Fascinating commie map of postwar Warsaw shows paranoid officials heavily censored the landscape
The year 1955 was an important one for Warsaw.
Only ten years after the end of the war, the ruins and rubble were slowly being replaced by something that looked more like a city. The reconstruction of the Old Town had been completed, Muranów was being built on the ruins of the ghetto, the socialist-realist MDM housing district in the centre had its first residents and the giant Palace of Culture and Science was shooting skywards at great speed.
Warsaw was also preparing for the 5th World Festival of Youth and Students. For the first time, since the war, the city was to host people from all over the world and was going to play the role of a normal, European city, capable of organising great international events.
It was in these circumstances that the communist authorities, through the State Cartographic Publishing House, published one of the first post-war maps of Warsaw – the Plan of Central Districts of Warsaw.
The map is a fascinating document of its time. Although it was intended to be a helpful guide for the thousands of students who descended on the city in August 1955, nervous communist officials didn’t want to just hand over sensitive strategic information about the city.
They therefore removed train lines, bridges and airports to thwart the imagined Western imperialist enemy.
The map, simplified and deformed by the censors, often made it impossible to understand parts of the city.
Now, the Museum of Warsaw’s specialists have scanned and calibrated the original map and published it as a collector’s edition along with a richly illustrated companion book.
At the publication’s premiere yesterday evening inside the museum’s Old Town Square headquarters, appropriately in the map room, Dr. Andrzej Skalimowski, Warsaw expert and one of the authors of the publication, told TFN: “The map was published at a turning point for Poland and Warsaw. In 1955, some light was penetrating from the West, Radio Free Europe had started broadcasting, and this demasked communism and the situation in Poland.
“Stalin had died two years before in nineteen 1953 and these were the last few months before the thaw of 1956, Krushchev’s speech in Moscow in which he denounced Stalin and the wave of liberalisation that occurred in Poland.”
The 5th World Festival of Youth and Students, for which the map was prepared, symbolised this turning point.
“The fact that foreigners were able to come here, have fun, laugh and meet with ordinary Varsovians meant that people saw some light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of foreigners came to Warsaw at that time and they were very interested in what they saw of the rebuilt city,” Dr. Skalimowski said.
“So the map helped them to do this. But I think a lot of them just wandered around without the map. They often met locals from Warsaw, and after one thing lead to another, probably a lot of children were born as a result,” he surmised.
Despite this refreshing breath of fresh air, a cold war mania about security still reigned among communist officials, and thus the map was heavily censored. Railway lines, train stations and airfields were deemed too sensitive to be shown, even though a map published two years before showed all of them in detail.
One disgruntled and possibly brave local wrote to the publisher to complain that the lack of railway lines made the map useless. He received the reply that since passengers board at one station and alight at another, they have no need to see were the tracks actually run.
The reproduction of the 1955 map is part of Maps of Warsaw, a series of cartographic works from the Museum of Warsaw collection that trace the spatial development of the city. Each publication contains an original scale map, an accompanying book that describes Warsaw from the time and a description of the map itself.
The 1955 map is the fifth in the series after maps from 1768, 1825, 1912 and 1939.
Next year, the museum plans to publish a reproduction of the famous Dahlbergh panorama, which shows Warsaw after the Swedes occupied the city in the middle of the seventeenth century.