My first visit to Warsaw was November of 2014. It was grey and cold. The short 2 and half days I spent here gave me no clue as to the interesting yet horrific history of Poland. I returned to Poland on February 3, 2020. This time to call Warsaw my home as I arrived with plans of teaching English. Yes, I am teaching English for English Wizards, but I too am a student as I wandered around Warsaw and learned more about WWII, Poland, and the history of Jews in Poland.
One of the first things I noticed were the many memorials to the Polish people and Polish Jews.
Although I am neither Polish nor Jewish, after seeing so many reminders of the Polish and Jewish History, I found myself wanting more information….and so my journey of discovery began…
By January 1945, between 85% and 90% of buildings in Warsaw had been destroyed. It came close to not being rebuilt, but as former residents flocked back to the city, they began the reconstruction process on their own. Warsaw’s Old Town was meticulously reconstructed using original materials gathered from the rubble. It became a UNESCO Site in 1980.
My interest in Jewish Poland and Poland during WWII peaked the more I wandered around Warsaw as I saw monuments and memorials, as I read the books “The Zookeepers Wife”, “Lilac Girls” “The Book of Lost Names” and “The Rabbit Girls” and my friends on Facebook, some Jewish, commented on my posts.
I learned about The Polin Museum. The Museum is a modern institution of culture – “it is a historical museum which presents the 1000 years of Jewish life in the Polish lands. It is also a place of meeting and dialogue among those who wish to explore the past and present Jewish culture, those eager to draw conclusions for the future from Polish-Jewish history, and finally, those who are ready to face the stereotypes and oppose xenophobia and nationalistic prejudices that threaten today’s societies. By promoting the ideas of openness, tolerance, and truth, the POLIN Museum contributes to the mutual understanding and respect among Poles and Jews.” -taken from information provided by the museum
The Museum is arranged in 8 galleries each corresponding to a segment of history. The amount of information available is overwhelming. It is completely interactive and very user friendly. Galleries 1 and 2 are dedicated to the beginning and first encounters. According to legend when arriving in the forests they (Jewish Travelers) heard the birds singing “Polin”, the Hebrew word for “rest here”. Each gallery tells the story of important chapters in history represented on the above timeline.
Gallery 7 represented the Holocaust. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of more than 600 ghettos in occupied Poland, both in size and in population, with 450,000 Jews trapped over the course of its existence (October 1940-May 1943). This gallery was in 3 sections and impossible to capture the emotion. The photos and displays were life-size putting you in the heart of the ghetto.
Outside the museum is Pomnik Bohaterow Getta or the Ghetto Hero’s Monument. It commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and is located at the spot where the first armed clash of the uprising took place.
I live in the Wola District of Warsaw. As I walked around my neighborhood, I noticed markers on the street, signs on walls of buildings, and free-standing monuments. I soon learned Warsaw ghetto boundary markers are memorial plaques and boundary lines that mark the maximum perimeter of the former ghetto established by Germans in 1940 in occupied Warsaw, Poland. The markers were erected in 2008 and 2010 on 22 sites along the borders of the Jewish quarter, where from 1940-1943 stood the gates to the ghetto and a wooden footbridge over Aryan streets.
If you can read the words “Mur Getta” on the boundary marker, you are outside the wall. If they are upside down, you are inside the ghetto.
Early in 1942 to streamline traffic in the most important part of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Germans built a wooden footbridge for the pedestrians over Aryan Chlodna Street. Commemorating this today is a pair of metal poles connected via optical fibers which, after the sun sets, project the shape of the footbridge over the road via light. The memorial also has viewing windows inside the poles where visitors can flip through images of life in the ghetto.
At the intersection of Chlodna and Zelazna Streets and across from the footbridge is a building, Nord Wache, which was a post of the German gendarmerie. On August 3, 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising, insurgents successfully captured Nord Wache.
I love visiting cemeteries in different cities/countries. I discovered the Jewish Cemetery was quite near my house. The Warsaw Jewish Cemetery is one of the largest in Europe and in the world. The Jewish necropolis was established in 1806 and occupies 83 acres of land. The cemetery contains over 250,000 marked graves as well as mass graves of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. Although the cemetery was closed during WWII, after the war it was re-opened and a small portion of it remains active, serving Warsaw’s existing Jewish population. The cemetery is hauntingly beautiful. Many of the graves have been taken back by nature. I am hoping to visit again during the winter months when there is less foliage.
Auschwitz is probably the most well-known and widely visited “concentration camp” in Poland. Not far from Warsaw is the city of Lublin. When reading the book “Lilac Girls” I learned of Lublin and the Majdanek Concentration and Extermination Camp which sat on its outskirts. An easy day trip from Warsaw, I decided to pay a visit. The camp had seven gas chambers, 2 wooden gallows, and approximately 227 structures making it one of the largest Nazi-run camps. The camp operated from October 1, 1941, until July 22, 1944. It was captured nearly intact because the SS had no time to destroy it due to the rapid advance of the Soviet Red Army. Most of the incriminating evidence of war crimes remained.
The building and grounds are now known as The Majdanek State Museum. It is a memorial museum and education center founded in the fall of 1944.It is devoted entirely to the memory of the atrocities committed in the network of camps during World War II and was the first of its kind in the world. I visited the museum during one of the first days that lockdown restrictions due to the pandemic were lifted. I had the camp nearly all to myself which created an eerie, reach down into your soul experience. Many of the buildings are used as exhibition halls. One building houses an exhibit called “The Shrine”. Its aim is to pay tribute to all anonymous victims of KL Lublin. It cannot be described in words, as lights flicker, music plays and voices speak in Hebrew, you are chilled to the bone. Walking through the gas chambers and the crematorium, alone, is an experience I will not soon forget.
A couple of blocks from my house is another museum. Although it is not dedicated specifically to the plight of Jews in Warsaw, much of their history, including the Ghetto Uprising is captured. The Warsaw Uprising Museum in the Wola district of Warsaw, Poland, is dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The institution of the museum was established in 1983, but no construction work took place for many years. It opened on July 31, 2004, marking the 60th anniversary of the uprising.
The museum sponsors research into the history of the uprising, and the history and possessions of the Polish Underground State. It collects and maintains hundreds of artifacts — ranging from weapons used by the insurgents to love letters — to present a full picture of the people involved. The museum’s stated goals include the creation of an archive of historical information on the uprising and the recording of the stories and memories of living participants.
The Warsaw Uprising broke out on Tuesday, August 1, 1944, at 17:00 PM. Every year on that hour Warsaw honors the insurgents and traffic and pedestrians come to a stop and sirens blast to commemorate the victims of the Uprising.
An interactive museum that was difficult to take in during just one visit.
By the time I had been living in Warsaw for 6 months, I was hungry for more and more information especially relating to WWII. As I was scrolling Facebook one day, I came across information about Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair” or Wilczy Szaniec. Hitler’s abandoned first eastern front military headquarters during WWII and site of an assassination attempt is an eerie reminder of the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Located in Gierłoż in northern Poland, I discovered I could stay on the grounds and explore the abandoned headquarters.
The hotel on the grounds is a restored bunker that was the living quarters for the Reich’s SS Soldiers. I made a reservation for the first weekend in September. To get to Wilczy Szaniec, I took a train from Warsaw to Ketrzyn and then a cab to the site. I arrived a couple of hours before dark and got checked into the hotel. I also discovered that I was the only guest staying that evening. The site, which had developed as a tourist attraction after the fall of communism in the early 1990s, had closed to visitors for the day. Since I was staying at the hotel, I could wander freely around the “Wolf’s Lair” even after hours. I must admit it was ominous wandering around Hitler’s Headquarters and thinking about the atrocities that were planned right in this forest complex. I was chilled walking the same paths that Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, and other high-ranking officers of the Nazi government walked.
The dusk had made the atmosphere even more sinister when I came upon Bunker 13. Bunker 13 was the bunker that belonged to Hitler himself. Most of the buildings are as they were left, partially destroyed, and now partially taken back by nature, so you are unable to enter them. After walking around Bunker 13 and letting the reality of what I was seeing, cause my arm hairs to stand and my skin to goosebump, I decided to head back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep and I would be ready to walk the grounds the next day. I woke refreshed the next morning and was ready to explore the grounds.
One of the bunkers has been restored and is now a reenactment of the assignation attempt on Hitler by Claus von Stauffenberg. I spent several hours just walking and reflecting on what had taken place deep in the Masurian woods where Adolf Hitler spent more than 800 days during the war. Interestingly, the Red Army captured the abandoned remains of Wolf’s Lair on January 27, 1945, the same day Auschwitz was liberated. It took until 1955 to clear over 54,000 land mines that surrounded the area. Pawel Machewicz, a Polish Historian said,
“The scars left by war should be preserved and presented as a lesson, a warning…exhibitions should explain the history, contextualize the place, but not completely overshadow it. With wartime generations dying out fast, original locations like the Wolf’s Lair, can, when their history is properly presented, help younger generations comprehend the evil of and resistance to the Nazi regime.”
In October, I visited the Polish seaside…the tri-cities of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia on the Baltic Sea. It was during this trip that I learned of Westerplatte. September 7, 1939, a peninsula in Gdansk was the site of the outbreak of WWII. It was here the first clash between Polish and German forces took place. The invasion of Poland at Westerplatte was the first battle and thus the beginning of WWII. I took a bus from the city center of Gdansk to the Westerplatte peninsula. The most prominent sight on the peninsula is the Pomnik Obroncow Wybrzez or Monument of the Coast Defenders which was unveiled in 1966. The entire area is now an “open-air” museum with ruins of the defender’s barracks and guardhouses. There is also a small cemetery and a large sign that reads: Nigdy Wiecej Wojny or War: Never Again
Back in Warsaw as I was walking the neighborhood near the Polin, I saw many memorials. Other than being tributes to the Ghetto Uprising, I could not find any information. There were many covering several blocks.
I then came upon a small hill with steps leading up to a large “rock” with many small stones laying on it. I learned that this is “Mila 18”. Ulica Miła 18 (or 18 Pleasant Street in English) was the headquarters “bunker” (a hidden shelter) of the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB), which was a Jewish resistance group in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland during World War II. On 8 May 1943, three weeks after the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when the bunker was found out by the Nazis, there were around 300 people inside. Many surrendered, but the ŻOB command, including Mordechaj Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising, stood firm. The Nazis threw tear gas into the shelter to force the occupants out. Anielewicz, his girlfriend Mira Fuchrer, and many of his staff committed mass suicide by ingesting poison rather than surrender, though a few fighters who did neither managed to get out of a rear exit and later fled from the ghetto through the canals to the “Aryan side” at Prosta Street on May 10.
In 2006, an obelisk designed by Hanna Szmalenberg and Marek Moderau was added to the memorial. The inscription in Polish, English, and Yiddish reads: “Grave of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising built from the rubble of Miła Street, one of the liveliest streets of pre-war Jewish Warsaw. These ruins of the bunker at 18 Miła Street are the place of rest of the commanders and fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization, as well as some civilians.
This is just a brief look at what I have discovered in Warsaw and my travels around Poland. I truly commend the people of this country for their preservation and respect of history. Below, I am adding a link to a PowerPoint presentation I put together if anyone is interested in a bit more detail and more photos.