Wednesday is a half-day at the American School in Warsaw. My morning was filled with 7th graders and my afternoon with rain and history.
I was honored to spend the afternoon with Adam, the guy who teaches Polish at the school. He is Polish, born and bred, and an expert on the history of Warsaw. He also studied Anglo-Saxon and Celtic languages so as we drove into the heart of the city, we had a wonderful linguistic-geek conversation.
The skyline has buildings from the 19th-century, from the 1930s pre-war building boom, the scars of the WWII when the Nazis systematically destroyed most of the city, the Soviet era, with Stalinesque buildings, and the current building frenzy. The buildings of Warsaw offer a Braille text to the city’s history.
The history of Warsaw and Poland is filled with invasions and oppression. That the Poles survived with their language, cultural, and spirit intact is an incredible testimony to their strength and wonderful stubborness. Recently, some artists have started to inject some whimsy into Warsaw, to help counterbalance the legacy of darkness. If you squint, you’ll see sculptures of three pink elk on the riverbank. Just because.
In 1940, the Germans established the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw and forced the city’s half-million Jews to live in it. (Please read the linked article for the details – you really need to know about this.) After years of being treated horribly – starved, attacked, murdered, and every atrocity you can imagine – members of a resistance movement in the Ghetto decided they had to fight back. On April 19, 1943 (yes, that was 64 years ago today), the Jews fought back. It was called the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
They didn’t have a chance. But they fought back for a month, choosing to die fighting instead of in a gas chamber. There were a half million Jews in Warsaw at the beginning of WWII – the largest population outside of New York City. By the end of the war, they had all been killed. Today, 2000 Jews live here.
This is one of the exterior walls of the Jewish Cemetary, where it touched the Ghetto. Pretty much all of the buildings in the Ghetto (which was huge) were completely destoyed on Hitler’s orders after the Ghetto Uprising.
This is the memorial to Jan Korczak, an author, educator and pediatrician who revolutionized the way children were viewed, and who cared for hundreds of orphans in the Ghetto until the Nazis murdered all of them.
This is the Umschlagplatz in the Ghetto, where the Jews were herded onto railway cars and sent to be slaughtered at concentration camps. Chilling. Horrifying. Actually, I am fairly wordless about the experience.
We also went to the Jewish Cemetary, a city of the dead, where a quarter-million are buried. I am still processing how this affected me. The pictures are in my head forever.
As if that wasn’t enough, we also talked about the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the Poles in the whole city rose up against the Germans. This is a memorial to that event. The Poles thought that the Russians, camped across the river, would come to their aid, the way the Allied troops helped the people of Paris. The Russians did not help. The Germans then crushed the city, destroying most of the buildings and killing thousands.
Yes, this was all very heavy and sobering material. Adam and I drank coffee and ate a bagel and talked for hours after. I came away with the deepest respect for Poland.