Letters From Minsk: the Warsaw Ghetto

Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto; otherwise few vestiges remain, and where it stood there are now modernist apartment blocks. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

This is the sixth in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

From the Katyn Museum I biked to a Warsaw Ghetto memorial and the nearby Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Along the way, I found a small stretch of the ghetto wall that has been preserved on which there is now a cast-iron map of the quarter and an inscription that reads:

By order of the German occupation authorities, the ghetto was cut off from the rest of the city on November 16, 1940. The ghetto areas, surrounded by a wall, was initially 307 hectares (759 acres); with time, it was reduced. Starting in January 1942, it was divided in two parts called the large and small ghettos. Approximately 360,000 Warsaw Jews and 90,000 from other towns were herded into the ghetto. Nearly 100,00 died of hunger. During the summer of 1942, the Germans deported and murdered close to 300,000 people in the gas chambers of Treblinka. On April 19, 1943, an uprising broke out in the ghetto. Until mid-May, fighters and civilians perished in combat or in the systematically burned ghetto buildings. The remaining population was murdered by the Germans in November 1943 in the Majdanek, Poniatowa and Trawniki concentration camps. Only a few survived.

The new Jewish Museum opened in 2013. In effect, it occupies an entire square block in what was once the ghetto, although the museum building itself is surrounded by an open plaza, on which there is a memorial. All around the museum are modern, Polish-built, socialist-inspired apartment buildings.

As does everyone at the museum, I went around in the company of noisy school children, some of whom wore uniforms and who were using the museum as something a treasure hunt.

They were carrying papers, pencils, and lists, and whenever they found what they were looking for, they would shriek with delight. I didn’t mind the decibel level or their excitement. If anything, it was the perfect antidote to visiting a building that is devoted to a lost civilization.

Warsaw’s New Jewish Museum

The museum’s remit is to remember Poland’s vanished Jewish civilization, not Judaism at large, and the rooms—all of which are meticulously arranged—trace the evolution of Poland’s Jewish population (from about the 11th century, although Jews predate Christianity in much of central Europe), showing schools, synagogues, houses, town plans, neighborhoods, books, dress, shops, carts, and songs, in a vast ethnographic compendium.

Some of the most memorable rooms are those that preserve the mosaic tableaux of synagogue ceilings.

The museum building, which cost about $100 million, is also part of the exposition, using its soaring vaults and angled ceilings to shed light where, in a modern sense, there is largely darkness.

As in most museums, I was drawn to the maps, which show the expansion and contraction of Poland—from the 15th century Polish-Lithuanian empire, covering much of Eastern Europe, through the several Polish partitions (the last in 1795) and ending (at least for Polish Jews) with the 1939 German and Russian invasions.

Despite the changes in national frontiers over the centuries, the villages, small towns, and cities in the archipelago of Jewish Poland remained remarkably durable, although after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact they were caught in a vice from which there was no escape—and vanished from the map.

The Yiddish Civilization

I was also drawn to the exhibits on the evolution of the Yiddish language, having read Paul Kriwaczek’s Yiddish Civilization at the urging of my friend Gene Schulman, whose family had emigrated to Detroit from around Minsk.

There’s a passage in the book that reads: “In this generous atmosphere, Poland’s Jewish community would become the scholarly beacon of the Yiddish world, the site of an intellectual renaissance among European Jewry, a demonstration that the Yiddish civilisation could contribute not only to European economics, but also to European thought.”

Kriwaczek explains that Yiddish isn’t simply a German dialect, but an amalgam of words and sounds cobbled together from central Europe to the Russian steppe. He writes:

Its modem grammar and sound system derive partly from German, partly from Slavic and partly from neither, the consequence of the natural evolution of language along idiosyncratic and unpredictable lines. Apart from the two main source languages, its vocabulary also contains words from Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Turkic, French, Greek and more—a record, albeit hard to decipher, of all the peoples among whom Jews have lived.

Later he adds:

We have forgotten that the Yiddish language and culture were born, raised and matured in the Slav lands of eastern Europe, in today’s Belarus, Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, in originally Slav Austria, Bavaria, Saxony and Brandenburg, as well as in strongly Slavicised Lithuania, Romania and Hungary, from where generations of émigrés travelled west towards the end of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth to find freedom and improve their material lot.

The Russian Pale of Settlement

One of the maps that particularly interested me showed the contours of what is called the Pale of Settlement, those parts of western Russia, including what is now much of Poland, to which Jews were restricted.

Villages, towns, and cities within the Pale, however, were never entirely Jewish, although the ghettos, within some of these communities, were. Some cities (Kiev was one) were entirely banned for Jewish communities.

The Pale was established in 1795, when Poland was partitioned, and lasted until World War I reconfigured the borders of Russia, Poland, Germany, and Austro-Hungary. Kriwaczek writes:

The first step was to forbid [the Jews’] entry from the Polish territories into Russia proper, where no Jewish life had been sanctioned for hundreds of years. There thus came into existence a Pale of Settlement, from now on the only part of the Russian Empire, except for the underpopulated extreme south-east of the Ukraine and the Black Sea coast, where Jews were allowed to live. The Yiddish-speaking world was henceforth to be a large open prison.

I want to know more about Russia’s decision to confine Jewish life to these borderlands—I have ordered books and plan to go back—although my sense, from the museum and my reading, is that its motivations were anti-semitic and nationalistic (to keep Jews out of Moscow and St. Petersburg) and economic (think of it as a Russian First policy).

There must also have been a military component to the policy, to keep central European catholics (from the Austrian empire in particular) from pushing too far to the east.

Sadly, the Pale of Settlement corresponds to the land where much of the two world wars were fought in the east—what, for good reason, the author Timothy Snyder has called “the Bloodlands.”

Roman Vishniac’s Vanished World

Walking around the museum, I was also drawn to the black-and-white photographs of Roman Vishniac, taken in the 1930s and later published in the West, notably in New York in 1983, when his book A Vanished World came out.

Ironically, Vishniac spent his adult life in New York City, as a professor at a medical school. But in his early days—he born in Moscow in 1897—he accepted an assignment from a Jewish relief organization to memorialize, with his cameras, ghetto life in Eastern Europe.

Vishniac traveled around eastern Europe between 1935-38, not just in Poland, but to Germany, Romania, Lithuania, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. In all he took some 16,000 photographs, and it’s the best record of the ghettos in the 1930s that have survived.

My wife and I had a copy of his book when we went to Poland in 1986, if only so that in our minds we would have “before and after” images of what was lost in the Holocaust. Kriwaczek writes:

Roman Vishniac’s photographs were taken at a time when, with the sole exception of Czechoslovakia, every country in eastern Europe was already under authoritarian right-wing, if not openly Fascist, rule, when National Socialism was already on the march and quickly allying itself with every ancient, local anti-Semitic hatred, and when the Yiddish nation already lay in ruins. The artistry of his pictures is in the moving delicacy with which they portray the final gasps of a dying world.

Vishniac took many of his pictures surreptitiously, which explains their immediacy, although more recently some scholars have questioned how he would have been able to cover up his heavy photographic equipment.

More likely, he set up his gear on a street corner, and then would wait for the opportune moment to shoot, although I am sure at times he hid his cameras from his subjects.

Copies of Vishniac’s A Vanished World sell for $15 on Amazon, at least from second-hand shops. Get one if you want to visit Poland in the 1930s.

Warsaw’s Fairy Tales

There’s a disconnect between the rich tapestry of life inside the Polin Jewish Museum and outside in what was once the ghetto, where the only buildings are the tract apartment blocks of dreary Polish socialism.

I spent about two hours in the museum, following the proscribed path through the exhibitions, and then I drank coffee in the café and loaded up on postcards in the gift shop. (I know, a trivial pursuit, but old habits die slowly.)

From the museum, on my bicycle I rode to the monument of the 1943 ghetto revolt (which isn’t to be confused with the 1944 Warsaw rising), a somber slab of black marble on the edge of another cavernous square. Architecturally, Warsaw is a city that still appears to be missing many teeth.

The best description of the divide between Poland’s old world and new comes in Kriwaczek’s Yiddish Civilization, in which he interviews a current resident about all the changes. He writes:

“You must understand,” she explains, “that the old Poland is gone for ever. After 1945 we had to start from the beginning again. And then again when the Russians left. Today we Poles are a new people. Even our borders are quite different now. Of course we inherited some memories and some traditions from the past but we feel they do not really belong to us. In the distant future Polish people will recount to each other stories about the time, long, long ago, when Jews lived among us. But they will be like the folk tales other nations tell their children about ogres, giants and fairies.”

From ghetto revolt memorial, feeling a touch like Jack in the beanstalk (without either his cow or beans), I headed back to the railroad station, to retrieve my bags and catch the afternoon train to the Polish-Belarusian border at Terespol—a little uncertain that I would make it across this European geopolitical divide.

Next: Arrival in Belarus. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.