On our final day in the city, and following on from what Bojan had told us about other parts of the Ghetto on our first day in Warsaw, Imogen and I decided to take a route into the East, to cover those parts which we had no yet been able to see, before heading back to meet up with the others and visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
The first stop on our walk took us to the ‘Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute’, a pre-war building that survived both the Ghetto Uprising and Warsaw Uprising of 1943 and 1944 respectively, which collates information about the Jewish population of Poland both before and after the war. Directly opposite, the land that is now covered by ‘Błękitny Wieżowiec’, or the ‘Blue Tower’, was once the site of the ‘Great Synagogue of Warsaw’. Originally built in the 1870s, and once one of the largest synagogues in the world. it was blown up on the 16th May, 1943, by SS-member ‘Gruppenführer Jürgen Stroop’, to mark the Nazi victory over the Jews at the end of the Ghetto Uprising.
Walking further northwards, we arrived at the ‘Arsenal Building’. Once used to store, develop, manufacture and test ammunition and other war materials, it was badly damaged during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Today, floral tributes adorn the building’s grounds, after being restored to its original 18th century facade, and now resides on the corner of the Bohaterów Getta Street, or ‘Ghetto Heroes Street’ in English. The building would have once formed part of the large district of Jewish Warsaw, with busy roads, people and trams passing by it. All buildings here were destroyed, with the only original parts remaining being the tram tracks and the cobbled pavements.
Further on from the ‘Arsenal Building’, less pre-war sites exist so next on our ‘hit-list’ of things to see was the ‘Monument to the Ghetto Heroes’, world-renowned sculpture which depicts fighters from the Uprising on one side, and the elderly and weak being deported from the Ghetto on the other. Now located in the grounds of the newly-opened ‘Museum of the History of Polish Jews’, it’s often the focal point for many remembrance services, and in recent years, tributes have been paid by the likes of Willy Brandt and Barack Obama on his 2011 visit to Poland. The monument was covered in stones and pebbles, a traditional sign of respect and condolence in the Jewish community that those of you who have seen Schindler’s List will be aware of. Most interestingly, the monument is made from stone which was once imported from Sweden on the command of the Germans in order for them to commission their own works to depict their victories in the area. How fitting it seems that they were saved from that fate, and used to honour those that fought against them in the Uprising.
Keen to see as much as possible before losing the light as we ventured into the more residential and less glamourous parts of the city, we began following what is known as ‘The Route Recalling the Martyrdom and the Struggle of the Jews’. Lining this route are 15 black stone blocks, each engraved with a name of a notable person associated with the Warsaw Ghetto and a small inscription about their life and death, which were unfortunately written only in Polish. We eventually arrived at ’18 Miła Street’, or in English, ‘Pleasant Street’, which is somewhat of a tragic irony. In the bunker of the house that once stood there, a core group of Jewish resistance fighters were stationed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but on the 8th May 1943, Nazi troops surrounded the house. Rather than surrender to their enemies, around 100 fighters committed suicide inside, and now as a respect to Jewish traditions, 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. The area is now surrounded by semi high-rise flats, and it definitely begs a question of how the locals feel about having 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 infamous Umschlagplatz, where a total of around 300,000 inhabitants of the Ghetto were once rounded up for deportation, by cattle car, to places such as Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. This area and its wartime appearance is best depicted in ‘The Pianist’, as nowadays a large stone and marble conceptual monument has been erected; the separation of stone in the middle is designed to symbolise the open doors of the cattle wagons which once passed through. Displayed in alphabetical order on the are common Jewish names which would have no doubt have been passengers at some point during the war.
Most people are not aware that a concentration camp actually existed in the heart of Warsaw during the war, by the name of Gęsiówka. Established in 1943, inhabitants were used as slave labour in the clean-up efforts after the Ghetto Uprising. While it included a crematorium, there has been no evidence of active gas chambers found on the site. The camp was eventually liberated in August 1944, and many of those freed later joined the resistance in the Warsaw Uprising. Today, all that remains is a plaque on the wall of one of blocks of flats that commemorates its liberation.
Not far from the plaque was the old 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 for of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto and its Uprising when identification couldn’t be made. We tried to enter the cemetery in order to pay our respects, but unfortunately found it had been closed to the public for the way. Beyond the southern wall of the cemetery is another mass grave, known as the Monument to the Memory of Poles and Jews and is marked by a simple stone pillar. Those discovered on the site were given a proper burial after their discovery in 1989.By now the temperatures had begun to drop, so we made our way with haste to the Uprising Museum to meet up with some more of our group to have a look around. The Museum is well worth visiting if you find yourself in the city, although I can almost guarantee it’ll leave an impression. Nothing on our walks around the city hit me quite as hard as the footage they had playing on little screen embedded in the walls, or looking through the they had available. I left with two burning questions after absorbing as much information about the city during the war; how and why was something like this, something so inhumane, allowed to happen?
Later that night, we joined forces with the rest of the crew after their relatively unsuccessful trip to Praga, and headed to Flow Bar for some overpriced get gloriously strong cocktails, and to sample their famous veal pierogi. I wholeheartedly recommend an inappropriately named ‘Flow Job’, when in Rome after all! The bar is a heaving 4 storey and restaurant located on Nowy Świat, although if you find yourself in there, start early to grab a table and don’t head upstairs like we did, as you’ll find yourself in the smoking area. After a quick last-minute trip back to Próżna Street and Grzybowki Square to see the All Saints Church at night, we were all ready for bed.
Unfortunately, that night saw heavy snow fall, meaning the following day was plagued with delays, from our bus to the airport and our flight, which terrifyingly had to be de-iced twice before we could take off! Luckily, there was enough duty-free shopping to be done to keep me entertained for an extra few hours. Warsaw on the whole is an amazing city, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone that is looking for a visit to an under-appreciated European gem, that is rich in culture and perfect for those with tight budgets. I’m already beginning to plan trips to Krakow and Wroclaw, just to take me back for peirogi and Milka!