We arrived in Warsaw this afternoon after flying in from Helsinki. The weather is warm, about 86 degrees and cloudy. As we drove through the streets from the airport, our guide pointed out some interesting sites along the way. I had been to Warsaw before. It was the year 2000, and I was with my sister Bonnie, and my mother. I remembered the city, just a few years after the fall of communism, as dark and gray and austere and unwelcoming. This time, however, I could feel a growing optimism. Many new skyscrapers dotted the city line; one by Daniel Liebeskind, who also designed the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, and who is a child of Holocaust survivors. We passed charming cafes with outdoor seating, striped umbrellas offering welcoming shade, and people bustling to and fro on the streets. Our hotel is modern and tasteful, and the food here is upscale if you want it. Some of us decided to try piroghis, dumplings filled with sweet or savory choices; I chose the cod with a fresh tomato salad and enjoyed every bite.
More importantly, we met our guide at 3:00 for our tour of the Warsaw ghetto. This is not an easy task, as almost all of Warsaw was destroyed after the war. One area that remained intact however was the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street. Here our guide showed us the graves of generations of Jewish people. I didn’t realize that Jews had lived in Poland since the 1200s. I wondered, why did the cemetery survive intact? Our guide explained that at this point the Nazis were losing the war, and they used the cemetery as a place for mass executions of Jews. Several roped off fields with several blank tombstones marked these areas. Also prominent was the monument to Janusz Korczak; he is pictured accompanying Jewish children from the orphanage he ran and who were under his care on their way to Treblinka. Even though he had an option not to get on the train, he would not leave the children.
Our guide took us to different parts of the city, and with a map of the streets that made up the small and large ghetto, along with old photographs, we tried to imagine what it was like between 1940 and 1942 for the Jews of Warsaw who were forced into the ghetto. New buildings, office buildings, banks, stores, have been constructed on these streets; at other parts the apartments are abandoned and inhabited by homeless people. A few sections of the actual wall around the ghetto remain, and we saw the red brick with the barbed wire above. There was much conversation about the Warsaw uprising; we visited Mila 18, which was the address of the headquarters of the Jewish ghetto fighters who defied the Nazis to the end.
There is a small Jewish presence in Warsaw today, and we visited the Nozyk Synagogue, which is in use, a beautiful building that also escaped damage during the war, built in 1902 in a Moorish style, very impressive. Although small, the congregation is a vibrant one.
There were about 400,000 Jews in Warsaw before the war. I am left wondering how and why it could happen that almost 1000 years of Jewish life has virtually disappeared.