10 Places You Will Never Visit in Warsaw
small, 10 Places You Will Never Visit in Warsaw, Troop carrier in front of Kino Moskwa on 13th December 1981, day one of Martial Law; photo: Chris Niedenthal / Forum, kino_moskwa_fot_chris_niedenthal.jpg
Urban tourism is flourishing in Poland's capital. Today, city tours venture far beyond the Old Town and the former Jewish Ghetto – in the footsteps of characters from books, around urban markets and to homes once inhabited by those who shaped Polish culture. But what about the many Warsaw sights that no longer exist?
To the dismay of those seeking to imagine the destroyed structures in their minds, or with the aid of their computers, sources differ on the details of their former constructions. Buildings that lack a definite description aren’t a source of frustration, however, but of the immense, often deeply personal joy of imaginative exploration.
No city was immune to the changes that occurred between the early modern to the industrial period, but Warsaw was further affected by the forces of occupation. During the 19th century, Warsaw was under Russian rule. The tsarist regime aimed to modernise the city and erase the imprints of its Polish character, in order to leave its own.
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After a subsequent occupation by the Germans, which also impacted its urban structure, Poland regained independence in 1918. Its new leaders took it upon themselves to get rid of signs left over by the tsarist regime. But two decades weren't enough to restore the look of the city.
In the wake of World War II, little remained of Warsaw, with more than 80% of the city destroyed in bombings. Jewish Warsaw was particularly affected, with the loss of its community – once 30% of the population – to the Nazi genocide. Still, this wasn't the end of the city's perpetual transformations. The communist regime left its own toll as well. Nowadays, architects and developers play their part in reshaping Warsaw’s landscape.
It undoubtedly takes a leap of imagination to fathom a city that no longer exists. But a hypothetical tour guide might pique visitors' interest much like this:
The harmony of the Baroque axis of the Saxon Gardens, a buzzing bazaar at Gościnny Dwor, the majestic Great Synagogue, the serenity of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral...
Warsaw's Saxon Axis
The Elector of Saxony, King Augustus II of the House of Wettin, intended to build a large royal palace in Warsaw, one worthy of a monarch with absolute power. Fittingly, the plan was loosely based on the Baroque design of the Palace of Versailles. An axis was designed to run from Krakowskie Przedmieście to Żelaznej Bramy Square, with the palace and surrounding gardens as its central points.
The Saxon Axis was to be the first such construction in the history of Polish urban planning. Due to various political and financial impediments, however, it was never fully completed. Only the Saxon Palace and Garden were built.
At the site of the Saxon Palace, the Baroque Palace of Jan Andrzej Morsztyn once stood. After Augustus II bought the land in 1713, its construction lasted until 1748. Following the monarch’s death in 1733, his heir, Augustus III, continued this legacy by expanding it. He had two Rococo wings built, which sealed the palace's courtyard from both sides. Though unable to carry out further construction, as he desired, the ruler organised exuberant parties and feasts there, accompanied by extravagant displays of fireworks.
During the period of the Kingdom of Poland, the Morsztyn palace served as a school – the Warsaw Lyceum. It was attended, among others, by Fryderyk Chopin and Oskar Kolberg. After 1831, the palace was inhabited by soldiers of the Tsar, and when Poland regained its freedom, it became the General Headquarters of the Polish Army.
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In December 1944, after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising, Nazi forces destroyed the Saxon Palace. Today, there are advocates of rebuilding the centre of the Saxon Axis, including the prestigious palace and the neighbouring Bruhl Palace. Their hope is to restore Warsaw to its past glory. This would certainly be worthy of celebration – but what would become of the buildings surrounding the Axis? The inhabitants of Warsaw would regain a symbol of its past, but tourism of the imagination would also suffer quite a blow.
Żelazna Brama (the Iron Gate) was named for the metal used in its moving parts. In her book, Ogród Sąski (The Saxon Garden), Elżbieta Charazińska writes:
It had a decorative geometrical grid at the bottom and iron rods topped with triangular blades less than half way up. It was anchored in a stone construction. Its sculptured decorative elements were emblematic of the monarchy. The left cartouche represented the coat of arms of Poland and Lithuania and had a crown on the top. The right one displayed the coat of arms of the Wettin dynasty and an electoral hat.
Żelazna Brama stood at the end of the Western part of the Saxon Axis. While the gate no longer exists, its spirit lives on. ‘Za Żelazną Bramą’ (‘Behind the Iron Gate’) was the name given to a Warsaw housing estate built in the 1960s and 1970s on part of the former grounds of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto. Inspired by Le Corbusier, the estate is composed of 19 concrete apartment blocks, with 15 floors and between 320 and 400 apartments per building.
A guide to Warsaw from 1857 evokes the memory of Gościnny Dwór (The Guest Manor), the now-vanished city market that was located at the far end of the Saxon Garden, behind Żelazna Brama:
It accommodates 168 stores and so many stalls, and from the inside and outside, it is surrounded by decorative iron pilasters that form an arcade.
An illustrated city guide from 1892 gives another reading of the bazaar:
Inside and outside, there are Jewish stalls with all sorts of trinkets. Filled with shoddy goods, this untidy marketplace is visited by women from all parts of Warsaw.
Very little changed until 1917, when Zygmunt Trzebiński wrote his Krótki Przewodnik po Warszawie dla Włościan i Wycieczek Włościańskich (A Short Guide to Warsaw for Peasants and Peasant Excursions).
The set designer Józef Galewski too once highlighted the look of the market’s interior, as well as its function:
Stalls were separated by iron rails. At Christmas, the whole of Warsaw shopped here, because it offered the widest and cheapest selection of food products. There were markets in the Old Town, in Mariensztat and on Ordynacka Street, but for years, Żelazna Brama was the premier market.
Business prospered between 1841 until September 1939, when Gościnny Dwór was destroyed.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Design by Władysława Szyllera for the rebuilding of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral as a Catholic church, photo: Polona
The Governor-General of Warsaw Iosif Gurko, a hero of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), was responsible for enforcing Alexander III’s policies for the Russification of Poland. Banning the use of Polish in schools, he tightened censorship and persecuted the Unici (United Christians). In a letter to the Emperor of Russia, Gurko asked for the erection of a place of prayer for 42,000 members of the Russian Orthodox community. His request was answered. Leaders of the Church were pleased:
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The erection of a Russian Orthodox Church in the most visible place in Warsaw is a necessity, not only for religious reasons, but as a symbol of Russian statehood in this country, a symbol of Orthodox Russia, of which the Kingdom of Poland is an inseparable part.
An obelisk had been built in commemoration of Polish officers, loyal to the Tsar, who were killed during the November Night, which began the November Uprising (1830-31) against the Russian Empire. The monument was later transferred to nearby Zielony Square, or present-day Dąbrowski Square – a strange amalgamation of styles and periods, with the neo-Rennaissance Szlenkier Palace, the Za Żelazną Bramą housing estate and the social realist Palace of Culture. In 1917, it was taken down by Warsaw inhabitants eager to see it disappear.
From an ideological point of view, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was a loyal successor to the obelisk. This angered some circles of Russians, who argued that giving the church political significance was belittling. One such opponent was Aleksander Błok.
Based on a design by Russian architect Leon Benois, construction lasted 18 years, from 1894 to 1912. The cathedral's object of pride became its belfry. Of its 14 bells forged in Moscow, one was the fifth largest bell in the entire Russian Empire. The 70-metre-high building was one of Warsaw's tallest at the beginning of the 20th century. Among the painters who covered the walls with frescos was Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov.
'Warschau unter Deutscher Besetzung 1915: Beim Stadtkommandanten' ('Warsaw Under German Occupation 1915: X') by Alfred Kühlewindt, 1915, photo: Polona
After the Russians retreated from Warsaw, the cathedral was taken over by the Germans, who used it as a garrison church. When Poles regained their right to decide their own fates in 1918, however, the purpose of the cathedral spurred a national debate. What should be done with this giant building occupying the city’s central square?
The majority wished to demolish it, as it was a symbol of foreign rule. Others, although outnumbered, stood up for the cathedral’s value. The famous writer Stefan Żeromski suggested that it be transformed into a museum of Polish martyrdom. He also defended the preservation of Vasnetsov's murals.
Today, the absence of the cathedral on Piłsudski Square is noticeable. The adjacent Hotel Victoria is another ghost story, where instead of a rectangular block, the eclectic Kronenberg Palace formerly stood.
The Hotel Victoria, from ‘Munich. What links Spielberg's film with Warsaw's Victoria?’ by by Sebastian Łupaka, 2006, photo: Nowy Dzień
The Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue, the largest ever built in Warsaw, opened on 26th September 1878 in celebration of Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year. It symbolised the significance and position of the Haskalah supporters and the Jewish enlightenment movement, as well as Reform Judaism. Designed by Leandro Marconi, the son of the famed architect Henyrk Marconi, it could house 2,400 worshippers, 600 of whom would be seated in the balcony.
The classical, Byzantine-Mauritanian structure, similar to a Latin cross, was 64 metres long, with a rectangular interior 33 metres long and 29 wide. The façade was decorated with harmonious Renaissance and Empire elements. Its rich ornaments – including gold, silver, marble and fabric from the Orient – were gifts from wealthy donors to the Haskalah movement.
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The building had its advocates and adversaries. Despite the Tsarist ban, the sermons were read in Polish. To the dismay of the Tsar's opponents, the inscription over the large central door, under the portico, read: ‘To the only God for Glory, during the Reign of Alexander II, Emperor of the Russian Empire and King of Poland’. But the synagogue was visited by both Christians and Jews. The Great Synagogue choir, directed by Dawid Ajzensztad, became famous throughout Warsaw.
In 1942, the Nazis turned the Great Synagogue into a furniture warehouse, stockpiling stolen art and other loot there. After the defeat of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the building on Tłomackie street was decimated. Historical records show that Jürgen Stroop, an SS member responsible for the brutal liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, personally supervised its destruction. Although its absence was felt by local citizens, post-war plans to rebuild the Great Synagogue never came to fruition.
Plans to build a skyscraper in the synagogue’s place surfaced in the early 1950s, but the building remained uninhabitable until 1991. Were there serious reasons for the delay? Urban legends report that a rabbi had cast a spell on the site before leaving Warsaw. Coincidently, or perhaps not, strange accidents took place on the construction site, and workers reported hearing cries, wailing and screams.
The metal body of the new building was ready in 1976. Warsovians began to call it the ‘Golden Skyscraper,’ as was covered in gold-metal sheets. The building wasn't ready for use until 1991, however, and the spell was reportedly resolved by another rabbi. Today, the building, as it stands, is known as the ‘Blue Skyscraper’. Next door, at 3/5 Tłomackie Street, one can find the Jewish Historical Institute Museum and the Ringelblum Archive.
'Warschau kurz vor der Einnahme 1915: Abzug der Russen' ('Warsaw Shortly Before the [German - ed. note] Occupation of 1915: Withdrawal of the Russians') by Alfred Kühlewindt, 1915, photo: Polona
The Wisła River divides Warsaw into two halves. But it wasn't until 1864 that the two riverbanks were joined by a permanent bridge. The first bridges were made of wood and taken down for winter, when ice would float down the river.
The new bridge was constructed by the Lithuanian engineer Stanisław Kierbedź, famous for constructing the first steel bridge on the Neva River in Saint Petersburg – also the first permanent bridge in the whole Russian Empire. The difficulties posed by the Neva and the long, 300-metre distance between the shores, not to mention the nascent state of bridge-construction technology, didn't stop Kierbedź from accomplishing his task.
For the Warsaw bridge, Kierbedź used five existing stone pillars, which had survived the German bombings unscathed. The truss bridge, at 474 metres long, could support tramways and horse carriages. A special pathway also allowed pedestrians to safely cross over to the other side of town.
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People flocked to the river’s shores just as eagerly as they do today, and sailing was a popular pastime. Guides would alert navigators to the danger of standing underneath the bridge, as spitting from it became a popular pastime among rebellious youths. Another attraction were the merchants on galleys selling fruits and vegetables. They would use a long rope with a hook to pierce the food, before passing it down safely to the person at the other end of the rope.
The bridge was later destroyed by Nazi bombardment. For those interested in underwater archaeology, grids and arches can still be fished out from the bottom of the Vistula. A cinematic re-enactments may be found in Passendorf's 1966 film Partisan Mission (Zamach), and in an episode of Four Tank-Men and a Dog (Czterej Pancerni i Pies), the part of Kierbedź Bridge was played by a similar, but extant edifice in Toruń.
The Staniewskich Circus was one of Warsaw's biggest attractions – a stage for clowns, acrobats, wrestlers and more. Of the eight-storey construction, designed for 3,000 viewers, not a trace remains today. The Staniewskich Circus was also famous for its water arena.
The bastion of laughs and amazement had appeared on maps of Warsaw since 1882, but in September 1939, it was lost forever. The Luftwaffe air strikes were particularly damaging, due to the large size of the building.
Gebethner & Wolff Publishing House
'Warsaw Nowo-Sienna 9 Street. Zgoda corner at Marszałkowska. Bookstore and music notes store of Gebethner and Wolff.', 1907, photo: Wikimedia Commons / Tygodnik Ilustrowany
Few Warsaw drivers are aware that when they come to park in the centre of the city, they are leaving their vehicle on what once was a beautiful tenement building, crowned with a tower reminiscent of alpine castles.
The building's architect, Bronisław Brochwicz-Rogoyski, drew inspiration from historicism. Many of the other buildings he designed have been lost to war. The ground floor of the building was occupied by a bookstore, which offered the latest works released by the Gebethner and Wolff Publishing House. The other floors housed luxurious apartments.
Gebethner and Wolff were publishing magnates. Their publications included newspapers (Tygodnik Ilustrowany, Kurier Codzienny and Kurier Warszawski), sheet music (7,147 scores published up to 1937 and all of Chopin's pieces) and comic books (the Adventures of Koziołek Matołek, for example), not to mention books by Reymont, Prus, Orzeszkowa, Konopnicka, Choromański, Iwaszkiewicz, and the masterful French literature translations of Boy-Żeleński.
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There’s no use in going to the Wiech passage parking lot to try to imagine the building that once stood there. Instead, why not head to Warsaw’s numerous second-hand bookshops or libraries, many of which carry books published by Gebethner and Wolff?
Initially, the cinema was to be called Kino Wieczór (Evening Cinema), a name chosen by the readers of Wieczór Warszawy (Warsaw Evening) magazine. Instead – to avoid arousing the interest of the communist censors – it was given the name Kino Moskwa (Moscow Cinema). Why?
The cinema, designed by Kazimierz Marczewski and Stefan Putowski, opened on 22nd July 1950. It was the eleventh cinema in Warsaw and although it was built in the communist era, it bore no resemblance to typical social realist edifices.
Modest and modernistic, the building wasn't encircled by rows of columns, or decorated with images of workers. Furthermore, two stone lions stood at its front, which reminded those looking for them of the capitalist allegiances of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios symbol (it's worth mentioning that Samuel Goldwyn himself was from Warsaw).
Kino Moskwa was big. It could welcome 1,200 viewers at once, and it had great acoustics. Apart from its architecture, its film programme also made the theatre stand out. It offered reviews of world cinema – a window to the world for Poland behind the Iron Curtain.
The cinema is well-remembered by Warsaw's inhabitants and today's bloggers, who, alongside photographs by Chris Niedenthal, guide you through the past:
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After walking up the stairs, you landed on a platform guarded by lions. Tickets were sold in a booth outside or in the ticket hall inside. The waiting room and the cinema room had two levels – a ground floor and a balcony. The seat rows in Moskwa were particularly far apart. You didn't have to squeeze through.
Kino Moskwa was destroyed relatively recently, in 1997. Europlex, a modern shopping and office complex, stands in its place today. The two lion sculptures by Józef Trenarowski are the same stone felines that defended Moskwa – apparently, not well enough...
In the 1930s, a 70-metre-tall skyscraper was to be erected at Unii Lubelskiej Square – but with the outbreak of World War II, the project was never realised. Instead, Supersam – the first self-service grocery in Poland – was built here in 1962. Designed by Wacław Zalewski and Jerzy Hryniewiecki, the building was an accomplished work of post-war modernism. Despite the steel and concrete used in its construction, it seemed light and airy, perhaps thanks to its arched roof, bright lighting and big windows.
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Supersam was demolished in 2006. For many it was hard to believe that this ‘great, mathematical and rational sculpture could be taken down’, as students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commented at an exhibition dedicated to the building's creator. In Warsaw, architects, art historians, activists and locals took part in protests against its demolition. The debates and petitions were all in vain, however, as Supersam was never added to the list of protected buildings.
Warsaw's first supermarket was promptly replaced by a shopping and office complex called Plac Unii, designed by Kuryłowicz & Associates. The new building is a tip of the hat to skyscrapers of the Chicago school, as well as Poland's never-realised pre-war plans for the district.
Sources: Elżbieta Charazińska, ‘Ogród Saski'’, Warszawa 1979; Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz, ‘Warszawa w czasach pierwszej wojny światowej’, Warszawa 1974; Krzysztof Dunin-Wąśowicz, ‘Warszawa w latach 1939-1945’, Warszawa 1984; Eleonora Bergman, ‘“Nie masz bóżnicy powszechnej" Synagogi i domy modlitwy w Warszawie od końca XVIII do początku XXI wieku’, Warszawa 2007; Jerzy Jasiuk, ‘Dobrem w pamięci zapisani: rzecz o rodzie Kierbedziów’, Warszawa 1995; Karolina Półtorak, ‘Most Kierbedzia’ [in:] ‘Na Powiślu’ nr. 16, 2010; Bronisław Tumiłowicz, ‘Niezapomniani Gebethner i Wolff'’ [in:] ‘Przegląd’ 8/2008; Marek Nowakowski, ‘Okopy Świętej Trójcy. Rozmowy o życiu i ludziach’, Poznań 2014; http://eela1.blox.pl; polona.pl; Archiwum Historii Mówionej; PAP.
Originally written in Polish by Filip Lech; translated by MJ, 22nd Aug 2014; edited by LD, Feb 2019
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