A walking tour of Jewish Warsaw 

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.

About morselsandscraps

A retired Australian who spends a lot of time in Warsaw, and blogs as a way of life.
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19 Responses to A walking tour of Jewish Warsaw 

  1. Rosemary Barnard says:

    Trip Advisor….honestly? An insult if ever there was one to the hundreds of thousands of people who died. Thank you Meg for sharing this post, especially for the photos with the pebbles at memorials.


    • Just one trip advisor review of the walk. But how totally ignorant and what a failure of understanding. “Nothing to see” made the point of the walk, if you have the capacity to “see” that.

      I hesitate to place stones, because it seems like the appropriation of a tradition that’s not mine. think I need to retrace my steps sans camera and sans company to really think about the meaning of each site.

      There are still places to visit: there is an excellent booklet called Jewish Warsaw that was the source for a number of details my brain didn’t quite hold.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rosemary Barnard says:

        Out of respect for my ancestors I will place a stone, an Australian stone, on a family grave, if I can find one with the family symbol, a bear, in Prague’s old Jewish cemetery. I don’t have any qualms about the practice not being part of my current traditions.


        • No, but you have that ancestry. I don’t.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Rosemary Barnard says:

            I wish that everyone was as honest with themselves in their responses to this most sensitive issue. Jewish people would respect you for that. The ones who so graciously guided me in Prague in 2014 understood without words the depth of emotions which were such a surprise to me. So yes, I am very comfortable about performing this ritual when next I visit Prague.


  2. Suzanne says:

    Gosh what a story. You certainly are in a part of the world that has a troubled history.


  3. desleyjane says:

    What history here Meg. Thank you for sharing.


    • Thank you for reading. These walking tours are superb – a local with expertise. We missed Patricia’s cv, but an economist led the Communist Warsaw tour, and a psychologist the Praga one. Must check out Melbourne ones – I know there’s one for the alleys of Melbourne.

      The only problem is you travel at someone else’s pace, and your emotional response is compromised a bit.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. restlessjo says:

    It is a terrible past, Meg, but as you point out there are other civilisations that have met with similar hatred, What is it about the Jews that invited this? That image of Stroop chortling as he presses the button! For sure the Poles have done a good job in remembering and paying tribute. I love that little water tank amid its heavyweight neighbours. 🙂 Thank you for the link, darlin. I’m honoured to include this. Wishing you a peaceful and happy Sunday.


  5. Sue says:

    What a excellent walk marking very tragic event in history….I was aghast at that Trip Advisor review – there are some ignorant, self absorbed people about.


  6. Lucid Gypsy says:

    What a vile and shameful part of history this is, the Jews suffering was abominable.


  7. Pingback: Jo’s Monday walk : Water of Leith, Edinburgh | restlessjo

  8. Nothing to see? Some people’s eyes are yet to open, I think. When I went to the ghetto areas, someone on my tour kept asking why she couldn’t see the ghetto! She must have missed the commentary completely!


  9. Such a somber history, and an important one to be told. So interesting to see the contrast between old photographs and new, to think about what once was there and no longer is. Thanks for sharing this, Meg.


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