abstract: Warsaw [photo essay] became the capital of Poland because it was geographically close to Lithuania when that Duchy joined it in a 16th century Commonwealth. It was razed to the ground in 1944 because the uprising of its residents outraged the occupying Germans. It was rebuilt by the Polish Communist regime and received its largest landmark building as a gift from Stalin after WWII. It emerged as a leader in the movement that by 1990 ended the European Communist Empire established by Russia, Poland’s nemesis for over two centuries. Warsaw then became a showcase of the “New Europe” for the American Neo-cons. Warsaw is where the memory of its more than 300,000 Jews killed by the Nazis is indelibly etched in its Ghetto. It is where the Catholic Church is thriving. It is where Chopin’s heart is kept in an urn. It is where democracy is messy but to all appearances civil. How could I not welcome an opportunity to visit such a city?
In the Castle Square of Warsaw’s Old Town the light that the sun cast against the brilliant blue sky was crystalline on this crisp late October day in 2010. People, old and young, had poured into the square , many just out  from the many churches around the square. A newly-wed couple posed for pictures in front of the red-brown brick edifice of the Royal Castle . At the foot of the Sigismund III Vasa Column , which was the meeting place of the youth, a man in a chapeau and wearing a bow tie played the tuba . A fun carriage passed him . Otherwise, there was no car and no extraneous noise in the Square. The outdoor café was full . I stood waiting for my turn. A middle-aged woman motioned me to share her table. She was dressed in red -her Sunday best in this very Catholic  of cities. She did not return my smile offered as gratitude. I spoke no Polish and she did not say a word. That is how I had my first meeting with a Warsaw resident.
The first residents of Warsaw settled only a few hundred yards away from me where the Royal Castle now stood on the bank of Poland’s longest river, Vistula (Wisla). That was in the beginning of the 14th century, and the settlers soon made the Polish Duke of Masovia the ruler of the new Duchy of Warsaw. The Castle became the official home of the King of Poland in 1596 when he moved his Capital here from Krakow. It remained the Royal residence until 1795 and, after a century long interregnum, when Poland regained its independence in the form of a republic in 1918, the Castle became the residence of its presidents. It was also here that the Polish Parliament (Sejm) drafted Europe’s first written constitution in 1791. Such was its historical grandeur that I remembered as I entered the commensurately vast interior courtyard of this immense pentagonal Palace.
The Castle’s expansion into its current shape was done during King Sigismund III Vasa’s reign. The Column nearby that bears his name was erected by his son and successor in order to glorify him in 1644. As my tour guide now related, the power of the Catholic Church in Poland at the time was such that “the new King had to build another column a few steps way in the glory of the Madonna so as to appease the clerics protesting his father’s column.” The guide showed me that column in the property of a church facing the column. Churches abound in the Old Town. Within my glance was the 15th century St. Anne’s church in the neoclassical style . In the same style, at the end of this main street, was the 18th century Church of Carmelites .
The Royal Castle was once connected to the most important church here, St. John’s Cathedral, by an eighty meter long elevated corridor. This church , originally built in the 14th century by the Masovian Dukes, is still the main Cathedral of the Warsaw archdiocese. Right next to it, we saw the ornate pink Jesuit Church founded by Sigismund III in 1609. A large portrait of Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski adorned the front of still another church . He was the most renowned personification of the conflict and cooperation between the church and the Polish state in recent times. In 1950, as the Archbishop of Warsaw, Wyszynski entered into an agreement with Poland’s Communist government which allowed the church to hold property provided that it stayed away from politics. He did not stop supporting the opponents of the regime, however, and was imprisoned in 1953. Released in 1956, Wyszynski continued to be sympathetic toward dissidents. Typically, however, when the Solidarity trade union movement emerged toward the end of his life in 1981, Archbishop Wyszynski counseled both sides, the workers and the government, “to act responsibility,” as my guide put it.
By now the Church’s stature had been immeasurably enhanced in Communist Poland. Karol Wojtyla, who had been selected by the Communists as the Bishop of Krakow from the three candidates nominated by Wyszynski, had become Pope Paul II in 1978 and made a historic papal visit to Poland in 1979. At the site just outside the Old Town, where the Pope held his historic mass, attended by “millions of cheering Poles,” as my guide said, I noted just a simple but eloquent marker: a cross . The pageantry of other occasions, of course, continues in the Old Town churches. I observed a wedding party coming out of one such church; the married couple then held court in the front yard to receive the best wishes of the well-attired guests standing in a line .
The Old Town is so picturesque that it is the choice for memorable photo shoots; around the corner I saw yet another couple recording their nuptials by a photographer . Its Market Square is lined with magnificent Baroque and Renaissance buildings , with a bronze statue of the Mermaid of Warsaw in the middle, “the emblem of the city,” as our guide said. The Square attracted tourists of all stripes, including the definitely non-Catholic Hari Krishna followers .
The alleys from here led to the red brick defensive walls surrounding the Old Town  with their Barbican, a semicircular tower . Through the Barbican and beyond the wall and it moat we entered the New Town, so called because it was established later, in the 1500s. Here the notable monument was the house where Marie Sklodowska was born in 1867. She left for Paris after 24 years to study, marry Pierre Curie and take his name, win the Noble Prize for Physics with him in 1903, and the Noble Prize for Chemistry eight years later all by herself. She was the first woman to win a Noble Prize and the first person to win two. Her birthplace is a museum .
In a sense both New Town and Old Town are museums too. They were razed to the ground in World War II by the Germans, and have been reconstructed since. At the entrance to the Market Square I saw showcases with pictures of “the ruins of the Old Town.” In one General Dwight David Eisenhower, then the Supreme Allied Commander is shown visiting the ruins of the “Old Town Marketplace” on September 23, 1945. He was quoted to have said “I have seen many towns destroyed, but nowhere have I been faced with such destruction .” What we see now has been built from scratch.
The reconstruction of the Old Town has been so faithful that it has won a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This was made possible because the planning to “revitalize” the Old Town had begun before WWII and the plans then made, along with some original drawings and photos, had survived. I saw one such photograph taken in 1774 of the main street, Krakowskie Przedmiescie, on display in situ. Except for the animals roaming the street then, the reconstruction was accurate . This rebuilding was undertaken under the Communist regime in Poland, but the Communists are refused credit. My tour guide stressed that the reconstruction was done “by the Polish people and not the regime.” He said that “much of the money came from the exiled Poles.” He did allow, however, that some of “the furniture now in the Royal Palace came from Communist countries like the Soviet Union and East Germany.”
In such narrative, you get the distinct impression that the Polish Communist regime is viewed as an extension of Russia. The Poles have historical reasons for disliking Russia. Three times late in the 18th Century (1772, 1793, and 1795) Russia joined Prussia and Austria in the territorial division of their neighboring Poland among themselves, progressively until it ceased to exist as a state. Poland did not reemerge, as a Republic, before the changes imposed by World War One in 1918.
The man who gets most credit for Poland regaining its independence after those 123 years is Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, who was the first President until 1922 and then from 1926 to 1935, as Prime Minister or as the military leader, virtually the de facto ruler of Poland. I heard more than one Pole refer to Pilsudski as the “most important person” in their country’s history. Admiration for him was suppressed until the fall of the Communist regime. It was only then that a Pilsudski statue was erected, at the entrance to Warsaw’s Lazienki Park . He is remembered primarily as the man who “defeated the Red Army.” That was in 1920. The Soviet Army had reached Warsaw in a counteroffensive to an attack that Pilsudski had begun in 1919 against Imperial Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union. The Poles now even honor a young Charles de Gaulle for having volunteered in Pilsudski’s army in that war against “the Bolsheviks” in 1920. A major Boulevard in Warsaw is named after de Gaulle.
The Soviet Union, of course, came back; it divided Poland with Germany at the beginning of World War II. Painful as that memory might be, for the Varsovians I spoke to even a more bitter episode was the Soviet “betrayal“ at the time of the Warsaw uprising against the Germans in 1944. In the summer of that year as the Germans retreated across Poland under pressure from the Soviet Army (now Germany’s enemy), the Polish resistance leaders ordered a general uprising. Their goal was to establish command before the Russians came, but they still expected the Russians to support them.
The Red Army, however, stayed put in its camp in Praga just across the Vistula River . The uprising lasted two months. Hitler was enraged and ordered revenge. Warsaw was totally destroyed. Then the Russians marched in to “liberate” it. As my tour guide put it, “the Russians waited until the Germans killed all non-Communist Polish leaders so that the way was paved for a Communist takeover.”
Those “Polish leaders” are remembered in the unknown collective of “The Heroes of the Warsaw Uprising Monument” in a square just outside the Old Town. On the corner of this square is the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army with the “Katyn Chapel -Mausoleum,” to the right of the altar, which “commemorates the martyrdom of 21,857 Polish citizens -war prisoners and captives” in 1940 by “the order of the highest authorities of the Soviet Union” in the Katyn forest in Russia . The specific names of “about fifteen thousands” Army officers and policemen, and 3435 more “Polish citizens” are engraved on the two walls of the Chapel .
Fourteen months before the general uprising in Warsaw the Jews had staged their own uprising in this city. Theirs was an act of desperate defiance. Of the estimated 390,000 Jews who lived in Warsaw in 1939 (more than in any other city but New York) only about 50,000 had remained by April 1943. The invading Nazi Germans had swiftly established a ghetto in 1940 with a three-meter high wall topped with barbed wire to which they moved all the Jews from the few districts they had inhabited.
I was on a tour bus in the area of that ghetto now, listening to a guide’s voice, transmitted with the help of a GPS device to coordinate with my location. “Nearly 100,000 residents of the Ghetto died due to disease and starvation. Then in the summer of 1942 about 250,000 more were transferred to the extermination camp of Treblinka with its gas chambers, which is sixty miles north of here.” I saw a small structure on the side of the street as the voice said: “That is the train station used to send them to Treblinka, kept as a monument.”
As the bus moved a few more blocks the guide continued: “In the spring of 1943, the Nazis began the ‘final liquidation’ of those left. The Jews now took up arms in a spontaneous uprising; this was the first in any European Ghetto under the German occupation. Nazi terror was the worst here and so produced the strongest resistance as a natural reaction. Fierce fighting lasted four days but lingered on for another three weeks.”
Now we were in Mila Street. “That is the site of the bunker where the leader of the uprising, Mordehai Anielewicz, committed suicide, surrounded by German troops.” The Germans then flattened the Ghetto to the grounds. “Only a small section of the wall remains now,” the tour guide voice said. The German commanding general sent a cable to Hitler: “There is no more Jew in Warsaw.” The bus now stopped facing a monument. The voice said: “That is the Ghetto Heroes Monument, built with the grey stones which had originally been set aside in Sweden for a Nazi monument.” In the center of this monument Anielewicz was depicted holding a grenade in his hand.
Not all Jews were heroes in the Ghetto. Desperation also produced collaborators. The Ghetto had two areas, the rich Jews were in the “small Ghetto,” and the poor were in the “large Ghetto”. “A few Jews from Warsaw were lucky and found refuge abroad, especially in the United States,” the bus guide’s voice said in an accent that was obviously American. Perhaps his usual customers were also from the United States. On this day, oddly, I was alone on the bus. We crossed Jerozolimskie Street, a main thoroughfare that now cuts across Warsaw. This was the road leading to the old village of New Jerusalem, inhabited by the Jews who first arrived in this area in the 17th century. “There are now only 200 Jews in Warsaw,” the concierge at my hotel had said. They are reluctant to identify themselves. They suffered from an anti-Semitic campaign lunched by the Communists in 1968.” This was surprising as the Ghetto Heroes Monument was the very first monument erected by the Communist government in post war Poland, in 1948.
A Jewish restaurant was among the most popular I saw in the Old Town. It was modest in decor with a small number of simple tables. It was too crowded and we could not get a table. “The very small Jewish population of Warsaw has created a community of their own around the old Ghetto,” my tour guide said. The next day I went to see for myself.
A seriously damaged long block  of the Ghetto has been preserved as a museum of its past life. The enlarged black and white portraits of its former inhabitants  are affixed to the dark brick walls  of a row of five story buildings. The street level floors used to be shops . The signs for a few were still hanging on the doors of these shut shops. A net above them now protect the passersby from the falling debris of the abandoned residential floors above . In the middle of the block, however, preservation of precious past memory has given way to the need for living now. TV satellite dishes and curtains have been installed  by current occupants of the upper floors, and stores below were open for business. The hotel concierge later told me that the occupants of those apartments and the owners of those stores were not necessarily Jewish. The Nozyk Synagogue two blocks away, however, had been repaired and repainted . It was now used for religious purposes , and a grocery store in its basement advertised its kosher food . The Teatr Zydowksi , with current programs , was around the corner.
Palace of Culture
Among the structures the Nazis blew up in the Ghetto none was as sacred to the Jews as the 19th century Great Synagogue, the largest in Warsaw. “Its last rabbi cursed that nothing should be built on the site afterward,” as my tour guide related the urban legend in Warsaw. In the 1980s, however, a structure, commonly referred to as the Blue Skyscraper was erected here, after agreeing to establish inside it a memorial to the Synagogue. Notable as this 28 story building might be, with a facade that reflects the blue of the sky on a clear day, it is not the dominant building in Warsaw. That title goes to the massive Palace of Culture and Science , the tallest and largest structure in Poland . Stalin ordered it constructed in the early 1950s as a “gift from the nations of Soviet Union (sic)” . That provenance has helped it earn this derisive reference now current in Warsaw: “It has the best view of the city because that is the only place where you could not see the Palace itself.” I went up to its observation deck on the 30th floor, and shared the views of Warsaw from many sides with a group of young Polish visitors . This city that was rebuilt after World War II in the “socialist fashion,” with a reputation as “a gloomy concrete city ,” now looked different  only due the addition of a hodgepodge of high-rises .
Warsaw, of course, is not without parks. In this fall the Lazienki Park, its largest with 76 hectares at the center of the city, was glorious in the yellow leaves of its maple trees . Its level grounds exemplified the flat land that is Warsaw . Now a favorite of the common folks , in the 18th century Lazienki was the summer residence of the last King of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski (1764-95) who acquired it after ascending the throne in 1764. His “Palace on the Water” is located on a lake watered by the Lazienki (baths) River in the property . The royal peacock pets still strut around here.
Beyond the lake is a statute of John III Sobieski, the monarch of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania) from 1674 to 1696 . He was on his horse trampling a semi-naked vanquished enemy. Sobieski is remembered as an extraordinary military commander. His prominent foes were the Ottoman Turks and his greatest victory was the Battle of Vienna in 1683. With the Turks close to breaching the walls of Vienna on September 12, Sobieski ordered a full attack, leading a united army of Polish cavalry and their Austrians and Germans allies, and succeeded in scattering the Ottoman forces in confusion. By five thirty in the afternoon the battle of Vienna was over. For this the Pope hailed Sobieski as the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization”; and the Turks are said to have called him the “Lion of Lechistan (Poland).” Our tour guide relished telling us his version of the event as we stood near Sobieski’s statue:
“The Poles had a spy in the camp of the Ottomans who had put a siege on Vienna. The spy had been a merchant in Turkey and had learned the Turkish language. Because of the Turks’ success in the campaign against Vienna the Austrians were dispirited, considered their situation hopeless, and were about to surrender. But the spy heard from the Turks that they were also feeling weak and not hopeful. He reported this to the Polish forces. The Poles encouraged the Austrians to join them and attack the Ottomans. They defeated the Turks in what was like the battle of Stalingrad of that era. The Ottomans consequently withdrew from much of Europe.”
Just outside the Lazienki Park, the statue of Józef Pilsudski stands in front of the Belweder Palace, which became his residence after he became President upon re-establishing Poland’s independence. Belweder later continued as the residence of several of Poland’s presidents for much of the time until 1994. I would see its replacement the next day.
At eight in the morning I could not find a place open for even a light breakfast of coffee and pastry in the Old Town of Warsaw. I noticed a young woman on her way to school on this Sunday. “Do they teach classes today?” I asked. “Yes,” she said she was attending them today because she worked on Fridays and Mondays at a “notaria, something like a law office.” She was studying “Administration” at the university. She lived 20 kilometers north of Warsaw and commuted buy bus. She said that the bar a block away might be open.
I recognized the dimly lit place. It was the only one open late the night before when I was looking for a bite to eat. I could not get even close to its counter then as four rows of boisterous young customers separated us. This morning I had the place to myself. A man came out of his little corner of a make-shift office when he noticed my puzzlement. “English menu?” I pleaded. He pointed to the drawings on the wall, fresco images of which only a steaming cup of coffee looked appealing. Nothing else resembled what I might swallow as the first meal of the day . He smiled and spoke in serviceable English. I settled for a dish of white sausage with cabbage and pickled cucumbers and some version of feta cheese with a small roll of bread. “Very small,” the man said as he handed me my bill. It was 16 Zlotys (about 8 dollars). “How long staying?” I told him my itinerary. He said: “Oh, my God! Alone or in a group?” I said alone. He asked with a smile: “Where is your woman?” He said he had family living in Philadelphia for the last 40 years. He visited them but did not stay as he liked to live in Poland because it was “steady.” He demonstrated this with the palm of his hands down.
Only two other customers came in while I was at this bar. They stood eating at the semi-circular counter. I sat on a stool near a window. Fifty yards away I could see the current Presidential Palace of Poland, flanked by the Carmelite Church  and the legendary Bristol Hotel (which I would visit later). A man was sweeping the sidewalks . Four guards were casually talking in front of the Palace. It was all clean and peaceful.
Prince Józef Poniatowski looked imposing on his equestrian statue in the front courtyard of the Palace . But the statue of this former Minster of War had been transplanted here in the 1960s, as though for warehousing, after the Polish General Staff building several blocks away before which it originally stood was destroyed in the War. The Palace had many other claims to history. It was the fabled palace of the Radziwill family, among the richest in Europe of the 18th century. It was here that in 1791 the family hosted the authors of the Constitution of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. As our tour guide would say, it was thus the appropriate place to hold the initial tripartite negotiations of 1980 among the Solidarity union, the Church, and the Polish Communist regime. These negotiations eventually led, several years later, to the ending of that regime.
That evening I saw some forty demonstrators before the Presidential Palace . “It is the party that lost in the last Presidential election,” I was told by one of them. They were using a bullhorn, but not even the Palace guards seemed to be paying much attention. I mentioned this demonstration to Eva and her daughter Irene at the reception following a Chopin concert the next day. They were forthcoming in their discussion of the Polish politics since the fall of the Communists and provided me with their distinct perspectives, each reflecting their different generations.
Eva was an eye doctor, a specialist in retina diseases of babies born prematurely. She was invited to many professional conferences and could “understand” English, but was hesitant to speak it. She could not learn English in the Communist era because she “could not travel abroad.” She let Irene translate for her. Yet she said, Russian, which she spoke fluently, was “the language of the future.” I was surprised but we did not pursue this subject further.
Irene was a college student in “the philology of English, but also German.” She wanted to “go into advertising and human resources.” Eva’s grandparents were lawyers as was her other daughter who was married to a physician. They had a new baby and both Eva and Irene had pictures of the baby which they were eager to show me. “She is happy when she eats,” they said.
Those demonstrators in front of the Presidential Palace, Irene said, were followers of “the twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczynski” who had died in a plane crash in April of 2010. His brother, Jaroslaw, ran as a candidate in the recent election to replace him. Having lost, he was now the head of the opposition minority party in the parliament. Irene supported him as a presidential candidate but not any longer. “After the election, he turned his true color,” Irene said, “he is now very conservative in social issues: he is anti-in vitro, anti-gay; and he is focused on domestic issues: he does not want to expand Poland’s relations with Europe.”
In 2006 Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost his job as Prime Minister of Poland after just four months for the same kind of alienation he engendered among too many Poles. His conservative Law and Justice Party had defeated the “postcommuist” technocrat A. Kwasneiwski to win the Presidency for his brother, Lech, in 2005. Kwasneiwski had in turn beaten Lech Walesa in 1995 by a small margin, and won reelection in 2000 when Walesa received only one percent of the votes.
Walesa was, of course, the first President in the post-communist era which began in 1990. Eva remembered those early days: “The Solidarity movement represented many shades of opinion. It was Walesa’s charismatic leadership that kept it united on a moderate course.” She added: “But Walesa was not good as President because he was only a simple worker.”
That is not how Walesa considers himself. Referring to his 1983 Nobel Prize, Walesa recently wrote: “I decided to establish a prize of my own that would support those fighting for a better world.” Since 2008 the award has been given to the King of Saudi Arabia “for promoting dialogue between religions and for his efforts on behalf of peace in the Middle East, and three Iranians fighting for human rights and the rights of women -Shadi Sadri and the sisters Ladan and Roya Boroumand.” This year, Walesa continued, “Having spent some time considering who should receive the award …. I realized that there is a Polish organization” which is deserving because it has been “providing assistance and aid to people … struck by war and disaster.” Walesa’s choice is called The Polish Humanitarian Organization. He concluded: “In bestowing this year’s Lech Walesa Prize to (it) I would like to say…: Solidarity!”
It was Fryderyk Chopin, Poland’s best known composer, that Warsaw prized and especially celebrated in this season which was the 200 anniversary of his birth. Chopin was not born in Warsaw and he died in Paris. But he literally left his heart in Warsaw where he lived twenty of his 38 years. Upon his death, Chopin’s sister smuggled his heart to Warsaw. (The rest of his body was interred in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery, also as he wished.) “The smuggling was forced because the Russians who ruled Poland would not allow Chopin’s remain back,” our tour guide said. “In fact, some fourteen years after Chopin’s death, the Russian troops showed their dislike of Chopin by throwing his piano out of the window of a second story building as they suppressed a Polish uprising.” The guide continued: “As soon as the Russian occupiers were gone, Warsaw manifested its love for Chopin.” The urn containing his heart was placed in the Holy Cross Church. A statue of Chopin was erected in the prime location by the lake in Lazienki Park in 1926 and, after its destruction by the occupying Germans, again (its replica) in 1958 . Until recently this statue was the world’s tallest Chopin monument. On summer Sundays free piano recitals of his compositions are performed at its foot.
Chopin’s visage was all over Warsaw as part of the celebration of his anniversary. A big poster dominated the entrance to the campus of the University of Warsaw, his alma mater . The big show was the International Chopin Piano Competition, which has been held here every five years since 1949. Usually as many as 250 pianists from over 35 countries participate and the competition is judged by an international jury of eminent musicians. This year it was especially elaborate because of the 200th anniversary.
The Competition had just ended when I arrived in Warsaw. Unfortunately, the Polish pianists were not among the top five prize winners. The major contestants, however, were in town and doing an encore performance at the National Opera house. Indeed this was their second encore program. Still the tickets were all sold out.
As a consolation prize another program was scheduled at the “beautiful Palace on the Water” in view of the Monument to Chopin in the Lazienki Park. Because I had missed the hotel shuttle, the organizer of this program himself came in his car to pick me up. We chatted on the way. He was a Chopin scholar, in his seventies with gray hair, who wore the collar of his white shirt over a disheveled dark sweater. Just as we passed the Opera house , he pointed to another lot nearby. “That is where Chopin lived. His house was ruined in the bombing during the War.” The place he took me to was not the Palace on the Water. The sign at the door said: “The Music Publishing Center”. He explained that the Palace was not available for the concert that evening contrary to the advertisement.
The “concert hall” here was a stately large room with elaborate moldings lining its high ceiling . It was heated by radiators which helped make it feel cozy. A portrait of Chopin was on the wall above a grand piano. He looked young, boney-faced, with inquisitive eyes and a pursed mouth . A large bowl of cut flowers, red, pink and purple, was on a stand next to a Bechstein piano. We sat in armchairs which had red cloth covers . The hall was not quite full, the tickets were 60 dollars each, the audience was mixed in age.
The organizer introduced the program. It consisted of seven parts -all “Chopin’s Warsaw pieces”. He reminded us that although Chopin first performed at age 8 in Prague, he was “Warsaw’s favorite son.” He compared Chopin’s “emotionalism” with Franz Liszt’s “pyrotechnical performance.” Although the Hungarian Liszt was a friend and admirer of Chopin and, in fact, wrote a book about him, Liszt was also Richard Wagner’s father-in-law, the organizer reminded us. “Was it not ironic that the Nazis who admired Wagner destroyed Chopin’s statue here?” he asked.
The organizer then introduced tonight’s performer. She was a Professor of Music at a university. As a performer, she had won the 2nd prize in a national competition. She came up from the back of the room. She said no word, sat down on the bench at the piano, and started playing for us. Her eyes were open and she looked up. The first pieces were somber, even sad. She showed similar emotions in her expressive face. She murmured under her lips. After playing each piece she stood up facing us. We applauded. She smiled faintly, bowed, and sat back down on the bench at the piano.
When it was time for intermission the organizer rose and said that some typical Polish appetizers and wines were set up for us in the parlor outside the room. He said Chopin was very found of Polish food. He smiled as he told us of what Chopin’s lover, writer George Sand, had said: “Chopin was more Polish than Poland”.
As the room emptied, a Spanish couple approached the piano. The man sat on the bench and asked his wife to take his picture. He was not satisfied with her framing for the shots, and kept telling her to move back and forth and sideways. The organizer was looking. I asked if I could touch the keys of the piano. He said “Of course, you should play.” When I confessed my total lack of skill, a young woman standing next to me laughed. Pointing to another woman who was with her, she said her mother was an accomplished pianist. The mother demurred. I introduced myself and they said they were Irene and Eva. We proceeded to the area where food and drinks were served. The wines were from Hungary. I asked Eva why the music we had heard was not happier whereas I thought Chopin had been inspired by Polish dances. She looked at the program and said wait for the next ones. She proved to be right. This even showed in the changed mood expressed by our pianist. The last item on the program was the familiar Drum Polonaise. Then there was an encore.
At one time in Warsaw there was a pianist almost as famous and popular as Chopin. What is more he, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, even became the Prime Minister of Poland, briefly, in 1919. He was also very rich thanks to his business acumen. I was hearing all of this in Paderewski’s prominent physical legacy in Warsaw, the Bristol hotel. He was a partner in the company that built this hotel in 1900. The Bristol soon became Warsaw’s best; its heyday was in the roaring 1920s. Renovated after World War II in the “socialist realism style,” it was nationalized in 1948. After the fall of the Communist regime, the Bristol was “thoroughly refurbished in its original style” by private owners and opened in 1993 as Le Royal Meridien Bristol, promising the “splendour of Old Warsaw.” Its bar is now “the place to have an after dinner drink,” I was told by a bon vivant expatriate from Britain.
The bartender could not agree more. He had set six shot glasses on the counter in front of him and was pouring Vodka and Tabasco sauce into them. He said: “This is our signature drink. It is called Mad Dog. It is ideal for those cold winter nights which Warsaw is famous for.” I declined his offer to taste that drink, saying that I had to get up very early for my flight back to California. “President Bush stayed here, you know,” the bartender said. Poland was a key country in the friendly “New Europe” that the Bush Administration juxtaposed to the likes of France (of the Old Europe) that opposed his invasion of Iraq. President Bush, famous for virtually not having traveled abroad before becoming President, visited Warsaw in June of 2001 and two other Polish cities in two more trips to Poland. The Bristol bartender remembered fondly: “It was cold that night when Mr. Bush was in Warsaw and he had not brought a warm enough topcoat to wear outside. Our manger offered him his own topcoat and Bush accepted and wore it that evening.” I asked the bartender what he thought about Obama who was now in the White House. He considered his answer carefully: “It is still too early, Obama has not yet been tested like Bush.”