Warsaw: A Phoenix from the Ashes (Part Three)

As previously stated, the Warsaw Ghetto was the largest ghetto in Poland and certainly one of the largest created by the Nazis. A total of around 400,000 people were crowded into an area of 1.3 square miles; as an area of a city centre this is rather large, but was still far too overpopulated. This is why so much disease ran rampant in the ghetto and claimed the lives of so many.
The size of the former ghetto meant that the tour provided by our hostel simply could not cover all the major sites in five hours. In the hostel, however, I found a fantastic booklet with details of different walks that can be taken around the area. Details of the sites covered can be found via this link. Understandably, there are only so many sites of a historical (and particularly tragic) nature that some people wish to see, so just one friend accompanied me to see the rest of the former ghetto.

All photos with permission from Sara Thomas

Our first stop on the walk took us to the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute (1. and 2.). The Institute researches and collates information about the Jewish population of Poland both before and after the war, and is housed in a pre-war building that survived both the Ghetto Uprising and Warsaw Uprising of 1943 and 1944 respectively.
Opposite the building, however, is quite a different story. On this site once stood the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. It was built in the 1870s and was once one of the largest synagogues in the world. Originally within the ghetto borders, it was excluded in 1942. The Nazis, however, still chose to use the Great Synagogue as a symbol of the defeat of those involved in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. On 16 May, 1943, SS-Gruppenführer Jürgen Stroop blew up the synagogue, officially marking the end of the Uprising. In its place now stands a skyscraper simply known as the Blue Tower; if one did not know the synagogue once stood there, there would be no way of telling from the site itself (3.).

Walking further northwards, we arrived at the Arsenal building (4.). The building had been used to store military arsenal for years but was badly damaged during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 - floral tributes still adorn the building today (5.). The building, however, was restored to its former appearance after the war, the exterior resembling its original 18th century facade. The Arsenal building is also on the corner of the Bohaterów Getta Street (Ghetto Heroes Street). This street once formed part of the large district of Jewish Warsaw and was a bustling, busy road, with people and trams constantly travelling down it. During the war and Uprisings, all the buildings on this street were destroyed; the only original parts that remain are the tram tracks and the pavements.

From pre-war sites, we came across more modern commemorations to Warsaw's tragic wartime history. The first of these is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (6.), which depicts the brave fighters in the Uprising movement on one side (7.) and the vulnerable, elderly and weak being deported from the ghetto on the other (8.). This monument is known worldwide as it is often the centrepoint of many commemorations and services of remembrance; in more recent years, tributes have been paid there by the late Willy Brandt, former leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and Barack Obama, President of the United States. I also found it touching how many stones had been placed upon the monument, some personalised, as is the Jewish custom (9.). What also made me feel a certain satisfaction was discovering that the stones from which the monument were made were imported from Sweden by demand of the Nazis. They were to be used in construction of statues and monuments to celebrate the victory of Hitler and his party. I find it fitting, then, that they have instead been used to honour the victims of his anti-Semitic, hateful polices.
You would be forgiven, however, for initially missing the Monument altogether, for it is now dwarfed by the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews (10.). The museum opened in April of this year and has already been received with great interest; its opening weekend saw at least 15,000 visitors of different nationalities pass through its doors.

To get to our next point of interest in the walk, my friend and I had to follow what is known as The Route Recalling the Martyrdom and the Struggle of the Jews, 1940 - 1943. Lining this route are 15 black stone blocks, each engraved with a name associated with the Warsaw Ghetto and a small inscription about their life and death (unfortunately written only in Polish). As we followed this route, we almost missed our destination, as it is a little set back from the road and somewhat shadowed by the small blocks of flats surrounding it.
The site in question was 18 Miła Street (11. - 13.). In English, this translates to 'Pleasant Street', but what occurred at Number 18 certainly was not pleasant. In the bunker of the house that once stood there, a core group of Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising were stationed, including the now famous Mordechaj Anielewicz. On 8th May 1943, Nazi troops surrounded the house. Rather than surrender to their enemies, Anielewicz and at least 100 other fighters committed suicide in the bunker. As a mark of respect, their bodies were not exhumed and a mass grave was established on the site. The foundations of the house remain, but the building itself is long gone; instead, a commemorative stone sits atop the foundations. As I stood next to the stone and noticed the buildings around me, I wondered what people who live near the site feel about it. Are they proud of what took place? Are they somewhat unnerved by a mass grave situated so close to their home, or does it now simply blend in as part of the local scenery?

The final blocks of stone lining the Route led us to the site which, for me, hit the hardest: the Umschlagplatz (14.). This is where around 300,000 inhabitants of the ghetto were rounded up to be deported, by cattle car, to places such as Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau (15.). This area and its wartime appearance is best depicted in films such as The Pianist. Nowadays, a large stone and marble monument stands on the site; the separation of stone in the middle is designed to symbolise the open cattle wagon doors that the Jews of Warsaw were once herded into, never to return to the city. Common first names of Jewish residents, displayed in alphabetical order, align the stone wall at the back, signifying the importance of the individuals that lost their lives during the Holocaust (16.).

The next part of the walk took us in a more westerly direction, down a long main road, to what at first seemed to be a few blocks of flats. On closer inspection, however, my friend and I discovered a plaque on the wall of one of the buildings that commemorates the liberation of the Gęsiówka camp (17.).
Most people are not aware that a concentration camp actually existed in the heart of Warsaw during the war - I certainly didn't know about Gęsiówka until I visited Warsaw. The camp, however, was established in 1943, its prisoners used as slave labour to tidy Warsaw up after the Ghetto Uprising. It even included a crematorium, although there is no evidence of active gas chambers. The camp was liberated in August 1944 by the Zośka Battalion. Many of those liberated later joined the resistance in the Warsaw Uprising.
Not far from this commemorative plaque is the old, large Jewish Cemetery, one of the largest cemeteries of its kind in Europe. Around 200,000 marked graves stand in the 83 acres of the cemetery, as well as many unmarked mass graves of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto and its Uprising. We wished to visit the cemetery to pay our respects, but unfortunately found it closed. I was pleased, however, to discover that young Poles, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have recently been voluntary clearing up the cemetery, as much of it has been left neglected as relatives of those buried there perished in the Holocaust themselves.
Beyond the southern wall of the cemetery is another mass grave, which was discovered in 1989. It is known as the Monument to the Memory of Poles and Jews and is marked by a simple stone pillar (18.). All those discovered on the site were given a proper burial, with religious rights, after exhumation upon discovery of the grave. It is believed that all those buried there were victims of the Nazis; most appeared to have been shot through the head or neck. The snow was still fresh, suggesting no one had visited the grave for a while. My friend and I made a point of walking down to the pillar and to pay our respects, so that those lying there may not be forgotten, and our footprints would be a testament to this, if only temporarily.

It was not just sites connected to the Holocaust and the ghetto that I visited during my time in Warsaw. As well as a visit to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, my friends and I walked around the Old and New Towns, passed down Nowy Swiat (New World) Street and experienced some of Warsaw's finest food and beverages. Warsaw is, indeed, a beautiful city and has been renovated to mark itself as one of the most diverse and interesting cities that I have visited in Europe. Its tragic past, however, cannot be forgotten, and I would encourage any visitors to Warsaw to savour the chance to visit sites of importance and significance in relation to the Holocaust to reflect and pay tribute to the Nazis' many victims.