The Jewish community and its rich culture has had a significant impact on Warsaw. Before World War II approximately 350,000 Jews lived in the capital of Poland. There were no restrictions on Jews praying and studying in synagogues, or celebrating their native traditions. During the pre-war era only New York could boast a larger Jewish community than Warsaw. Jews made significant contributions to the social, political and cultural life of the whole country. Unfortunately, six years of Nazi occupation destroyed the Jewish population of Warsaw, as over 90 percent perished either in the ghetto or were sent to death camps.
In 1940 the Germans forced Jews living in Warsaw to gather in a designated area, and built a brick wall to isolate them from the rest of the city. The ghetto covered an area of 3.4 square kilometers and enclosed 73 of Warsaw’s 1,800 streets. The entire space was divided into a “small” and “big” ghetto; the two were linked by a wooden bridge standing over ul. Chłodna. Living conditions in the ghetto were extremely difficult. According to the Nazis’ brutal policies, Jews were expected to survive on 184 calories a day. The Warsaw ghetto was the largest of the 800 built by the Germans during the war. In Warsaw, 380,000 people were squeezed into the ghetto, with an average of eight people to a room. One of the most tragic places in the district was Umschlagplatz, where Jews were loaded into cattle wagons destined for death camp gas chambers. In 1943 the Nazis decided to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto and organized mass deportations to death camps in order to empty it. The German plans forced the Jewish underground movement to take action and fight against the occupiers.
Ghetto Uprising of April 19, 1943
Ghetto activists created an armed self-defense unit known as the Jewish Combat Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa; ZOB). This group had approximately 500 fighters; they joined forces with the Jewish Military Union (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy; ZZW). The Polish Home Army helped the ZOB and provided the fighters with weapons, mostly pistols and explosives. On the first day of the uprising, ZOB fighters forced the German troops to retreat outside the ghetto wall. On the third day, SS and police forces started to level the ghetto, building by building, to make the remaining Jews leave their hiding places. Jewish resistance fighters made some raids from their bunkers, but the German military forces were much too strong. Despite the German plans to put down the Ghetto Uprising within three days, the fighters managed to defend themselves for more than a month. To find out about the Warsaw Ghetto and its heroic fighters we recommend watching Roman Polanski’s film, “The Pianist”. It is the story of a Polish Jewish musician who struggled to survive the destruction of the ghetto and the defeat of the Warsaw Uprising. It is a truly beautiful portrayal of the human condition in extraordinary circumstances.
After the war
According to estimates, around 15,000 Jews survived the war hiding out on the “Aryan” side, where they received help from Polish people. Despite the anti-Zionist policies of the post-war communist government, the majority of survivors started new lives in Israel. Currently Warsaw’s Jewish population is estimated at 2,000.
Jewish Warsaw Sightseeing
Próżna Street – is a short street leading off Plac Grzybowski, where unrestored red brick buildings with crumbling facades are marked with bullets and shrapnel. Here you can see fragments of the red brick wall that once surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto. Before the Holocaust, this street was mainly occupied by Jewish families. Although there are not many places in Warsaw where you can experience the atmosphere of a pre-war Jewish neighborhood, you can find out more about Jewish culture and traditions by reading books by Polish Jewish Nobel prize-winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Jewish Cemetery (Cmentarz Żydowski) – The cemetery was originally founded in 1806 and nowadays it contains around 250,000 graves. Located at Okopowa Street, it is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. It was closed during Ward War II, but it was reopened and it is still serving Warsaw’s small Jewish population.
Miła 18 – The bunker at Miła 18 St. was the last one destroyed by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Today visitors can find the memorial stone at Miła 18, which is engraved with the names of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (Pomnik Bohaterów Getta) – The monument, designed by Natan Rappaport, pays tribute to the heroes of the Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It is located between ul. Anielewicza, Zamenhofa, Lewartowskiego and Karmelicka where the heaviest fighting of the Ghetto Uprising took place. It is made of stone originally ordered from Sweden by Hitler for a triumphal arch.
Nożyk Synagogue (Synagoga Nożyków) – Built between 1898 and 1902, this neo-Romanesque synagogue is the only one in Warsaw that survived the war. It was fully restored between 1977 and 1983, and is now open to the public. The Nożyk Synagogue is located at 6 Twarda Street.
Umschlagplatz – When walking down Stawki Street, you cannot miss Umschlagplatz, an empty square from were around 300,000 Jews were loaded on cattle wagons and sent to the Treblinka death camp.