Visiting the remains of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw is an emotional experience. Truth is, there are not many physical remains of the largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe, but the bleak soviet-style housing, old prison, various memorials and an excellent museum are all reminders of the suffering Jews and Romani suffered at the hands of Hitler, not to mention the bravery of the Polish people during the Warsaw Uprising.
After the invasion of Poland, Hitler’s armies created the Warsaw ghettoes (there were two joined by a bridge) north of today’s Al Jana Pawla II (or John Paul II) Avenue. They enclosed the area in a red brick wall (fragments can be seen in Sienna Street) and incarcerated about 100,000 people in Pawiak Prison, the Gestapo’s operational base in Warsaw. Now a museum, its grey walls and chambers are a chilling reminder of their cruelty (ul Dzielna 24, free admission).
Very close to Pawiak Prison, in a charming little park, is the Ghetto Heroes Monument, a memorial to the fallen in the Warsaw Uprising of 1943. (Somewhat ironically it is made of the granite the Nazis hauled over for their own victory monument). Another memorial can be seen close by on Willy Brandt Square. This one marks the visit of the German Chancellor in 1970, when he famously broke down in shame at the atrocities his country had committed against the Poles.
Warsaw’s only surviving synagogue is located right next to the Jewish Theatre (ul Twarda 6). It is still functioning and together with the theatre creates the heart of Warsaw’s contemporary Jewish community. The Teatr Żydowski is highly active, specialises in pre-War Jewish plays and is one of the few theatres in the world to stage productions in the Yiddish language.
Until the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews opens in a purpose-built edifice in 2012, the only museum in the area is the Warsaw Rising Museum (ul Przyokopowej 28). Housed in striking red-brink building and again surrounded by a park, it contains a mammoth collection of photographs, memoirs and artefacts. Displayed didactically and chronologically, they tell a vivid and fascinating story of Warsaw’s most heroic—and tragic— event.