Warsaw’s Praga district, located on the eastern bank of the Vistula River, is not usually on the radar for tourists visiting the city. Its harsh grey buildings, and graffiti stand in stark contrast to the charms of the colorful, rebuilt old town. Praga was historically a separate town, incorporated into Warsaw late in the 18th century, and enjoyed a high level of tolerance between its Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish residents. Until recently the district had a bad reputation as a hotbed for crime and poverty, it was a place people from Warsaw proper wouldn’t let their teenage daughters go to. Today it is a center for alternative culture in Warsaw, a growing epicenter for independent cafés, restaurants, and galleries with youth flocking to its old brick warehouses and apartment blocks.
These brick buildings are a unique sight in the city, for Praga was one of the only districts largely spared during the Nazi’s razing of the city during the Second World War. Hidden in the empty courtyards of the apartment blocks are small Catholic altars, many dating from the period of Nazi occupation. Residents in the apartments, who were often locked into their blocks during long curfews, erected the altars rather than risk going into the streets to church. Some of the altars were created as offerings for protection, others to mark a place where the Gestapo executed residents. Some have been claimed to work miracles, protecting a building during a fire, or bringing wealth to the founder of the altar. No two are alike, from window boxes containing only a figure of the Virgin Mary, to hidden alcoves above storefronts, to large elaborate stone sculptures. As one wanders around the district, you can catch the murmurs of a prayer, the smell of incense or an old woman leaving flowers at the foot of a statue. They serve as a reminder of endurance, hope, and the faith of those who survived, and continue to survive in one of Warsaw’s grittiest neighborhoods.