By Harriet P. Gross
It’s taken me a long time to decide on my last words about visiting Poland. But as we approach the new year, I want to fulfill an earlier promise: to write my Warsaw impressions here for you.
First: The city itself is a modern miracle. After being totally shattered by World War II bombings, it rebuilt quite literally from the ground up, reconstructing the architectural beauty it had boasted earlier.
I stayed in one of the few buildings that actually survived the war intact, now a centrally located hotel. The Polonia Palace, completely gutted and redone inside, is exactly as it used to be outside.
Second: The city seems to have achieved almost total success in downplaying its role in the wartime decimation of a once-huge Jewish community. Before the war, three million Jews called Poland home, and in Warsaw proper, more than 350,000 made up some 30 percent of the city’s population. Less than 1/10th of them survived.
I looked hard and long for a book on the Warsaw Ghetto. The only one I found — a single copy, in a rather standard souvenir shop — is a small, cardboard-bound volume of photos with captions in Polish and English. The pictures are revelatory, the words emotionless.
Example: Under an evocative shot of three obviously exhausted female resisters, lined up to await who-knows-what’s-coming-next, it says, “The Nazis were surprised by the bravery with which young women fought in the Uprising” — no hint that this trio represents so many who died with honor. Soft tones whitewash harsh realities: As the Ghetto burns, the book reports how “The Warsaw Fire Brigade prevents the fire’s spread to other districts.”
The site of the Umschlagplatz, a railroad loading yard where Jews were gathered for their passage to Treblinka, is described by my invaluable little volume in flat, bloodless English that renders the truth even more horrifyingly real: “This area of roughly 2,400 square metres (my limited facility with math tells me this is something less than 26,000 square feet) at times held 10,000 Jews, without bread or water, for 10-20 hours.” The building nearby, once a hospital, also “served as a holding pen for transported Jews,” I read.
There were no surprises in any of this, although we know in retrospect that our fellow Jews accepted each humiliation and atrocity as it came with the hopeful belief that nothing could possibly get worse; no human mind can conceive the possibility of “worse” in such situations. But the motto of the German army had been emblazoned on the first trains that brought its troops to Warsaw in 1939: “We are going to Poland to thrash the Jews.” The horrors built slowly, inexorably, from that time until the Ghetto rose up in the spring of 1943 … and beyond …
The striking Ghetto Heroes Monument you may have seen at Yad Vashem is actually a copy of the one here in Warsaw’s Muranow district, where new housing construction was intentionally sited upon ghetto rubble. In the front: Uprising leader Mordecai Anielewicz fronting his little band, grenade in hand. In the back: Jew after Jew being marched to death. The memorial’s figures are bronze, but its base is granite — the stone that the Nazis had imported from Sweden to build their eventual “victory tower.”
For some time there’s been a small Jewish museum about two blocks from the Umschlagplatz, but I couldn’t enter it because the area was cordoned off for construction of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. After the usual delays, this facility is now set to open for visitors on April 19 of next year, the 70th anniversary of the doomed Ghetto uprising’s start.
There was enough room between the barriers for me to sneak in and say Kaddish beside a few engraved memorial stones located on the torn-up grounds. My tour mates — none of them Jewish — waited patiently in our bus for me, then added their own various prayers afterward. That is a moment I’ll always treasure.
Many people now tout a resurgence of Jewish life throughout Warsaw, but I fear it may be as artificial as what I saw earlier in Krakow: chicken soup served with Klezmer music, concocted for tourists by enterprising non-Jews. (Although I must admit: the cheese-and-potato pierogi I tried in a local Polish restaurant were just like the kreplach my Boubby the Philosopher used to make.)
Anyway, I won’t be returning to find out. I’ve finally decided on my last words: I will never go to Poland again.