Even a decade ago, someone unfamiliar with the topography of Warsaw might have wandered into the area of the former ghetto and remained unaware of the significance of the place. The ghetto had occupied about a third of the Downtown district, but no signs indicated its history. Only in 2008 were the boundaries of the ghetto delineated by metal strips embedded in the pavement, and monuments with a map of the closed district were erected. Many residents of Warsaw admit that until then they were not aware where the boundaries used to be and which streets were included within the ghetto. The markers were erected at the initiative of Eleonora Bergman, who implemented the project in cooperation with the architect Tomasz Lec. For many years, Eleonora Bergman has been affiliated with the Jewish Historical Institute (which she directed in the years 2007–2011), where she works in the Ringelblum Archives. Professionally, she is active in the field of history of art and architecture, with particular focus on synagogue architecture, to which she has devoted several books. Her efforts for the preservation of Jewish heritage in Poland earned her the Legion of Honour. She says her life follows the maxims of Jewish sages: “The day is short, the labor vast. It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it”. She takes us on a walk among the landmarks of Jewish history in Warsaw.
I haved lived in Warsaw almost my entire life. I witnessed postwar changes as rubble was carted away and gaps left by destroyed houses were filled up with new buildings. Even so, for a long time I did not understand the city or its true nature. My job after graduation involved historic towns, for which I prepared conservation proposals. Gradually, I started seeing my Warsaw through the eyes of an urban planner, not just a resident.
All that time I was plagued by a single unresolved question: how come so much was known about the synagogues in other cities, and so little about the ones here, even though the Warsaw Jewish community was second only to New York in terms of population and importance. No one seemed eager to provide the answer, so I had to find it myself. For 15 years I collected materials, then wrote a book about the synagogues of Warsaw. It turned out to be the best way to discover the Jewish history of Warsaw, but also gain a better understanding of the prewar city.
I got to know it through synagogues and other places of worship frequented by Jews, who constituted over one-third of the pre-war population of Warsaw. In November 1940 this one-third was crammed into a closed district covering no more than 1/20 of the area of the city – essentially a prison surrounded by walls and barbed wire. The people were murdered and their homes torn down. After that, Warsaw was not and will never be the same. The “Guide to the Perished City” by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak should not be limited to the ghetto area, because that whole city no longer exists.
But where did the ghetto boundaries lie? That part of the city was the most difficult to understand for me. Partly for emotional reasons as part of my family was killed there. It was not easy to track down the places where history happened. After the war, new streets and houses were built in a completely different layout. It took me a long time to invent a way to embed the boundaries of the closed district into the contemporary urban fabric. I prepared the preliminary ideas and drawings in the mid-1990s, but I could not go any further at the time. It was only in 2007 that, through a series of coincidences – and the efforts of many individuals and institutions! – the streets of Warsaw were marked with lines indicating the boundary of the ghetto, a district that existed for only three years, but left an indelible imprint on the history of the city. Some people think that these markings have been there for a long time. I am very glad that they fit in so well with the landscape of Warsaw and help people find their way through the complex space of the city, and in some sense also through time.
I have chosen to lead you along a route that follows traces of Jewish life in Warsaw, visible and invisible; it leads to places where Jewish life goes on today and to monuments that commemorate the ones who died.
Today's Grzybowski Square is the former site of the village of Grzybów, where Jews were allowed to settle freely in the 17th century. The only relic of that time is the shape of the square near the former Kraków Route (Twarda Street); and the oldest structure in the vicinity is the foundations of the White Building. The (orthodox) Nożyk Synagogue, erected in 1902 to the design of the architect Karol Kozłowski (although my eminent colleague Tomasz Grygiel argues that it was designed by Adolf Loewe – on this issue we may always disagree), is the only Jewish house of worship that survived the extermination of the Warsaw Jews and the destruction of the city in the two uprisings of 1943 and 1944. Worship services have been held here regularly for over twenty years, and the White Building at 6 Twarda Street bustles with the life of numerous Jewish organizations and serves as the scene of events and social initiatives.
From here, it is a short walk to Iron Gate (Żelaznej Bramy) Square. Although the gate had been demolished long ago (in 1818), the marketplace that once surrounded it used to be full of Jewish merchants.
In Iron Gate [Żelaznej Bramy] Square you come across a marker indicating the limits of the ghetto between November 1940 and May 1943. A total of 21 such markers have been installed at the maximum perimeter (the limits of the ghetto were changed repeatedly) of the largest involuntary urban concentration of people in German-occupied Europe. Hardly anyone today can imagine what life was like in the Warsaw Ghetto, or even show it on a map. Apart from a few buildings, there are no traces of it; along with one-third of the population of the city, a large part of the downtown district was destroyed. The area was covered with a new grid of streets and new buildings. The markers were installed in order to help those interested in history find their way. We are going to see several more along this route.
Where we are now is where the stories of Warsaw Jews from the 19th century and those from before World War II overlap. Lubomirski Palace, which now faces a different direction than before the war (the building was rotated) used to house a prayer hall.
The Mirowska Halls had been an important trade centre even before the war. After crossing John Paul II Avenue (built after the war) and walking further west down Elektoralna Street you can see to the right the former route of Biała Street (which has been moved about 200 m), leading directly to the Municipal Courts building on Leszno Street (currently named Solidarności Avenue). Designed in the interwar period by Bohdan Pniewski, the Municipal Courts building was situated on the border of the ghetto and during the German occupation (until 1941) was used for meetings by people from both sides of the ghetto walls. Some people managed to escape from the ghetto that way with the help of their friends.
Continue west down Elektoralna Street. When you pass the church in the middle of the street, you enter the former Chłodna Street.
Some time after the ghetto was established this street became the boundary between the “small” and “large” ghetto. In February, 1942, they were connected by a wooden overpass, known from photos and films. Now, after dark, beams of light marking the overpass' location can be seen from a large distance. It is a unique kind of monument.
Let us cross the square in front of the Lubomirski Palace, turn onto Zimna Street to get to Elektoralna Street, then follow Orla Street to Solidarności Avenue. Across the street is the Reformed Church (unquestionably designed by Adolf Loewe). Left of the church, at the former address 18 Leszno Street, was the home of Emanuel Ringelblum, initiator and manager of the underground archive of the Warsaw ghetto. His apartment building no longer exists – like most buildings in the ghetto, it was destroyed during the war. Behind the church was the Lutheran hospital, which sometimes provided shelter to persecuted Jews. You could go there and see the commemorative plaques at the site of the hospital, but for now let us turn right and pass through Bankowy Square to the former Tłomackie Street.
Only two buildings remain of the 17th-century layout of a small square tightly surrounded by houses. With a bit of imagination, they make it possible to picture what the area used to look like. One of them is a round water tower, known as Gruba Kaśka, which used to stand in the middle of Tłomackie Street, the other is the Jewish Historical Institute (Polish: Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, ŻIH), formerly the Main Judaic Library of the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street. The Synagogue was personally blown up on 16 May 1943 by SS General Juergen Stroop after the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by military and police units under his command. However, even much earlier, at least from the mid-18th century, the area was inhabited by a Jewish community, one of the few in Warsaw at the time. The Synagogue (progressive, unlike the orthodox Nożyk Synagogue), erected in 1878 by Leander Marconi, immensely raised the prestige of the district. During the interwar period 13 Tłomackie Street was one of the most important centres of Jewish cultural life: it held the seat of the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Poland (Polish: Związek Literatów i Dziennikarzy Żydowskich w Polsce) and the Yiddish PEN Club.
The Jewish Historical Institute was established in 1947 as a successor of the Central Jewish Historical Committee (Polish: Centralna Żydowska Komisja Historyczna) founded in Lublin at the end of 1944. As the continuer of the work of the Committee, it became the repository of a large amount of material evidence left over after the murder of Polish Jews, as well as documents related to attempts to rebuild Jewish life after World War II. These are collections of books, paintings, sculptures and archival finds, including the underground archive of the Warsaw ghetto – the Ringelblum Archives, entered into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 1999. Working with this collection in a historic building gives us, the staff, a sense of communion with the bygone world of Polish Jews.
Now let us cross Solidarności Avenue to get to the eastern side of the Arsenal. This is the start of Bohaterów Getta Street, which was dedicated to the heroes of the Ghetto shortly after the war. It follows the route of the old Nalewki Street, formerly tightly built up with tenement houses, each with two or three courtyards, bustling with the life of hundreds of businesses and shops labelled with signboards in Polish and Yiddish, alive with tenants and workers, customers and visitors, Orthodox Jews and upper-class citizens dressed in the latest Paris fashion.
Standing in front of the Arsenal, have a glimpse down Długa Street, where the Board of the Warsaw Orthodox Jewish Community used to be before its new seat was erected at 26/28 Grzybowska Street.
Another topic related to Długa (No. 29) was the Hotel Polski Affair. In the summer of 1943, a rumour purposely spread by the Germans made many people believe that legal emigration from occupied Poland was possible for Jewish holders of South American and Palestinian passports, which led many of those hiding outside the ghetto to reveal themselves. The hotel in Długa Street was designated as a meeting point. It turned out to be a trap. Out of the over 400 people who gathered at the hotel, most were sent to their deaths. The affair is commemorated by a plaque on the wall of the building, which to this day houses a hotel.
As you traverse the Krasiński Garden, imagine that you can see around you Orthodox Jews with long beards in traditional long black gaberdines, who were not allowed into the Saxon Garden because of their appearance. We are approaching another boundary marker. The line indicating the ghetto wall also marks the limit of the Garden and the course of the old Świętojerska Street, which ended at its junction with Nalewki Street. As it passes the Chinese Embassy, Świętojerska resumes its old course, leading to the Old Town.
The embassy is significant because it is said to contain a buried part of the Ringelblum Archives. The first two parts, hidden in 1942 and 1943 at 68 Nowolipki Street, were discovered in September 1946 and December 1950. The third part was hidden just before the outbreak of the ghetto uprising in April 1943 at 34 Świętojerska Street, in a large tenement building with three yards, one of which held a brushmakers' shop, the site of a workshop manufacturing brushes for the German army and of clandestine activities of the Jewish Combat Organization (Polish: Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa). Sadly, neither the systematic exploration of the ruins in 1949 nor excavations in the garden of the embassy organized in 2003 (with the consent of the Republic of China) managed to uncover any hidden materials. Thus, the content of the third part of the archives is only a matter of speculation.
Probably, only a few people realize that the ghetto extended as far as Freta Street, currently belonging to the Nowe Miasto neighbourhood. You can find a boundary marker on Franciszkańska Street, across from the church. This part of the city had been inhabited by Jews from the early 19th century, when official regulations prohibited them from settling in some of the streets of Warsaw while encouraging them to build new houses on Franciszkańska, Nowiniarska and surrounding streets. Those buildings were erected in the years 1820–1830 by Warsaw's best architects, and most of the buildings were entered in the register of monuments before World War II. In almost every building there was at least one prayer hall, founded mostly by the Hassidim.
The present-day site of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is surrounded by monuments: the museum itself is situated in a building that conjures up the memory of its predecessor, the seat of the Royal Artillery Barracks from the times of King Stanisław Poniatowski, that demolished complex of buildings once stretched as far as Okopowa Street. In the last period before the ghetto was destroyed, the Barracks building was the seat of the Jewish Council, while the other buildings held the Gęsiówka prison (informally named after Gęsia Street, currently Anielewicza Street).
The Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, designed by Natan Rappaport and erected in 1948, reflected the style of the Barracks building. There were plans to reconstruct the Barracks and make the building into... a Jewish museum. The plans fell through, the ruins were demolished, and for almost five decades the site was a park used by local residents.
The monument should be viewed from both sides: first the relief sculpture of people being chased towards death, then the side showing others fighting to avenge them. The monument marks the starting point of the route of remembrance, which reveals details about both types of heroes. Not far from the monument, opposite the bench dedicated to Jan Karski, you can find the first monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, preceding Rappaport's design and erected in 1946 – a circle of red sandstone symbolizing a bloody hatch leading to a bunker. Its author was Leon Suzin, and the monument was unveiled on April 19th, the second anniversary of the uprising. It was the first time the Holocaust was commemorated in Poland by a monument.
From the new museum of Jewish life in Poland, a straight path leads to the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, known as Gęsia Street Cemetery before the war. Paradoxically, this area testifies to the richness of the lives of Warsaw Jews, as confirmed by one of the Hebrew names of the cemetery, bejt ha-chaim, the house of life.
Following the route of remembrance along Zamenhofa Street, you reach monuments at the site of the former Miła Street No. 18. They mark the command bunker of the Jewish Combat Organization, where a group of insurgents, under the command of Mordechaj Anielewicz, held off German attacks. Most of them died in the bunker on 8 May 1943. The first monument was erected at the site in the 1950s, primarily to honour Anielewicz. It was joined by another monument half a century later, when several dozen insurgents out of the approximately 300 who died in the bunker were identified. Standing in front of it, groups of Israeli youth visiting Warsaw may find parallels with the ruins of Masada, an ancient fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, where Jewish rebels decided to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans in 73 A.D. The site of the bunker is truly a grave: the bodies were never exhumed.
The remembrance route ends at the Umschlagplatz. When a railway spur was built here in 1908, the name, meaning reloading point, had no negative connotations. But since the time when over a quarter of a million men, women, and children from the Warsaw Ghetto were deported to Treblinka, the square has been one of the symbols of the Holocaust.
A monument designed by Hanna Szmalenberg was erected here in 1988. Its interior walls are engraved with hundreds of first names, no surnames; the names symbolically represent all victims murdered in the Holocaust. At the end of our walk, let us read and remember this verse from the Book of Job 16:26, engraved on the wall of the neighbouring prewar building: “Cover not my blood, O earth, and let my cry mount without cease!”.