Today, October 16th, marks the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the Warsaw ghetto. Many EF tours which visit Warsaw include a visit to the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI) before seeing the ghetto itself. If the Institute is not a part of your particular itinerary then I urge you to visit, your Tour Director can help arrange it. The JHI is extremely beneficial in getting an idea of how the area looked. The ghetto has been completely demolished and nothing there can recreate the historical images, so it makes a tremendous difference to visit the JHI first.
The Institute’s own website outlines the background. From November 1940 until March 1942, the building was contained within the ghetto and became a major center of cultural and social life for ghetto residents. Members of the Oneg Shabbat group (Joy of the Shabbat) met secretly here to discuss their efforts to document life and destruction of Polish Jews in WWII as extensively as possible. The organization titled Jewish Self-Help, the only Jewish organization sanctioned by the Nazi administration also moved into the building. In April 1942, 2000 Jewish deportees from Germany proper were accommodated here. A few months later there were deported to the Treblinka death camp. That same year the Germans narrowed the ghetto borders, thus excluding Tłomackie Street. After this point, the library and synagogue, including the square in front, were used as warehouses for plundered furniture. On May 16, 1943, to retaliate against the Jews for the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the Germans blew up the synagogue and set fire to the library building. The traces of the fire are still visible on the floor of the main hall.
You will probably approach the institute from Plac Bankowy – notice that the architecture of the big glass shopping centre to your right resembles arches which themselves symbolise the entrance gates to the old synagogue that once stood here and was destroyed during the war. Close by, on Bielanska, you will see a large almost destroyed building –left in this state as a reminder of the destruction of the war. If you look down on the sidewalk you’ll probably find a line saying “Mur Getta” – a marking of the ghetto wall.
Inside the JHI you will be shown a film (approx. 30 minutes – some rather harrowing scenes) which tells you all about the ghetto. On the same floor there is an exhibition about life in the ghetto. There is also an opportunity for students to ask the local guides questions here (encourage your students to be prepared and to do so). Upstairs is a collection of Jewish paintings from Warsaw before the war as well as some created in the ghetto.
Moving on to the Ghetto area, you will see The Monument to the Jewish fighters, The Umschlagplatz and The memorial site of the bunker at Mila 18
Your guide will lead you around the Ghetto square to look at the monument – dedicated to the Jewish fighters. It was here, on December 7th 1970, that the then German Chancellor Willy Brandt spontaneously knelt in front of this memorial, asking for forgiveness for Nazi crimes in Poland. It has been suggested that this is one of the reasons why he later received the Nobel Peace Prize. In commemoration of this gesture, the German president Christian Wulff, on December 7th 2010, lay flowers at the monument.
From here you can walk to the Umschlagplatz, the square where Jews were assembled to be deported to Treblinka, and then you can go to Mila 18 where the last bunker of the ghetto uprising was located. On May 8th 1943 around 200 people, including many of the leaders of the uprising were killed here. Today there is nothing left of the house, but a big stone with the names of the leaders of the uprising serves as a very moving memorial site. In all you will spend about an hour around the Ghetto, a fascinating story and one that guides recount well. There is, naturally, so much more to Warsaw than just this area but it is a vital part of any visit, a great opportunity for you and your students to come face-to-face with an unforgettable part of Polish history.