Some time in November, before disease and a general winter unwillingness struck, we finally managed to pay a visit to the Museum of the Uprising, one of Warsaw’s premier tourist sites and a fairly new museum which I hadn’t seen before. We weren’t alone, since every other freeloading Warszawiak was also taking advantage of the free Sunday entry to educate their children about a national myth. The official story of the Warsaw Uprising is something that everybody here can recite with their eyes closed; the heroic resistance against all odds of the Polish citizenry, the dastardly absence of Russian assistance as Stalin’s forces sat in Praga waiting for the Germans to pacify the population for them. On August 1, the city freezes for a minute on the anniversary of its outbreak ; standing on the balcony, back in now-unimaginable summer, I heard the sound of a siren and saw the cars simply stop in the middle of the street while their passengers climbed out and stood motionless in commemoration.
The museum itself is testimony to this myth. Three floors dedicated to the bravery and resourcefulness etc of the Polish people. Where were the doubters? The cowards? the regrets? The fatal drop in morale which must have come with the realisation that there would be no help from the Russians? Why does it look as if none of the parents of the young people who ran away to take part actually objected very loudly? Instead, here is Warsaw, apparently inhabited by a population of heroes, marching off to their deaths with a sort of casual glee.
I’m initially blinded to the fact that the whole place is a piece of well-developed propaganda by fascination with the artifacts themselves. I am especially impressed by a printing press which is functioning (literally) as part of an exhibit on the ground floor. A black-fingered man is producing fliers in an intoxicating atmosphere of ink fumes, all other sounds drowned out by a thunderous clanking. There is also a lot of interesting video, guns, photos, and so on. I haven’t been forced to take in these images with my mother’s milk so for me it’s a process of discovery rather than confirmation.
But as the afternoon wears on, it slowly occurs to me that I’m not convinced. We walk home, slowly, stopping for a late Vietnamese lunch behind Hala Mirowska, and I worry away at this problem from several perspectives. How did the Uprising really look? Why is there no similar monument to the uprising in the ghetto, which has to come higher on the heroism scale (if we’re comparing), since it was an act of sheer and last-ditch desperation by people who knew, definitively, that they could expect no help from anyone? And what is the purpose of a museum in general?
For help with the first problem, I go to Norman Davies. Apart from his annoying habit of translating all street names into English (which means I have to decipher my own hood by back-translation), he informs me of the massive civilian casualties. Himmler’s orders for dealing with the uprising requested ‘every inhabitant to be killed… no prisoners to be taken… every single house to be blown up and burned.’ These orders are taken literally- on the 5th of August alone an estimated 35000 civilians (men, women and children) were shot by the SS in cold blood. Heinz Reinefarth, chief of operations for the campaign, complains of a lack of ammunition. (“We just can’t kill them all.”) Little to no mention of this in the museum.
Mostly, though, he (Norman Davies, not Heinz) gives assistance with the human details, the hallucinatory insane, true stories of the uprising. Jan Józef Lipski, who would survive the war to become a literary critic, emerging from the sewers, wounded and delirious, into the hands of two SS men who, instead of shooting him, give him some water and take him to a dressing station (” I guess that the meeting was rather untypical,” he comments later.) The commander of a Polish battalion taking the Gęsiówka camp inside the old ghetto on August 5 finds a hundred Jewish prisoners who instantly line up in military- style lines and report for duty as the Jewish Battalion. And so on.
Maybe they are not true stories. Maybe it’s safer not to rely on people’s narratives of what happened to them. But in any case, this is what I want to see in a museum. A record of how ordinary people react in extraordinary circumstances. Or how they recall themselves reacting. I am not persuaded by claims that some populations are more heroic or more evil than others and I am bored by the flat and predictable dimensions of Hollywood heroism. It occurs to me that maybe I’m a postmodernist, without being fully apprised of what it means, or perhaps just one of those slightly autistic people who is interested only in trees and not forests. Either way, the museum provided plenty of food for thought.