Decoding Warsaw: A Guide to the City’s Sights and Symbols
small, Decoding Warsaw: A Guide to the City’s Sights and Symbols, syrenka_stare_miasto_for_jan_wlodarczyk_forum.jpg, Mermaid in the Old Town in Warsaw, photo by Jan Włodarczyk / Forum
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You see them everywhere – an anchor painted on the corner, a mermaid on the main square, the “wedding cake” silhouette of the Palace of Culture and Science. They are the symbols of Warsaw; but to the untrained eye, they might not make much sense. Culture.pl offers an introduction to the “visual language” of Poland’s capital city to help visitors “decode” Warsaw.
Syrenka – The Mermaid of Warsaw
She towers over the city, keeps watch by the river, adorns city buses, and decorates all manner of souvenirs – the Syrenka, the Mermaid of Warsaw. But why did Warsaw – an inland city – choose a mermaid as its emblem?
As is the case when no one really knows, a number of stories are told to explain the arrival of the mermaid in Warsaw. While the first mermaid didn’t appear on the city’s coat of arms until 1622 (where she evolved from a more monstrous man-bird-lion-ox hybrid from 1390), tales of her arrival in the waters of the Wisla look back much farther.
One legend claims “long, long ago” two sirens swam from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic Sea. One sister stopped in the Danish straits and can to this day be seen by those visiting the port of Copenhagen. The other sister (clearly the one with more discerning taste) kept swimming until she reached Gdansk, where she then turned to follow the Wisla into the heart of Poland. Reaching what is today Warsaw, she decided she had found a home and stopped at the shore to rest. It wasn’t long after her arrival that local fishermen began noticing someone was tangling their nets and releasing the fish. Though it meant a loss of livelihood, the fishermen were so enchanted by the siren’s song that they never caught her. That is, until a wealthy merchant realized he could make a profit showing off the siren at fairs. He captured the Wisla siren and locked her away in a shed. The siren’s plaintive cries were heard by a young farmhand, who with the help of his friends, returned her to the river. Grateful to her rescuers, the siren vowed to help them in times of need. The siren of Warsaw is thus armed, waiting with sword and shield to make good on her promise and defend the city.
A second tale again highlights the mermaid as the armed defender of the city, though with a different origin story. This one claims that “in ancient times” a griffin defended the city. The griffin would often accompany local fishermen to the Baltic, and on one such journey he spotted a mermaid. It was love at first sight, and the mythical pair returned to live happily in Warsaw – until the griffin was mortally wounded during the Swedish invasion. As the siege of Warsaw raged around her, the mermaid picked up the arms of her dying lover and joined the defense of the city. In gratitude of her service and sacrifice, the people of Warsaw honored her by placing her image on the city’s coat of arms.
If mythical love stories aren't your thing, the final legend finds the mermaid serving as a guide for King Kazimierz the Restorer. While hunting in the marshlands that are now Warsaw, the king lost his way and looked to the night sky for guidance. Seeing his plight, the mermaid guided the king to a nearby fisherman’s hut by shooting burning arrows into the sky. The fisherman – and his daughters Wars and Sawa – graciously welcomed the king. To thank his saviors, the king founded a new town – Warszawa – and adopted the mermaid as its emblem.
So from “once upon a time” to 1811, the mermaid watched over Warsaw. Under Russian partition, however, the Warsaw Coat of Arms was banned in an attempt to eradicate symbols of the Polish nation. Not free to display the official symbol, Varsovians took to placing mermaids around the city in architectural details and commercial logos. In 1918, the mermaid was restored as the emblem of the city – though she was “edited” following WWII. Her crown was deemed inappropriate for the symbol of the communist state and was removed until 1990. As visitors know, the mermaid now again watches over a free and prospering Warsaw – with her sword at hand, ready to come to the city’s defense.
Though she can be spotted all over the city (and her image is printed on a variety of gift items), there are a few notable representations of Warsaw’s mermaid worth checking out.
- The Mermaid at the center of the Old Town Square. The work of Konstanty Hegel, the Old Town mermaid has stood at the center of the Square on and off since 1855. She was relocated in 1928, and after a bit of moving around the city, returned home in 2000. In 2008, the original sculpture was retired to the Warsaw Historical Museum for safekeeping and replaced by a replica.
- The Powisle Mermaid by Ludwika Nitschowa was erected on the banks of the Wisla in April 1939. The mermaid is modeled on Krystyna Krahelska, a poet and scout who died on the second day of the Warsaw Uprising.
- The Syrenka at the Neon Museum. Though she once watched over the National Library, this glowing cold war siren now is preserved in all her glory in the Neon Museum.
While these are some of the most well known, Warsaw is full of hidden mermaids waiting to enchant visitors.
Gold and Red – The Colors of the City
Given her ubiquity on city streets in Warsaw, it is perhaps no surprise the Warsaw’s mermaid and the crest that bears her image often are credited with giving the city its civic colors – red and gold. The gold represents the mermaid’s shield, sword, and hair, while the red stands for the backdrop against which she rests on the city’s coat of arms.
You’ll find gold and red everywhere in the city – most notably on the flag and public transport. Thought the colors date back farther, the city flag (a yellow horizontal bar above a red bar) was officially approved in 1938 and now flies around the city – often side by side with Poland’s red and white flag. Mimicking the pattern of the flag, the city’s buses and trams also have a charmingly distinct gold and red pattern. This coloration dates back to the earliest forms of public transport, when in 1904 “’Belgian’ horse trams” were painted yellow and red. Though transportation has come a long way, the sight of red and gold trams rambling along the streets serves as a reminder of times past.
Kotwica – Anchor of the Uprising
Walking the streets of Warsaw – particularly around August 1st – you see the Kotwica (“anchor”) everywhere – scrawled on the sides of buildings, adorning monuments and memorials, printed on t-shirts and pins, the occasional tattoo. For those who don’t know its significance, the ubiquity of the anchor may seem strange. The Kotwica, however, isn’t just any anchor – it’s the symbol of the Warsaw Uprising. In a city committed to remembering its past, there is perhaps no event more commemorated than the Warsaw Uprising. Though brutally suppressed, the Polish fight against Nazi occupation from 1 August to 3 October 1944, is remembered as emblematic of the nation’s commitment to freedom and her willingness to sacrifice in the battle against oppression.
So what does an anchor have to do with fighting Nazis? The Kotwica is actually more than an anchor, as the figure is an amalgam of the letters P and W, which take on a number of meanings when associated with the Polish Home Army’s (AK) fight to retake Warsaw. Starting in 1942, members of the Polish underground “Wawer Minor” sabotage unit started using “PW” to signify “Pomścimy Wawer” (“We Shall Avenge Wawer”). The Wawer Massacre of December 26-27, 1939 was one of the first massacres of Poles in occupied Poland, and its memory fueled the opposition in Warsaw. The meaning of “PW” was soon expanded to include “Polska Walcząca” (“Fighting Poland”).
“PW” increasingly appeared in the city as a “signature” on acts of resistance and sabotage; and in 1942 the AK put out a call to design an emblem that could be easily printed. A design that combined the P and W into an anchor – the Kotwica – was submitted by Anna Smoleńska (code name “Hania”) and was chosen as the symbol of the underground. Smoleńska, an art history student at the underground University of Warsaw, was arrested in November of 1942 and died in Auschwitz in March 1943 at the age of 23. Thought she did not live to see an independent Warsaw, the symbol she created endured though the war and beyond.
Once created, the Kotwica spread throughout the Warsaw underground. Each battalion and formation in the city had its own emblem, and most incorporated the Kotwica. Its appearance continued to signal the activity of the opposition and ensure that the Polish fight for freedom persevered. It was a symbol of resistance and a sign of hope. In an early instance of its use, the Kotwica was stamped on the German propaganda newspaper to mark the patron saint’s day of the Polish President in exile (Władyslaw Raczkiewicz) and Polish Commander in Chief in exile (Władyslaw Sikorski). By the time of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the Kotwica had additionally come to stand for “Wojsko Polskie” (“Polish Army”) and also would take on its most famous meaning – “Powstanie Warszawskie” (“Warsaw Uprising”).
After WWII, the Kotwica was banned by Communist authorities, who were not eager to promote Polish national sentiment or remember the Uprising. Despite efforts to limit its use, the Kotwica endured as a symbol of the Polish fight for independence and was used by a number of anti-communist groups and organizations.
Today, the Kotwica is everywhere and reminds Varsovians and visitors of the city’s troubled past and the sacrifices made in the struggle for her freedom. In 2014, the Polish government declared the Kotwica a “protected” symbol. It seems this symbol of Polish perseverance and sacrifice is here to stay – just like the memory of those who gave their lives in the fight for a free Poland.
PKiN – An Ambiguous Icon
If you’ve been to Warsaw, you’ve probably heard the joke. Because everyone tells it.
“Where’s the best view in Warsaw?”
“From the top of the Palace of Culture and Science. It’s the only place in the city where you can’t see the Palace of Culture and Science!”
Celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer, the Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN) is the most iconic – and one of the most controversial – architectural symbols of Warsaw. Looming over the city since 1955, this “gift” from Josef Stalin can be seen from 30km away. Some see it as an ugly reminder of Poland’s communist history, while others find beauty and charm in the building’s history and design. Plus, as tired as the joke may be, the viewing terrace on the 30th floor of the building is one of the best places to take in the panorama of the city and a popular destination for visitors to the city.
Still the tallest skyscraper in Warsaw (and in Poland), the Palace when it was built towered over the ruined city. Designed by Lev Rudynev – also the architect of the University of Moscow, which looks a lot like PKiN – the Palace was constructed between 1952 and 1955 with mostly Soviet materials by mostly Soviet builders. Aside from being a “token of Polish-Soviet friendship,” construction began on the building before anyone was sure what it was to be used for. Once the plans for public theatres, museums, and cafes emerged, it seemed PKiN was to be the model of a “people’s palace” – a place where the working class citizens of Warsaw could enjoy culture and respect. Though perhaps a noble idea, this “gift” to the people was inextricably associated with post-war Soviet domination. From the start, it was an ambiguous icon.
Now, 60 years later, the 42 floors and 3,000 rooms of the USSR’s “gift” still stand – having outlived the Soviet Union by 25 years. Though many groups wanted to tear the building down after 1989, it appears PKiN is here to stay. In 2007, the Palace was put on the Polish registry of objects of cultural heritage. It seems the building that can be seen from everywhere in Warsaw finally has been officially accepted as part of the city’s “cultural heritage.”
While the declaration of “cultural heritage” makes the Palace’s place in Warsaw “official,” one need look no farther than any tourist shop in the capital to understand just how much the building has come to be a symbol of the city. Shirts, hats, notebooks, cards – you name it, you can get the silhouette of PKiN printed on it. Or maybe you would rather take home a cutting board in the shape of the Palace? Or a pepper mill that looks like the building? A 3D puzzle perhaps? The options are endless…and prove that, for many, PKiN = Warsaw.
The Rainbow – A Symbol for the City’s Future?
In June 2012, a rainbow appeared in the middle of Warsaw’s hip pl. Zbawiciela. Standing 30ft tall, the colorful structure covered in artificial flowers instantly became a topic of debate. Like the Palace of Culture and Science, The Rainbow (Tęcza, in Polish) is definitely a symbol – but Varsovians don’t quite agree on what it symbolizes.
The Rainbow is the work of artist Julita Wójcik. Plac Zbawiciela is its third location – and likely not its last. It originally was located in Wigry, where it leaned against the walls of the Camaldolese Monastery. It later stood in front of the European Parliament in Brussels to celebrate the first Polish Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2011. At the conclusion of Poland’s Presidency, The Rainbow was moved to Warsaw in cooperation with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. The institute’s director, Paweł Potoroczyn, explained,
“We thought that instead of sending this gem to a junkyard, we could give it a proper home and let it stand in Warsaw. Warsaw needs art in public spaces, things that will make people and passers-by smile against their will.”
While the rainbow may have made some people “smile against their will,” it also sparked anger in some of the city’s residents. The Rainbow has been the target of multiple attacks. After being mostly burned by arsonists (and later by a rogue New Year’s Eve firecracker), it was renovated in October – November 2013. A while later, on Polish Independence Day, it again was the target of arson. After another round of repairs in May 2014, made possible by hundreds of volunteers, The Rainbow again stands in its full colorful glory. At the end of 2015 The Rainbow faces another change, as the agreement between the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and the city expires and the work again will have to find a new home.
guide to warsaw
mermaid of warsaw
palace of culture and science
So why has this colorful installation garnered so much attention? It seems that Varsovians don’t agree on what it symbolizes – or on whether such a symbol deserves a place in public space. Is this the rainbow of God’s covenant with man? Of LGBT equality (the 2015 Equality Parade was rerouted to pass by the installation)? Just something pretty? According to its creator,
“The Rainbow is not socially or politically involved, but is free of any kind of imposed meanings. Simply there – to be beautiful.”
It is yet to be seen how (or if) The Rainbow will find a place among the lasting symbols of Warsaw, though it is perhaps one of the most apt for the city – both resilient and progressive. Either way, Paweł Potoroczyn insists The Rainbow has had a permanent effect on the city, stating,
“Warsaw before the Rainbow and after the Rainbow is no longer the same city. What happened around this art installation is not only a debate on art in public space, but also a debate on Polish democracy."
There you have it – five symbols of the city. Now you’re ready to “read” this magnificent city – its links to the past and its visions for the future.
Sources: Culture.pl, Public Transport Authority of the capital city of Warsaw, In Your Pocket, Warsaw Tourist Office
Alena Aniskiewicz 04.08.2015