Warsaw: Victims for the World

June 7, 2017
Currently: grateful, just so grateful
 
Because this turned out to be of such significance for me, I wanted to share the final piece missing to my Warsaw story. Warsaw as a city, and Poland as a country see themselves as “victims for the world.” And theirs is a story I would like to share.

“Warsaw is tragic, romantic, and fights for everything no matter the consequence.”

 
This quote was from our tour guide, Agatha, on the mindset of the Polish. It was something that was reinforced by the stories I heard throughout the tour. Please keep it in mind as you read.
Before I dive in, I want to give you the background of Poland. As the locals say, it was the ‘Paris of the East’ (along with over a dozen other cities). It was cosmopolitan. It was progressive. It was an alpha global city with everything from culture and arts to business and trade. Today it stands as a dynamic metropolitan area defined by its widespread, welcoming urban area complete with large plazas and an old town recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is decorated with various modern and traditional architecture and openly boasts its connection to Chopin. But when you get to know its dark secrets, the bright open spaces give way to forgotten cemeteries and monuments dedicated to its horrific past.
The highlight of my time in Warsaw was the free Jewish Warsaw tour. Agatha was completely over-qualified for her role: born and raised in Warsaw, degree in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, Master’s in Polish history, professional tour guide. She knows how to tell a story. I hope I do her and Warsaw justice.
Warsaw hosted the second largest Jewish community in the world before World War II. This came about because Jews were persecuted in the 16th century pretty much everywhere else in Europe, and Poland had a reputation for tolerance. It’s not surprising to hear how integrated Jewish culture was in the city when you know that a third of its population was Jewish at one point. Staying in line with the tradition of adversity in global Jewish history, this peaceful time didn’t last. First, it was because Catholic merchants got mad at Jewish merchants because they were paying this Catholic tax. So Warsaw banned the Jews. Time passed, and eventually the Jews came back to their homes. They say the history continues as one of stubborn resistance.
“All are welcome.”
“Just kidding, not you.”
“Sorry about that nonsense, please come back.”
“Here’s a passport. We don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here.”
“Please build a giant synagogue representing your culture to make up for our failings to you.”
So it goes.
But everything changed when the Nazis invaded. Warsaw’s scars can be seen most starkly where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood. The ghetto was cut off from the world on November 15, 1940. The ghetto imprisoned over 400,000 Jews in 1.3 square mile area (~7 people per room) with walls 10 feet high and topped with barbed wire. Escapees were shot on sight.
footbridge and wall in 1942

 

Nazis posted “area affected by typhoid” to scare outside civilians away from helping the Jews, even though the rumor was a lie. Eventually, tragically, their conditions forced disease like typhoid upon the population. A sickening case of self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the ground is where the wall used to stand.
The monument shows the area of the ghetto.

 

That stubborn resistance held a glimmer of hope for some. One nurse, Irena Sendler, fought for the Jews by removing children one by one. Irena along with four other nurses estimated to have saved over 2,500 children. Her methods were innovative and risky. She put a baby in a toolbox and simply carried her out. The children had to be given new names, but this particular baby was given a silver spoon inscribed with Eva as a keepsake from her past. Tragically Eva was the only one in her family to survive. Knowing that Irena and people like her were succeeding is a reminder of Warsaw’s belief in ‘fight no matter the consequences.’
From there the story only gets grimmer. The Final Solution came into effect and those in the ghetto were being shipped off to Treblinka – an extermination camp approximately 100km away disguised as a train station. The Nazis gathered the Jews in a holding area before their deportation. Today, known as Umschlagplatz, there stands a national monument symbolizing a freight car for the train, a tomb for death, and a tree for hope.
Jews awaiting deportation at Umschlagplatz

 

The memorial today

 

Agatha showing us the picture above

 

Resilient as ever, those in the ghetto formed a resistance to fight until the bitter end. On April 19, 1943, the resistance established a sizable uprising to avoid transporting the remaining Ghetto population to Treblinka. They fought, because they would rather die with dignity than die without purpose. They fought until they couldn’t.
The Nazis responded by systematically destroying the ghetto with fire and poison. The resistance leader was 24 years old and holed up in a bunker with 125 others. With the Nazi pressure, they made a decision to commit mass suicide instead of giving in to the Nazis.
In response to the uprising on May 16, 1943 a Nazi SS-Gruppenfuehrer destroyed all lingering hope with a single hit. He personally blew up the Great Synagogue as his last act of destruction of the ghetto. Nowadays the building, a “MetLife” building, is said to be haunted. This building took over 50 years to complete, because of a curse said to have fueled mysterious fires and contributed to other peculiar construction woes. The building now finished today stands as a living reminder of the new Warsaw as compared to the old.
Beautiful synagogue then and MetLife building today

 

The story continues to 1944, where all Warsaw residents came together to form another resistance. This resistance included not only the Jews but all inhabitants, no matter religion. Infuriated, the Nazis wanted to make the city an example of its might. One of the most famous images of the war was one I had not seen. For me, this infamous photo over a girl overlooking the Warsaw ghetto is what opened my eyes to a reality I would never have believed. A city flattened.

Agatha told us how people would try and find their way among the streets and mark house numbers and family member names by drawing in the rubble. Sheer devastation. Everything was lost. And all for naught, because the Nazis already knew at that point that they were going to lose the war to the Allies. Today there stands a memorial honoring those from the resistance for their stubborn spirit.

Second uprising memorial

One final story. One of a young boy, Rajmund Liebling, from Krakow. He grew up in France but his parents moved back to Poland in 1936. He was one of few who escaped from the Krakow ghetto. He was a cheeky boy, who was known for causing mischief. He even convinced other boys to pretend to be German so they could sit in the front of the film screen. This was so unnecessarily risky, it’s a wonder these boys were never caught. He was eventually moved to a small village in southern Poland for the remainder of the war. To avoid any likeness to his Jewish heritage, he changed his name to Roman Polanski. That film-loving boy went on to become the director of The Pianist.

Think about what these stories mean. Think about what people still live with today. Think about being 93 and still stockpiling food not caring if it goes rotten, because you swore to yourself you would never go hungry again.

I asked Agatha what it was like growing up and hearing these stories from her grandparents. But she said they never spoke of it. The wounds were too deep. But now, three years into her time as a tour guide, she says her grandmother has opened up. Her husband was a part of the resistance, but died a few years ago. As one of three remaining resistance fighters alive from her neighborhood, Agatha’s grandmother began sharing her stories, because she doesn’t want them to be lost in her death.

These are the often overlooked stories of Warsaw that are much too easy to disregard. But these memories define what it means to be Polish. You see it today in the conspiracy theories surrounding the airplane crash involving their President in 2010 and in their mindset as “victims for the world.”

Every year on April 19, the Polish wear yellow daffodils, so they will never forget what happened the night of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 30,000 lives lost. Warsaw is tragic, romantic, and fights for everything no matter the consequence. Let us all take a cue from Warsaw and never forget.

Lots of love,

Lena

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