Sunday 29 April 2012

Archive article - Warsaw Ghetto Wall

Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition – part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house - in August 2006
Defending the Ghetto Wall

If a sense of history heals wounds and can help prevent wars, then the world could do worse than peering into a serene little courtyard in Warsaw right now. For it is there that an 85 year old man – a veteran of the Warsaw Uprising that began on August 1st 1944 against Hitler’s occupation of Poland, and also victim of Stalin’s labour camps – has been fighting an almost single-handed battle to preserve what remains of the Jewish Ghetto.

Created by the Nazis in 1940 in an effort to herd Warsaw’s once-thriving Jewish community into squalor and slave labour - before packing them onto trains to death camps such as Auschwitz - the ghetto became one of the prime symbols of twentieth century barbarism.

With each passing month the German occupiers depopulated swathes of it while at the same time cramming the thousands that remained into an ever-decreasing compound of misery. In March 1940 400,000 thousand Jewish people inhabited five square kilometers of the ghetto; by October 1942 the Nazis had squeezed 65,000 people into an area of only one square kilometer. On April 19th 1943, the ghetto decided that enough was enough and rose in an uprising against the Nazis, which lasted a month before being repressed.

Preserving this testimony to human savagery has become Mieczyslaw Jedruszczak’s life’s work. The former sub-lieutenant of the Polish Home Army – which on August 1st 1944 fought the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted 63 days – took up the cudgel on behalf of history when in 1975 the then Communist local council decided to demolish a wall just outside his home. He soon discovered that it was one of the few remaining sections of the Jewish Ghetto, remnants of which also stood in other parts of the courtyard. 

“It still makes me angry,” he said, pointing at the empty space with a defiantly taut finger. “It’s hard to believe that “normal” people could do such a thing. Nobody cared at the time. Some of the people living here complained that it was in their way and it was pulled down, just like that. But myself and a Jewish friend laid some slabs to commemorate where the wall had stood.”

Jedruszczak is of purely Polish blood and insists he is not a ‘Judeophile’. Speaking with the almost extinct pre-war Varsovian accent he says that he has been driven to protect the last standing walls of the Jewish Ghetto by a burning desire to preserve history and humanity’s sense of itself.

“In 1944 I was deported to the Soviet labour camps in Siberia for three years and because of that I know what it is like to suffer and starve,” he said. “I am doing this [maintaining the walls] because this is a historical place for Poles, Jews and the city of Warsaw.”

The work Jedruszczak has put into the walls has been painstaking. As you walk in through the archway to the courtyard, to the right you see a bulky structure on which a number of plaques hang – one of which is from a former Israeli prime minister. Another – the most prominent - consists of a map of the ghetto. Designed by Jedruszczak himself in the 1980s, it was worn away by the weather and in 2002 the city came up with a substitute at his request. But he was not happy with the end product.

”They didn’t mark any important points on the map, so I had to do it myself,” he said. “I also had to correct the dates and where the wall [in the courtyard] was actually located.”

Another section of the wall was lower than it was during the ghetto years, he insisted, adding that he moved quickly to put it right, though this involved reversing history in another sense.

“This was a smaller wall before the ghetto but they [the Nazis] made it higher and put broken glass on top as well,” he said.

That part of the wall was removed after the war but Jedruszczak insists it was a mistake.

“I want to re-create something to show what it was like during those times, so I have tried to rebuild the missing sections,” he said, pointing to the bricks.

Perhaps because they happened almost within a year of one another, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 often get confused. With the foundation of the state of Israel and the existence of the post-war Iron Curtain after 1945, the former became a source of heroic deeds, whilst the legacy of the latter was hushed up. Jedruszczak has spent his whole life trying to redress that imbalance.

“My aim as long as I live is that this [the wall] will remain a positive symbol for Jewish people,” he said. “But they have had historians on their side. Everyone knows about the ghetto uprising but we [during the communist period] were not allowed to talk about the Warsaw Uprising.”

One image in the courtyard would seem to symbolize a coming together of the two tragedies which so traumatized Warsaw, though it does so quite unintentionally. In its infancy, perhaps just a metre high, is a plant put there by tourists from the Japanese town of Nagasaki – the victim of the atomic bomb dropped by American forces at the end of World War II – who clearly wanted to express fellow-feeling with the Jews who perished in the ghetto. Alongside is another, somewhat smaller, apparently trying to catch up.

“A tourist broke off a branch [of the first plant] by accident, so I just planted it again and you see that we have two trees next to one another,” said Jedruszczak.

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