WARSAW, Oct 1 — Decades after the Nazis razed it to the ground, a 17th-century palace of kings and codebreakers in the heart of Warsaw will be resurrected by the Polish government for its symbolic value.
“This spot which will return to Warsaw’s map is to be a proud reminder of what happened here,” said project spokesman Slawomir Kulinski.
“It’s a place that not only changed Poland’s history but also the world’s,” he told AFP, surveying the excavated red-brick cellars of the Saxon Palace.
Built for a nobleman, it became a royal residence and was later home to a young Frederic Chopin.
The future composer’s father taught at a school inside it.
“Chopin wrote his first works while living here,” Kulinski said. These include the Polonaise in G minor at the ripe old age of seven.
“I bet he ran around these cellars with his friends, chasing each other, when he was just a little squirt,” Kulinski added.
The palace went on to house the Cipher Bureau where Polish mathematicians cracked an early version of Germany’s Enigma machine, contributing to the Allied victory in World War II.
That rich history has long been invisible, after the building was dynamited by the Germans and replaced by a sprawling emptiness on Pilsudski Square.
Visiting foreign dignitaries walk across to lay wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the sole section of the palace rebuilt after the war.
Now the rest will follow, along with neighbouring tenement houses and Bruhl Palace, a Baroque building that was one of Warsaw’s largest and finest.
Due to open in 2030, the complex will house the upper house of parliament, cultural institutions plus a restaurant and cafes.
Critics accuse the right-wing government of using the project — which was initiated by their ally, the president — to promote its nationalist views.
They are infuriated by the price tag, arguing that the 2.5 billion zloty (around US$600 million) could be better spent.
But others see the reconstruction as long overdue.
“It’s fantastic. I’m a fan of old Warsaw,” lifelong resident Beata Kossakowska told AFP.
“Very few buildings of the kind remain, with beautiful architectural ornaments,” the 57-year-old said.
Like thousands of others this summer, Kossakowska went on a free tour offered by the company behind the project.
The current phase is to uncover whatever treasures may lie underground.
“I sometimes feel like Indiana Jones,” Kulinski said.
Behind construction barriers, excavators pulled up piles of earth while archaeologists scrubbed ceramic shards and animal bones.
Nearby, the exposed cellars of the Saxon Palace revealed a maze of walls. The oldest was a segment of a fortification built in case of a Turkish invasion 400 years ago.
But the highlight of the tour was when guide Waldemar Prokop motioned towards a rectangular opening and asked: “Who here believes in vampires?”
There, workers had dug up a 17th-century skeleton interred face down, neck shackled, head under a wall — a burial believed to keep the undead in place.
Other notable findings include an old diamond ring, turtle soup shells, burnt Wehrmacht chess sets and the Nazi loudspeakers that Poles scornfully dubbed “barkers” (szczekaczki).
Pointing to a row of huge sandstone fragments, Kulinski singled one out for the perfectly carved circular opening at its edge.
“That’s nothing other than a blasthole for the stick of dynamite. Made by the Germans with a hand drill... They really used a lot of material to blow it all up and destroy it thoroughly,” he said.
Poland will be just as meticulous in bringing the site back to life, according to Kulinski, who collects old photos of the capital and calls himself a “Warsaw freak”.
The country knows a thing or two about restoration.
With the help of archived documents and old paintings as models, Warsaw residents carefully rebuilt the city’s historic old town after the war.
Churches, palaces, townhouses, marketplaces and even a castle rose from the rubble — a massive effort that made the area a Unesco world heritage site.
“Foreign tourists visit and don’t believe it was rebuilt because it’s so fantastic,” Kulinski said.
He believes the Saxon Palace too deserves to be brought back from the dead.
“When we first excavated the walls and went inside, it was like, wow!” Kulinski said.
“It sent chills down my spine just to get a sense of the history.” — AFP