna’s Church. You will also see it on numerous flags, armbands, and maybe even… in the sky. If conditions permit, a squadron of several planes will trace it out between Ponatowski and Świętokrzyski Bridges.

Rząd drewnianych krzyży na Cmentarzu Wojskowym na Powązkach, dookoła rosną drzewa, dzień, lato.
Powązki Military Cemetery, photo: Piotr Wierzbowski

Meanwhile on the Vistula, near Poniatowski Bridge, a red-and-white flotilla will stop, led by the wooden boat Dar Mazowsza. Among the dozens of participants in the procession you will see both big ships and small city ferries as well as traditional boats and service vessels of the Police, Fire Service, Volunteer Water Rescue Service and Inland Navigation barge service. At the symbolic location of the sinking of the ship ‘Bajka’, they will lay a wreath in honour of the uprising fighters who gave their lives in the river’s currents.

On Rondo Dmowskiego (Dmowskiego roundabout), situated by the Centrum metro station close to the Palace of Culture and Science, the crowd gathered there hold dozens of burning red flares. Soon white smoke will shroud the whole of the capital. After singing the national anthem and the famous song ‘Dream of Warsaw,’ the noisy Warsaw Uprising March organised by national groups sets off from here. It is headed by re-enactors in historical costumes and the participants carry Polish flags.

At around 7 p.m. the official state ceremonies move to the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery. In this, the biggest war cemetery in Poland, lie the remains and ashes of over 100,000 largely unnamed victims of the uprising. After playing the national anthem and Warsaw bugle call on the mound by the ‘Fallen-Undefeated’ monument, veterans and national and local government officials lay floral wreaths and bouquets. A prayer is recited for the dead by Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Islamic and Jewish religious leaders, and the ceremony ends with an Remembrance Roll Call.

Godzina W na Wiśle, parada łodzi, w tle Most Poniatowskiego, Stadion PGE Narodowy, drzewa, zieleń, dzień, lato.
W Hour on the Vistula, photo: Ewelina Lach

After 8 p.m., tens of thousands of people gather on Józef Piłsudski Square. On stage is an orchestra with a conductor, a choir, and soloists. But everyone who has come here feels like stars of this evening. This is ‘Varsovians sing (un)forbidden songs,’ the collective singing of insurgent songs; just like those who sung them to give themselves hope and courage to fight decades ago. ‘Michler Palace,’ ‘Today I’m going to fight, mum,’ ‘The Mokotów March,’ ‘Małgorzatka the nurse,’ ‘The little girl from the AK (Home Army).’ Written by uprising fighters, some solemn, others humorous, they recall real people and events. They can connect people with different worldviews. The name of the concert refers to ban on performing patriotic songs during the occupation.

At 9 p.m. night falls over the city. The last ceremony of this special day is held at the top of the Warsaw Uprising Mound. The 120-metre-high hill was built after the war from the ruins of the razed Warsaw. Along with the rubble, the remains of Varsovians who died in the Uprising rest here. Since those times, the hill has become overgrown with wild forest, and for 30 years there has been a several-metre-high Fighting Poland symbol on it. Every year, a relay of generations made up of soldiers, scouts and city guards carries a flame here from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to light the Bonfire of Remembrance. It will burn for 63 days, as long as the uprising, which was originally planned to last only a few days. To see how life was reborn here, go to the Operation Tempest Park (Park Akcji Burza) located on the slopes of the mound. It is cut through by a ravine with walls made of concrete rubble and a nature trail, as well as the W Hour Avenue leading straight to the peak.

Punkt widokowy na kopcu Powstania Warszawskiego, znak Polski Walczącej, dookoła drzewa, w tle bloki, dzień, lato.
Warsaw Uprising Mound, photo: Zarząd Zieleni m.st. Warszawy

On Saturday August 3 at 5 p.m. cyclists will gather at the Warsaw Rising Museum. From here they will set off on a group ride on a trail of sites that bore witness to dramatic events years ago. This year, participants of the so-called ‘Uprising Mass’ will follow the route of the successive locations of the Home Army Headquarters, which directed combat operations. The huge peloton will be led by a guide who will talk, to the sounds of insurgent songs, about the history of the places it passes. To join in, just arrive on your own bike and go to the registration point in Freedom Park (Park Wolności).

Two days later, Warsaw remembers the most tragic event of the uprising—the mass extermination of the inhabitants of the Wola district. On August 5–7, SS troops and their collaborators murdered approximately 50,000 people here, most of them defenceless women and children, as well as the sick and elderly. A ceremony and march that take place on the anniversary of the start of the genocide are dedicated to their memory. After the reading of the Remembrance Roll Call, at 7 p.m., it sets off from the Monument to the Victims of the Wola Massacre and passes through the bustling city along the main streets of this district of Warsaw. It stops in silence at the sites of tragic events, finally reaching the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery in Wola. Here, in a collective burial mound, the ashes of approximately 50,000 Varsovians are buried, recovered from mass graves in various parts of the city. In the adjacent park is an outdoor exhibition dedicated to the civilian victims of the uprising. Each participant can pay tribute to them by lighting candles.

Kamienne tablice, na nich wyryte nazwiska osób, które zginęły w czasie Powstania Warszawskiego, dookoła rosną krzewy i drzewa, słoneczny dzień, lato.
Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery, photo: Piotr Wierzbowski

The Hall of Remembrance located nearby is also dedicated to them. Visit it to listen to personal accounts of people who survived but still bear the painful scars of the uprising. Their voices move flames burning in the dark interiors; they also move hearts. The designer of the anti-war installation is Krzysztof Wodiczko, an artist and professor of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Outside the building, on plaques embedded in the wall, are the names of the 62,000 victims of the Uprising identified to date. The remaining 30,000 empty ones are waiting to be completed.

These are just some of several hundred events taking place during the two months of the uprising. This year, the commemorations will be particularly ceremonial. The 80th anniversary of the courageous insurrection will be one of the last opportunities to meet and say goodbye to extraordinary people—Uprising veterans still living. Join Varsovians at this time and you will feel closer to Warsaw. You can also go in search of the numerous places in the capital that still bear echoes of the Warsaw Uprising: a fallen pillar at the Royal Castle, a fragment of an armoured vehicle in the wall of the Archcathedral, or bullet marks preserved in the walls of tenement buildings. See you in the untamed city.

Po lewej stronie rząd betonowych bloków wypełnionych żółtobrązowymi tabliczkami, wzdłuż bloków chodnik. Po prawej stronie chodnika trawnik usiany żółtobrązowymi liśćmi, a w głębi drzewa w jesiennych barwach.
Hall of Remembrance, photo: Filip Kwiatkowski