Spotlight on historical imagery: Warsaw in 1935, 1945 and today

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 9:54 PM

When I think about Poland, I think about my grandma. Babcia fondly recalled the Polish-American community of her childhood in Yonkers, N.Y., she told stories of traveling to Poland with my uncle, she read out loud the letters she received from our family there, and during Christmas she led aunts, uncles, and cousins in sharing a wafer called opłatek, which prompted hugs and kisses around the table. These are all good memories.

Like many, I have often used Google Earth to explore the world around me. When it comes to Warsaw, Poland, imagery now available from 1935 and 1945 reveals an opportunity to better understand the history of a city destroyed and rebuilt.

I studied the global devastations of World War II in school and read books about history, but the atrocities that took place during the 1930s and '40s bore little resemblance to much of the country I saw when I first visited in 2005. Poland had recently joined the European Union and brimmed with an overarching energy and enthusiasm toward the future, amidst reminders of a history that could not be forgotten. During three weeks spent traveling from Wrocław to Zamość and many places in between, I found myself mired in the contrasts between present and past: mesmerized by the beauty of Kraków, speechless with sorrow at Auschwitz.

In Warsaw, I stayed with cousins, ate plate after plate of pierogi and naleśniki, and explored the parks, squares, markets, and side streets that wove throughout the city. The realities of what had taken place only decades prior struck me powerfully at the Warsaw Rising Museum, which commemorates the resistance of the Polish Home Army. I left horrified and humbled. Four years later, here at Google I met with a representative working on the multimedia efforts of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, set to open in 2012 on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. More than anything, we spoke about the fundamental importance of memory and the power of technology for sharing with a community around the world.

The following images are from 1935, 1945, and the present day. Click to enlarge.


The largest ghetto in all of Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto was the site of the deportations and murders of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people between 1940 and 1943, as well as the location of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.


























Founded in 1816, the University of Warsaw is Poland's largest university and the academic centerpiece of the city. Between 1939 and 1944, the university lost a majority of its buildings and collections, and many of its students and professors lost their lives.
























As we view these aerial scenes in Google Earth using the historical imagery time slider, we see the history of Warsaw against a much different landscape today. I think of how many grandparents, like my babcia, have shared stories of their childhoods and families, including memories both good and bad. Images like these help unlock and preserve the past even as we look to the present and the future.