When my wife and I travel, I am acutely aware that I look like a tourist. My clothing and other aspects of my general appearance make that obvious, even before I attempt to speak phases in a language other than English. One factor which helps mitigate this effect is the purposefulness with which I walk. I walk through a city as if I belong – a vestige of my 4-1/2 years in Manhattan – and at times, someone will stop me to ask for directions in Polish or Italian.
Other than occasionally being asked for directions, we generally don’t experience cities as the locals do. We try, but when a substantial portion of a business’ income comes from tourism, authenticity seems to be lost. Those little Italian restaurants in which no one spoke English and the owners’ and diners’ kids played hide and seek in the dining room have been off the beaten path. Same for the Scottish pub in which we ate haggis and watched football. It was obvious that we were tourists, but what made these situations special was that our presence didn’t change the dynamics.
Once TripAdvisor or other travel guides recommend a local authentic experience within a city, change is inevitable. Unless you travel with a native, you can leave a city with a lot of photos of buildings and natural features, but without truly knowing the place. You only have a feel for how they cater to tourists. The commercial center of Sorrento Italy felt that way to me, but the hiking on the peninsula was fantastic, and that’s where we found the area’s flavor.
In Warsaw, we spent our evenings with my wife’s second cousin, Magda – a local – and went to traditional Polish restaurants and discussed topical issues. With Magda, we ate jellied meats (head cheese), steak tartar prepared right at the table and sang a traditional Polish birthday song for the man at the next table who was celebrating his 100th birthday.
We also learned about the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and their work to identify seized pre-World War II Jewish property and help the owners’ descendants reclaim it. We have all heard about the Jewish treasures stolen by the Nazi’s – paintings, gold, jewels, antiques, etc. – but the stolen property also includes real estate.
Magda showed us beautiful ornate buildings that will have to be torn down because the current owners don’t want to make the huge investments required to save the buildings since there is a chance that a Jewish owner may come forward and claim the property. Throughout Warsaw, which had a significant pre-war Jewish population, there is a chance that a descendant may be found, documentation produced and restitution made. In the more densely populated portions of the city, however, the chances are considerably higher that a property may be reclaimed.
Nowhere was the Jewish population more tightly packed than in the Warsaw ghetto. At its peak, there were 400,000 Jews forced to live in about 1.3 square miles. All the property had Jewish owners and some may have had several owners over the course of the three years of the walled ghetto’s existence. Those being shipped out to the Treblinka extermination camp (at least 254,000 during the summer of 1942) may have sold their ghetto real estate holdings to fellow Jews staying behind. Whether this occurred or not, it would be risky for current owners of any Warsaw ghetto property – regardless of religious heritage – to invest heavily in its improvement.
We stayed at the Hilton Warsaw Hotel and Convention Centre. The front desk manager, Michał Molenda, made our stay especially memorable with his personal attention and by upgrading us to the suite on the top floor. We would certainly stay there again and recommend the hotel for anyone considering a trip to Warsaw. (http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/poland/hilton-warsaw-hotel-and-convention-centre-WAWHIHI/index.html)
That 26th floor vantage point gave us a unique prospective on the restitution situation in Warsaw, best presented in a few photos.
The Hilton is less than ten years old and almost all around it, new buildings are going up in Warsaw’s modern business district. Almost.
Above is the view of the Jewish ghetto. It was razed by the Germans following the ghetto uprising in 1943. Only a few buildings survived the systemic destruction by the Nazi’s, and in 2013, the owners of the three-story dilapidated Jewish Community Center wanted to tear it down and construct a modern building for a growing Polish Jewish population. There was an uproar and in this case, the owners are known and they are a Jewish community.
So, it’s complicated. But at the same time, Warsaw is a modern world city with much to offer. It’s hard to escape the troubling history of invasion, abuse and murder, but with all that the city has endured, its inhabitants have an inner strength to work through some of the toughest problems.
It reminds me of that quote from George Santayana which, among other places, was posted at Auschwitz. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The people of Warsaw cannot escape their past. The scars are everywhere – memorials and damage from bullet holes alike. Museums and plaques are prevalent throughout the city in order to make forgetting the past impossible. In this way, the people of Warsaw hope that they are not condemned to repeat it.