May 27, 2018

Warsaw

Side walk relief marking the location of the ghetto wall in Warsaw, 1940-1943.
24-26 May 2018

After visiting Warsaw, I feel that certain aspects were very consistent with what I expected, while other aspects were very unexpected. 

Before arriving in the city, I was aware of the absolute and utter destruction. Due to the ghetto uprising of April 1943 and the Warsaw of 1944, there was very little left from the city besides piles of rubble. Included in the destruction was the former Jewish district and the former Jewish ghetto of Warsaw. Because of this, our tour guide explained that we would need to use our imagination when walking around the city. Our tour guide explained that the former Jewish district was referred to as Muranov. However, practically nothing remains of the original area, and instead the buildings reflect social realism and communism promoted by the Soviet Union. The new architecture was designed to move on from the war. The old houses were a symbol of the past, and the people of Warsaw and greater Europe wanted to forget about the war. They wanted to move on and start a new life. Before the war much of the old architecture was preserved due to the limitations of private property and a lack of funding. However, due to Soviet rule, land was communal, and the government provided the necessary funds to rebuild the city.

While the presence of Soviets did mean an increase in modernization and new building projects, it also meant that Jewish identity was hidden from the public eye. Because of this, many of the memorials that try to preserve the memory of the Jews of Warsaw are not obvious. The Memory to polish Jews is mixed with the memory of other Poles who died during occupation and fought during World War II. This mixed presence confounds the message of Jewish memory and creates a tension between the Jews of Poland and the Christians of Poland. 

Our guide referred to the Jewish memory as “hidden traces”, that need to be discovered. For example, surrounding the former ghetto, stands the ghetto wall marker, a strip in the ground that represents the former walls of the ghetto. While this succeeds in preserving the memory of the Jews, it is important to note that it was only installed in 2008.This is very recent compared to other monuments in other cities, as well as other monuments in Poland.Also, right next to part of this memorial is a memorial that honors those who rebuilt the city of Warsaw after the war. While it is important to honor this group as well, it can be problematic because it draws emphasis away from the Jews.

This trend continued as we toured more of the city. The Jewish history of Warsaw is not emphasized and most of the monuments are about the Poles and socialist fighters, like the giant stone statue of a Polish fighter in the middle of the park. This monument was erected in the 1960s by the communist government and is reflective of the times. The Soviet Union tried to deemphasize religion in general, which meant that the Jews suffered as a result. Furthermore, the Jewish memorials that do exist were only put up very recently. Still though, most refer to Poles and communists.Only after 1989 were more Jewish memorials constructed.The Polin museum and Muranov association were both very recent additions to the city, with the museum only opening in 2013. In addition to the sheer number of Polish memorials, the Polish memorials are decorated with flags and flowers, reflecting pride and honor, while the Jewish memorials are considerably barer, reflecting a lack of attention from the public. I found our tour guide repeating the phrase “complicated history”. For example, the Square of Wandering Soldiers, is also the sight were ghetto fighters battled with Nazis, yet their role takes a back seat to the Polish fighters.

Moving deeper into the city, the tour guide began to focus more on architecture and how the city was rebuilt. The GreatSynagogue was never rebuilt, and a massive office building instead takes its place in the middle of the city. Because there was very little left, Warsaw was created completely new, with modernity as a way to move on. However, in rebuilding the city, the Jewish identity was lost, which is problematic and does not respect the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.Our tour guide explained it was like a Phoenix being reborn out of the ashes. This technique used rubble from the old houses to build the new ones. The new houses created were for the workers those who moved in did not care about the ghetto. They were just happy to live in a house. The situation was dire, and people needed places to live, so it never crossed their minds that Jews previously lived there. As a result, the story of the ghetto is covered due to propaganda purposes.

While it does seem like there were many missteps in preserving Jewish life in Warsaw, our tour guide explained that digs were conducted to learn about the past. She said, “The ground opened up and the people began to open up as well”. She was talking about how the digs prompted people to share their stories, which helped to unearth new knowledge about Jews living in Warsaw. This is a great way to bring the people together and share stories. Upon completion of the tour, I was surprised by the hidden nature of the Jewish identity and thought the presence of many different types of memorials was slightly problematic and took emphasis away from the Jews of Warsaw. Now outside of Warsaw, I find myself thinking about what future measures need to be taken in order to preserve and strengthen the Jewish memory. 

Group 4: Lulu Feldman, Daniel Vozza, Kally Xu (Author: Dan Vozza)

A video summary of our visit to Warsaw is available here.