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Inter war Warsaw had the largest Jewish community in Europe. In 1938 about 375,000 Jews lived in the capital and this was 35 percent of the population, whereas on average about 8.5 percent of the remainder of Poland was Jewish. Varsovian Jews were incredibly dynamic and made an extraordinary contribution to life and the outlook of the city. Jewish education was developing, Jewish newspapers were published in both Polish and Yiddish and the Jewish theatre was in full bloom.
In my review I want to take you back to the time when the Jewish Quarter was a thriving community and introduce you to some of the streets and areas that I pass through most days. Most of the Jewish community have moved on to other countries but still their history is alive in the city.
The Jewish community of the inter-war city fared extremely well, Jewish scientists gained international fame, while social leaders were influential. Warsaw's Jewish community managed hospitals, orphanages, sports clubs, cultural societies and cooperatives. The majority of Jews were members of the Varsovian working class, yet Jews were members of higher classes too. They were real, assimilated Varsovians: entrepreneurs, physicians, lawyers and bankers.
The poorer Jews occupied the so-called Northern Quarter, also in the majority in the districts of Muranow, Mirow, Powazki, Leszno and Grzybow and a significant number of Jews lived in the Old Town and parts of the city centre. My adopted Polish family have lived in Lezno for over 40 years. The apartment block they live in is of the old style consisiting of one bedroom, a lounge, bathroom and kitchen. The lounge is made up into another bedroom in the evening for the adults while the kids share the bedroom. Claustrophobic it may be, at times, but it is always cosy and has a great family atmosphere. Another area which is my favourite and where my son lives is Dzielna. This also consists of old style apartments and most of the community here are old. It is quiet, peaceful and very pretty with an abundance of trees and gardens. Jews added colour in their time to this area as well as to places like Pawia, Gesia, Franciszkanska, Mila, Swietojerska and Muranowska Streets (many of which no longer exist, or exist only partially) The courses of a number of such streets are revealed by tablets embedded in Parade square.
Jewish Warsaw was over populated, busy and full of shops, small workshops and tavernas, as well as home to Orthodox Jews dressed in their long chalat and jarmulcas. They often carried their business with them in one bundle and, walking the streets, shouted invitations to look at the items they bore and to buy them. Danny, the main character of the Magician from Lublin by Nobel prize-winning author Izzak Singer, lived in such a world.
The City That Disappeared
Almost nothing of the Northern Quarter survived as it was burned down in 1943 during the battle in the ghetto. The atmosphere of Jewish streets is conjured up in dilapidated yet surviving houses found on Prozna Street. Prozna street is located near the Swietokrzyska underground station on Zielna street and leads to Grzybowski Street. Here the ground floors are occupied by small shops where nails may be bought by the kilogram, as it was before the second World War when the whole of Grzybowski Square was designated as the square of the metalware trade. At the E Kaminska Jewish Theatre plays in Yiddish are performed and excellent Jewish songs may sometimes be heard, while at the back of the theatre in Twarda Street is the Nozyks Synagogue. It is still a Jewish temple, but open to visitors on Thursdays. The entrance is modern and uninteresting but the building itself is authentic with neo-Romanesque and Byzantine elements. There is a special balcony for women and a centrally located bima, a special pedestal where the Torah scrolls are placed while they are read.
Grzybowski Square, the market square of the old Grzybowski Jurydyka, is dominated by the All Saints Church of E Marconi, which was completed at the beginning of the 20th century, despite its construction having started long before in 1868. It has two towers, rich sculptural ornamentation and a huge flight of steps leading to the enntrance beneath a portico. Despite war damage, some original paintings have survived, for example Crucifixion by Trevisani above the high altar and resurection by Siemiradzki.
At the end of the 19th century the Jewish synagogue was located on the site of the present Business centre Club, yet this huge building now stands opposite the Saski Gardens between modern blocks of flats. The building is one of those which had to be moved from one place to another, another being the Church of the Nativity of the Holy Mother on Solidarnosci Avenue, which was moved just 1.8m and rotated 78 degrees to make way for Zelazna Brama square. The square was occupied in the 19th century by a huge trade hall, yet today it is almost empty. The stone palace guarded by lions was built by Duke Radziwillin in the 18th century and later rebuilt in the classical style. The front colonnade with ten Ionian columns was claimed to be the most imposing in the city but this changed when the Great Theatre was built. The palace was bought by the Jewish businessmen S Cohen and I Blass and served as a synagogue until the end of the 20th century.
Beyond the Wielopole market hall in a westerly direction, the neo-Romanesque Mirowskie market halls were built between 1899-1901. They survived the war and today are full of shops, stalls and close to an outdoor market in the adjacent Elektoraina Street and Jana Pawla 11 Avenue. This area is always buzzing as the main flower market is situated here. Poles adore flowers and they are a very romantic race. It is custom on Friday's to buy flowers for your loved ones and whenever visiting a Polsh house you must always take flowers. I spend many an hour here taking photographs of the stall holders and I have painted several scenes of the market. If you cross over the road from the flower market you will see street sellers on both sides of the pavements. Some sell bits of clothing, old books and bric a brac. Many old people make the trip into the city to sell their home made jams, home grown flowers, eggs, mushrooms and berrries. They sit all day in the winter wrapped in several coats and scarves, selling their wares until the Street Police come along and move them on their way. It is a fascinating area indeed and I hope it will always stay like this.
The Jewish Ghetto was divided into two parts, the Large Ghetto and the Small Ghetto, which were joined by a wooden bridge. The museum of the Holocaust in New York contains a replica of this bridge. The wide artery of Jana Pawla II (Pope John Paul II) Avenue leads to Anielewicza Street and by turning left you will find Smocza Street, home to a restaurant offering Jewish cuisine. By turning right off Jana Pawla II Avenue, you will arrive instead at a large square with a monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto. It was unveiled shortly after World War Two, in 1948, and commemorates the heroes of the Ghetto in the form of a huge block built of basalt rock with a group of figures emerging from its centre. The monument presents the rebels fighting for their inevitable death to be an honourable one. It is within this square that the construction of the Jews of Poland Historical Institute is planned..
On Zamenhofa Street adjoining the square was the house of the Jewish scholar who invented the language Esperanto who lived and worked here between 1898 and 1915. Unfortunately the house has been replaced by a new one, but L Zamenhof is honoured by means of a plaque. My husband's great grandad who was a Communist was a great supporter of Zamenhof's work and he was one of the first people in UK to join the Esperanto Foundation and was able by writing articles and journals to communicate with other Esperanto followers. We owned one of the very first Esperanto dictionaries which had been passed down through the family and was given to my son on his 21st birthday as a very prized possession indeed. Hopefully, he will treasure it and pass it on to his son/daughter.
Zamenhof Street leads to Andersa Street and by way of Mostowski Palace with its internal courtyard has harboured national security institutions for a long time although the first owner organised much-appreciated literary discussions. This is a beautiful golden yellow building and always looks out of place in this run down part of town. Behind the palace is the Muranow cinema, in front of which stands a cast iron fountain dated 1866 with a sculpture by Marconi. The roof of the cinema forms a terrace accessible to visitors who may look out over the Muranow quarter. This post war quarter was built of crushed bricks from the ghetto on an uncleared area, the reason its building stands higher. This elevated area may be reached from the cinema's roof terrace via an arched gate. This is one of the finest cinemas in the city but only usually shows arty films which are generally in Polish without sub titles. Although I did see the film about Joe Strummer (lead singer of The Clash who is sadly deceased) here which was in English.
On the eastern flank of Bankowy Square is Tlomackie Street where the capital's largest synagogue was located. It was blown up by the Germans in 1943 who declared this barbaric act to be an 'unforgettable allegorical triumph over Jews.' The Old Synagogue was replaced by the Azure Tower in the 1970's. Not far away is the Jewish History Institute with its rich archives and library, which before the second World war was the Judaic Science Institute. A piece of column from the Great Synagogue is stored here and the collection of old manuscripts is particularly precious. Those interested in Jewish matters may find the institute to be a valuable resource.
Aleja Solidarnosci leads to Okopowa Street which is in the vicinity where I live now. It is an old, somewhat run down area and once had a reputation for being dangerous and still isn't recommended to wander out at night on your own. The area is being re-generated and I think in time will look quite trendy as there are quite a lot of new buildings being built but I have got used to it as it is and quite like the jaded look. Also, there is a strong community feeling in this area which I hope won't be lost. The Jewish cemetry is located here. This old necropolis dates from 1906 and possesses the graves of several people associated with Polish culture and science, for example L Zamenhof, the creator of the most successful artificial language, Peret. a writer working in Yiddish, the mother of the Hollywood musician Jerzy Petersburski, famous for the Donna Clara tango, and Alexsander Hertz, the director who launched the actress Pola Negri. The cemetry is surrounded by a wall with embedded epitaphs. Jews were buried in a strict order in macewa (simple graves), rabbis were burned in ohele (a house like structure ).
There is also a symbolic place devoted to the heroes of the Ghetto Uprising and a monument to Dr Janusz Korczak and the Children of the Holocaust. Dr Korczak was a guardian of children at an orphanage who voluntarily went with them to the concentration camp when the Nazis, who had intensified the transfer of Jews to the gas chambers in Treblinka, fixed 6th August 1942 as the date of a transfer of children. In 1942 everyone in the ghetto knew where and how the journey in the cattle wagon ended. Hasidic Jews dressed in the white skirts of death for this final journey.
The cemetery is a good place to consider the history of Jewish martyrdom. The majority of monuments are located in the post-war Muranow district, on Okopowa Street, on the district's main artery, Jana Pawla II Avenue, and near the Radoslawa roundabout. I do believe that you can book organised trips to these areas online or actually from the tourist office in the city. Personally I wouldn't want to troop round with a lot of other people as this is a tour that takes time and thought and benefits from solitude.
If you are interested in Jewish history or you have lost family from the Ghettoes then I recommend visiting these areas I have mentioned but not today as looking from my study window I can see snow falling down and hear the bitterly cold north wind howling. Best to visit in the spring.
http://www.city-discovery.com/warsaw/index.php - Link for booking tours of the Jewish area as well as other parts of the city.
The Ghetto was divided into 2 sections: the Small Ghetto and the Large Ghetto. 450,000 Jews were forced to live in very crowded conditions.