The Warsaw Ghetto
At the outbreak of WWII Warsaw was home to about 380,000 Jews (almost 30% of the city’s total population), more than in any other city in the world except New York.
In October 1940 the Germans established a ghetto in the predominantly Jewish districts of Muranów and Mirów, west of the city centre, sealed off by a 3m-high brick wall. In the following months about 450,000 Jews from the city and its surroundings were crammed into the area within the walls, creating the largest and most overcrowded ghetto in Europe. By mid-1942 as many as 100,000 people had died of starvation and epidemic diseases, even before deportation to the concentration camps had begun.
In a massive liquidation campaign in the summer of 1942, about 300,000 Jews were transported from the ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka. Then in April 1943, when only 50,000 people were left, the Nazis began the final liquidation of the ghetto. In a desperate act of defiance, the survivors took up arms in a spontaneous uprising, the first in any European ghetto.
From the outbreak of the uprising on 19 April it was clear that the Jews had little chance of victory against the heavily armed Nazi forces. German planes dropped incendiary bombs, turning the entire district into a chaos of burning ruins. Fierce fighting lasted for almost three weeks until, on 8 May, the Nazis surrounded the Jewish command bunker and tossed in a gas bomb.
Around 7000 Jews were killed in the fighting and another 6000 perished in fires and bombed buildings. The Germans lost 300 men and another 1000 were injured. The ghetto was razed to the ground except for a few scraps of wall, which survive to this day.
A number of personal accounts provide written testament to the brutality of life within the ghetto walls. For further reading pick up a copy of any of the following: A Square of Sky: A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Poland, by Janina David; Beyond These Walls: Escaping the Warsaw Ghetto, by the late Janina Bauman; and The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto, by Mary Berg.
Sidebar: Warsaw Ghetto Memoirs
Sidebar: Online Resources
Sidebar: Major Sights
Sidebar: Daffodils campaign
Feature: Rebuilding the Old Town
Warsaw’s German occupiers did a good job of following Hitler’s instructions to raze the city after the 1944 Warsaw Rising – at the end of WWII, about 15% of the city was left standing. So complete was the destruction that there were even suggestions that the capital should be moved elsewhere, but instead it was decided that parts of the prewar urban fabric would be rebuilt.
According to plan, the most valuable historic monuments were restored to their previous appearance, based on original drawings and photographs. Between 1949 and 1963 work was concentrated on the Old Town, aiming to return it to its 17th- and 18th-century appearance – today not a single building in the area looks less than 200 years old. So complete was the restoration that Unesco granted the Old Town World Heritage status in 1980.
The Royal Castle took a little longer. It wasn’t until 1971 that reconstruction began, and by 1984 the splendid baroque castle stood again as if it had never been destroyed. Although the brick structure is a copy, many original architectural fragments have been incorporated into the walls.
The authorities also had to build, from scratch, a whole new city capable of providing housing and services to its inhabitants. This communist legacy is less impressive. The city centre was, until quite recently, a blend of bunker-like Stalinist structures and equally dull edifices of a later era, while the outer suburbs, home to the majority of Warsaw’s inhabitants, were composed almost exclusively of anonymous, prefabricated concrete blocks.
The city’s skyline is still marred by ugly high-rises, but things have improved markedly since 1989. Newly constructed steel-and-glass towers have begun to break up the monotony, and the city outskirts are steadily filling up with aesthetically pleasing villas and family houses. Warsaw may never regain an architectural landscape that truly appeals, but it certainly contains an interesting diversity of styles.