Several weeks ago while visiting Warsaw, my tour of the Jewish Ghetto started early in the morning. I was eager to get to know a city where my ancestors once lived before coming to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. My mother didn’t know much about where they lived, but we wanted to see what life had been like and what had caused them to leave. Seeing the Ghetto was part of the soul-searching process we needed, even though the sad events had occurred after they’d left. What I was able to gather was that before World War 2, Jews lived a rather normal, lovely life in Warsaw, but after it was all over, everything changed. Now Warsaw lives in their shadow and probably will forever more, wrapped with guilt over what happened on Polish land.
Warsaw, the Polish capital, once had a Jewish population equivalent to the number of Jews living in all of France. It was the only city that rivaled New York’s Jewish population. The city was bombed during the war, so I wondered what was left of the Ghetto. It was an area during World War 2 that once stretched 11 miles with only a small piece remaining of the ghetto walls. Still, you don’t need much to look around and try to remember what happened. It stares you in the face and puts a dagger right in your heart. Warsaw has a tragic Jewish history and the city is completely reminiscent of the torment. They are aware and they are trying to resurrect it at the same time, but there are few Jews left to pick up the pieces and carry on the flame that once burned so brightly. Anti-Semitism and a fear of facing what happened remains, but there are are signs and memories every which way you turn.
We looked to our tour guide, sent from Warsaw Tourism, Kuba Wesolowski, to fill in the informational holes. Kuba is Catholic, yet he is passionate and well versed on the Jewish history of his home country and the terrible loss they endured. He gave us the facts but also gave us time to feel what we needed to feel and I was grateful for that. In between tales of sorrow, he graciously included stories of hope, like about Yardena Sandler, a nurse who managed to put some Jewish children into Catholic orphanages, hence saving their lives and about a young girl named Mary Berg, who recorded her experience of life in the ghetto in a diary that was published.
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of all the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. It was established in the Muranów neighborhood of the Polish capital between October and November 16, 1940, part of the territory of the General Government of German-occupied Poland, with over 400,000 Jews from the vicinity residing in an area of 3.4 km with an average of 7.2 persons per room. Walking through the Ghetto, it actually felt enormous, which added to our existing gloom about what we were seeing. Shadows of ghosts followed us everywhere, and it felt eerie and quite gloomy. It was hard not to wonder what a different place Poland would be today had the Holocaust never occurred. You can see the bullet holes in the walls of the buildings. The gun shots on innocent people are raw and visible.
The ghetto was almost entirely demolished during an uprising in 1943; however, a number of buildings and streets survived, mostly in the “small ghetto” area. We walked through the area, which is still connected through boundary markers, marking gates, wooden footbridges and buildings important to inmates that survived. Some of the buildings are occupied by residents; some have become office buildings. It’s a combination of the old and the new with the tallest building in Poland, the Palace of Culture and Sciences staring down on visitors while walking around, providing a huge contrast to the past and present. Zlota 44 is a residential skyscraper designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind that is also seen in the near distance, making it hard to forget the year is actually 2016 and not 1939. The ghetto still seems to stand on its own as a symbol of the pain that will forever exist in this capital.
Over 70 years ago, the area of Jewish residents (which numbered up to one million) was sealed off from the rest of the city. It was enclosed by a wall that was over 10 feet high, topped with barbed wire, and closely guarded to prevent movement between the ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. Kuba descriptively provided details about what it was like to live in the ghetto and it was easy to look around and see the shadow of what once was. Life had deteriorated quickly. At first some semblance of normal life presided: cafes were still open, newspapers published (newspapers from ‘the outside’ were forbidden), school lessons took place and people strived to continual a normal existence as best as they could. Smuggling food into the ghetto was common, either by bribing guards at the gates, or carrying it in via underground canals – whilst poorer people would send their children over to the ‘Aryan side’ to steal what they could. The official food ration of around 200 calories a day per person was less than 10 percent of the ration for Germans (and about 25% of the ration for Poles).
Today there is only one short section of the original ghetto wall remaining; this section was outside when the original Ghetto became a smaller area after most of the Jews had been deported. Kuba took us to the remnant at 62 Zlota Street and told us that parts of the wall which connected two buildings, which were built higher than the rest of the wall, which was mostly lower than 10 feet. On the wall is a map showing the area of the Ghetto and ribbons and tributes to the victims of the ghetto. It made everything feel very real and confirmed that there is so much evidence to what happened during the Holocaust that it is beyond imagination. Seeing it up close brings history far too close to home. There are two Warsaw Ghetto Heroes’ monuments, unveiled in 1946 and 1948, near the place where the German troops entered the ghetto on 19 April 1943. In 1988 a stone monument was built to mark the Umschlagplatz, a holding area set up by Nazi Germany adjacent to a railway station in occupied Poland, where the ghettoised Jews were being assembled for deportation to death camps during the ghetto liquidation. We also sent to 18 Mila street where Mordechai Anielewicz led the Warsaw Uprising, preventing the majority of a second wave of Jews from being deported to Treblinka. It is believed he committed suicide though his body was never found.
You must already know the rest of the terrible history of the Jews in the ghetto – disease, starvation, a break out of typhoid caused by insanitary conditions. Corpses were dumped naked on the streets – the families were forced to strip their relatives in order to sell the clothes.From there, at least 254,000 Ghetto residents were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp over the course of two months in the summer of 1942. The death toll among the Jewish inhabitants of the Ghetto, between starvation, disease, deportations to extermination camps, Großaktion Warschau, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the subsequent razing of the ghetto, is estimated to be at least 300,000.
How does Warsaw deal with this history? For one thing, besides the many memorials spread throughout, 2013 saw the creation of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The building is impressive both inside and out. Inside the lobby is symbolic of the Red Sea opening to let the Jews out. The walls in the museum feel quite close, making you feel as oppressed as Jews once were in Poland. Exhibits focus on 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, not just the Holocaust and features 60 diverse, unique galleries and extensive use of multi-media. There are many highlights of this well built museum including recreations of a Polish village at the turn of the century and a Jewish street filled with vibrant memories in the years that preceded WW2. Kuba was a trained docent at the museum and he took us on an excellent two-hour tour.
In 1939, there were 400 synagogues in Warsaw. Today there are three. Before the war, there were 3 million Jews in Poland. There are about 13,000 Jews left in the country. Not much survived the war. The Nożyk Synagogue also survived. It was used as a horse stable by the German Wehrmacht. The synagogue has today been restored and is once again used as an active synagogue. Even that was hard for me to visit. In so much darkness, I needed light which I got at Charlotte Menorah, a French bistro where they serve Ashkenazi dishes I get often in New York like challah, blintzes, babka and bagels. Run by two non-Jewish women, they are returning to the Jewish roots they know once infiltrated the area. It’s about tradition – what stayed and what was lost. We also went to Tel Aviv, a trendy contemporary cafe that serves Israeli vegan dishes & kosher wine, owned by Malka Kafka who is Jewish.
There is a yearning to bring back Jewish culture to the spirit of Warsaw, but what a tragic history.
Disclosure: My tour was arranged by Warsaw Tourism to facilitate this article and others.