The Warsaw Ghetto (part 1)

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The Warsaw ghetto was a big place so it may take a while to get through all this. When I say big, I mean the biggest Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis in WWII, not big as in spacious. It held around 440,000 people, which was around 38% of the population of Warsaw in about 4.5% of the area. It was established in October 1940 by German Governor-General Hans Frank and destroyed in April/May 1943 by a very enthusiastic lunatic called Jurgen Stroop.

Here is the smoke caused by Jurgen’s hard work. (you can click all the photos here for bigger sizes)

By all accounts, the photo above was taken from a point close to where we live today and on my route home. Needless to say it looks nothing like the above picture, today. Here’s a sat-map to give you an idea of scale.

The yellow pin shows where the photo was taken from. Red is Arkadia shopping centre, green is Gdanski rail station and purple is the umschlagplatz. The area bounded by the yellow line is the rough outline of the ghetto, from where the smoke was coming.

We should be clear on “uprisings” as the word might come up a lot. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising happened between January and April 1943 and was action by Jewish armed resistance fighters inside the ghetto against the Germans when they started the final expulsion of remaining Jews. The Warsaw Uprising (or just ‘Warsaw Rising’) was between August and October 1944 and was action by the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), also against the Germans. The German response to both uprisings was the same, kill people and destroy buildings. The Russians, who had been watching from the sidelines most of the time, finally arrived in January 1945 by which time Warsaw effectively didn’t exist.

The fact that there were, in effect, two struggles going on in the same city at the same time makes it very slightly more complicated for a tourist than it otherwise might be. The monuments and places of interest tend to overlap leading to some confusion if you’re not careful. There has been little, or no, attempt over the years to give the visitor a coherent picture of what happened, it is very much – here’s what happened to Jews and here’s what happened to everyone else. I think it’s a shame that either the Jews feel their dead are different to anyone else’s or the Poles think the Jews weren’t from Warsaw, or both. Maybe one day they’ll work it out.

To make matters worse, many of the ghetto “sights” are well hidden, so well hidden that I, as a long time Warsaw resident, had trouble finding them. Hopefully these posts will save anyone who’s not au fait with the city a lot of time and also ensure they don’t miss anything significant.

Let’s start the tour at the end, so to speak. The last point of contact between the majority of Jews and Warsaw was the “umschlagplatz”, the collection point from which they were shipped in trains to Treblinka extermination camp (yes, Treblinka, not Auschwitz).

On this fragment of a ghetto map the umschlagplatz is shown in purple colour. You can see the rail tracks leading away from it. I’ve marked the current location of Arkadia shopping centre for later reference.

Now here’s a sat-map of the same area today. Arkadia is in red again, yellow is existing rail tracks, blue is missing rail tracks. The green is the Gdanski rail station which can also be seen on the old map. The purple is the umschlagplatz and the arrows are the direction of my photos, further below.

I looked behind the umschlagplatz monument to see if I could find traces of the rail tracks but as you can see from the sat-map, everything has been redeveloped. This is a view today looking across what would have been a busy loading area

Taking a similar view in 1942 you would have seen this, with thousands of people being transported every day

Here’s the view of the umschlagplatz monument today, on ul. Stawki.

The buildings going down the street adjacent to the rail terminal used to be a hospital and were used by the Germans to hold prisoners pending transportation to the death camps.

This is a photo of Jews being taken to the umschlagplatz. Judging by the smoke in the background, this was during or at the end of the ghetto uprising.

Inside the umschlagplatz there is a lot of writing on the walls.

The comment in English reads – “Along this path of suffering and death, over 300,000 Jews were driven in 1942-1943 from the Warsaw ghetto to the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps.”

I have not done any research on who else might have been transported out of Warsaw to an uncertain fate from this terminal. The terminal was outside the ghetto so it was certainly accessible for general use and one has to assume there were non-Jewish sufferers as well. If there were, they go without comment.

Just as an example of the mixing of Jewish and other history in the same place. About ten yards to the right of the umschlagplatz is a plaque on the wall, the arrow points to it in this photo

This is what it says – “1st August 1944. In the first hours of the Warsaw Rising, after heavy fighting with SS units, 75 soldiers of the Kedyw Kolegium “A” AK – Armia Krajowa special operations commando under Lt. Stanisław “Stasinek” Sosabowski – captured this building and freed 50 Jewish prisoners. The building had formerly been the umschlagplatz, the place from which hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to their deaths. In this action, the Kedyw Kolegium “A” came into the open for the first time after a long and bitter clandestine struggle in the underground. Henceforth it would face the German enemy along a combat route stretching from Wola, Stawki and the Old City to the city centre, Czerniakow and Wilanowska street. This plaque was set up on the 46th anniversary of the rising in order to pay homage to both our fallen comrades and to the heroism of the unit as a whole.”

Lastly, for part 1, is a fantastic example of what I was saying about not being able to find anything. The point of interest is known as “Miła 18″. Miła 18 might be something you’re looking for because you’ve read the book, or just because it is a famous landmark in the history of the Warsaw ghetto. It is famous as the headquarters of the Jewish Fighting Organisation and the burial place of Mordechaj Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising.

So, off we go. Set the sat-nav to Miła 18 and it will take you here, to the apartment of Pani Kowalska.

That can’t be it, you think, so you spend 20 minutes scouring every inch of this end of ul. Miła without finding anything that looks remotely like a monument. You check the map again and find that Miła has two parts, one where you are and the other on the opposite side of Aleja Jana Pawla II. You spend a while driving around to find the other half of the street, get out and find a cute old sign a short distance down from JPII, for Miła 17

Must be getting close, you think, so you spend a while longer hunting at this end of Miła. To no avail. Almost at the point of giving up, you decide to walk to the far end, beginning actually, of Miła, just in case. You’re in luck! Miła 18 is actually directly opposite this

Natch!

Flushed with your newly found navigational skills you finally get to check out the monument. (The height of the mound is meant to be the height of the rubble that was left after its destruction)

From the top looking down to the entrance (not on ul. Miła of course!) complete with two Israeli tourists and tour guide. Well, they were speaking Hebrew at any rate.


The small stone they were standing by….

…..gives us our last inscription for this post – “Graves 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. Among them lies Mordechaj Anielewicz the commander in chief. On May 8th 1943, surrounded by the Nazis after three weeks of struggle, many perished or took their own lives refusing to perish at the hands of their enemies. There were several hundred bunkers built in the ghetto. Found and destroyed by the Nazis they became graves. They could save those who sought refuge inside them yet they remain everlasting symbols of the Jews’ will to live. The bunker in Miła Street was the largest in the ghetto. It is the place of rest of over 100 fighters, only some of whom are known by name. Here they rest, buried where they fell, to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.”

Read The Warsaw Ghetto (part 2)


Read The Warsaw Ghetto (final – part 3)

Read The Krakow Ghetto

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8 thoughts on “The Warsaw Ghetto (part 1)

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  4. island1 says:

    A valiant effort to track down a lot of things that just aren’t there any more. A damnably frustrating business from what I remember of my explorations in that area.

  5. scatts says:

    It is frustrating. You wait and see what I tracked down in part 2, even more hidden away than Mila 18!

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  8. […] 8 July, 2008 · No Comments For those who read through my posts on the Warsaw ghetto over at Polandian, you might be interested to know that from 19th November you […]

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