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Poland Now

Twenty years ago my husband, John, and I, both journalists, moved to Warsaw with our two young daughters to cover Communist Poland. Two days after our arrival, we took a drive through Warsaw's beautiful Old Town, on the banks of the Vistula River, to explore. As we searched for a parking space, we inadvertently crossed a solid white line in the road. Within seconds we were pulled over by a grim-faced policeman who spoke no English and sternly demanded our passports, firing questions that we struggled to understand. Then he motioned for us to follow him. It was getting dark, and as he led us down a narrow alley, I expected the worst my movie-scorched imagination could concoct -- arrest, blackmail, entrapment, confidential papers stuffed into my purse. I clutched John's hand. Finally, we arrived in front of a scaffolded building.

The Royal Palace, like most of Warsaw's Old Town, had been almost completely destroyed by the Nazis during the war and was being meticulously rebuilt. The officer pointed at the palace, then at a slotted contribution box, and uttered his only English word: "Dollars," he said. "Dollars."

We understood. I deposited $5 in the box. The officer beamed and shook our hands.

This was my introduction to the complex, contradictory mystery that was Communist Poland. A police officer in a regime that officially despised royalty was collecting money to rebuild the palace that once housed Poland's royal family. As I came to learn, the politics of the moment in this country are never a match for the pull of its history.

Returning last spring for the first time in almost two decades, I found Poland's history more alive -- and more resplendent -- than ever. After a sweeping renovation completed in 1984, the Royal Palace glitters like a crown jewel, its seven-story onion-domed clock tower decorated with 50 pounds of gold. The vast pentagonal structure is open to the public; proud guards lead lines of visitors through many of the palace's 300 rooms.

On a rare sunny day in May I sat at one of a dozen outdoor cafés that now surround Warsaw's cobbled Rynek Starego Miasta, or Old Town Square. All around were cheerfully colored umbrellas, souvenir stands hawking Russian nesting dolls and handmade wooden pull-toys, and upscale shops selling amber jewelry and crystal. An organ-grinder and his monkey performed for some excited children.

Tour groups from all over the world marched through the square, their guides rounding up stragglers in five languages (including German, which provided a bit of irony). Nursing a glass of white wine, I looked out at the busy waiters, the ice cream vendors and flower stalls, the crowds wearing the latest Western fashions -- and I remembered a night in 1979 when John and I crossed the nearly desolate plaza to a restaurant called Bazyliszek. We were delighted to see several young Poles playing guitars and singing, and even more surprised to hear them strumming an old Dave Van Ronk song. The scene was one you might have found at any American university at the time -- if the music and clothing hadn't been 10 years out of date.

On that night Bazyliszek was almost empty. And though the menu was extensive, each of our choices was met with the waiter's polite but firm "Nie ma" -- "We don't have any." In the end, I think they offered only duck.

Bazyliszek still exists, but today reservations are hard to come by, as are tables at Dom Restauracyjny Gessler and at Fukier, the two other elegant restaurants that front the square. Each serves a variety of dishes, from traditional borscht to roast venison in cranberry sauce; well-dressed locals crowd the bars and dining rooms. Raucous dance music blares from a nearby club.

As I sat at the café I marveled at what these 20 years had wrought. Except for the Royal Palace, the restoration of the Old Town had already been completed by 1979, but only now could its effects be appreciated -- in the gleaming façades, the bustling restaurants, the new life on the streets. For though the seeds of the city's revival were planted under Communism, it took the spoils of capitalism to bring them to full flower.

"I come here every day for a cup of coffee," says Hanna Szwankowska, 79, a Warsaw historian born and raised in the Old Town. "I like to see how much livelier the neighborhood is now -- even more so than just a few years ago."

Hanna and her husband fled to the countryside in the early years of World War II, but returned on January 20, 1945, three days after the city was liberated by the Red Army. "The Germans had destroyed street after street with firebombs and robbed all they could find," she recalls. "When we returned to the Old Town, the piles of brick were as high as one-story buildings. Rats were everywhere. There were no people, just snow and absolute silence."

The day after Poland's liberation, teams of volunteers began the seemingly hopeless task of saving what was left and rebuilding what was lost. They sifted through endless rubble to collect and categorize usable pieces of architecture. They interviewed thousands of people for their recollections of what the buildings looked like. They sorted through daguerreotypes and photos from the 1850's, old wood prints, and an album of cityscapes painted in 1778.

In a bid for authenticity, the restoration teams also searched the country for craftsmen familiar with old construction methods. At the Royal Palace, for example, workers reproduced gilded wall lamps employing the same lost-wax technique used to cast them 200 years ago. One 90-year-old worker had learned, during the czarist occupation of Poland, how to spin gold onto bas-relief; he told the younger craftsmen to smear butter on their fingers to better handle the sticky filigree.

In some cases the planners had to improvise. It was understood that, in the 17th century, the exteriors of some buildings were painted, but no one knew exactly how or with what colors. Today, their façades are done up in sepia, beige, muted green, and burnt orange. The color scheme was, Hanna Szwankowska says with a smile, "a bit of fantasy." Indeed, the whole project has the feel of fantasy. As I walked the streets of the Old Town I found it hard to believe that all this was rebuilt from scratch, through a nation's colossal will.

It's one thing to reconstruct buildings; it is quite another to rebuild the culture of a people who have largely vanished. The attempt to restore some vestige of Poland's pre-war Jewish life has been predictably fraught with problems. By 1979, when I first arrived in Warsaw, even the memories of that life had faded from the former Jewish quarter. Sterile apartment buildings had replaced the wartime rubble of Jewish prayerhouses and meeting halls. All that remained from the old days was an overgrown Jewish cemetery and a single synagogue -- saved from destruction during the war because the Nazis had used it as a stable. There wasn't one rabbi residing in all of Poland. The synagogue stood empty, its windows broken -- a sad site of pilgrimage for tourists and a handful of elderly Polish Jews.

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