May 29, 2018

Warsaw: Monument to the Ghetto Heroes

The Warsaw Ghetto Monument
25 May 2018

On an area formerly part of the Warsaw ghetto, directly opposite the POLIN museum, sits a monument much bigger than it appears in pictures. Designed by Nathan Rapoport, a Jewish sculptor from Warsaw who had fled east to the Russian zone to avoid Nazi persecution and was eventually repatriated back to Warsaw in 1946, the two-sided Monument to the Ghetto Heroes commemorates the heroism of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943 as well as the martyrs who lost their lives in the ghetto. Upon its unveiling on April 19, 1948, the fifth anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising, it was the first monument after the war to pay tribute to both Jewish resistance and annihilation.

Although the armed resistance began on January 18, 1943, when the Nazis first entered the ghetto to round up Jews for deportation, the official date of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is April 19, 1943, when the Nazis reentered the ghetto in order to liquidate it completely. Over the next six weeks, estimates say that over 50,000 of the Jews from the ghetto were captured or killed. Reports on German losses vary greatly, from Nazi figures estimating only 16 dead to the Polish Workers’ Party claiming over 700.  

To commemorate this event, Rapoport designed a monument consisting of two very distinct sides connected by a wall made out of granite originally ordered during the war for a monument celebrating Hitler’s then-expected victory. The western side, which faces a large square on the other side of which is the entrance to the POLIN museum, depicts the “heroes” of the uprising, each holding a type of weapon used during the battles. The dimensional figures seem to come to life against the towering wall, taking on an almost mythological quality. In contrast, the “martyrs” face the street in the direction of a large apartment complex. This second side features a bas-relief representation of 12 archetypal Jews in exile, with tips of Nazi bayonets and helmets present in order to distinguish this expulsion of Jews from the others.

One criticism of this monument is that it is very easy to miss the “martyrs” side completely due to the direction it faces along with its much flatter design, which I couldn’t believe was an issue until I saw it and realized that the sheer size of the monument ironically contributes to this issue. When looking at the monument from the “heroes” side it is not obvious that there is something else sculpted on the other side of the massive wall since you have to so far around to see it, so unless someone knows there is more on the other side they may not walk far around enough to realize it. Unfortunately, this design aspect seems to diminish the commemoration of the “martyrs”.

Over time, the monument’s meaning has evolved from only signifying the bravery of the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto to a symbol of resistance in general. The square where it is located has become a popular gathering place for local demonstrations and protests, and the monument has become a symbolic destination for politicians and other world leaders although sometimes it is unclear exactly what message they want to send through their visit. For example, during a visit in 1983 a delegate from the Palestinian Liberation Organization announced that “as the Jews were then justified to rise up against their Nazi murderers, so now are the Palestinians justified in their own struggle with the Zionists.” While seemingly an ironic statement, it is true that the monument doesn’t automatically preclude a statement like it due to the absence of evidence in the sculpture itself that the Ghetto Uprising organizers themselves were in fact Zionists.

Time has also affected the setting of the monument, as Warsaw has since rebuilt itself from the ground up. After the war, the city was left in ruins after the Nazis had flattened it block by block, and it was on top of this pile of rubble that the monument was originally placed, appearing to have risen up out of the destruction. Today, the monument is surrounded by urban life (a modern museum, an apartment complex, parks, etc) which, as a result of not being the tallest structure for miles anymore, diminishes some of Rapoport’s initial intentions with the design of his monument.

I feel both lucky and unlucky that I wasn’t able to see the monument when it was first constructed; lucky because it means that I wasn’t alive to see the complete destruction of a vibrant city and nearly its entire Jewish community, yet unlucky in that I never got to see the monument in the environment in which Rapaport intended it to be. Before this experience, I didn’t realize the impact of time on one’s perception and interpretation of a monument, which only further goes to show that while monuments are important for commemoration and memory, knowledge and education are the only true ways to combat our propensity to forget.


Group 3: Melanie De Lisa, Nicci Mowszowski, Abby Rodler (Author: Melanie De Lisa)