I was walking next to the Ogród Krasińskich park when I saw something that sent me back to memories twenty-four years in the past. Of course, when one wanders Berlin, he or she expects to see a marker showing the former location of the Berlin Wall. The wall commemorated by this marker in Warsaw, however, is less well-known:
One of the first classes I took at the University of Arkansas was the honors colloquium in the Literature of the Holocaust. Professor Mark Cory transformed my knowledge of the Holocaust from “Hitler killed a bunch of Jews” into a much fuller understanding. I will not forget books like Jerzy Kosinski’s Painted Bird or Art Spiegelman’s Maus. My final class paper, however, covered the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. I had just stepped on a memorial to the reality behind that paper. Right behind me I observed a memorial column that showed the area covered by the Ghetto. Previous visitors had placed pebbles atop the structure. I found myself a pebble and added it to the top. I knew I needed to tug on this thread of memory.
I consulted my tourist map and saw that a museum from the Jewish community lay nearby. I walked in that direction and soon found the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Prominent banners showed that it had been named European Museum of the Year for 2016! Just outside the museum, two monuments have been raised to the memory of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. The one placed there in 1946 is easy to miss, a disc of rock with metal lettering; pebbles appeared here as well. The other memorial is impossible to miss.
I entered the museum and visited some of the research areas. The museum offered a tourist map of Warsaw; this one was specific to sites of Jewish memory. It would come in handy during the following days. With that, I moved into the permanent exhibition.
Like the Berlin museum, the Polin Museum was good at portraying the history of Jews within Poland. I enjoyed large wall paintings of medieval cities, each with quotes discussing the involvement of Jews in the towns. The first mention of Jews in Warsaw dates to 1414, when Jews accounted for about 5% of the population. Because Christians were threatened with damnation for collecting interest (usury), Jews frequently occupied this economic niche. The community, however, frequently suffered from exclusionary policies. This text, coming from the 1267 synod of Gniezno Archdiocese in Wrocław, reminded me that Apartheid has a very, very long history:
We hereby order that the houses of any Jews living in the Gniezno Archdiocese be next to one another or joined, so that Jewish and Christian homes be separated by a fence, wall, or ditch.
I really enjoyed a large reconstruction of some of the medieval cities of Poland. A projector played video from above onto the white models. I thought I recognized the skyline of Krakow in one of them!
I believe the pièce de résistance for the museum was its recreation of a highly decorated synagogue from 17th century Gwoździec. Intricately painted wooden synagogues could once be found all across Poland, but these priceless artifacts were mercilessly burned by Hitler’s death squads. The one at the museum was recreated from old photographs and architectural drawings. The bimah (altar) was created a full scale, while the roof was made at 85% of its original size. You can see all kinds of designs in the art, from zodiac to surprising animals!
With a step into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history moved from one of a growing community to a group under attack. By the time the Nazis held Warsaw, regressive laws had compelled the Jews to live in overcrowded conditions in just a few neighborhoods. The large ghetto and small ghetto were linked by just one pedestrian bridge across Chłodna Street; correspondingly, the museum breaks its exhibition into a larger build-up of the historical pressures, a bridge, and then a smaller area devoted to the bloody uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. The pressures this community came under were intense:
We are imprisoned within double walls: a wall of brick for our bodies, and a wall of silence for our spirits. –Chaim A. Kaplan, Scroll of Agony (1942)
As was commonly the case, the Nazis in Warsaw sought out members of the Jewish community that they could exploit as collaborators. Abraham Gancwajch and twelve others formed “the Thirteen” of the Office to Combat Profiteering and Speculation– Jews serving the purposes of the Nazis. In the end, these individuals were killed by either the Germans or by the Jewish underground.
The Germans had developed their plan for the “Final Solution” at the 1942 Wannsee Conference. Correspondingly, they began inducing people living in the Ghetto to board trains for “resettlement,” for example by promising bread and marmalade to volunteers. The Jews began developing plans of their own. The Oyneg Shabes Archives began placing archives of special texts into metal boxes and milk cans. Their first archive was buried in a school cellar in August of 1942. I was moved to see some of those boxes on display in the museum along with this quote from 19-year-old David Graber: “What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground… I would love to live to see the moment when the great treasure is dug up… Neighboring street besieged. We are all feverish. We prepare for the worst. We hurry.” This community expected only death. Tellingly, the display of the Archive boxes appeared at the bridge separating the display area.
In July of 1942, the Jewish Fighting Organization was established in response to the increasing deportations. Along with the Jewish Military Union, these individuals did their best to mount an armed response to the Germans, especially after the Nazis entered the Ghetto in force in April of 1943. This poem by Władysław Szlengel helped to capture the bravery of these fighters in the midst of incredible despair:
Hear, O you German God,
How we Jews pray in our ‘barbaric’ homes
With crowbar or pole in hand.
We ask you, Lord, for a bloody fight.
We beg for urgent violent death.
Before we die, let our eyes not see
The railway track receding,
But give our arms a precise aim, Lord,
To bloody those blue-grey uniforms,
Before our throats give out their final,
Silent cry, let our eyes see
In those brazen hands, fists holding whips,
Our own so human, ordinary fear.
Like purple, blood-brimming flowers
From Niska Street, and Miła, and Muranów
Our rifle muzzles blossom fire.
This is our Spring! Counter-attack!
The heady wine of battle intoxicates!
These are our partisan forests–
Back alleys off Dzika and Ostrowska Streets…
Our battle cry– six letters– blazes red,
A word, a battering ram: REVOLT
The Germans were not expecting this level of resistance when they entered the Ghetto. After initial fighting, the Nazis changed tactics, burning the buildings of the Ghetto one by one. On the eighth of May, 1943, the fighting came to an end with the discovery of the bunker where the commanders of the Jewish Resistance. The leaders all committed suicide rather than face capture. Approximately 13,000 Jews died (in addition to thousands of others who had already been shipped to concentration camps). As many as three hundred Nazis had been killed by the resistance.
October 22, 2016
On my final day in Warsaw, I decided to add two last visits to honor the bravery of the fighters. I wanted to visit two sites denoted by the map of Jewish sites in Warsaw. My journey was hindered by two factors. The first was my large roller bag, bumping over the cobbles and pavers. The second was the gloomy cold rain, which had escalated with each day in Warsaw.
I started by walking southwest on Senatorska, and soon the road became Elektoralna. It seemed quite a long time before I reached Chłodna, but then I reached sidewalk markers for the Ghetto wall. I reached a marker of my own height, along with four end-posts to mark the positions of the footbridge suspensions. I particularly liked a modern feature; each post had a “ViewMaster” stereoscope that would let one alternate through four different historical views of the bridge connecting the two Ghetto areas. The museum related that these bridges were exploited by Nazi sympathizers to catcall and otherwise humiliate the captives of the Ghetto.
I also wanted to visit a remnant of the original wall. I trudged another kilometer in the rain. The map gave the entrance as being at 62 Złota Street. When I passed through the transom there, I was quite shocked when a fit young man stood in my way and began asking very pointed questions about my identity and motivations. I asked to see his identity card, and he flashed a card from his wallet that implied some vague sort of official status. He calmed down once I showed my passport and explained that I was headed to the train station next. The Jewish community has learned to be vigilant in response to many vandals and terrorists who defile their heritage sites.
The pictures I had seen of the Ghetto wall had understated its size. It stretched upwards thru two complete stories. A group of high school students stood inattentively as a guide explained the wall’s significance. I saw a few bricks had been replaced after they had been removed to Jewish museums as far away as Houston. Soon I had a moment to myself at the wall. I reached out to touch the wall, remembering those who had been isolated by it. On the way out, the security guard was far friendlier.