Thursday, June 3, 2010

Warsaw Wanderings

We had a whirlwind visit to Warsaw and found ourselves wishing we had more time there. During WWII over 85% of the buildings were destroyed. They were replaced during the era of Communist control which makes for some rather blocky unadorned buildings. Despite that appearance, as we began to explore the city we found many things of interest and could have used at least another day or two.

We dropped off our car in Warsaw and had that evening and the following day to explore. In the evening we wandered over to Prozna Street which is the one street that survived within the borders of the Jewish Ghetto. In response to the Ghetto Uprising, the Nazis burned the ghetto down. Much of Prozna looks abandoned, but large photos of its former inhabitants hang on the buildings making an interesting display. We walked around to the back of the buildings where we could see balconies and a courtyard and envision what the buildings were like in the time of the ghetto. Ironically the name Prozna means “vacant” as it originally joined two vacant lots. Now its name seems oddly appropriate.

Nearby we found the Nozyk Synagogue, the one surviving synagogue in Warsaw after the destruction of WWII. Like many we have seen, it was used as a stable by the Nazis during the war years, but is now an active synagogue.

We continued on our walk through the Jewish area to find a remaining section of the ghetto wall. We later discovered metal plaques embedded in the pavement to highlight the boundaries of the ghetto.

The following day we headed for the Jewish Historical Institute. The Thomackie Street Synagogue, the major synagogue in Warsaw, used to be located across the street until it was dynamited by the Nazis. The building in which the Institute is located was the synagogue library and Institute for Judaic Studies. It is one of the few buildings that survived. There we were able to go through an exhibit on the Warsaw ghetto and uprising. A film is available in English which tells the story of the ghetto. It has extensive footage from that time period. There is also some chilling footage taken by the Nazis of the burning of the ghetto. Pre-war there were 380,000 Jews in Warsaw and they made up 30% of the city. About 100,000 died in the ghetto of starvation and disease. Others were deported to their deaths. The story of life in the ghetto is known to us today because of the efforts of Emmanuel Ringelblum. Ringelblum was a historian who prior to the war sought to tell the story of the Jews of Warsaw until the 20th century . By the time the war broke out he was up to the end of the 18th century and had published widely. In 1939 his attention shifted to what was occurring around him. He begain meeting with a group of the underground leadership under the code name of “Oneg Shabbat”. They collected documentary information and conducted research on ghetto life. When they learned of the Nazis’ plans for annihilation of the Jews they smuggling a report to London reporting on the 300,000 Jews who had been deported to their deaths in Treblinka. Thus knowledge of these activities was available to the US and British early in the war. Three milk containers were hidden in Warsaw containing this documentation. Two of these were discovered after the war containing 40,000 pages. One of the milk containers is exhibited in the Jewish Historical Institute today.

In addition to the ghetto exhibition, there was an excellent art exhibit of work done by artists who lived in the ghetto, most of whom died in the camps.

I had heard that the Institute did some genealogy work and inquired as to where. I was directed to the building across from the Institute where I found a small office. There I introduced myself to Yale Reisner and Anna Przybyszewska Drozd who work with the Jewish Genealogy and Family Heritage Center. I provided them with my family names and towns and they reviewed their records to determine what information was available. The materials which they located included a 1901 Homeowners List for Radom which included some family names and addresses. They also pulled out a 1932 and 1941 phone book. The 1941 phone book had just a few Jewish names because they would have been moved to the ghetto by then. It was chilling to see the Gestapo listed in the phone book. They provided me with a link I had not yet discovered for the Radom Municipal Library which has documents which can be downloaded that include information on the Jewish community, yet another source to mine for my research. They also have photographs of some of the Jews of Radom. I obtained a list to post on the Radom Shtetlink site which I created earlier this year. I took the opportunity to share the site with them and was gratified to learn that they had already accessed the site recently.

Yale told me of the AGAD Central Archives of Historical Records also housed in Warsaw. I learned that they have some information on voter lists from Radom and other materials that will have to wait for a future visit.

Yale told me that there had been a lot of activity in Radom in trying to clear title for development of abandoned buildings. Our friend Jakub in Radom had also talked of the difficulty in developing areas because of a lack of clear title due to buildings that previously belonged to Jews who were murdered. Apparently this is an issue throughout Poland. A notice is placed in the paper for three months and if no response is received the government takes control of the building.

We still had a few evening hours in Warsaw and decided to visit the Old Town. The Old Town is a bit of a misnomer as it was destroyed during the war and rebuilt exactly as it had once been. It is now a UNESCO Heritage site because of the faithful reproduction. We wandered the streets and took photos of the many striking and colorful buildings. Many included paintings and sculpture on their fa├žade.

We also did a stop at the Ghetto Heroes Monument which is located in front of what will be the Museum of the History of Polish Jews slated to open in 2012. In this area we also found the monument of the bunker which was the headquarters of the Jewish Resistance Organization. A mound stands at the height of the rubble from the destruction of the ghetto. There is a memorial route with a number of stones engraved with the history of the key participants in the ghetto uprising. This ends near the plaza where the Jews were assembled for deportation where a monument lists out the given names of the Jews.

No comments:

Post a Comment