Many splendid pieces of Warsaw's architecture are gone or disfigured forever -- victims of war and communism. But now some can be appreciated again -- in miniature.
The fate of some of Warsaw's architectural gems reflects the tragic story of a city that went through years of war, then decades of communism in which buildings were torn down or neglected. Generations of residents have grown up unaware of the past splendor of the city once called the "Paris of the North."
Rafal Kunach, an economist-turned-builder with a childhood passion for city models, wants to change all that.
"I wanted to show the Warsaw that is no more," Kunach said.
By 2018, he hopes to have 50 miniature replicas of Warsaw's lost buildings, including railway stations, a synagogue and houses from the once-thriving Jewish district that was demolished by the Nazis. So far his team of historians, architects and builders has created 10 miniature reconstructions of the lost buildings at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Kunach's "Old Warsaw Miniatures" can be viewed in the basement gallery of a downtown mall but Warsaw authorities have promised a larger space for them next year.
Historian Jaroslaw Zielinski, a member of Kunach's team, said in September 1939 alone -- the first month of World War II -- some 20 percent of Warsaw's buildings were either destroyed or severely damaged by German bombs.
"In 1939, it seemed that the world had ended," Zielinski said. "A lot of precious pieces of old architecture burned down. ... The intention was to break the spirit of the city's defenders."
After the war, the empty spaces were filled with mostly cheap and simple buildings.
Tourists now often visit the downtown Tomb of the Unknown Soldier -- a broken arcade topped with broken columns in a vast square bordering a park. Although pretty, it's only a sad remnant of a massive 18th century Saxon palace built as a royal residence, one of the lost buildings that Kunach has recreated in miniature.
Before World War II, the palace housed the Polish army command and the office of cryptologists working to crack the code of the German Enigma cipher machine, which they did in 1932. The occupying Germans blew up the palace in December 1944. Recent attempts to rebuild it were scrapped after the existing foundations proved to weak and the costs too high.
Kronenberg Palace, the impressive late 19th-century residence of Jewish banker Leopold Kronenberg, stood next to the Saxon palace before the war. Its roof, painted ceilings and exquisite white marble staircase burned down in German bombing raids at the start of the war but its sturdy walls remained. What was left of the building was torn down in 1962, because the communist authorities found no money to restore a symbol of despised capitalist-era wealth. The drab Hotel Victoria was built on the site in 1976.
"It's quite something to be able to see these gone buildings, Kunach said. " And in our times it's there is an additional point in educating people about the costs of a war."