On the third day of my visit, I woke up to torrential rain. However, I was still eager to get out and about. Armed with my rain jacket and an umbrella, I made it about 10 metres from the door before getting soaked through. Nuts. Luckily, I had spied a little local café (Resort) that I wanted to try. Despite not having an English menu, I managed to order the three things I could understand on the menu and was pleasantly surprised. I also dried out in the warmth while the rain died down a little. The complimentary pickles that came with my sandwich were a welcome addition.
After this, I walked towards POLIN – the Museum of the Polish Jews. Unfortunately, while it wasn’t raining too much as I left Resort, it started bucketing down very quickly. I tried to order an Uber, to no avail – it wouldn’t recognise my Polish number. The only silver lining of this situation was that I ducked into a building to avoid the rain. That building turned out to be the Bank of Poland Redoubt (Reduta Banku Polskiego). Built in 1911, it was the seat of the Polish National Bank. During the Warsaw Uprising, the building and its surroundings saw heavy fighting, and these battles left most of it demolished. Apparently, this was originally the planned site for the Warsaw Uprising Museum – however, it looks like an empty old hall these days. When the rain eased up slightly, I trudged off towards POLIN. I stopped a few times to admire the beautiful architecture along Plac Bankowy, and to admire the hilarious Danish bric-a-brac at Flying Tiger. I also saw the memorial to Stefan Sterzynski, the former President of Warsaw. He was murdered by the Nazis, most likely at Dachau Concentration Camp.
I finally arrived at POLIN, and found out it was free to enter on a Thursday. While it was busy at the Museum, it wasn’t crazy, and I had lots of time to read through the various exhibits. The museum was voted the best in Europe in 2016, and it is obvious why. One of the key elements of the museum is that it recognises that Jewish history goes beyond the Holocaust. Yes, the Holocaust is a critical aspect of Jewish history. But there is a rich and varied culture that exists outside of that event. The location of the museum is particularly relevant as the Muranów district was mainly occupied by the Jewish community in the interwar period. During WW2, it became the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. There are almost no pre-war buildings in the surrounding district.
The building itself is very beautiful, and the museum is aesthetically pleasing as well as fascinating. Covering 1000 years of history, it certainly provides a very strong background on the Jewish culture, and of course, it does also explain the horrific events and consequences of the Holocaust. This is the kind of the museum that I feel people will unexpectedly enjoy. I highly suggest you take a look if you are in Warsaw. The surrounding area also has a number of other highlights for those interested in Jewish or WW2 history. Right outside the museum is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, which commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Apparently, the stone used in the monument was brought to Warsaw by the Nazis and was to be used in architectural projects planned for a new German Warsaw. Around the corner is the Willy Brandt Monument – Kniefall von Warschau – built to commemorate the gesture of humility and penance by German Chancellor Willy Brandt towards the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1970.
After walking through the adjoining part, I decided to visit the Umschlagplatz. Between July and September 1942, Nazi soldiers deported about 300,000 Jews from this site to the Treblinka II extermination camp. Jewish names from Abel to Żanna are etched as a memorial for the 450,000 Jews imprisoned in the ghetto as well as the inscription: ‘Over 300,000 Jews passed down this road of suffering and death from the Warsaw ghetto between 1942 to 1943’. While the monument is rather underwhelming considering the historical significance of the site, it is still a fairly grim feeling place to visit. I listened in to a walking tour, where the guide proclaimed that the average length of stay at Treblinka was around 30 minutes. This sounds right, considering that 99% of people sent to that camp were murdered.
After the Umschlagplatz, I looked for Miła 18. Miła 18 was the bunker headquarters/shelter of the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB), a resistance group in the Warsaw Ghetto. During the Ghetto Uprising, after a few days of fighting, the combatants took refuge in bunkers. The Germans began systematically setting fire to the buildings in the Warsaw Ghetto and blowing them up. The ‘bunker wars’ lasted nearly a month. On 8 May 1943, Miła 18 was attacked by the Nazis. The ŻOB command stood firm, but German and Ukranian troops threw tear gas into the shelter to force the occupants out. Many of the uprising leaders committed mass suicide rather than surrender, though a few fighters managed to get out of a rear exit, and later fled from the ghetto through the canals to the Aryan side at Prosta Street on May 10th. The bodies of the Jewish fighters were not exhumed after 1945, and the place gained a status of war memorial.
In 1946 a monument known as “Anielewicz’s Mound”, made of the rubble of Miła houses, was erected. A commemorative stone with the inscription in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew was placed on top of the mound. In 2006 a new obelisk was added to the memorial. The inscription in Polish, English and Hebrew reads:
Grave of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising built from the rubble of Miła Street, one of the liveliest streets of pre-war Jewish Warsaw.
These ruins of the bunker at 18 Miła Street are the place of rest of the commanders and fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization, as well as some civilians. Among them lies Mordechaj Anielewicz, the Commander in Chief.
On May 8, 1943, surrounded by the Nazis after three weeks of struggle, many perished or took their own lives, refusing to perish at the hands of their enemies.
There were several hundred bunkers built in the Ghetto. Found and destroyed by the Nazis, they became graves. They could not save those who sought refuge inside them, yet they remain everlasting symbols of the Warsaw Jews’ will to live. The bunker at Miła Street was the largest in the ghetto. It is the place of rest of over one hundred fighters, only some of whom are known by name.
Here they rest, buried as they fell, to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.
As it was a Thursday, and a number of museums were free, I walked to the Museum of Warsaw in the Old Town. I had spied it a few days before. It’s a lovely little museum, and I enjoyed the rooms on the bottom few floors. To be honest – it will probably be a great museum when it is finished, but at the moment, much of it is empty. Signs stated that those rooms would open in 2018. If it’s Thursday, however, I’d recommend going in and walking straight up the stairs to the top. Your free ticket will get you a brilliant view out over the Old Town Market Place.
My last stop for the day was the Little Insurgent Monument (Pomnik Małego Powstańca). The sculpture is a boy who wears an adults helmet and commemorates the children who fought during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The statue was revealed by a Boy Scout in 1983 – Professor Jerzy Świderski – who during the uprising was a messenger code runner in the Home Army. Behind the statue is a wall with the engraved words of a popular song from the period: ‘Warsaw children will go off to fight, we will, our capital, shed blood over every stone’.
Stay: Design Studio (AirBnB) – Śródmieście, Warszawa. From 160AED per night.
Visit: POLIN, Anielewicza 6, 00-157 Warszawa. 25PLN, free on Thursdays, shut on Tuesdays. Umschlagplatz, Stawki, 00-001, Warszawa. Free. Open 24 hours. Miła 18. Free. Open 24 hours. Warsaw Museum, str. Rynek Starego Miasta 28-42
Warszawa 00-272. 10PLN, free on Thursday. The Little Insurgent, ul. Podwale , Old Town. Free.
Eat: Resort, ul. Bielańska 1, Warszawa. From 6PLN.