By the end of the Second World War Warsaw was in ruins. Years of bombardment, the 1944 uprising and the systematic destruction of the city by the Nazi occupiers left 85% of the city destroyed.
There was so little of pre-war Warsaw remaining that there were serious discussions about abandoning the city altogether and moving the capital of Poland to a different city.
This video – which you can see in 3D at the Warsaw Uprising Museum – gives an idea of what was left of Warsaw in 1945.
After the war the buildings that were beyond repair were pulled down. Post-war reconstruction took two very different approaches. Areas like the Old Town and Nowy Swiat were re-built to look like they had done before the war, while in other areas grand modern developments emerged in the new socialist realism style.
But what about the remaining 15% of pre-war buildings?
They are still there.
Most of them are unassuming tenement blocks, sandwiched between modern developments, but if you know what you are looking for then pre-war Warsaw is all around you, and well worth exploring.
Finding original buildings in Warsaw is becoming more and more difficult. The continued growth and development of the city means that many old buildings are being redeveloped and renovated, and are almost impossible to tell apart from their modern counterparts.
In the immediate post-communist times the ownership of many of the original buildings was disputed, and some of these buildings became squats or pop-up clubs during the confusion. Original documents did not survive the destruction of the war and the communist times that followed, and so tracking down the owners of the buildings was a long process. There are still some disputed buildings left – often they are boarded up and empty while the legal process continues.
One of the last remaining central squats in Warsaw is ‘Syrena’ at 30 Ul. Wilcza. The building was marked for demolition after the war, but the fifty residents living there started renovating it themselves and the building survived.
Today, despite eviction threats and rumours of redevelopment the building is still un-restored. The squatters arrived in 2011 to defend this piece of Warsaw’s heritage – find out more about their mission here [in Polish] and see this building before the inevitable redevelopment.
Prozna Street used to be the most complete remaining pre-war street in the city centre, a fact made even more astonishing when you realise that this street was part of the Jewish ghetto that was almost completely destroyed after the uprising of 1943.
For years these streets remained as they had been in 1945, with pictures of the previous inhabitants displayed on the walls in memorial. The crumbling buildings were lit-up at night, and the street was the backdrop to the city’s Jewish music festival.
However, the march of progress has now reached this street and one side has been completely refurbished. The other – at the time of writing – is covered with scaffolding and plastic sheeting. It is still possible to peek through the gaps in the doors to the original courtyard behind – but much of the power and significance of this street has now been lost to redevelopment.
Also close to the centre is the Reduta Bank building at 10 Bielańska Street. This was the scene of much fierce fighting during the Uprising, and the ruins of the bank were virtually untouched until around 2011 when it was sympathetically restored.
The original war-damaged facade was kept, while a new structure was constructed inside. The bullet-marked exterior features a prominent memorial to those that died in the Uprising. The venue is now used for events.
Further out from the city centre, the remaining buildings become easier to find. Just a little further out from the Central Railway station are clusters of original tenement blocks in a sprawling housing estate. At the junction of Żelazna and Chmielna are three crumbling unrestored blocks, two of them inhabited.
Walk through the entrance arches and explore the dark courtyards inside, complete with shrines to the Virgin Mary.
This whole area is dotted with remaining original buildings, and a walk around the neighbourhood between the Palace of Culture and the Uprising Museum will reveal original unrestored buildings on every other street.
See Pre-War Warsaw While You Can
Warsaw is changing fast. New developments are filling the gaps from the second world war, and restoration is blending the original buildings into the fabric of the city.
The original pre-war buildings are disappearing rapidly, with only a select few being preserved to commemorate the past. The time to see the last remaining buildings is now, while there are still some survivors out there waiting to be discovered down hidden alleyways and behind modern developments.