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Letter from Poland: Warsaw Remembers Volume 61 Number 3, May/June 2008
by Jennifer Pinkowski

Excavations at the Saxon Palace recapture the city's ravaged history.

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The Saxon Palace was once the seat of power for Poland's kings. Today, it is the site of a massive archaeological excavation. (Courtesy Joanna Borowska)

Turning the corner toward the Saxon Palace, I realize I am standing in the spot where Stanisław Zielinski painted the palace bathed in butter-yellow light on a sunny day in 1938. At the time of Zielinski's painting, which hangs in the Warsaw historical museum, the building served as headquarters to the Polish military. Before it was destroyed, the U-shaped palace would have stretched before me, its two wings running the length of several city blocks on either side of an enormous courtyard. In the 1830s, the wings were joined by a three-story colonnade, beyond which grew tall chestnut trees. Today in place of the palace are two open excavation pits shrouded by fences wrapped in white fabric. Between the fences lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the only part of the palace that is still standing.

A year after Zielinski's sunny day, the Nazis invaded Poland, beginning what would turn into a 50-year period of brutal cultural suppression. The Saxon Palace became the occupation headquarters of the German military. The square in front of the palace, which had been named in honor of Jozef Piłsudski--the general who led Poland to independence in 1918 and served as the nation's first president--was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz. From here the Germans launched attacks to quell the 1943 Ghetto and 1944 Warsaw uprisings. Hundreds of thousands died in the streets, and a roughly equal number perished in concentration and prison camps.

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18th-century pottery bearing the mark of its owner AR, for "Augustus Rex," better known as King Augustus II the Strong (Courtesy Joanna Borowska)

In the face of advancing Soviet forces, Hitler ordered the city destroyed. By late 1944, the retreating German army set explosives in buildings across the abandoned city and blew them up. Shortly after Christmas the Saxon Palace was leveled, leaving a hole in Poland's national identity that remains to this day. When residents began to return to the city a few weeks after the Nazis retreated, they found a wasteland: 85 percent of the city had been obliterated.

After the war, the Soviet-backed government cleared the palace rubble and transported it across the Vistula River, where it was used to reconstruct parts of the city. The Soviets renamed Piłsudski Square "Victory Square," a moniker it held until 1979, when native son Pope John Paul II led a mass here that is often credited with galvanizing the challenge to Communist rule. Since then, the square has appeared much as it does on this overcast November day: vast, gray, and empty.

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Fragments of decorated tile dating to the 19th century (Courtesy Joanna Borowska)

But, as archaeologists have recently revealed, parts of the palace survive underground. In 2006, contract archaeologists Ryzsard Cedrowski and Joanna Borowska found an extensive array of architectural remains dating back to the seventeenth century and tens of thousands of artifacts. These discoveries were made during an excavation triggered by a looming building project--the reconstruction of the Saxon Palace.

The idea is to restore Piłsudski Square to what it looked liked in 1939, before the Nazi occupation. "Warsaw was so totally destroyed that for the citizens of the city, this form of the palace is in their memories, and they want to see it the way they remember it," says art historian Tadeusz Bernatowicz, a consultant on the dig who has researched the palace for two decades. When completed, the rebuilt Saxon Palace will be the new home of the city government. A section of the archaeological site will be on display inside.

Jennifer Pinkowski is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

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