“ Address: ul. Skazańców 25 / Warsaw / Poland / Tel. +48 22 839-12-68 „
The Warsaw Citadel is a place I have seen many times on the database of one of the travel sites I write for and I have wanted to visit for a while now but there are so many attractions to see in Warsaw I will be 90 before I visit them all and choosing which attraction to visit is a time consuming job in itself.
A couple of weeks ago on a bright sunny Saturday morning my son e-mailed me and asked if I would like to go with him and his daughter on a trip to the Citadel. I jumped at the request as he had mentioned that there were a couple of parks on the way which he thought I would like. I am fascinated by urban parks in this city as they are all so different and at the moment am researching and writing a book on this subject which will hopefully be out in the Autumn.
However, it isn't the Citadel itself or the parks I want to write about today but the museum that is within the walls of the citadel. We didn't actually know that there was a museum until we had walked around the walls and saw a wooden sign pointing to the museum. We both looked at each other and said, 'Should we go inside?' The reason we hesitated was because I only had about 5 zloty ( just over a £1) on me and my son didn't have a bean. We had a pile of sandwiches wrapped in tin foil but that wouldn't pay the entrance fee. Knowing that we didn't have any cash I still thought I would peep round the door to see what was inside. So while my son and granddaughter sat on a bench in a grassy area which used to be the square where prisoners exercised I tottered off to see what was on offer.
The light was so bright outside that I couldn't see a thing inside the entrance. When my eyes had finally adjusted I saw a desk with a fierce like figure staring at me. No smile, only a blank face devoid of expression. In my best Polish I asked the price of admission and he shouted back, 'FREE!'.
Wow! It was our lucky day..........
So we went inside and parked the pram underneath some stairs. The man gave us a funny look as they are security mad in this country and can never understand the English way of leaving things unattended but there was no way I wanted to trail a pram through a museum and up and downstairs. I still couldn't believe it was free but he waved us through the first door and this is where our journey began........
Pavilion X - what is it?
Following suppression of the November Uprising in 1831, the Russian Army reinforced Warsaw's fortifications, between the 1880s and the Great War Warsaw became encased in strong forts made from red brick and earth. The Citadel was a huge fortress (will review later) but also a prison which frightened the hell out of political opponents of the tyrannical Russian tsar Nicholas I. Pavilion X was a high security wing where Polish activists loyal to Poland were locked up. Having lived here for a while now the little Polish history I learnt at school is beginning to fit together and from photographing monuments throughout the city I recognised the names of some of the prisoners that were confined in this prison. Names like Romauld Traugutt; the leader of the January Uprising who was shot in 1864, politician Roman Dmowski and the famous warrior whose statues are all over town, Josef Pilsudski.
Moving on, from 1915 - 1918 Pavilion X was still used as a prison by the Germans and just outside the museum on the slopes of the citadel you can see where the executions were carried out. When Poland regained independence the Polish Army took over the building and used it for military purposes as well as transforming part of the prison into accommodation for local soldiers.
From 1939-1945 the Germans occupied Warsaw and the citadel and prison was taken over by the SS and became a base for the German military.
After the Second World War Polish military took over the citadel and Pavilion X became a separate venture and opened to the public in 1963. Now it is part of the Museum of Independence of Warsaw.
So, what is it like - is it grim inside?
Yes and No. At first when we went through to the first section of the museum which is a very good reconstruction of the interior of the prison, I had a funny feeling - like a coldness throughout my body - a bit like when I was a child and was scared of something. I guess I wasn't sure what to expect and I don't like that feeling of not being in control of a situation. It wasn't so much that the exhibitions were daunting but the silence of the rooms and the fact that the walls were so white with everything inside a dark grey or black when outside the sun was shining. The actual cells in the first section weren't too bad. I was surprised to see that in every cell was the typical eastern European heater - the tall, white tiled variety that looks like a urinal. For some reason I didn't expect to see a heating system installed but then if you think of the temperatures we have in Warsaw in winter then the prisoners would have died of hypothermia if there wasn't any heating. Most cells were just concrete rooms with a window, straw for a bed with a table to sit and eat and a bucket in the corner for bodily waste. In most museums in Warsaw you can't take photos which is always a nuisance so when an attendant passed me as I was looking at one of the cells I asked him nicely if I could take photos and he said it was okay. In fact he was very jolly - I was amazed.
Apart from the cells there is a lot of information in various forms; legal documents, press cuttings, photographs, personal belongings like uniforms, pieces of jewellery, religious icons. These are displayed in glass cabinets and on wall displays. Some of the documents are hand written and in immaculate condition. Polish handwriting of this era is really beautiful to look at although difficult to understand. I was surprised at the amount of information - it was a lot and really explained the fight for independence and the social changes during annexation. I learnt how prisoners survived in Pavilion X and what organisations they belonged to. I became aware of the repressing acts initiated by Tsar authorities and how they went about investigating Polish activists. The era covered is from the 1830s when Polish conspiracy was rife up to 1918 when Independence was gained. This first section is well displayed and fascinating but takes a long time for the information to sink in because not all of it is in English so if you aren't familiar with Polish as a language then I think you will struggle. There are some very old maps in this section which both my son and I spent a while looking at. Fascinating to see the boundaries of central and eastern Europe during that era and Russia's dominance. My granddaughter enjoyed this part of the museum too as she liked the cells and kept wanting to climb over the chains and step inside each and every one. Amongst the prisoners cells there was a room where the blacksmith used to take off and put on chains for each prisoner. Very grim to think that these men were shackled and I couldn't wait to move on into the central section but before doing that I spotted a room with the black marble bust of Josef Piludski and a wreath of red and white flowers sat at the base. Inside we went. This was his cell.
As I have mentioned above the figure of this man is all over Warsaw so I was intrigued to find more about the man with strong Slavic features and a walrus moustache. He was a remarkable character; he founded the Polish Legions and commanded the First Brigade and became the political leader of a Poland that for 123 years had been dominated by foreign regimes. He is considered to be the most notable Polish politician of the 20th century. The room where he spent his time in Pavilion X reads like a biography. Through documents, photographs and letters we learn how he was arrested, his stay in Pavilion X and the enquiries and investigations into his political activities. We also see from black and white photographs how he faked mental illness and proved that his mind was unstable so he could be released from prison and sent to a hospital in Siberia on the back of a kibitka (a horse drawn vehicle on wheels or runners). There is a fine example of this form of transport which was used for transportation into deepest Siberia outside the museum walls. During this transportation he escaped and later became a Polish Marshall. Later on, he led the Polish army during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919-20 and at the Battle of Warsaw he outwitted the Red Army by successfully defending Warsaw which ended in an overwhelming victory for the city and the whole of Europe. I did notice that this room was much larger than the other cells and had a larger window looking on to grassy fields. The room had a different aura about it - much more pleasant - perhaps because of his stature he was treated with some respect but one never knows.
Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks - I was told by a stout, matronly looking woman to turn my flash off and with a bit of a sigh I obeyed. I knew because the museum was so dark I would be unable to get any decent photos. The lady was nice enough and she made a big fuss over Alicja and wanted to cuddle her but Alicja was having none of it and clung to me like a Capuchin monkey. The middle section consists mainly of a large collection of oil paintings by Polish artist, Alexander Sochaczewski who took part in the January Uprising of 1863 and later was exiled to Siberia where he became slightly unhinged after being chained to a wheelbarrow in a salt mine for part of the time spent in Siberia. Because of his dreadful plight I feel I should appreciate his work more than I do but as an artist I can honestly say I wasn't really impressed with this collection. I don't generally work in oils and am not a great fan of this medium. The paintings were all very similar; images of individual prisoners looking dishevelled and mentally jaded as they lie about on the frozen plains of Siberia. The individual portraits are better and a little more interesting as some of them have a ghostly feel. However, these paintings are very rough and the use of the palette knife is primitive to say the least. Not sure how many paintings were on show but it seemed a lot. I was able to pick out a couple of decent ones like, 'Farewell to Europe.' and when I stood back and looked at them altogether I thought they weren't too bad but not great. This is just my opinion - he is a well known artist and a lot of people like his work and many canvases sell for very high prices at art auctions but his style just doesn't grab my attention.
Now to my favourite part of the exhibition and one that is easy to follow due to the fact that there is a lot of information translated into English which makes life a bit easier. The next few rooms illustrate the final journey through the museum. Exhibitions and displays educate us about the Sybiraks; a polish term for a person sent to Siberia. Outside each room there was a typed white sheet of paper giving the numbers of people including children who were sent to the east of Siberia during the years between 1940 and 1956. Many of them were transported on foot and died of exhaustion on the way. I can't remember the exact number now but it was in the hundreds of thousands and I know I felt alarmed at the thought of this. I thought the way the exhibition illustrated the movement of children to Siberia and showed through the many drawings, paintings, personal belongings how they lived in the concentration camps was very interesting, well designed and set out. For example; in one room I noticed samples of clothing like heavy coats, scarves, suede boots with sheepskin linings. I also spotted an old Singer sewing machine, various tools for logging and bags made from hide to carry things in. Another room was set out like a school room and on the walls were pictures of children and a huge board with names of children who were sent away to the camps. It seems strange how just a list of Polish names can make me feel shivery but when I saw these boards I really did feel uneasy at the thought of all those innocent children suffering - never having a proper childhood, always living in fear especially as my granddaugter was there with me smiling, happy and half- Polish. The exhibition was set up to help young people understand about what really happened way back then so they can see with their own eyes rather than reading everything from a book but I'm not sure if I want my granddaughter to know all the sordid details - perhaps it's time for her generation to forget and move on. Or at least that's what I thought on that day. With that thought in mind I took her hand and we went back down the stairs to find her pram and say thank you to the attendant.
As we walked over to the trees and wooden benches to sit and eat our sandwiches I couldn't help think what a nice spot it was where the prison was actually situated. The only sounds besides my granddaugther's chatter was the tweeting of two blue tits as they squabbled behind a bush where we were sat. This was the place where prisoners like Romauld Traugutt and Josef Piludski came out from behind the dark, grey walls into the brightness of daylight to exercise. I wonder what they were thinking on those days - surely about escaping. The information displayed inside the museum was depressing and such an eye opener for me as I hadn't a clue regarding the number of Poles who were transported to Siberia but outside the prison the landscape was one of beauty. I could see the river in the distance and my immediate thoughts were of escape and I was pleased Piludski escaped and only wished others had too but it wasn't to be.
I'm glad we found the museum and spent nearly two hours in there even if some of the reading matter was horrendous and disturbing. It's one of the most informative museums in Warsaw I have been in to and the staff were quite helpful and not totally austere. It was also a bonus we got in free but I have since realised that if visitors want to join a group and go with a guide then there is a charge. For a group of 25 people the cost is 40 zloty (approx £8), and a group of over 25 people 60 zloty (£12).
Opening times:Wednesday, Friday and Saturday-Sunday 9:00-16:00. Monday-Tuesday closed
You can find the museum on ul. Skazańców 25, Warsaw. To reach Pavilion X take any of these trams - 16, 17, 19, 29, 33 - Anielewicza.