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“The Rubble of Warsaw 1945-1949”. Exhibition at the Museum of Warsaw

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Right after the war, he was just a waste, a big problem. It ended up in the Vistula, on heaps or clay pits. But there was so much of it that efficient and quick removal turned out to be impossible. It made it difficult to rebuild and move around the city. Therefore, it had to become a valuable resource, the raw material of this reconstruction. Gruz is the focal point of the exhibition about the revival of the city – “Zgruzowwanie Warszawski 1945-1949”.

The exhibition begins with a reconstruction of the map of post-war Warsaw. All buildings have been inventoried. Each was assigned a category and color, showing the level of destruction. – You can see that the ghetto areas were razed to the ground, right-bank Warsaw looked better. It has been estimated that there are 22 million cubic meters of debris in Warsaw, plus 4.5 million cubic meters in ruins that must be demolished due to the plans or the level of damage to the buildings, says Adam Przywara, curator of the exhibition.

“The Rubble of Warsaw 1945-1949”tvnwarszawa.pl

Two high-profile exhibitions that were held at the National Museum at the time were also recalled in this room. “Warsaw Accuses” showed the purposefulness and scale of the destruction, displaying the destroyed works from the museum’s collection. It was seen by 435,000 people. Then she went around the world: Tokyo, Moscow, London, Paris, New York, Budapest, Prague and Berlin.

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– These materials were supposed to publicize the destruction of Warsaw in the world and mobilize international aid for the city. The exhibition was also an indictment against the occupier and presented evidence of the ruin of Polish culture, says Przywara. – The second one, “Ruiny Warszawy”, was less known. Returning artists were asked to deal with the theme of the ruins. The goal was to capture the city at the moment of destruction, because it was known that these ruins would disappear, the reconstruction process was already starting. Controversies arose over the works of Antoni Suchanek, who was accused of excessively romanticizing the ruins, adds the curator, showing the aforementioned drawings.

The women go to work

Although 84 percent of buildings on the left bank were destroyed, and 65 percent on Praga, after January 17, 1945, a huge influx of old and new residents began. The population of the left-bank capital has grown from 22,000 to 290,000 in just one year.

“What stands in their way is not what they remember. In the oral histories of that period, Warsaw is not described as a city, but rather as a natural landscape, like after a volcanic eruption, strange and unknown. Only some of its fragments are recognizable – explains Adam Przywara and points out that the moment of return was also socially interesting – the city was dominated by women. At the exhibition, they are presented in an excellent series of photographs by Zofia Chomętowska, which documented their daily trips for firewood. Particularly impressive is the photo of a flat-bottomed boat with a poor sail, on which they cross the Vistula river in the vicinity of the remains of the Poniatowski bridge. – The search for warmth in the ruins is presented in this room in a metaphorical way through a tiled stove, built of tiles excavated from the rubble of the Old Town, each one is different – adds the curator.

Women also dominated the Labor Brigades, the first organized attempt to clear the rubble. – It was the largest mass labor organization in post-war Warsaw. In January 1945, it employed 1,500 people (60-80 percent were women), and a few months later it was 14,000 people, which was a very large number in the context of the population of the then capital. The brigades were sent to frontline work, cleaning the streets, sorting rubble, bricks, stones, iron – says Przywara. And the photos show that there was a lack of basic equipment, women worked in everyday clothes, sometimes they did not even have gloves.

Rubbish is not just waste

At the same time, decision makers realized that debris removal needed to be professionalised. – After the return of Bolesław Bierut from Moscow, the rubble became a political problem. When the decision to rebuild was made, it was clear that the city needed to be cleaned up as soon as possible. But simulations and calculations left no illusions that this is a task for years. For example, it has been calculated that hauling all the rubble would require 20 500-tonne trains a day for 10 years. The reality did not grow up, the transport was mainly done by carters from the villages near Warsaw. – A huge part of the rubble from the carts went to the barges, and then to the Vistula, in this way its course was regulated. There were no bulldozers, this process was largely done manually – says Adam Przywara, showing the preserved receipts for the removal of rubble.

The Capital Reconstruction Office understood that the rubble could not be disposed of and would have to be managed on site. – In 1946, a report was made. Its authors noticed that rubble can also be treated as a source of raw materials, such as brick, iron, aggregate for reconstruction. Let us remember that the 1940s were also an industrial crisis – brickyards, sawmills and factories were closed. There were no materials to build with, and the plans were big. This is how rubble became an alternative source of building materials – he points out.

Report on the production of rubble concrete blocks at the State Enterprise of Demolition and Rubble Management, 1947Alfred Funkiewicz, Museum of Warsaw

Report on the production of rubble concrete blocks at the State Enterprise of Demolition and Rubble Management, 1947Alfred Funkiewicz, Museum of Warsaw

Recovery of bricks, production of hollow bricks

The right to obtain rubble was settled by the decree on demolition, passed together with the decree of Bierut. Heaps of evenly arranged bricks appeared in the landscape of the ruined capital. However, the scale of recovery was insufficient. It often turned out that the authorities had been warned by the inhabitants themselves, operating in the mode of private reconstruction. The aforementioned decree also contained a proviso beneficial – surprisingly – for the owners. That is why bricks from Szczecin or Wrocław were used. There, the deprivation of property and the displacement of Germans made it possible to act faster and on a larger scale. But, as the curator notes, it is not true that the bricks from there went only to Warsaw. – Some stayed in place or moved to other areas, for example to Krakow’s Nowa Huta – he adds.

Bricks from pre-war brickyardstvnwarszawa.pl

The rest of the rubble had to be crushed and processed to make it suitable for further use. The idea was developed by engineers from the Building Research Institute, using the Soviet and German experience, where rubble concrete was produced already during the war. But the hardware was sourced from Switzerland. Poland paid with coal, the machines arrived in 1947. The production of hollow bricks has started.

– In Pole Mokotowskie, following the example of wooden Finnish houses, experimental rubble concrete houses were built (they have survived to this day at Czubatki Street, one even in its original shape – ed.). The engineers wanted to check how this material behaves in different conditions, they lived in them themselves – he says.

Housing estates – a successful experiment

Then it was time for bigger projects. – The first monumental building of post-war Warsaw built of rubble concrete was the former Ministry of Industry and Trade and the State Commission for Economic Planning at Plac Trzech Krzyży, called a minówka. Minister Hilary Minc was a huge supporter of this technology. It was supposed to be a sign of a planned socialist economy, in which construction waste is not thrown away, but converted into valuable materials. In contrast to the practices of the capitalist economy – explains Adam Przywara.

The following estates were also built of rubble concrete: Muranów Południowy designed by Bohdan Lachert, Koło II and Praga I designed by Helena and Szymon Syrkus. A way, because the three-year plan assumed the financing of factories and public utility facilities, but not private housing. – We managed to get money from the government for experimental construction. The architects decided to completely abandon building materials and build everything from rubble concrete, produced on site. The experiment was so successful that it began to be duplicated. Praga I is a replication of the Koło II project.

Panorama of Muranów, 1949Alfred Funkiewicz, Museum of Warsaw

Rubble Uprising or what?

The last room of the exhibition is devoted to how the eponymous ruins influenced the landscape of Warsaw. It was reminded that, apart from the banks of the Vistula, the escarpment was strengthened with rubble, clay pits in Wola were filled in, and hills were formed in Moczydło, Szczęśliwice and Czerniaków. The latter, already in the 1990s, according to the idea of ​​the insurgent and architect Eugeniusz Ajewski, nicknamed Kotwa, was renamed the Warsaw Uprising Mound and equipped with the Fighting Poland sign at the top. In Zbyszek Siemaszko’s photo report from the late 1950s, he towers over the empty surroundings like a volcano. There are no greenery around and the modest buildings are made up of houses that are sometimes difficult to distinguish from workshops, sheds or chicken coops. Local boys are dragging something in wicker baskets.

Hovels and rubble dump in Czerniaków, 1959Zbyszko Siemaszko, National Digital Archives

Today still rebuilt mound symbolically combines two myths: the Warsaw Uprising and the post-war reconstruction. The first has already been thoroughly told and worked through. The second is just being shaped, and the exhibition at the Museum of Warsaw, next door Grzegorz Piątek’s book “The best city in the world” Whether the opera based on itadds to it – it’s hard to find a more adequate word – another brick.

Finally, about the name itself. – The term “zgruzowstała” comes from Władysław Broniewski’s poem “Warszawa zgruzowstała” from 1949. This word stuck in my memory, it expresses the essence of this exhibition. He emphasizes that it was not just a rebuilding process, but a process of processing rubble. This, in turn, has interesting connotations with what we today call the circular economy, sums up the curator.

The architecture of the exhibition itself is also in this spirit. The Swiss studio Okuljar Architekt*innen designed all its elements without the use of glue, so that everything can be dismantled, disassembled and used in the future.

The exhibition “The Ruins of Warsaw 1945-1949” at the Museum of Warsaw at Rynek Starego Miasta 32 will last until September 3.

Main photo source: Alfred Funkiewicz, Museum of Warsaw

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