In July, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. The Polish capital is a vibrant city with a fascinating, if traumatic, history. As ever, I paid particular attention to the history of protest and dissent in the city, and Warsaw has plenty of that. Whilst under German occupation during the Second World War, the city experienced two significant uprisings. The first took place in the Jewish ghetto in April and May 1943, and is known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The second is known simply as the Warsaw Uprising, and engulfed the whole city between August and October 1944. In retaliation for these two events, the Nazis destroyed more than 85% of the city. The total death toll from both events is around a quarter of a million people, both combatants and civilians. It is hard to forget such awful events, but they are still actively commemorated in Warsaw, both in the city’s museums, and on the streets through memorials. This post will focus on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, whilst Part 2 will look at the Warsaw Uprising.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was established not long after. More than 400,000 people were crammed into an area of little more than one square mile, and many died from disease and starvation. In 1942, the Germans began deporting people from the ghetto to concentration camps (mainly Treblinka) and forced-labour camps. Around 300,000 people were deported or murdered, leaving 55-60,000 fearing they would suffer the same fate. They began to develop resistance organisations; the Jewish Combat Organisation (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) decided to work together to oppose any further deportations. On 18 January 1943, the fighters manage to disrupt a deportation, and drive the Germans out of the ghetto.
Buoyed by this success, the ghetto population began to build underground bunkers in case the Germans tried any more deportations. Unfortunately, the reprieve was only temporary, and German soldiers re-entered the ghetto on 19 April. Most of the ghetto’s residents were hiding in the bunkers or elsewhere. The Germans put down the uprising by destroying the ghetto building by building, forcing people out of hiding. Resistance continued for almost a month, but on 16 May the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street was destroyed to symbolise the German victory. Almost all of the remaining Jews were deported.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest Jewish uprising, and the first urban uprising, in German-occupied Europe. It inspired uprisings in other ghettos and concentration camps. Although the ghetto was destroyed during the uprising, its memory is inscribed in the urban fabric of Warsaw through various memorials. It is also commemorated in the city’s museums.
Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Opened in 2013, Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews won European Museum of the Year in 2016, and it’s clear why. It uses the latest technology to explore 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland, and it is absolutely overflowing with information. The building was constructed in the former ghetto, in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (more on this later). Personally, it was a little lacking in actual objects for my taste, but it’s still a wonderful museum. One of my favourite things about it is that it whilst it does cover the holocaust, it doesn’t dwell on it. Jewish history in Poland is so much more than World War Two, and Polin reflects that. It does, however, cover the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it does it well.
There are many memorials in the area of Warsaw that used to be the Jewish ghetto, but there are two that relate directly to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The first, as I mentioned above, is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, next to Polin. Designed by Natan Rappaport and Leon Marek Suzin, the monument was built in 1948, near to the location of the first skirmish between the Jewish resistance fighters and German soldiers. It is an imposing structure, built from stone that was originally bought to Warsaw by the Nazis; it was intended to be used for monuments to Hitler’s victory. There is a bronze sculpture on the western side of the monument, depicting both resistance fighters and civilians. It represents the resistance’s struggle, and the suffering that civilians experienced. On the eastern side is a relief of women, children and the elderly being led by German soldiers.
During a state visit to Warsaw in 1970, Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of West Germany, fell to his knees in front of the Monument in a solemn gesture of apology and regret. It was a fitting location for such a significant political act; the Monument has a very grand, official feel. The second monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that I visited feels much more personal.
A few hundred metres from the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, on the corner on Mila and Dubois streets, is a large mound of earth surrounded by trees. It is all that remains on the bunker at 18 Mila Street, one of the largest bunkers built during the Ghetto Uprising. It it thought that more than 100 people died within the bunker, both resistance fighters and civilians. Many of their names are not known, but it is thought that Mordechaj Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the resistance, was killed there. Their bodies remain there, in the words of the monument, “to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.” I personally found this memorial much more moving than the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes; it feels more connected to the extent of the human tragedy experienced by Jewish people during the German occupation of Poland.
Warsaw is a city that is thriving in almost every way, but you don’t have to look far to find signs of its traumatic history. Varsovians don’t try to ignore that history or sweep it under the carpet, but neither do they dwell on it. I think it is a city that has struck a good balance between learning from the past and looking to the future.
Don’t forget to check out Part 2 of this post, about the Warsaw Uprising, here.
Sources and Further Reading
History. “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” Last modified 2009, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/warsaw-ghetto-uprising
Polin. “Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (9/11 Zamenhofa Street).” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://sztetl.org.pl/en/towns/w/18-warszawa/116-sites-of-martyrdom/52110-monument-ghetto-heroes-911-zamenhofa-street
Polin. “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Historical Information.” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at http://www.polin.pl/en/news/2017/03/17/the-warsaw-ghetto-uprising-historical-information
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005188