On Tuesday we woke up early to make the most of our first full day in the city, walking to a local coffee shop to grab some pastries for breakfast before heading back to the hostel to start a walking tour of the Former Jewish Ghetto, which was one of the most moving mornings of my life.
The first stop was just outside the Palace of Culture and Science, which Bojan pointed out was once part of the Jewish Ghetto that separated almost 500,000 Jews from their Polish neighbours, marked by a statue of Janusz Korczak, a medical professional who ran an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw, the original building of which managed to survive the war and to this day. In 1940, he was forced to move into the Ghetto, and when given the chance to leave, knowing the fate of the children he had cared for, he refused and instead went with them to Treblinka.
A short walk away lead us to 55 Sienna Street, where one of the few remaining lengths of the original Ghetto wall still stands, and is one of 21 places are the city where the wall once stood which have been commemorated with plaques that give a brief history of the Ghetto and show whereabouts in the original complex you would have been stood. In the buildings beside the wall, Jewish families would have lived in cramped, unbearable conditions, whilst on other side of the wall, regardless of whether the opposed the segregation or not, free citizens of Warsaw lived comfortably and with all the amenities they needed available to them. Other parts of the Ghetto wall which are still standing, such as the section located at 62 Złota Street, remain the same height as it was originally built at roughly 10ft, and is now surrounded by semi-modern multistory Polish housing. Elsewhere where the wall has been demolished, Bojan showed us where brass-lined bricks have been placed in the streets to mark the full extent of where the wall once stood. Seeing these, it definitely felt strange to be able to walk from one side to other, something so simple for us, yet impossible 70 years ago.
For lunch, we were taken to a local true-polish restaurant called Folk Gospoda. Located near the junction of Grzybowska and Waliców street, you can’t miss it because you’re greeted by a giant peacock-type creature as soon as you round the corner. The day’s set menu was onion soup, Pierogi and Jablecznik (meat dumplings and apple cake), which cost us less than £5 for the entire meal, including drinks! As our first time in a full-on Polish restaurant, we were pleasantly surprised by the buzzing atmosphere and the cosy, homeliness of the wood finishes and rustic decor. It was also a great place to warm up and discuss what we’d seen so far, as the temperature had yet to reach over 5°C, even in the sun.
After our lunch, the first port of call was a former Ghetto residential building on Waliców Street, just outside of the restaurant, which for one reason or another has remained untouched since the end of the war. The windows were broken and smashed in, and now the only residents are pigeons and rodents, as warning signs instruct people to stay out of the grounds. From here we went to Chłodna Street, the former joining point for the Large and Small Ghettos via a footbridge that was built in 1942. Those of you who have seen the film ‘The Pianist’ may know what I’m referring to. The bridge no longer stands, but is instead commemorated by a large sculpture where visitors can look into small boxes on the sides to view original photos of the bridge, accompanied by sounds of old fashioned cars driving by. From here it was a short walk to Hala Mirowska, a long-standing market in the heart of Warsaw. The large building was put to different use during the war, and was mostly destroyed in the fighting. Today, it has been restored and once again houses a variety of stores, selling Polish spirits, sweets and cakes, a small supermarket and other independent traders. Bojan informed us that one of the original walls that still stand is littered with bullet holes, evidence of activities of long-gone German firing squads. Safe to say, I was not disappointed when he told us that he was not sure of their exact whereabouts.
One of the most tear-jerking places was Próżna Street, the final stop on our whistle-stop tour. 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. Now, the building is adorned with the old photos of some of the Ghetto’s past inhabitants, some of whom were children. All of us were incredibly moved by the building for different reasons, and we ended up visiting the site almost every day while we were in the city, especially after hearing that the local government plan to demolish it, knowing we may never get the chance to again. Walking down Próżna Street, we realised our walk had come full circle, and we were a short distance from the hostel, just outside a large high-rise building adoring a large symbol of the Warsaw Uprising on its roof. Bojan informed us that during the war, the Poles had barricaded it so well that despite the best efforts of the Nazis, they couldn’t get into it for 22 days. Unbelievably, we barely covered any of the area of the former Ghetto, so we made plans to try to see some more in a different part of the city later in the week.
That night we made plans for the rest of the week, taking part in the hostel’s ‘Spaghetti Night’. Turns out that attempting to make enough pasta to feed a small army, with people from all over the world most of whom couldn’t speak English, or in fact cook at all, could lead to such a hilarious night! Covered in a light dusting of Parmesan, it was time to call it a night.