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The Things of Warsaw / Testimonies from the Warsaw Ghetto

Testimonies from the Warsaw Ghetto

Testimonies from the Warsaw Ghetto

History of the ghetto as an integral part of the history of Warsaw

Testimonies from the Warsaw Ghetto exposition is an attempt at showing the unimaginable. It covers the period from the beginning of the German occupation and the delineation of the “area at risk of typhus” in Warsaw in spring 1940 to the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1948. The daily life of the ghetto is presented from various perspectives—soldiers and members of the resistance movement, women and men, amateurs and professionals. Not only do their photographs tell a universal story about the war, but they also allow for contact with wartime reality from different points of view and a look at postwar Warsaw. Objects recovered during archaeological digs, belonging to people from the pre-war Northern Quarter, are material vestiges of the life of a community that had inhabited the northern part of Warsaw for nearly 200 years. The exposition concludes with a film which also serves as the only source of light in the exhibition. The document recorded by a group of survivors right after the war shows the void left of the ghetto, turned into a rubble desert after the entire Jewish community had been annihilated, the void that has grown to become a symbol of their Holocaust.

”Area at risk of typhus”. Sealing off the Jewish Quarter

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish community constituted 30% of the total population of Warsaw. The majority of Jews resided in the Northern Quarter. Nalewki, Chłodna or Krochmalna Streets, full of hustle and bustle, were the heart of the Jewish world with its unmatched level of diversity—social, religious, and political. Within just a few years, this world ceased to exist.

Delineated in the spring of 1940 by the German administration, by the autumn of the same year the “Seuchensperrgebiet”, or the “area at risk of typhus,” was separated from the rest of the city by a wall with barbed wire. Nearly 350,000 people were imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto. The dramatic conditions meant that the Jewish community, both individually and collectively, had to face death on a daily basis.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Great Liquidation Aktion began on 22 July 1942. Mass deportations to the death camp in Treblinka left the ghetto almost completely empty. In 1943, the area of the former Northern Quarter was razed to the ground. On 19 April 1943, at dawn, SS units entered the ghetto via the gate on Nalewki Street. The fighters took the Germans by surprise, shooting at them from the rooftops, attics or windows of buildings at the intersection of Nalewki, Gęsia, Zamenhofa and Miła Streets, and on Muranowski Square. Meanwhile, the civilians were hiding in pre-arranged bunkers. The Germans didn’t expect resistance Even though open combat lasted only several days, the ghetto residents resisted the Germans for a month. Unable to crush the resistance, the Germans razed the ghetto to the ground. Thousands of people were deported to Treblinka and to the camps in Majdanek, Poniatowa and Trawniki.

We, the Survivors

After the Uprising had been suppressed, the Germans began a systematic destruction of the entire ghetto area. As a result, the former Northern Quarter practically disappeared from the face of the earth. The ghetto was burned to the ground, and the entire Jewish community was annihilated. All that was left was the rubble, ruins, and an empty space in the northern section. In the exhibition, a film that is most likely the only surviving footage from that period will be shown to the public for the first time. A documentary titled Mir, lebngeblibene [We, the Survivors], shot shortly after the war, reveals the unimaginable—the staggering scale of a national disaster, after which the Jewish community strove to return to normal life in a socialist reality. The shots of a sea of rubble stretching to the horizon are accompanied by the prayer El Male Rachamim [God Full of Mercy], which obliges the survivors to remember those who are no longer present.

What was left of the Warsaw ghetto

After the liberation of Warsaw in 1945, the Warsaw ghetto did not disappear—the sea of rubble was a constant reminder of the committed crimes. The memory of those who had perished and of their suffering was not obliterated by a total destruction. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising grew to become a vital element of the collective memory of the Holocaust, and remembering the ghetto fighters and civilian martyrs was an obligation of those who had survived. However, the initial hopes of the Jewish community to rebuild the Northern Quarter came to naught. In 1948, during the commemorative events on the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the idea of reviving the Jewish district in Warsaw was abandoned, and the history of Polish Jews was thus severed. Soon, the State of Israel would be established and the sea of rubble left of the ghetto would turn into a new residential quarter, an area of new possibilities—the Muranów housing estate.

Scarcity of material traces

In postwar Muranów, built on the rubble of the ghetto, there are practically no material traces left of the once vibrant Jewish life. Objects now hidden deep underground are brought to light during archaeological digs. Search conducted in the area of the former ghetto for the Ringelblum Archive and the archive of the leftist-Zionist Bund party ended in failure. The few unearthed items bear witness to the daily life of the Jewish residents of Warsaw both before the war, during wartime and the Uprising. Some of the recovered documents, fragments of dishes, forks and buttons will be on display in the Room, alongside other visual testimonies of the life of the community that inhabited this part of Warsaw for nearly 200 years, of which only a few had survived.

The Room is located at the basement level—it will conclude the narrative on the city and its inhabitants during World War II. It will fill the gap—there is a scarcity of testimonies on Jewish life in other sections of the core exhibition. The exposition is based on the collections of the Warsaw Museum, the Jewish Historical Institute, the National Film Archive—Audiovisual Institute, and other institutions.

Attention! The exhibition contains drastic content, unsuitable for sensitive people and children.

Curators: Anna Duńczyk-Szulc, Aleksandra Sołtan-Lipska

Consultant: Dr Agnieszka Kajczyk

Graphic design: Anna Światłowska

Exhibition design: Jan Libera

Partner of the exhibition: Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute