HCH 13 / November 2016
Reflections on Warsaw, by Jared Sorhaindo
(Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Jared Sorhaindo, Warsaw, 2016)
I did not know what to expect when I landed in Warsaw. I suppose I expected it to be an ugly, gray, post-Communist city with hideous, monolithic apartment blocks and office buildings. Indeed, there are such neighborhoods. In my mind’s eye, the city was always wreathed in fog and bitterly cold. But I was taken aback by the beauty of this rebuilt city – the Old Town, with its ornate architecture, painfully reconstructed after its complete destruction in 1944; Nowy Świat and Krakowskie Przedmieście, lined with adorable cafes and shops and magnificent palaces; and Łazienki Park, once the roaming grounds of Polish royalty, with its tree-lined paths, small lakes, and, again, stunning palaces. There are, of course, blatant reminders of the city’s experience with Communism, including the imposing Palace of Science and Culture, an unwanted gift from Joseph Stalin that dominates Warsaw’s skyline. But the city, on the whole, breathed life and exuberance. My ignorance was, and is, embarrassing.
I decided to go to Warsaw on a whim. A contract job had wound up and I was just coming off a devastating breakup. I have always wanted to go to this part of Europe, but had never had the opportunity – in fact, I had never been to Europe at all, with my international experience being solely in the Middle East. This was my opportunity: I found a decent price for a roundtrip flight and pulled the trigger without hesitation.
Why Warsaw? That is the question that everyone asked me when I revealed my travel plans. If I was going to Europe, why not go to Paris, London, Barcelona, or Rome? The answer is simple: my historical interests. I am interested in Warsaw in a way that I am not interested in Paris or Rome. I also can’t adequately explain my interests, and why they gravitate toward macabre 20th century Varsovian history and not the intrigues at the Palace of Versailles or the drama of the House of Tudor. My interest in Poland is a byproduct of my study of the Holocaust, about which I have been reading intensely for as long as I can recall. Studying this massive crime, the extent of which is simply mind-boggling, shaped my worldview (with a bit of help from the 9/11 attacks), which is unapologetically hawkish and interventionist in foreign affairs.
Poland was the ground zero of the Holocaust: its territories, occupied by the Nazis, hosted all six extermination camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Chełmno, and Majdanek. This was not an accident. When the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, over three million Jews lived in Poland. This was by far the largest Jewish population in Europe, and Warsaw, Poland’s capital, was home to some 380,000 Jews, the most of any city in the world other than New York City.
After the Second World War, a canard was circulated that the death camps were located in Poland because the Poles are somehow uniquely anti-Semitic. While interwar Poland was rife with anti-Semitism, particularly among the followers of Roman Dmowski’s National Democratic Party, I’m not sure what separated it in its intensity from anti-Semitism in France, Romania, Hungary, or, to state the obvious, Germany. And while Jews and Poles lived largely separate lives, and upwards of 80% of Polish Jews listed Yiddish, and not Polish, as their mother tongue, Poland’s Jews and Christians for the most part cooperated and tolerated one another. During the rule of Józef Piłsudski, who was revered by the Jews of Poland, and especially after his death, some anti-Semitic measures were enacted due to the influence of the National Democrats: “ghetto benches” were installed in lecture halls at universities and those same universities instituted quotas on the number of Jews that could permissibly attend. There were arguments about what it meant to be a Pole: was it solely an ethnic identity, or a label for anyone living within Poland, whether he or she be Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, German, or Jewish?
Anyway, I won’t belabor the point here – it’s a complex matter and will be discussed in a future post. The fact is, the Nazis instituted the death camps on Polish soil not because Poles were particularly anti-Semitic, but because most Jews lived in Poland – half of the Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust were Polish. It was easier to shunt the Jews of Warsaw, Lublin, Kraków, Łódź, and Lwów to gas chambers in Poland than to, say, the Czech lands. And Auschwitz wasn’t too far from Western Europe, or Hungary, either, which is why it was the primary destination for Jews from those places.
Because Poland was the center of gravity for the Holocaust, its place names have long haunted me. I had half-convinced myself that some of these places didn’t exist. I remember when I approached the Birkenau gatehouse, I was almost half-surprised that it was a real thing, as absurd as that sounds. The Warsaw Ghetto as well – the uprising, that epic saga of a relative handful of Jews choosing to die fighting against the Nazi war machine, against men who came to send them and their families to the gas chambers of Treblinka – this, too, seemed fantastical, almost like a medieval ballad. But of course, I knew it was factual, and so I went as a sort of half pilgrimage, half educational visit.
These thoughts were racing in mind when I visited Warsaw. I remember being struck by the number of pho restaurants as I approached my hostel, located on Nowy Świat in the city center. I shared my room with a French art student and a very friendly Russian, who kept asking me to slow down while speaking. I ran to a department store to pick up some toiletries and it dawned on me, to my horror, that I literally did not speak one word of Polish, beyond tak and nie (“yes” and “no”): I could not even say “hello” or “thank you”. I awkwardly smiled and nodded while being rung up. Upon returning to my room, I took a phrasebook that I had not yet consulted, went to a bar, and downed three beers while teaching myself a couple dozen words and phrases. Afterwards, I rambled through the city, as I am wont to do when I arrive in a new place, walking through the aforementioned Lazienki Park (which I cannot recommend enough) and then strolled along the Vistula, where I stumbled upon a memorial to the sappers of Warsaw, who helped to rebuild the city after the Nazis’ destruction. The memorial was…not aesthetically pleasing, and I didn’t even know what I was looking at at the time, because, again, I didn’t know one word of Polish, and there was no English translation. I wound up getting lost in the rain (because, naturally, it rained when I got lost), trying hopelessly to properly pronounce przepraszam(“excuse me”) so that I could ask for directions back to my hostel.
The next morning, I ambled up Krakowskie Przedmieście, an elegant boulevard lined by mansions, palaces, museums, and the University of Warsaw, to the Old Town. I was there during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, which broke out in August 1944 and lasted 63 days until the beginning of October. There was a commemorative barrier on which people had put up quotes and poetry, and photographs of Polish Armia Krajowa (AK) soldiers who had been killed fighting the Germans. There, too, was the chilling order given by Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler upon the breakout of the uprising: namely, that no prisoners of war be taken; that everyone within the city, men, women, and children, were to be killed without exception; and that the city was to be razed to the ground. I sat at a café across the street and sipped an espresso, trying to wrap my mind around the enormity of that event, and about the fact that where I was sitting, and everything I was seeing, was once rubble, and filled with the bodies and the blood of thousands of Varsovians.
(Commemorative barrier on Krakowskie Przedmieście, Jared Sorhaindo, Warsaw, 2016)
At the base of the Sigismund III column (this is the ruler who moved the Polish capital from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596), I unexpectedly saw a sign for a walking tour of the city, to be conducted in English. I immediately joined the small crowd. We were taken through the Old Town, which is incredibly beautiful with its main square, colorful buildings, and narrow lanes, out to the monument to the Warsaw Uprising and then we came across a strip that marked the entry to what had been the Warsaw Ghetto. Chills shot up my spine as I crossed over it – yes, this was real, and I was standing where it had once existed. After grabbing a beer at a bar adjacent to the Adam Mickiewicz Museum on the Old Town’s main market square, I joined a specifically Jewish tour of the city. We walked through Muranów, which was once where the majority of the Jews of Warsaw lived; it was later made the site of the ghetto. Now, it consists of working-class housing, and the apartment buildings were built with the rubble of the ghetto. There were graffitied images of Marek Edelman, a hero of both the ghetto uprising and the Warsaw Uprising a year later, adorned with quotes, as well as of L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto and a native of Warsaw, and, oddly, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. We were shown where the Grand Synagogue of Warsaw once stood on Tłomackie Street, before it was blown to smithereens personally by SS General Jürgen Stroop, who commanded the forces that put down the ghetto uprising.
(Strip marking the former boundary of the Warsaw Ghetto, Jared Sorhaindo, Warsaw, 2016)
We made our way to the Umschlagplatz, which is where the Nazis forced the Jews of Warsaw to board trains headed to Treblinka, the death camp at which some 870,000 Jews were murdered. Treblinka, which is located about 60 miles northeast of Poland’s capital, is the graveyard of the Jews of Warsaw. One of its victims was Janusz Korczak, an author of children’s books, an educator, and the director of an orphanage for Jewish children. When the Nazis made the children of the orphanage get on the trains, Korczak, who was initially spared, insisted that he go with them. He did, and they all were gassed upon arrival. He is the only individual who is individually commemorated on the grounds of the Treblinka death camp. About 300,000 Jews were sent from Warsaw to Treblinka during Grossaktion Warschau between July 22 and September 21, 1942.
(Janusz Korczak, circa 1930. USHMM)
From there, we wound our way to the memorial to the ghetto fighters, which sits outside of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, whose permanent exhibit was not ready at the time and which I did not enter. It shows an idealized depiction of the fighters of the ghetto, most prominently Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Jewish Fighting Organization who commanded the uprising and, when surrounded by the Nazis in early May 1943, committed suicide with his girlfriend and other fighters rather than surrender. Next to the memorial there was a statue of Jan Karski, the hero of the Polish underground who informed the Western powers about the Holocaust and even had a meeting with Franklin Roosevelt. A block down the street, there is the Anielewicz Mound, which contains rubble from the ghetto and the bodies of dozens of fighters.
(Umschlagplatz Memorial, Jared Sorhaindo, Warsaw, 2016)
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was not, unlike the general Warsaw Uprising a year later, done out of hope, but rather out of the desire to die fighting. There were two options for the Jews of Warsaw: board the trains and be gassed at Treblinka, or die with a gun in their hands in the streets of Warsaw. For Anielewicz and hundreds of others, the choice was obvious. He wrote to his deputy Yitzhak Zuckerman (who later fought in the Warsaw Uprising) shortly before his death: “The dream of my life has come true. I’ve lived to see a Jewish defense in the ghetto in all its greatness and glory.”
One night, when I was walking through the streets aimlessly, savoring the city scenes, I approached Warsaw’s opera house and saw flags waving on its side. One of them was the Israeli flag. I immediately thought of how, on the first day of the ghetto uprising – April 19, 1943 – Jewish fighters raised two flags side by side: the red-and-white flag of Poland and the Star of David. Many Jewish fighters died with the word “Polska” on their lips in love and devotion for the only home they had ever known, as the Catholic Poles of Warsaw looked on, largely in indifference, never seeing the Jews as wholly their countrymen. (The Nobel Prize-winning poet Czesław Miłosz, who lived in Warsaw at the time, wrote a poem –“Campo dei Fiori” – excoriating his fellow Poles for their passivity in the face of the destruction of the ghetto). Reflecting on that devastating fact, and seeing the flag of the Jewish people waving in this place of their martyrdom, where Jews were once one-third of the city’s population, I cried, completely shattered.
The Jews were able to hang on much longer than anyone had anticipated, resisting for nearly a month. Throughout the uprising, the Nazis continued, in their demented and incomprehensible hatred, to round up and deport Jews to Treblinka. When the uprising was finally put down, the ghetto was completely destroyed. The ghetto uprising, coupled with revolts at the Sobibór and Treblinka death camps later that year, made Heinrich Himmler afraid of further Jewish rebellion. He ordered that the Jews of the Lublin District be wiped out. On November 3, 1943, about 42,000 Jews were shot at the camps of Majdanek, Trawniki, and Poniatowa, in an operation that the Nazis cruelly called “Operation Harvest Festival.” I saw the zig-zag moonscape mass graves behind the crematorium when I went to Majdanek shortly after my time in Warsaw.
After the crushing German defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk, it became only a matter of time before they would lose the war. The Soviets pushed westward relentlessly. The Polish Home Army (the Armia Krajowa, or “AK”, to which I referred above), the largest underground resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Europe, prepared for what to do. They wanted to be seen to have liberated their own country so that they would not have to live under Soviet domination.
The two countries had strained relations, to say the least, since the advent of the Soviet Union. In 1920, the Polish army under Piłsudski halted the Soviet army on the outskirts of Warsaw in the “Miracle of the Vistula,” one of the most consequential battles in modern history (this is not an exaggeration). In August 1939, the Germans and Soviets signed a non-aggression pact; its secret annex, only revealed decades later, split Eastern Europe into their respective spheres of influence. Sixteen days after the German invasion of Poland, the Soviets invaded from the East. They deported hundreds of thousands of Poles to western Siberia and Kazakhstan, destroying the thread of eastern Polish society. They massacred 22,000 Polish officers in April 1940, most notoriously at Katyń. Stalin and his henchmen bobbed and weaved about the question of what had happened to these men, and when the Germans discovered the mass grave in 1943, Stalin blamed them for the massacre. The Poles knew it was not true, complained about it, and Stalin cut off the diplomatic ties between the two countries that had been tentatively reached in July 1941, shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Western allies also knew the Soviets were responsible, but forced the Poles to shut up about it because they didn’t want to rock the boat with Stalin.
On June 22, 1944, exactly three years after the German invasion, the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, a massive offensive that thrust through Belarus and toward Warsaw. When the Soviets crossed into Polish territory, AK units rose up and fought alongside them in cities like Lwów and Wilno. The Soviets gladly accepted their help, but then proceeded to disarm and detain the AK men (some were even placed in Majdanek after the Soviets liberated the camp from the Germans). Nonetheless, after a lot of back and forth, the AK command decided to rise up in Warsaw as the Germans retreated and the Soviets approached, so that they could take credit for liberating their own capital. This, they thought, would give them leverage in deciding Poland’s postwar future.
The problem is that they miscalculated. In a panic, German troops, often barefoot and disheveled, ran from the Soviet juggernaut through the streets of Warsaw. German civilian administrators also left the city. The Poles thought the Germans were on the run. The Poles did not know this, but the Germans had finally conducted an effective counterattack on the east bank of the Vistula and halted the Soviet advance. Everyone in Warsaw could hear the sounds of battle and, due to the panicked scenes they had previously witnessed, assumed it was the Soviets on the brink of liberating their city. The AK command received intelligence that Soviet tanks had been seen in Praga, Warsaw’s easternmost district that lies on the other side of the Vistula from the rest of the city. They decided to launch the uprising in Warsaw on August 1 at 5 pm.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum in the Wola neighborhood (the location is significant, which will be explained below) is a very impressive museum with several moving exhibits, including the blood-stained shirt of a murdered child. Photographs and videos show smiling young men and women who took up arms to fight the Nazis. They did so, on August 1, cheerfully and confidently, believing the uprising would last a couple of days because, they thought, the Nazis had one foot outside of Warsaw. They were, sadly, dead wrong.
Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler were intent on the complete destruction of Warsaw and the annihilation of its citizens, as discussed above. Hitler entrusted the task with one of his most ruthless henchmen, SS General Erich von dem Bach, who had earned his laurels by murdering tens of thousands of Belarusians and destroying their villages. Under his overarching command were two other merciless men: Oskar Dirlewanger and Bronislav Kaminski. Dirlewanger was a drunk and a drug addict who was put in prison for two years in the 1930s for having sex with a 14-year-old girl. A unit of criminals, some of whom were Germans released from concentration camps, was put under his command, and were known for their murderousness in Belarus.
In Warsaw, Dirlewanger’s men rampaged through the Wola district, raping, looting, and murdering as they went. They shot up and burned down hospitals; stormed an orphanage, where they murdered 350 children, smashing their skulls with their rifles and boots, impaling infants with bayonets; and lined up and shot thousands of Warsaw’s citizens in mass graves. Some 40,000 Poles, regardless of age or sex, were slaughtered in a couple of days in Wola. Special commandos of Poles were formed to burn the bodies. Kaminski’s detachment, made up of anti-communist Russians, carried out the systematic rape of Polish women in the Ochota district. Young girls and old women were fair game – it did not matter. In one instance, one of Kaminski’s drunken troops killed a woman and then raped her 12-year-old daughter right next to her dead body. Kaminski, whose men were efficient at rape and looting but useless in actual battle, was later executed by the Germans. In addition to the devastation visited on Wola and Ochota, Warsaw’s lovely Old Town was completely destroyed on Hitler’s explicit orders.
After the horrific Wola massacres, despite their murderousness, the Germans did not continue with killing literally everyone. They realized that Germany was desperate for labor, and began to imprison AK fighters and other Poles. Throughout the uprising and after the Poles’ eventual surrender, tens of thousands of Poles were sent to a transit camp at Pruszków, just west of Warsaw, and then onward, either to concentration camps, including Auschwitz, or to the Reich to serve as slaves in German factories, on farms, and on construction sites. All in all, 18,000 AK fighters and over 150,000 Warsaw civilians were killed during the uprising.
But Hitler was not done with Warsaw. He ordered that it be burned to its foundations. A special commando was established whose task was to systematically burn down every building of the city – house by house, office building by office building. Thirty percent of the city was destroyed after the uprising was put down, and was obviously done out of pure maliciousness and spite by the Germans, not for any military reason. The uprising was crushed as the Soviets watched from the other side of the Vistula, content that the Germans were doing the dirty work of destroying Polish independence for them. The Western allies, eager to placate Stalin, did airlift some supplies to the Polish insurgents, but most landed in territories that the Germans controlled. After all of this, the wanton slaughter by the Germans and their allies, the destruction of their lovely capital city, the Poles had to languish under nearly a half century of Soviet domination and to suffer in silence about the martyrdom of the heroes of the uprising, who Stalin and the Soviets referred to as criminals and fascists.
Warsaw is a city of ghosts. At the same time, it is a city full of exuberance, excited to be back on the world stage after a half century of communist oppression. I savored its hipster microbrew bars and had fun dancing to terrible house music in its nightclubs. I stuffed my face with delicious pierogis. I enjoyed smoking endless cigarettes and downing shots of vodka in the Old Town square while discussing the specter of Vladimir Putin with the locals. But at the end of the night, when I walked back to my hostel, it was the ghosts of the past – the massacres at Ochota and Wola, the German tanks firing shells down Jerusalem Avenue, the jagged stone tombstone at Treblinka dedicated to the murdered Jews of Warsaw – that lingered with me.
Jared Sorhaindo, Washington, D.C., July 22, 2016
Originally published on Al-Zilzal on July 22, 2016