My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt

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LONDON —To see a place for the first time and spend only six days, and much of that time in meetings of the World Federation of United Nations Associations—which has been my experience in Warsaw for the past week—would quite obviously mean one could only gain impressions. But Poland was for me interesting from my childhood days because of two heroes about whom historical novels were written.

I cannot remember both titles, but one of them was called "Thaddeus of Warsaw." These novels left me with the impression that the Polish people loved their country deeply and had a passion for freedom.

In recent years we have all taken an increasing interest in the whole European picture. Those of us who used to study the map of Europe remember that Poland for many years looked as though Germany had a pair of pincers around it and there was certainly a constant threat of conquest. Besides that, the country could never be economically sound because it was only an agricultural country, which meant an unbalanced economy, and as a result a low standard of living.

When the Germans were driven out of Poland they left behind them in Warsaw one of the most completely destroyed cities in Europe—and this had to be done deliberately. The fighting had gone on for days, but when the fighting was over the Germans drove the people out of the city and systematically the soldiers went from building to building and house to house burning whatever remained. Then during the occupation there were the nightly shootings of prisoners, and you somehow wonder how Hitler could have found people who could so well carry out his orders against other human beings.

I do have sympathy for the immigrant Germans who lost their homes in other countries, such as Poland and Silesia and the Sudetenland, but I think they should turn to their own government and demand reparations. They are now again citizens of their German homeland and the worst of their resettlement period is over, and at least they were never refugees in the sense of lacking citizenship in the countries where they were.

They were unwelcome in their own country among their own people and they were paying the price for Hitler's policies. No one will deny their suffering and the injustice which they are still suffering, but there is no way that I can see of giving them back their own homes without creating again in Europe a country with borders that cannot be defended and with an unbalanced economy.

Having coal and iron mines, however, Poland has now begun to industrialize and it seems to me easily understandable that they should want the recognition of their new borders and assurance that there will be no aggression in the future allowed in Europe anywhere.

It seems to me the best that can be done for the Germans who were driven out of Poland as a result of the war is to expect their own government, through reparation payments, resettlement and a new start in other areas, to make what amends it can. Poland can only be a nation that can live and grow on the borders between Eastern and Western Europe if its present borders are accepted.

We saw a film that I think every person in our country should see. It is called "Warsaw Remains," and it shows what happened day by day in that city at the time of the German conquest and occupation. There was no effort to make it a horror or hate film. It is a documentary showing what happened to people and, incidentally, to one place.

It has been said, of course, that Russia added to the damage in her shelling and that she delayed her entrance many months. But, when all is said and done, Russia did free the Poles of the German army, and if you were a Pole I think you could hardly fail to be grateful to those who drove the Germans off your soil.

The film shows Warsaw destroyed and how it was done, and then it shows Warsaw rebuilt. The decision to rebuild must have been a difficult one, because it seems to me it would have been less costly to build a new city—and preserve the ruins as a monument to mass cruelty. But the mayor decreed that the capital city be rebuilt because that had psychological importance. In addition, he decided that as far as possible some of the city must be made to look as it once looked, because people must have roots. And even if they were only modern rebuilt roots, he maintained, they still must be a symbol of the past. So, around some of the old squares stand houses that look as though they had been there for a long while.

Time was taken to put back old friezes and old emblems that show what guilds once worked there. There is a love in these decorations and a taste and a beauty that no one had told me existed in Poland today. It makes a tremendous appeal.

People have taken up old stones from the rubble and put them around the doors so as to have something really old in the rebuilding. One of the old churches that had a statue outside of it—a figure of the Christ carrying His cross—was almost entirely destroyed and the Christ lay in the street. The people looked at it and felt it was a symbol of their loss, so Christ was put back as He had been before. The church was rebuilt and the statue stands again. The monument to one of the good kings of Warsaw also was on the ground—and it is again on top of its high pedestal.

As you drive around the city and are shown pictures of the destruction by the men who are doing the rebuilding and then look at what there is today, you marvel at the courage of people who can contend with that amount of rebuilding and create a city again.

I remembered back to my early Polish novels and I thought that the spirit of Thaddeus of Warsaw never really left the city.

There are two main questions the people ask, and this is true of ministers of government and of people in the street. One question is about our U.S. elections this fall, which may seem to have little connection with their other question, but to the Poles our present future policies are of vital interest.

The other question is, of course: "Do you think your government means to give Germany atomic weapons? We are afraid of the rearmament of Germany, of its growth in military strength again."

You cannot fail to understand their fear when you are in Poland. We in the U.S. are so many miles away. To be sure, the atomic bomb missiles, and all they mean, annihilate distance, but this is unreal and hard for us to grasp, just as it is impossible for us to understand the fear that grips every man who had once been driven from his home and seen his city completely destroyed.

We need to see films such as "Warsaw Remains." We were fortunate never to see our homeland destroyed so we, as a people, need to see as realistically as possible what can happen in modern war. Only thus will we ever really understand what the question of a peaceful Europe really means.

Poland has always belonged more to Western than to Eastern Europe, but it is quite evident that a socialist economy was almost the only answer possible to her problems. Poland is Poland, however, and Russia is Russia, and there are great differences which even a casual visitor may see between what occurs in these two countries.

We in America, however, should think over very carefully what we really want to help Europe to do in the future. This is no easy problem. It requires much understanding, much careful study, much consideration of the whole European setup. But we should begin by looking at a map of Europe before World War II and a map as it is today. That is a good point of departure, but then we have to cover a good many complicated problems if we are eventually to solve in a peaceful way the Central European situation.


(Copyright, 1960, by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.)

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About this document

My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt, September 13, 1960

Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
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Transcription created from a photocopy of a UFS wire copy of a My Day column instance archived at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.