My visiting friend’s focus in Poland is on the Jewish story, so we join a free walking tour for a few hours. It’s a hot day and our guide, Patricia, not only offers an informative and well-paced commentary, but takes us along the shady side of the street.
At the monument to the heroes of Warsaw, which honours both Jews and Poles, she offers a litany of famous Polish Jews. Most of the names she mentions escape me now but Wikipedia offers an impressive list, from Nobel prize-winning scientists, to filmmakers, writers and the inventor of Esperanto.
At Ratusz-Arsenał, she gives history to buildings I know well, but merely to look at. An odd building with a conical roof in the middle of a busy tram intersection proves to be a water tank called Gruba Kaśka (Fat Kate) that served the old Jewish quarter.
Across Tłomackie Street, the incongruous coupling of a very modern glass-fronted building with a piece of sober nineteenth century architecture marks the boundary of the ghetto. Outside the ghetto, the building survived and is now the Jewish library.
The glass building is on the site of the splendid Warsaw Synagogue, destroyed by the Germans. The destruction is described gleefully by SS-Gruppenführer Jürgen Stroop:
What a marvelous sight it was. A fantastic piece of theater. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device which would detonate all the charges simultaneously. Jesuiter called for silence. I glanced over at my brave officers and men, tired and dirty, silhouetted against the glow of the burning buildings. After prolonging the suspense for a moment, I shouted: ‘Heil Hitler’ and pressed the button. With a thunderous, deafening bang and a rainbow burst of colors, the fiery explosion soared toward the clouds, an unforgettable tribute to our triumph over the Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was no more. The will of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been done.
(The model and photos of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw Are in the Polin Museum.)
There is a story that the building of the tower was dogged by delays. A rabbi’s curse was blamed and another rabbi was brought from America to uncurse it. In exchange he asked that its architecture reflect the shape of the synagogue at the base, and that Jewish relics have a place inside.
Tramlines on a cobbled street between the archaeological museum and Krasinskich Park are all that remains of a bustling Jewish street. Patricia reads an account of Jewish life in this street which creates a sense tremendous vibrancy: a bustle of shops and walkers and trams, and pleasure in the peace of Krasinskich. Then you look at what’s left, and feel such loss.
The ghetto boundary is marked by small cast iron plates embedded in the pavement. A relief map on a pillar shows the extent of the ghetto. It was divided into two parts by Chłodna Street, as you can see on the map. In Chłodna Street normal life continued. A bridge over the street meant that anyone crossing from the greater to the lesser ghetto was reminded brutally of the life they once had.
We pause in a curved archway housing a mural celebrating Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto, with quotes from famous people such as Einstein in both Polish and Esperanto. Leaving the archway, we cross an unexpected mound on this level escarpment and learn that it is created from the piled-up rubble of the ghetto, including remains of people killed when the ghetto was destroyed.
Of course we stop at the Polin museum, the shape of which reflects the parting of the Red Sea for Moses, and pay tribute at the Ghetto Uprising monument. Then we move along the Memorial Route of the Martyrdom and Struggle of the Jews 1940-43, marked by chunky black stone blocks engraved with the names of people associated with the ghetto: it follows the journey from the ghetto to the despatch point for Treblinka death camp.
A memorial mound marks the location of a house in Miła Street, the basement of which was the headquarters bunker for the Jewish Combat Organisation. When the Germans found it and began to inject poison gas the hundred occupants, including Mordechai Anielwicz, the leader of the ghetto uprising, committed suicide. Their names are engraved on a triangular slab, not all of them, because no one was sure exactly who was in the bunker at the time and there were no survivors. Many memorial pebbles have been placed on these memorials according to Jewish custom.
We complete this journey through a terrible history at the Umschlagplatz, a very simple memorial resembling an open freight car on the site where the transports departed for Treblinka carrying 300 000 Jews to their death. The memorial is engraved with 448 common Jewish names and a verse from the book of Job:
Oh earth, cover not thou my blood, and let my cry have no place.
Reading through trip advisor reviews later I came across one that said “This walk was a waste of time. There was nothing to see.”
I am linking this post to Jo’s Monday walks.