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In the Remains of the Warsaw Ghetto

Hello all!

I just recently returned from an incredible month studying WWII in Poland and Germany with the National WWII Museum! During the week our group of five was based in Warsaw while on weekends we traveled to Berlin, Gdańsk, and Krakow. Dr. Alexandra Richie was our amazing and knowledgeable guide during the month. She's the daughter-in-law of Wladyslaw Baroszewski (look him up!) and the author of Warsaw 1944 and Faust's Metropolis: A History of BerlinI'm so grateful that our group was small because we were able to spend lots of one-on-one time talking and learning so much from her. She also introduced us to individuals whom I never would have had the opportunity of meeting otherwise, such as Warsaw Uprising veteran Stefan Meissner and the nephew of Adam von Trott zu Solz who was involved in the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler.  

The first thing on my list that I had to see in Warsaw were remains of the ghetto. This post is dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto, but I'll be back with more blog posts documenting other parts of my trip.

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The scars of war seem to linger on every corner despite that fact that Warsaw has been completely rebuilt. If you know to look for it, remains of the Warsaw Ghetto are intermingled with sky scrapers, shopping centers, and apartment buildings. In the courtyard where the last remnants of the ghetto wall stand, children's laughter echoes off buildings as they play games. It's a drastic contrast to what this space would have felt and looked like 75 years prior. 

I'm standing on the Jewish side of the former ghetto. I got up close to touch the bricks, thinking about the Jews who were forced to construct the wall that would close them off from the rest of the world.


The Jewish Cemetery was just outside the ghetto boundaries during the war.


Members of the Jewish Fighting Organization, led by 24 year old Mordechai Anielewicz, had meetings among the tombstones.

"Once, at a meeting of his organization in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, he told members, as they sat amid the only flowers and greenery in the ghetto: 'The most difficult struggle of all is the one within ourselves. Let us not get accustomed and adjusted to these conditions. The one who adjusts ceases to discriminate between good and evil. He becomes a slave in body and soul. Whatever may happen to you, remember always: Don't adjust! Revolt against the reality!'" - The Bravest Battle


The mass graves of Jews who died in the ghetto were especially difficult to see. 


This is the grave of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) in the ghetto. He committed suicide rather than sign papers that would send children to death camps. He was a controversial figure in the ghetto. Some Jews thought his suicide was an act of personal courage while others considered him a coward. Emanuel Ringelblum, underground archivist of the ghetto wrote: "Suicide of Czerniakow – too late, a sign of weakness – should have called for resistance – a weak man.”


This memorial in the Jewish cemetery is dedicated to Janusz Korczak, an educator and writer in the ghetto who took care of orphans. During the deportations to Treblinka concentration camp, he was given a chance to save himself and remain in the ghetto. He chose to stay with the children until the very end. He was murdered along with the children at Treblinka in 1942. 

“I exist not to be loved and admired, but to love and act. It is not the duty of those around me to love me. Rather, it is my duty to be concerned about the world, about man.” Janusz Korczak


There is also a monument in memory of children murdered in the Holocaust.


We had lectures in the Palace of Culture of Science in downtown Warsaw. The building was constructed in the 1950's, but where it's located was within ghetto boundaries during the war. There really isn't a corner in Warsaw that hasn't been touched by the war ...


The Umschlagplatz was the deportation point in Warsaw where hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to extermination camps. The former SS HQ building is still there.


The SS HQ now and then ...


Along Mila street there are monuments in remembrance of the Jews of Warsaw who walked that street to the Umschlagplatz.


It's hard to imagine what this street looked like during the deportations. 


The ruins of the Jewish fighters bunker at Mila 18 is something I've been wanting to see for a long time. Mordecai Anielewicz (the 24 year old leader of the Jewish Fighting Organization) and his fighters died here in May, 1943. The trees outline the area where the building once stood. The hill of rubble is all that's left.

 "Here they rest, buried where they fell to remind us that the whole earth is their grave."


This is the exact spot where Jewish fighters escaped through the sewers during the ghetto uprising. 


The Monument to the Ghetto Heroes was erected 5 years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising amid the rubble and destruction of Warsaw. It was built partially from Nazi materials intended for Albert Speer to construct a monument to Hitler.


This is the courthouse where members of the Polish underground group called Zegota aided the Jews of Warsaw. Irena Sendler and Wladyslaw Baroszewski helped Jews escape to the Polish side.


The Zabinski Villa at the Warsaw Zoo is where Jan and Antonina Zabinski sheltered Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. The Zookeeper's Wife movie is based on their story.


The stairs leading to the hiding place ... 


Our tour guide told us about two children who hid underneath this counter. The boy was 6 years old and had to keep his 2 year old sister quiet as Nazi soldiers had control of the villa grounds. One noise could give them all away. They both survived the war, and the brother still recalls how it felt to sit on the cold concrete ground with his hand clasped tightly over his baby sister's mouth.


Some of the survivors ... 


Tunnel built for a quick escape ...


The end of the tunnel ... during the war it was covered with a wooden board and straw. 


Jan and Antonina Zabinski ... 


It was incredibly moving to see the original diaries, letters, and art from the Ringelblum Archive. Emanuel Ringelblum organized an underground organization called "Oyneg Shabes" that recorded the daily experiences of ghetto life. Just before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, they buried thousands of documents in milk cans and tin boxes. The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw (where Emanuel Ringelblum met with other members of the Oyneg Shabes) now has the archive on permanent display.


The Great Synagogue was right next to the Jewish Historical Institute until May, 1943 when SS General Jurgen Stroop blew up the synagogue during the ghetto uprising. Traces of the fire caused by the nearby explosion can still be seen on the floor and stairs.


This building is where the Great Synagogue used to stand.


Some pictures of the archive ... 


Gela Seksztajn's drawing of her daughter Margolit, of whom she writes in her testament:

"I do not ask for praise, only for me and my daughter to be remembered. This talented little girl is named Margolit Lichtensztejn ..."


"I don't know what fate awaits me. I don't know if I'll be able to tell you what happened next. Remember: my name is Nachum Grzywacz."


"What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground. I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. So the world may know …. We would be the fathers, the teachers and educators of the future. May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened in the twentieth century. May history attest for us.” —David Graber, age 19 


Pawiak Prison was located within the ghetto and was used by German Security Police and Security Service. 65,000 prisoners passed through Pawiak, mostly Poles or Jews caught on the Polish side. Irena Sendler was imprisoned at Pawiak and suffered interrogation and torture. Emanuel Ringelblum was murdered there in 1944. 

"About 32,000 prisoners were shot to death (sometimes in public executions), 23,000 prisoners were transferred to various camps, and several thousand were released. A few prisoners managed to escape from Pawiak, but an attempted revolt against the guards in July 1944 was a failure. Pawiak also had a strong underground that kept in contact with the outside world. The last transports left Pawiak on July 30, 1944. The remaining prisoners were either released or shot. On August 21 the Germans blew up the prison." - Yad Vashem


Pawiak after its destruction ... the gate and the basement of cells survived. 


Pieces of the original tree that stood outside Pawiak during the war ... 


Personal items found at Pawiak ...


An original prison door ... 


One of the most difficult places to see was Treblinka where 900,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were murdered. Only 70 survived. The Nazis destroyed the camp to erase the evidence.


It was so silent there, so still and eerie. Walls of trees shut out the world. It's so remote that I wondered if they thought: "Will anyone ever know what happened here?"


It was (and still is) impossible to fully grasp that nearly a million people were murdered on the ground I was walking. Nearly one million people in less than one year ...


After reading about the Warsaw Ghetto and the deportations to Treblinka, it felt completely different to actually walk the grounds where it all happened and think of the individuals behind that incomprehensible number. I hope that through learning and sharing their history, I can give a voice to the millions of victims whose voices were forever silenced. 

-Emily