Outside Warsaw’s Centralna Station I face the grayest day I have ever seen. The fog banks that had accompanied my morning train from Berlin are now a monotonous sheet hanging from the tops of Warsaw’s well-spaced buildings. Across from the station, its heights lost in the mist, the Palace of Culture and Science—an architecturally inappropriate gift from the Soviets, completed in 1955—dominates the largest square in Europe. Through the cold gray fog, the vast square exudes emptiness.
Conventional wisdom says that Warsaw was reduced to a pile of rubble during World War II. Only a few fragments of Warsaw’s brutal past remain, and they can be difficult to find: resistance battles and relentless Nazi bombing destroyed 85 percent of the city’s buildings, and most of what you see now has been either reconstructed or completely rebuilt. You come here expecting nothing old. Nevertheless, my interest in photographing the remnants of the war in Europe has led me to Warsaw with my battered wooden camera, a hefty tripod, and a list of the few wartime remains in the central city.
As it turns out, powerful reminders of Warsaw’s past exist only a few blocks north of the train station, at 62 Zlota Street. Here, in the quiet courtyard of a postwar apartment complex, stretch a few small sections of the wall the Nazis built in 1940 to confine Warsaw’s Jewish population—Europe’s largest, numbering more than 300,000—to a ghetto with an area of only three square miles (about 2.4 percent of the city). The fragments are almost striking in their ordinariness. Only a few small plaques and some memorial candles keep the brickwork from looking insignificant.
As I fiddle with my camera, a stooped old lady approaches, asking a few questions in Polish that I don’t understand. She points to the wall. “Hitlerites,” she exclaims bitterly, walking off to feed her nearby cats. She seems old enough to know.
Four of the old ghetto buildings still stand at the end of Prozna Street, their crumbling walls black with generations of grime. Nearby, on Twarda Street, is Nozyk Synagogue—the only one in the city to survive the war.
Slicing north through the heart of the old ghetto is Jana Pawla II Avenue, a wide, busy boulevard named for Pope John Paul II. A walk along it, with small excursions down certain side streets, reveals a few glimpses of Nazi-occupied Warsaw: on Chlodna Street, where a small wooden bridge connected one part of the ghetto to the other and forced ghetto residents to walk over the street instead of on it, only the cobbled street and a few meters of tram tracks remain. And right off Dzielna Street, the ruins of Pawiak Prison stand like a gallows. Built in the 19th century, the prison was commandeered by the Gestapo when the Nazis invaded the city in 1939. Of some 100,000 Warsaw residents taken there, less than half survived. After the war ended, the ruins of the prison were restored and converted into a museum. Today tourists can visit the prison’s three restored jail cells, or read the remembrances of those wrongfully incarcerated there.
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