The Warsaw act to honour Jewish life
Warsaw’s striking Museum of the History of Polish Jews documents the past glories of the country’s Jewish population and could be a keystone in its Jewish future
On an April morning in 1943, the last 50,000 of Warsaw’s once thriving Jewish community decided to die with dignity.
For three years they had been stripped of their humanity by degrees. First came the ghetto, concentrating 400,000 people into a 3km by 3km walled-in space behind brick walls. Packed eight to a room in increasingly squalid conditions, the occupying Nazi forces watched and waited as starvation and disease did their terrible work. After the Final Solution was agreed, a mass deportation in 1942 to the nearby death camp of Treblinka emptied the ghetto of 300,000 people. Having learned of what fate awaited them, the remaining 50,000 ghetto inhabitants vowed to put up the final fight of their lives.
Deported to their deaths
On April 19th, 1943, when their Nazi tormentors entered the ghetto to complete the deportation, they were beaten back by residents armed with guns, grenades and molotov cocktails.
The Nazis retaliated with heavy artillery and flamethrowers. A month later, with further 13,000 residents killed in the fighting, the largest armed uprising by European Jews in the second World War was over. The surviving 50,000 Jews were deported to their deaths and the Warsaw ghetto, once a thriving Jewish neighbourhood, was demolished – building by building. On May 16th 1943, the city’s SS commander Jürgen Stroop concluded crisply: “The former Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no more.”
After 1945, when the Third Reich itself ceased to exist, the sea of bricks in Warsaw was cleared and a memorial to the Ghetto Uprising heroes was erected on the site in 1948. It was here that West German chancellor Willy Brandt famously fell to his knees in 1970.
Today it is a drab neighbourhood of grey postwar apartment blocks. Decades of historic disconnect are closing, however, thanks to a landmark new building – the Museum of the History of Polish Jews – telling the story of the rich contribution to Polish life of its Jewish community, once the largest in the world.
The permanent exhibition, 10 centuries of Jewish life in Poland, is currently being installed for opening next year. Until then, like Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, the building by Finnish architectural studio Lahdelma and Mahlamäki is the main attraction.
And what an attraction. Passersby see a rigid, somewhat austere glass box with a gash in the front facade. Step inside and the hard exterior lines give way to an undulating, sandy concrete interior with curves and waves, broken up by a cross-hatch pattern that appear to shift as the sun moves.