Two years ago this week, I joined several members of Tablet’s staff on a trip to Warsaw for the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We ran the magazine from there that week, calling it Tablet in Warsaw, and even switched our logo to Yiddish. We published Sarah Wildman’s tale of her family’s long lost Warsaw Ghetto Diary, Goldie Morgentaler’s account of her mother, Chava Rosenfarb, surviving the Lodz ghetto and producing an acclaimed chronicle of the experience that would soon be forgotten to history, as well as a series of pieces written from Warsaw by staffers hunched over laptops in our hotel lobby late at night.
It was an unforgettable week, filled with a visit to the just-built Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which was constructed on the site of the former Jewish ghetto, right across from the monument commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a tour of the storied Ringelblum archive, and, of course, a lot of pierogi. The visit culminated with a dignitary-filled ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the month-long 1943 revolt, in which underground Jewish groups banded together to fight the final liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblina. The ghetto had been built in 1941 and housed as many as 400,000 Jews at once. Mass deportations to concentration camps began in 1942, but that wasn’t the only threat: tens of thousands of ghetto residents were murdered by Nazi troops or died from the conditions in the ghetto.
Warsaw is a fascinating city today—completely destroyed during the war, the city was gradually rebuilt, with a charmingly reconstructed Old Town, or Stare Miasto, and high-end shopping on Novy Świat greeting visitors to the Polish capital. Markers representing the former ghetto walls can be found inlaid into sidewalks, with one small portion of the wall still standing. But even that area has seen new life since its wartime use. Last year an Israeli hummus bar opened within the former ghetto.
Still, we were constantly reminded of Warsaw’s wartime past. Walking through historic Stare Miasto, my colleague Wayne Hoffman stumbled upon a photo exhibit that featured blown-up color photographs taken in 1947, when most of Warsaw lay in ruins. Liel Leibovitz visited the Muzeum Techniki in Warsaw and found, amidst various technical relics, a “pride of ancient machines that tell an unlikely story of how Polish scientists, led mainly by Jews and members of the resistance, were at one time at the vanguard of inventing the computer.” I attended the unveiling of a headstone for Blima Joselzon, a Jewish woman from Warsaw who died while in hiding in 1943 and was buried as a Catholic, and whose granddaughter had her body exhumed and reburied in Warsaw’s Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery in 2012. The following day, strolling through the city, I walked by Kopernika 4, the apartment in which Joselzon had been hidden.
This past weekend, commemorations were held marking the 72nd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Polish statesman Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who was involved with the uprising and who David Samuels interviewed while we were in Warsaw, told the crowd assembled Sunday, “This is not the speech of the representative of the government, but a man who was and is witness to historical events. It is the fulfillment of my life that after 72 years since those events, I talk about it also in the name of those absent.”
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.