In Their Footsteps: a photo essay on the footprint of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto

We took a historical walking tour learning about the struggles of those interned in the Jewish Ghetto during the Second World War.

Clouds rolled across the morning sky as we walked through Warsaw toward the POLIN museum to meet out guide. While the clouds threatened rain in the crisp morning air, fall leaves played at our feet on the Warsaw streets. On the quiet lanes in the early morning it would be easy to momentarily forget the horror that took place here not that long ago. But it’s important to not forget and that’s why we took a small guided tour through the footprint of the massive ghetto created by the Nazi’s in late 1940.

Though it was the largest ghetto created during WWII, the ghetto was only a 1.3 sq mile walled neighborhood and it imprisoned over 400,000 people. The photos below are ones I took on our tour with our tour guide, Mira (booked through Air B&B experiences here). The stories are just a glimpse of what she shared with us over our three hour tour.

The POLIN Museum, where we met Mira showcases the history of the Jewish population in Poland. The museum wasn’t on our tour, but we returned the next day to spend time there. We were there for four hours and even then didn’t see it all. It’s a fascinating museum telling of horrors and triumphs of the Jewish people over the last 1000 years in Poland.

Across the courtyard of the POLIN museum is the Pomnik Bohaterów Getta w Warszawie or the “Monument to Ghetto Heroes.” The massive black granite monument was created to memorialize those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 and is located on the spot of the first armed battle of the uprising. Parts of the monument are created with labradorite ordered by the Nazis and intended for Nazi German monuments.

Jan Karski was a Polish resistance fighter who snuck into the Warsaw Ghetto to witness and report on the horrible living conditions. In addition he went on secret missions to see the camps created by the Nazis. Most notably, from these experiences he drafted a report and took it to the United Nations. Sadly, most of the allied nations didn’t believe what he was saying. He eventually wrote the book Courier from Poland: The Story of a Secret State. We don’t hear about him often in the U.S., but Karski needs to be remembered throughout the world. Though he was just one man, he did everything he could to try to stop the holocaust.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, started the eve of Passover in 1943 and was lead by the Jewish Combat Organization the ŻOB. Initially the ŻOB and another resistance movement, the ŻZW, were able to stave off the German soldiers, but after four months of fighting, the Nazi’s entered the ghetto with masses of soldiers and the resistance fighters were immensely outnumbered. The Nazis systematically burned and destroyed the ghetto killing anyone they came in contact with. The Mila 18 bunker, originally a headquarters for ŻOB turned to a mass grave of leaders and dozens of others when they committed mass suicide rather than be captured and killed by the Nazis. The bunker remains today with large stone monuments mark their heroism and memory.

In the shadow of modern apartment buildings stands a crumbling brick wall. If you were to pull into this parking lot with no knowledge of the history of Poland, it’s likely you wouldn’t know what you were looking at. But this is more than a crumbling wall. It’s a symbol of the oppression and horror the Nazi party inflicted on the Jewish people. It’s the north wall of the Warsaw ghetto. I found it extremely moving to know that there were people who stood where I did knowing they weren’t allowed to leave for fear of being executed on the spot. It’s not very high, but the idea of being walled in against ones will is insurmountable. I’m very happy the city of Warsaw has left some of the walls remaining. If we don’t learn from history, we are destined to repeat it.

During the summer of 1942, mass deportations began under the guise of “resettlement in the East.” In reality, there was no resettlement. The Jewish population was being systematically deported to a death camp where the Germans were committing mass genocide. In the end, over 300,000 people were marched from the walled ghetto to the Umschlagplatz where they boarded the trains to the deaths. Today, there is no longer a train platform, but a wide memorial stands to those deported from here between 1942 and 1943.

While it must have been distressing to see thousands march toward the Umschlagplatz and their inevitable death, the most heartbreaking sight of these marches was that of Janusz Korczak and his orphans. Korczak, the director of the Jewish orphanage in Warsaw was offered amnesty and was told he didn’t have to move with his orphans into the ghetto when the orphanage was relocated. He declined this amnesty, though, and chose to stay with his children. Again, when the children were rounded up for transport to Triblinka, he was offered a pass to leave, but again, he declined. Instead, Korczak told his children to get dressed up and prepare for a great journey. He kept them distracted singing songs on the walk so they wouldn’t be scared. Eyewitness reports say that not one of the children cried or tried to run, but instead, even though they were surrounded by Nazis and police, they clung to Korczak. He stayed with his children until the end. Perishing with them at Triblinka. Today, the original orphanage still stands. A bust of Korczak can be seen outside.

This street, Chłodna Street, an important thoroughfare at the time, was excluded from the ghetto. Due to this exclusion, the Warsaw ghetto was divided into two sections, the small and large ghetto. Originally the two sides of the ghetto were linked by a gate, but in early 1942 a raised wooden bridge was built to cross the street. From this bridge occupants of the ghetto would glimpse the free world as they crossed from one side of the ghetto to the other. Some survivors of the ghetto said that this became their own bridge of sighs. Today, a metal structure mimicking the height of the sides of the bridge stands on its spot in memorial.

The most moving part of the tour for me was to stand in the open courtyard of this building. This dilapidated, boarded up building is the last building from the ghetto that remains exactly as it was at the end of the war. Standing here you can see just how close people were living. And we were reminded that three, four, or even five families were crammed into each apartment. The city of Warsaw has left this as a reminder and a memorial.

I found this blog extremely difficult to write. While I have long been fascinated by history, especially that of WWII and the holocaust, first learning about it in second or third grade, I haven’t ever been physically this close to it. But as sad as this tour made me, I am grateful for it. Their stories need to be told, especially the resistance fighters. So they will not have died in vain.

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