Warsaw: A Phoenix from the Ashes (Part One)

Between 25th - 29th March 2013, a group of friends and I travelled to Warsaw for a short break. Our thoughts turned to the famous small prices of the country, the taste of pierogi and being able to enjoy a pint of Żywiec over dinner. More than that, however, I was desperate to walk around Poland's capital for its rich, and often tragic, wartime history.

On our second day in the city, our hostel had organised a free walking tour of part of the former Jewish Ghetto. We were led by Bojan, a Serbian employee of the hostel with an interest in the city's history.
We began with a five minute walk to the Palace of Culture and Science (see 1. below), a gift from Stalin to the people of Warsaw. Once adorned with Communist emblems and pictures of Stalin, the building is now largely revered by Warsaw's residents. It is still used, however, and now houses conference rooms, nightclubs, offices and more, as well as offering an impressive view over the whole city. "The people of Warsaw think the best view of Warsaw is from the top of the Palace," grinned Bojan, "because it's the only place in Warsaw where you cannot see the Palace!"

All photos with permission from Sara Thomas

The place where we were standing in front of the Palace, as Bojan pointed out, was once part of the Jewish Ghetto that separated as many as 500,000 Jews from their Polish neighbours. In front of us was a statue of Janusz Korczak (2.), by all accounts a hero. He was a medical professional who ran an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw, which he was forced to move into the ghetto in 1940. Korczak was given a chance to leave the ghetto when it was being liquidated but, knowing the fate of the children he had cared for, he refused to leave and went with them to Treblinka death camp. It is said that, on the way to the gas chamber, children huddled round Korcazk and did not cry or stir. The original orphanage building remains to this day.
Next, we crossed over a large main road near the Palace, over a rather amusing zebra crossing (3.). The keyboard-shaped crossing is a (technically illegal!) tribute to the Polish pianist and composer Fryderyk Chopin.
Our bemusement, however, swiftly disappeared when we entered the courtyard of 55 Sienna Street. In front of us stood one of the only remaining fragments of the original ghetto wall (4. and 5.). In 21 places where the wall once stood - whether or not the original wall still stands - there are commemorative plaques which give a brief history of the ghetto and show whereabouts in the ghetto you would once find yourself (as in photo 4.). In the buildings beside us, Jewish families would have lived in cramped, unbearable conditions, whilst their Polish neighbours on the other side of the wall lived comfortably and with all the amenities they needed available to them. The wall was once covered with barbed wire and shards of glass over the top, too. Hearing these things certainly brought a lump to my throat.
On our way to another part of the wall, we passed a memorial plaque to those involved in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (6.; not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943). I later read that there are around 300 plaques on walls in the city highlighting where fighters and members of the resistance were killed by the Germans, which I then began to notice on many streets near our hostel.

The other part of the ghetto wall we visited, located at 62 Złota Street, is the same height as it was originally built (three metres) (7. - 10.). It has been visited by the former President of Israel, Chaim Herzog (8.), and a few bricks have been taken from the wall to be displayed in museums in Houston, America, Yad Vashem, Israel and Melbourne, Australia (9.). I had to wonder whether or not the U.K. will one day also ask for a brick to be taken and put in a museum, perhaps for those who cannot travel to Warsaw and see the wall themselves.
As we walked from the site, Bojan motioned us to look at the ground. Where the former ghetto walls have been knocked down, plaques run along the street showing where they once stood, in Polish and English (11.). It felt strange to be able to walk from one side to other, something that was impossible 70 years ago.
Our group then came to a former ghetto residential building on Waliców Street, which has remained untouched since the end of the war (12.). It is a sad sight; the windows are broken or smashed in, and pigeons continually fly in and out of the dilapidated building. Warning signs instruct people to stay off the dangerous site. As I looked up, I desperately tried to imagine the people that once lived there; washing being strung from one window to another; some kind of life or sign that people once inhabited the building. Admittedly, it was hard; its very soul seems to have been sucked out.

After a lunch break that enabled us to discuss what we had seen and rest our feet, we made our way towards Chłodna Street. This street once connected the Large and Small Ghettos via a footbridge that was built in 1942 (the film 'The Pianist' portrays this bridge brilliantly). In the present day, however, the bridge is commemorated by a large sculpture (13.), and visitors can peer into small boxes on the side of the sculpture that show original photos of the bridge, accompanied by sounds of the road.
From Chłodna Street, we made our way to Hala Mirowska, a long-standing market in the heart of Warsaw. The market was used for other purposes during the war, and most of it was demolished, but has now been restored and sells Polish spirits, sweets and cakes, also housing a small supermarket. Bojan informed us that one original wall, however, still forms part of the market. The bullet holes from where German soldiers shot Poles and Jews are still visible. Truth be told, I was not disappointed when he told us he was not sure of its exact whereabouts.

Our group visited a few other significant sites before our last stop, but I will mention these in Part Two, as we revisited these a day later. We move on, then, to one of the saddest, most desolate-looking sites I have ever seen: Próżna Street. This street was once part of the Jewish ghetto, and a couple of buildings are still standing in the condition they were left in after the war (14. and 15.). Both sides of the street were originally left in their original condition, but the cream-coloured building (to the right in photo 14.) has since been restored and is now used for office space. Along the buildings that do still remain, a small photo exhibition displays pictures of those who may have once lived in the buildings. It is heartbreaking to see photos of a small boy in his best clothes, or a young girl posing with her head resting in one hand. Meanwhile, cars pass by and the world around it does not stop. I cannot begin to describe the sadness or emptiness I felt when looking at this place, yet there was something about it which drew me to it, as will be seen in later parts.
Walking down Próżna Street, we discovered we had done something of a circle, and were very close to the hostel once again. As a sidenote, Bojan pointed out one building opposite. My friends and I had wondered what the strange sign on the top of the building meant, as we had seen it in a few places (16.). He explained it to be the symbol of the Warsaw Uprising, and said, "What happened in this building was amazing. The Poles barricaded it so well the Nazis couldn't get in for 22 days!" I was stunned to think I was staying so close to a place that embodies so much resistance and defiance.

The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest set up by the Nazis, so we did not cover all the points that I wished to see. More details of other significant places around the former ghetto will come in later parts of my Warsaw posts.