Juan Polanski is a Spanish Jew of Polish origin who has been studying Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto. After a brief visit to the Nozyk synagogue, we take a taxi to the Jewish cemetery.
“This is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe,” says Juan. “And it is still in use today. During World War II, it was part of the Jewish ghetto. Warsaw had the largest community of Jews in Europe, more than 400,000 people. After the Nazi occupation, they were forced to live within the ghetto, encircled by a wall designed to keep them under control and exterminate them little by little.”
Among the famous names buried here are L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), creator of Esperanto; writer Adam Czerniaków (1880-1942) and actor Ester Rachel Kamińska (1870-1925). Juan stops before a sculpture showing a man carrying a child in his arms and holding another by the hand.
“This is a monument to Janusz Korczak, director of an orphanage and a great teacher,” he says. “His connections could have saved him but he chose to die along with the children of the ghetto’s orphanage in the gas chamber at Treblinka.”
The former ghetto wall is marked by a series of plaques set into the sidewalk, and we follow them until we come to Umschlagplatz. From this tragic place, the Nazis sent more than 300,000 Jews to the extermination camps.
Nearby is the monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, in front of the brand-new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It is a futuristic building of great beauty, designed by Rainer Mahlamaki, but its interior describes a much darker past.