Before the World War II, over 30% of the population of Warsaw was Jewish; it was the second largest Jewish community in Europe. Hundreds of Jewish schools and libraries were open, there were theatres and sports clubs and more than 130 newspapers were published. Among many others, Warsaw was home to the Noble-winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman and the outstanding actress Ida Kamińska.
In 1940 the Germans opened a Jewish Ghetto in the centre of Warsaw surrounded by an over 3-metre-high wall. It was connected to the important transport route by Chłodna Street, with the Ghetto divided into two zones, the ‘small’ and ‘big’ Ghetto, with a wooden bridge connecting them.
Within barely three years, over 100,000 people had died in the Ghetto from starvation and sickness. In 1942, the ‘small’ ghetto was liquidated. From the Umschlagplatz, in stock cars, over 300,000 people were taken to extermination camps, mainly Treblinka. The others (about 60,000) were concentrated in the ‘big’ Ghetto and worked in German production plants called ‘shacks’.
In 1943, Germans decided to liquidate the Ghetto. In response to this an uprising broke out. The one-sided fight continued for over a month. At the end of the uprising, the final extermination of the Ghetto inhabitants and its destruction took place. The entire Ghetto was razed to the ground – only a few buildings and Saint Augustine Church survived.
Those who escaped to the ‘Aryan side’, about 20,000 Jews, hid and lived to see liberation. Despite the enormous destruction of the war, Warsaw still has many sites where Jewish culture can be encountered.
The Jewish Theatre, Próżna Street, the Nożyk Synagogue or the Jewish cemetery are just the beginning of a walk in search of Warsaw Judaica. There are places commemorating those tragic moments of history, the Umschlagplatz, the Ghetto Heroes Monument or a remaining fragment of the Ghetto wall in Sienna Street.
Historical sites of Jewish Warsaw
In 1774, near today’s Zawiszy Square, settlements for Jews, called Nowy Potok and Nowa Jerozolima, were established. However the Warsaw authorities considered them trading competitors and a year later banned the settlements, but the road leading to the Vistula River and its name remains to this day.
This is the only former Warsaw Ghetto street still featuring all its tenement houses. It is one of the few fragments of ‘Jewish Warsaw’ in which the climate of the old Jewish quarter is revived during the Festival of Jewish Culture – Singer’s Warsaw. The festival has been held annually every September in Próżna Street and Grzybowski Square since 2004.
51 Prosta Street
On this street is a manhole leading to a tunnel which, in May 1943, was used by dozen of insurgents escaping the Ghetto; they included Marek Edelman, one of the Ghetto Uprising leaders. It is located right next to a symbolic monument to Professor Konrad Kucza-Kuczyński, Jan Kucza-Kuczyński and sculptor Maksymilian Biskupski. It is the form of a tube-like object descending into the tunnel, which is clutched by carved human hands.
The Ester Rachel Kamińska and Ida Kamińska Jewish Theatre (Teatr Żydowski im. Estery Rachel i Idy Kamińskich)
plac Grzybowski 12/16, tel. +48 22 620 62 81
The theatre stages plays in two languages: Yiddish and Polish. It is the only Jewish theatre in Poland. The theatre was named after the Jewish actress, Estera Rachela Kamińska and her daughter Ida Kamińska, an actress and director who had managed the theatre until 1968. Following the March events (protests by Warsaw University students followed by a political crisis the result of which were the repressions against Polish nationals of Jewish origin, which in turn resulted in their mass emigration), Ida Kamińska left Poland with part of the troupe but the theatre survived the political disturbances and has been staging excellent plays ever since and enjoying great popularity.