The narrow, cobbled road beside Warsaw’s Park Ogród Krasińskich used to be one of the city’s busiest streets, although nowadays you wouldn’t be able to tell. The buildings that used to line the roadside are long gone with just empty parkland in their place. All that remains of this once vibrant and bustling hub are the old tramlines embedded in the centre of the street.
Our tour guide, ‘B’, a local historian that spends his spare time leading tourists through Warsaw’s areas of interest, holds up a faded black and white photograph. It shows the exact spot we are standing in now, only looking much more alive. In it, a tram streams down the street while carriages gallop by and shoppers amble alongside them with arms full of shopping and groceries.
This corner of Świętojerska Street – the site of the former Nalewki Street – was once one of the city’s busiest trading areas and the centre of Jewish Warsaw. Before the war, over 300,000 Jews lived here and made up 30% of the capital’s population – only New York could boast a larger Jewish contingent – yet within 6 years, over 90% of these people would perish.
As with elsewhere in the World, Anti-semitism was rife in Poland. However, Warsaw was still seen as a safe haven compared to the discriminatory regimes elsewhere. Since the end of the first world war, the Jewish population had made a significant contribution to life in Poland as traders, financiers, lawyers and doctors. This all came to an end when Poland fell to the Nazis. By 1940, A wall was built around the existing Jewish district, creating the Ghetto, and the entire Jewish population – along with 100,000 Jews from elsewhere in Poland was forced to live inside. An elaborate system of gates and staircases was built to allow Jews to move within the ghetto, but no one was permitted to enter or leave.
Beneath my feet was the spot where one of those gates once stood. It is marked by a discreet, embossed marker embedded in the pavement. It reads “Ghetto Wall” with the dates 1940 and 1943; the year in which the ghetto was created and the year that it was destroyed. The wall once spanned 18 kilometres and surrounded 73 streets, made up of a ‘small’ and a ‘large’ ghetto, the two linked by a wooden bridge standing over ul. Chłodna. Today an art installation called the ‘Footbridge of Memory’ occupies the spot where the bridge once stood, with optical fibres illuminating the former handrails over the street at night as a poignant reminder of what happened here.
The conditions in the ghetto were horrendous from the outset. 380,000 people found themselves squeezed into this small space with an average of 8 people living in one room. Nazi records show that while ethnic Germans in Warsaw were granted a wartime food allowance of over 2,500 calories, people in the ghetto were expected to survive on just 180. Despite the residents managing to smuggle supplies past the walls, starvation took hold. By 1941, 100,000 people had died and the dead were left to rot in the street.
I had been reluctant to take a Jewish tour of Warsaw, knowing that what I would hear would be harrowing but I had no idea just how much these stories would affect me. Listening to B describe the horror, as we stood in the exact spot that it took place already brought tears to my eyes, despite only being 20 minutes into our walk. I had made myself go along though. In my mind, you cannot understand a city without knowing about its history, no matter how disturbing.
In 1942, the first deportations began. Over the course of just a few weeks, over 265,000 Jews were loaded into cattle wagons destined for the Treblinka gas chambers. A year later, in April 1943, a final push to completely liquidate the biggest ghetto began.
‘B’ explained why this spot on Nalewki Street was so important. It was here that one of the ghetto’s main gates was located. It was the one used by the Nazis to enter the ghetto on 19th April to execute their plan. Even more disturbing, it is thought that this date was chosen so that the liquidation would be a birthday present to Hitler, and also because it was Passover; an attempt to further humiliate the residents on one of their most important dates.
With news of their impending death, a band of ill-equipped insurgents decided to face up to the full weight of the Nazi military. Armed with handguns and Molotov cocktails, the Jewish Fighting Organisation (ŻOB) launched an attack on the German forces as they entered the gates. The Ghetto Uprising had begun. Led by Mordechaj Anielewicz, a few hundred Jewish fighters put up a struggle that was ultimately doomed. They always knew that it would be, but this was their attempt to die fighting – with dignity – rather than passively accepting their fate. In less than a month the uprising was over. The German commander Jurgen Stroop announced, “The former Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no longer in existence.”
To further punish the Varsovians, the area containing the ghetto was systematically levelled. Not a single wall was left standing, leaving a field of rubble as far as the eye can see.
We made our way to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, an 11-metre tall labradorite plinth depicting the resistance fighters of 1943. The “wall” of the monument was designed to evoke not just the Ghetto walls, but also the Western Wall in Jerusalem. ‘B’ held up another black and white image, this time showing the monument when it was first constructed; a single upright structure in a field of rubble. It is this image of the utter destruction of Warsaw that will stay with me. Not just because of the mindless killing but because the story of the uprising is strangely heartening; the way that, despite having no hope, this group of people fought with everything they had.
What was once the Ghetto is now surrounded by cheap, communist-era blocks that were erected during the post-war reconstruction. There are some remaining sites though; part of the reddish brick ghetto wall near Grzybowski Square, the Nozyk Synagogue, the only Jewish house of worship in Warsaw to survive the war, and the Umschlagplatz, a central square from where Jews were deported.
Just around the corner, we came to our final stop; Mila 18. It is an unassuming plot of land that has, at its centre, a grass-covered mound with a cobble stairway leading to its summit. On top stands a stone plinth bedecked in flowers and covered in pebbles, most inscribed with messages in Hebrew. It is at Mila 18 that was the main command centre of the uprising and the location of their final stand. On May 8 German forces surrounded the building. Rather than face capture, Anielewicz and his cabal opted for mass suicide. It is not known how many people are buried under the mound of rubble; people that escaped the basement of the building before its destruction did their best to remember the faces that they saw in there, but some may have been missed. Their names are now listed on a pyramid at the base of the mound.
It was a sombre end to a heartbreaking tour. To know that so much life, culture and history was wiped out in such a short time is a harrowing thing. By this point, our group could only stand in silence and watch as the Israeli members of our party lit candles atop the ruins.
Today, hardly any of the Jewish culture remains. It is estimated that 15,000 Jews survived the war by hiding outside of the Ghetto or escaping thanks to the efforts people like ZOB and the Zabinskis; a couple that owned Warsaw zoo and hid Jewish residents in its grounds. However, only around 2,000 – 10,000 Jews now live in Warsaw. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the lost heritage and large efforts have been put into honouring the city’s Jewish culture – most notably in the construction of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The Jewish Theater presents a repertoire of Jewish cultural plays and musical performances and Jewish cuisine is beginning to appear again, thanks to places like the Tel Aviv Café.
While this kind of tour is not for everybody, anyone with a passive interest in Polish or World War two history should consider a Jewish tour of Warsaw. I went with Free Walkative Tour, who carry out free tours on a ‘pay what you like’ basis. Orange Umbrella also come highly recommended.
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