Warsaw, the capital of Poland is the largest city in the country with about 1.8 million inhabitants.
Its historic old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The history of the city is tragic. It is a succession of invasions, wars, administrative restrictions. The most destructive episode took place during World War II with the creation of its ghetto, and we could not visit the city without learning more.
For this reason, we decided to register for 2 guided tours. The “free-walking-tours” you’re getting to know. The first will be based on the history of Warsaw’s Jewish community, while the second will lead us to discover its old town.
For the first one, we have an appointment in front of All Saints Church which is located in the center of the Jewish community.
Warsaw’s Jewish community
Our guide begins by telling us about the Jewish community in Poland, and why it was the largest one in Europe before World War 2.
Three main reasons:
- The decision of King Kasimir the Great and his successors to offer refuge to persecuted Jews in other European countries.
- The creation by the Emperor of Russia Alexander III of the “Pale of Settlement“, an area that then included Poland and Belarus and where the Jews from Russia had an obligation to settle.
- A high birth rate in the Jewish community.
The city also experienced a large influx of Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries. During the interwar period, Jewish Warsaw flourished. Hundreds of artists, actors, writers, and journalists moved to Warsaw.
After this introduction, we head to the Nożyk Synagogue, the only pre-war synagogue that has survived the war.
Built between 1898 and 1902, it was damaged by an air raid in 1939 and was restored after the war. It was then part of the small ghetto and the Germans used it in 1941 as stables and warehouses.
Nowadays, it’s still active.
Towards the remains of Warsaw Ghetto
We head to one of the original walls of the Jewish ghetto located at N˚ 11 Waliców Street, one of the ghetto’s boundaries. These walls can be found in different parts of the city and are the last vestiges of the ghetto left there in memory.
To get there we take Grybowska Avenue, and cross one of Warsaw’s new neighborhoods.
Waliców, old ghetto district.
Street Art from the artist Wiktor Malinowski (2008) on an old ghetto wall.
In the winter of 1939-1940, the Nazis began persecuting the Jews, and the order to transplant Jews was given on October 2, 1940. They will have 1 month to move to the Jewish quarter, which will then officially become a “contagion zone”, forbidden to German soldiers.
80,000 non-Jews left the area, and 138,000 Jews settled there. The ghetto was closed on November 16, 1940, and a perimeter wall was built.
The Warsaw Ghetto will be the largest Jewish ghetto in the Nazi-occupied territories of Europe.
In several places in the city, you can see where the walls of the ghetto were located.
The ghetto was overcrowded. As many families lived together in the same apartment, a note on each front door specified how many times to ring the bell for each family.
We continue our tour through the city to get to the site of the old footbridge that connected the small and the large ghetto. This footbridge was the only place from which the inhabitants could see the outside.
We pass Janasz Palace, a historic building built in 1874 for the financier Janasz according to the characteristics of the French palaces, with a neo-baroque façade.
It is part of the shortlist of buildings that suffered little during World War II. In 1970, the exterior and interior were restored to their original states.
We arrive at the feet of the columns that mark the location of the footbridge.
Our guide points us to a building a little further. It is the only one that survived the destruction of the ghetto. You can see it in a lot of archival photos.
He also explains that the tram line that always runs on this street was the only link between the ghetto and the outside world. It crossed the ghetto by passing under the bridge to allow non-Jewish Poles to cross the neighborhood.
It is hard to imagine today the neighborhood as it was. Our guide brought some archival images to help us picture it.
To finish our visit, we go to the square of the Monument of the Heroes of the Ghetto. Along the way, our guide tells us about the insurrection of the summer of 1942.
The insurection of Warsaw Ghetto
In the summer of 1942, deportation began to the concentration camps. Following this great wave of deportation, the Jewish resistance was organized against the German occupying forces between 19 April and 16 May 1943.
It is the best known and most commemorated act of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. The resistance was stronger than expected by the Nazis, even if the outcome was certain given the imbalance of forces.
The end of the ghetto
The final act is the destruction of the great synagogue in Warsaw, and the burning of the ghetto ordered by Hitler, by ideology but above all to mark the spirits.
Those who returned in 1944-45 could no longer find a trace of the neighborhood in which they lived. This “sea of ruin” covers 300 hectares, the equivalent of 420 football fields.
We arrive in front of the Monument of the Heroes of the Ghetto, erected in their memory and inaugurated in 1948, five years to the day after the beginning of the uprising. It is located close to where the clashes began.
A group of Jewish fighters can be seen armed with Molotov cocktails, pistols or grenades. A young woman holds a child in her arms. The flames behind them represent the ghetto burned by the Nazis.
Opposite the monument is the POLIN Museum of the Jews of Poland.
It is built on the symbolic site of the Warsaw Ghetto and was inaugurated on April 19, 2013, for the 70th anniversary of its insurrection.
It speaks of the whole Jewish tradition and culture during the thousand years of their history in Poland.
Our visit ends, and we thank our guide for telling us about this episode in his country’s history with such passion.
Do this visit without hesitation. It is a beautiful moment of sharing and emotions, and our guide knew how to set the right tone in his speech.
We were not able to visit the Polin Museum due to lack of time, but I think it would have added a great plus to this visit.