How Warsaw was rebuilt using mountains of post-war rubble illustrated in fascinating new exhibition
After the deliberate and devastating destruction of Warsaw by the Germans in World War Two, a staggering 22 million square metres of rubble was left in the smoking city.
What happened to it and how it was used to rebuild the city almost from scratch is explored in a major new exhibition at the Museum of Warsaw, titled "Warsaw 1945-1949: Rising from Rubble."
Across eight rooms at the museum in Warsaw’s market square, the exhibition tells the fascinating story of how Warsaw used the mountains of rubble that surrounded it to rebuild and create what the communist authorities sold as a brighter future.
At first, the rubble was seen as waste that needed to be removed. When this proved impractical, it became the main material used in the rebuilding of Warsaw, finally becoming a symbol of Warsaw’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes.
The story, which is being told in the 70th year since rebuilding was officially completed, is an important one, as, according to the exhibition’s curator Adam Przywara, after the Germans’ deliberate destruction of Warsaw, perhaps no other city in history has had to handle, process and use as much rubble as Warsaw did in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
He told TFN: “After the war, Warsaw had so much rubble that it is estimated that it would have taken 20 years to transport it out of the city by daily goods trains. This was not possible and the rubble had to remain in the city and somehow be used.”
At the start of the exhibition, visitors are given an impression of the scale of the rubble in Tymek Borowski’s now-famous image Rubble over Warsaw, which shows a visualisation of all the rubble in one huge block towering over modern Warsaw.
Initially, rubble was cleared from the streets and pavements. Carts from villages near Warsaw took it to collection points in the city or just outside.
Much of the work was done by Work Brigades made up of volunteers and groups of employees, often with great enthusiasm. German prisoners of war were also made to clear the rubble.
Photographs, for example by Zofia Chomątowska and Alfred Funkiewicz, show brigades of volunteers sifting through mountains of rubble without modern safety clothing and often without tools. Other images show the results of this work in the form of row upon row of neatly stacked bricks.
When it became clear that there was simply to much rubble to be removed from the city, planners decided to reuse it as much-needed building material, giving birth to one of the main symbols of post-war Warsaw, namely rubble-concrete.
“From 1947 onwards, some of the rubble was crushed and mixed with water and concrete to make gruzobeton [rubble-concrete],” Przywara said.
Much of what was built in Warsaw at that time used this material. Most notable are the Muranów housing estate built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto and today's Ministry of Development and Technology at Trzech Krzyży square.
In Muranów, the initial plan was that the buildings should remain unplastered so that the red streaks of crushed bricks would be visible as a symbol of the blood of the murdered Jews.
This idea was eventually dropped, but the topsy-turvy geography of much of the estate is due to mounds of rubble that were left in place.
The exhibition devotes a room to this technological innovation, showing how the material was made and how it was used in Warsaw.
Featured on a set of photographs are several small houses that were built on Warsaw’s Czubatki street near Pole Mokotowskie as trial constructions. They initially housed engineers and are still inhabited today.
Individual bricks were also a valuable commodity as brick factories had yet to reopen after the war. Usable bricks were carefully collected and gathered in huge piles.
Bricks for reconstruction also came to Warsaw from cities such as Wrocław and Szczecin, a point still often mentioned with bitterness by people from those places.
In order to meet the need for bricks, buildings in Warsaw that had been damaged but that could potentially have been restored were pulled down to make way for new projects and to be harvested for building supplies.
It is estimated that a further 4.5 million square metres of rubble was created in this way.
“When major government-initiated construction began in 1947, it became apparent that bricks might be in short supply. Therefore, at the end of 1948, mass demolition campaigns were launched in other cities of post-war Poland to recover half a billion bricks for the reconstruction of the capital,” said Przywara .
Rubble that could not be used in construction was piled up in huge mounds, such as the Warsaw Uprising Mound, Moczydlowska Hill and Szczęśliwicka Hill, which have become geographical features of the city.
The rubble was also shipped out of Warsaw to shore up the banks of the Vistula in places up to as far as Toruń.
The Museum of Warsaw has dug into its vast collection of broken fragments to illustrate the exhibition, including pieces of the stonework of the Bruhl Palace and the Saski Palace destroyed during the war, as well as fragments of pre-war interiors, such as stove tiles.
For exhibition curator Przywara, it was a chance find on a walk in Warsaw that led to his fascination with Warsaw’s rubble.
“In 2015, during a walk in Mokotow's Morskie Oko Park, which the Vistula escarpment runs through, I noticed that rain had washed bricks out from under the ground.
“I read the signatures of the now-defunct pre-war brickworks on the bricks. This accidental find, for me, was the starting point for many years of research into the reconstruction of Warsaw.”
Alongside original rubble exhibits, the exhibition features photography from the period and artworks capturing the spirit of the time, as well as archival documents, maps, excerpts from newsreels and memoirs.
Warsaw 1945-1949: Rising from Rubble can be visited at the Museum of Warsaw up to September 3.