Sunday, 21 November 2010

Warsaw - childhood memories

Prompted by two visits to the Old Town and New Town on two successive days, I have found two photos from my father's B&W negative archive of this part of Warsaw from the mid-1960s. I was in two minds whether to post this on my Grey Jumper'd Childhood blog or here, but given that site traffic on W-wa Jeziorki is 20 times higher, I decided to give this post a wider readership on account of its Warsaw subject matter.

My first visit to Warsaw was in the summer of 1961 - I was three and remember only the image of a live carp swimming in an enamel bowl before being killed and cooked. My subsequent visit, in August 1966, was far more memorable. First of all, our family in Warsaw lived in Ochota (as they still do today, same building in which my father lived before the war). Ul. Filtrowa, being four tram stops from the very centre of town was a spectacular contrast of urban sophistication compared to suburban Hanwell and West Ealing.

Instead of sprawling grey suburbs stretching out from the rarely-visited centre of London, this was City Life. Here were trams, neon lights, shops, historical buildings, museums and galleries, military bands parading, royal parkland - things that one had to travel a long way into the British capital to see - and here it was all on the doorstop.

Left: The entrance to the Old Town market place, corner of ul. Świętojańska and Zapiecek. I'm in the small group of people on the pavement to the left, aged eight, along with my late uncle Zdzich and his daughters Marynka and Jola. The cars are FSO Warszawa M-20s, locally-produced versions of the Soviet GAZ M-20 Pobieda. Traffic was so scarce then that there was no need to ban cars from driving around the Old Town.

Below: View of the New Town and Old Town rising from the Vistula banks, taken from the Most Gdański bridge. The Wisło-strada - today three lanes in both directions (and jammed up totally during rush hours) - in those days was very quiet!

Before coming to Warsaw, I'd already been steeped in Varsoviana as a child; I was continually fascinated by two large photo albums that my father had; one of Warsaw before, during and after the war, the other of the Warsaw Uprising. This imprinted in my mind images of certain Warsaw landmarks - the pre-war Prudential building (now the Hotel Warszawa), the headquarters of the Polish Academy of Science (PAN), the Zachęta art gallery, the Old Town and its churches. Our family in Warsaw would send us bundles of magazines including Stolica, which would portray the capital city as modern, exciting, bustling - and this is how I found Warsaw when I came to see for myself (although the reproduction of colour photographs was poor compared to British magazines of the era).

A particular memory was driving into Warsaw from the west at dusk, the broad and largely empty roads, the skyline (then totally dominated by the Palace of Culture), the bright lights, tram lines on the edge of town, and very quickly we were right in the centre with its neons and department stores. Of these, the one most strongly etched in my memory was the Centralna Składnica Harcerska (Central Scouting Repository) which was the place to buy Polish scout- and cub uniforms, but more importantly the shop was full of East German model trains and plastic kits, die-cast model cars and other goodies that West Ealing's department stores failed to offer.

Such childhood memories - along with subsequent visits in the late-1970s, have cemented a powerful emotional bond in my mind with Warsaw's spirit of place.


basia said...

Thanks Michal.
These photos nudge a few half hidden memories of my own.
In '66 you were vere close in age to my own first visit in '70.
ul. Filtrova: what a terrific location and imposing edifice.

Paddy Ney said...

Very interesting. I didn't realise the Prudential Building survived the war. I thought it was completely destroyed during the Rising.