Most of Warsaw was destroyed during World War II, so the Holocaust sites we visited in Warsaw are remnants or memorials. Our group visited the site of the former Warsaw ghetto, where the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is currently being built. While there is little to see of the former ghetto, our group was able to discuss the Warsaw ghetto uprising memorial by Natan Rappaport, which stands across from the museum site and has two very different faces. The first side we viewed, which most people consider the back of the memorial, conveys a message of despair, and represents the destruction of the Jews and, perhaps, the crushed uprising. The other side of the memorial, however, emanates a completely different message: that of strength and perseverance. Although they convey different messages, the two faces of this memorial remind viewers of the double narrative of the Warsaw ghetto. Amidst the despair of life in the ghetto, and the feeling of helplessness against destruction, the Warsaw ghetto Uprising has become one of the symbols of armed resistance during the Holocaust.
To the side of the Warsaw ghetto memorial is Zegota memorial, dedicated to that part of the Polish underground which helped Jews during the Holocaust. Beloved rescuer Irena Sendler was head of the children’s bureau of Zegota, and we remember that it was her efforts and the efforts of Zegota that helped to save Jewish men, women, and children. The memorial, dedicated in 1946, is “for those who died for dignity of the Jewish nation and for the Polish nation.” A few days prior to our arrival in Warsaw, Irena Sendler’s grave had been desecrated with antisemitic graffiti. By the time we visited her grave, at the end of our time in Warsaw, the graffiti had been cleared and sanctity was restored.
We were also able to visit the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, which is a very important site because it is one of the only remaining links to the generations of Jews who lived in the city. The cemetery, which is very densely packed, was one of the few places where the Jewish community was given land, so the cemetery traditionally served as a central place for Jewish communities throughout Poland. When walking through this cemetery and looking closely at the matzevot, there is a sense of the rich Jewish life that once was, and that will never be.