Hidden Warsaw: stories behind the courtyard shrines

Shrine at ul Brzeska, Warsaw

Wander around any city for long enough and you’ll discover surprises in the most unexpected places. This is certainly true of Warsaw, where much of the city’s history, often tragic, often bloody but always fascinating, is hidden behind the brick and concrete of the main streets.

While much of Warsaw was rebuilt after 1945 by planners who had skipped the ‘making buildings pretty’ module in their architecture course, many of the surviving and renovated buildings have maintained their original structure. In the case of many of the apartment blocks this means that inside the belly of the buildings there is a courtyard, created to give a little bit of light to those appartments without a street view.

These courtyards are well worth exploring and as I discovered on my recent trip, most are open for visitors to stop and take a look. I wandered around the streets to the west of the Palace of Culture and found many open courtyards, mostly well maintained by residents and kept as a quiet place to enjoy the cool shade in the summer heat. Many have religious shrines, either in the form of a simple picture or a more elaborate statue. On digging a little deeper I found that most of the shrines have their own history attached to them. Many were erected during the war to provide a place where residents would pray for their safety; others were built to give thanks for a miraculous escape from death.

ul Brzeska, Warsaw

On Brzeska street, behind a very ordinary gateway, lies a well maintained shrine to the Virgin Mary at the back of a dreary courtyard. It was in this place that in 1943 the Germans rounded up a bunch of residents and were loading their rifles ready to kill them. Such random executions were a frequently used tool to maintain a level of terror in the local population and deter any form of rebellion.

As they were preparing to murder the local residents, a woman saw what was happening from a top floor appartment. She was a German married to a Pole, and called down to the soldiers in her native language. After speaking to them and persuading them to put down their guns, they left without firing a shot. The statue was erected shortly afterwards to mark this narrow escape and has been carefully preserved since.

There are many such tales in the courtyards of Warsaw. The city authorities have begun to erect plaques to tell the many stories that exist on almost every Warsaw street. The best way to discover them however is to wander in and ask. The original survivors of the war years will not be around for ever; it is vital that their stories live on.

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Freelance travel writer

One Response to “Hidden Warsaw: stories behind the courtyard shrines”

  1. Fascinating story – so much history hidden in the courtyards of old Warsaw. Hope you will get a chance to explore this subject more.

    March 8, 2012 at 10:51 am