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The Ghosts Of The Warsaw Ghetto: The past echoes in the silent streets of the Jewish quarter.

The Ghosts Of The Warsaw Ghetto: The past echoes in the silent streets of the Jewish quarter.

Article from:
The New York Jewish Week
Article date:
April 23, 1999
J, M

The Ghosts Of The Warsaw Ghetto: The past echoes in the silent streets of the Jewish quarter.



M.J. Rosenberg is a writer and long-time Jewish activist living in Chevy Chase, MD.

The most startling thing about Poland for any first-time American Jewish visitor has to be its beautiful colors. As Americans, we think of Eastern Europe as black and white, a legacy of the 50-year Soviet occupation and the grim Communism that accompanied it. As Jews, we view Eastern Europe, and particularly Poland, through the lens of the Shoah. The last thing we associate, or would want to associate, with the Holocaust is color, any kind of beauty in fact. Hence, the deeply green Polish countryside is a surprise as the plane descends into Warsaw.

But that was the second surprise of a two-week visit to Poland. The first was the food on the LOT Polish Airways flight from London. First, we noticed the aroma. Familiar but not immediately recognizable. It was when our own dinner was delivered that it registered. It was kreplach, apparently the very recipe with which my mother-in-law delighted family and guests for decades. Imagine that. Poles eat Jewish food ... or vice versa.

The kreplach moment was a metaphor for our entire trip. Poland was not strange, rather it was strangely familiar. My wife, Mindy, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany a few years after World War II, is Polish Jewish through and through, a Galicianer, as her father always reminded us.

She had heard her parents' tales of life in their little Jewish town of Rozwadow, in southeast Poland. These stories did not exactly make her want to hop aboard the next plane. The invasion of Poland by Germans and Soviets in 1939 -- and the horrors that followed that invasion -- overshadowed the lives her parents and their contemporaries lived prior to it. The other stories they told, about fairly prosperous Jews living a seamless Jewish life within an essentially Jewish civilization, in relative harmony with their non-Jewish neighbors, did not particularly grab her.

That changed once "Grandpa Danny," Mindy's father, Yedidya Gruenbaum, died in 1990. The coincidence of losing him at almost the same moment that his hated Communists were being kicked out of power in Poland suddenly raised the possibility of visiting there. Without his presence, without his stories of the heim, or home -- the way he always referred to life "before" -- we suddenly needed to see the place for ourselves.

We cleared passport control and were surprised to find ourselves in an ultra-modern and very pleasant airport. With our guidebooks in hand, we boarded the bus that would take us to our downtown hotel. We stared out the windows.

Warsaw is a big city. But it feels empty, almost like a frontier city that has not yet fully developed. Only the absence of tumbleweed reminds you that this is not the west but the east, a very old city and not a developing one.

Later we felt a little stupid when we were told why Warsaw feels so open. It was utterly destroyed by the Germans during the war. The Poles paid a terrible price for their decision to fight the invading Germans rather than surrender. Because they threw in the towel quickly, the French saved Paris. Because they fought the Germans both as they invaded and, even more powerfully, during the 1944 national uprising, Poles had their capital leveled. During the post-war years, the city was rebuilt -- but Soviet style.

With the exception of the Old Town which the Poles lovingly restored brick by brick using old photographs and ancient blueprints as guides, it is not the same city.

This applies even more dramatically to the Jewish neighborhood, once home to almost 400,000 Jews and later walled in as the Warsaw Ghetto. It was turned into rubble after the Jewish revolt in April of 1943. Virtually nothing is left of what was once the most vibrant Jewish neighborhood in the world. Nevertheless, on our first night, we felt the need to be there.

It was raining when we left the hotel. The guidebook made it appear that the ghetto area was within walking distance. It wasn't. But the walk in the rain suited our spirit. It is hard to feel upbeat on the way to the Warsaw Ghetto.

World War II is, obviously, so much closer when you are in Europe than in America. In the United States, the war is history. In Poland, it might have been yesterday. In addition to the open spaces, there are little plaques built on walls everywhere to tell you that on such and such date, the following Poles were executed by the Nazi occupiers in a random attack. Fresh flowers adorn these sites. There must be thousands of them in the city. And they all carry a word -- unique to Polish -- which also appears on Jewish memorials: hitlerowcy. It is an adjective describing the most common cause of death during the six-year Nazi reign. Three million Polish Jews. Another two million Polish Christians. As the British Jewish historian, Martin Gilbert, points out, with the exception of the Jews, no European nation was subjected to the full force of Hitler's genocidal policies as the Poles were. That was because the Poles -- like Jews, gypsies and homosexuals -- were, for Hitler, subhuman by definition and therefore unfit to live.

We didn't know we were in the ghetto itself until we saw the street sign. The street was called "Moredchaj Anielewicz." One didn't have to read Polish to recognize that the street was named after the commander of the Warsaw Ghetto's uprising, a hero of mine since childhood. I have always considered Mordechai Anilewicz to be the founder of the Israel Defense Forces, but he was killed fighting Germans on the streets of Warsaw at 24. I felt a chill seeing his name on this street although I was touched knowing that he was preserved here, at least in an address.

It was now dark. We wanted to find Mila 18, the bunker headquarters of Anilewicz and his fellow fighters. An old Pole passed us and stopped. He knew no English and I couldn't make myself understood. Then I said "zhidow," which is the word for Jew, pointed to myself and then said "ghetto." The man understood. He indicated that we follow him. He crossed himself as we arrived at the bunker site -- now just a mound built out of the rubble. Mindy and I looked out at the dark emptiness all around us. These streets once bustled with Jews. All kinds. Zionists and non-Zionists. Religious and atheist. "Good" Jews and "bad." Now, nothing but silence.

Suddenly the silence was broken. A group of loud, rowdy, beautiful Israeli teenagers had appeared out of nowhere. They joined us at the monument. Hebrew filled the air. Suddenly we felt better. Mordechai Anilewicz and his glorious comrades had not been vanquished. They had not even been killed. They were right here with us. We returned to our hotel smiling.