Jewish Warsaw
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Jewish Warsaw - Warsaw

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When over 80 percent of Warsaw was destroyed after the Second World War, much more was lost than buildings and the history written in them. The spirit of earlier times, with rich, diverse culture, disappeared forever, replaced by the post-war regime. Repression, censorship, and the selective reconstruction of history through Warsaw's rebuilding, with certain aspects of the former city left to fade in memory. With the liquidation of the Jewish Ghetto in 1943, and the destruction of Jewish neighbourhoods and cultural sites that were never rebuilt, hundreds of years of Jewish history in Warsaw were lost. Today you can find traces of this rich cultural element once fundamental to the city's character.

Pre-war Warsaw's population was about 30 percent Jewish, with hundreds of Jewish cultural and educational centres such as schools, libraries, clubs, theatres and restaurants. What remains of this world today are monuments, gravestones, empty lots where Jewish institutions were never rebuilt, or modern blocks and skyscrapers where former homes and synagogues were replaced by the needs of post-war urban expansion.

A good place to start your exploration of Jewish Warsaw is the Jewish Historical Institute just off Plac Bankowy. The institute was established immediately after the war, in 1947, and contains all manner of documents, books, journals, artefacts and art relating to Jewish culture. One of the main aims of the centre is education, with a view to sharing the rich culture and history of Jews in Poland, (a history that covers nearly one thousand years), and to overcoming stereotypes of the 20th century that arose with the obliteration of that shared culture and history. Exhibiting these treasures of the past is the first purpose of the Institute; the second is exhibiting the tragedy of the Holocaust and its consequences. Most valuable among presented materials is perhaps the Ringelblum Archive, a clandestinely gathered collection of materials documenting the lives of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto during the German occupation.

Near the Jewish Historical Institute, on Plac Bankowy, is the site where the Great Reform Synagogue once stood. It was destroyed by the Germans and never rebuilt; in its place stands one of Warsaw's oldest and most recognisable skyscrapers, called the Blue Tower, for the glass face that reflects the blue of the sky.

If you continue north from Plac Bankowy, stopping just behind the Krasinski Gardens, you'll come upon Zamenhofa Street and the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto. This area was once a part of the Jewish ghetto, sealed off from the rest of Warsaw on 16 October 1940 and meant to house some 400,000 people in its narrow space. During the following three years, hundreds of thousands died of starvation and disease. Producing goods in illegal workshops and smuggling to and from the outside city were the only ways to stay alive under the harsh conditions. Nevertheless, a rich clandestine cultural life continued, including secret schools, libraries, cultural organisations, printing presses and an orchestra.

When the final expulsion of Jews from the ghetto began in 1943, fighting broke out, a last stand against deportation and death. While the insurgents held out for some time, the Nazi troops with their vastly superior resources and manpower soon turned their full attention to quelling the uprising and undertook the complete destruction of the ghetto, systematically bombing the area block by block and murdering all remaining inhabitants. The symbolic end of the uprising came with the destruction of the Great Synagogue on 16 May 1943.

The Monument to the Heroes of the Uprising was the first monument to be built in post-war Warsaw, unveiled in 1948. It displays a heavy concrete block, from which seem to be emerging a swarm of bodies, battle-ready, armed with knives or grenades, their faces turned hopefully outward. At the back of the monument, a panel depicts a line of hunched, broken figures being marched to their death. Standing on a raised platform in the middle of the peaceful square, on what was once a site of death and destruction, the monument is both harrowing and beautiful.

North of the monument, on Stawki Street, is the former Umschlagplatz. This is the square from which hundreds of thousands of Jews were loaded onto trains and transported to death camps. At one point, some 5,000-7,000 people were being sent from here every day. A monument was erected here in 1988, engraved with 448 names as a symbolic representation of all those imprisoned in the ghetto, many of whose names will never be known.

Bordering the former ghetto to the north-west is the Jewish cemetery, a site that reaches beyond the tragedies of the Holocaust, back to a time when Jewish culture still thrived in Warsaw. It is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world, established at the turn of the 19th century and is now the resting-place of many famous historical figures. Here you can view the Mausoleum of the Three Writers (Icchok Lejb Perec, Szymon An-ski and Jakub Dinezon), a monument to Jewish actress Ester Rachel Kaminska, the tombs of the first Rabbi of Warsaw, creator of Esperanto Ludwik Zamenhoff, and head of the Warsaw ghetto Jewish community Adam Czerniakow as well as a monument to ghetto hero Janusz Korczak.

In the southern part of the former ghetto, west of the Saxon Gardens, stands the Nozyk Synagogue - the only pre-war synagogue still active today. It is currently an important Jewish cultural centre. It was built at the turn of the 20th century; it survived demolition by the Germans during the war due to the fact that it was used as a stable and storage space. A symbol of Jewish life in Warsaw past and present, the synagogue is open to visitors.

Somewhere around the Central Train Station, behind houses on Zlota and Sienna streets, you may find the last remaining fragments of the ghetto wall. The extent of the wall has been outlined through the city with plaques imbedded in the pavement in 21 places. While ghosts of those years still linger in places, most of those times in Warsaw have disappeared beneath the modern reconstruction of the city.