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 per cent of the city’s buildings, and most of what you see now has been either recon structed 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 gal lows. 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.
I leave the old ghetto at Stawki Street, near the university. It’s late afternoon, and the students are finishing their classes. It’s getting too dark and cold to fraternize, so they quietly go their separate ways. Before the war, the northern building had been a hospital; in the summer of 1942, it became part of the Umschlagplatz—the “collection point” for the death camps. The SS rounded up thousands of Jews daily, dumping them in the cesspit the hospital had become. Then they were dispatched by train to Treblinka, a death camp some 60 miles northeast of Warsaw, or summarily shot and dumped in a mass grave in the nearby Jewish cemetery. A monument marks the place the train depot stood; the gray marble resembles an open freight car.
In January 1943 the SS began their last roundup. Rather than die in the camps, the Jews resisted, armed with handguns and homemade explosives. A mound of earth at 18 Mila Street, now surrounded by bleak high-rise apartment slabs, marks the last bunker of the Jewish fighters who defied the SS army. By the time the fighting ended in May, the ghetto had been destroyed. The next day I set out for Treblinka. Somewhere along the train line from Warsaw to Malkinia—the closest station to the site—the sun comes out, dissipating the gloom. It shines on one of two thank fully vacant taxis standing by the very rural station. When the SS trains hauled their human cargo, a branch line continued the short distance to the camp.
Treblinka was the last of the extermination camps to be built, and the most efficient. Entering the site at the same place the deported Jews would have disembarked from the freight cars, I’m surprised by how small it seems. More than 800,000 people were executed in this forest clearing in less than 18 months. Today the sweet fragrance of the surrounding pine trees fills the air, but the Jews destined to be murdered here were greeted by the smell of death, said to have clung to the countryside for miles around.
The original camp buildings are long gone; instead, a massive monolith stands where the gas chambers used to be. Around it lies a scattering of smaller, jagged rocks; some are engraved with the name of a European town or city whose population was wiped out at Treblinka.
Walking back, I’m greeted by eager Israeli schoolchildren; they’re on a visit to Poland’s Holocaust sites and have come to Treblinka for an evening vigil. The young curator of Treblinka’s museum regrets that visitors seldom stop by her small, but interesting, exhibit. In fact, she tells me, “You’re the only visitor today.”
That its collection is so small is no fault of the museum. Treblinka was the most secret of the death camps, and photography was verboten. As the Red Army drew closer to the camp in 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered it leveled and disguised as a farm. The orders were carried out, but the Russians were not deceived.
On my last day in Warsaw, I stroll to the Old Town, the city’s 14th-century crown jewel. Yesterday’s sunshine has turned into snow, but even on this gloomy afternoon the historic district is a splendid sight.
By rights, the Old Town shouldn’t be here. It was pummeled in the blitzkrieg and pounded in the Warsaw Uprising, the last-ditch struggle by the Polish Home Army to liberate the city in 1944. After the Home Army surrendered on October 2, Hitler ordered that the city be razed. The Old Town was hit especially hard.
But piles of original bricks remained, as well as a good supply of sketches and paintings that depicted the Old Town in its prewar state, and the entire area has been painstakingly rebuilt. Its medieval brick buildings, restored churches, and impressive reproduction of the Royal Castle have, quite rightly, earned the Old Town a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Warsaw continues to transform. Even the city’s drab communist architecture, a souvenir of its Socialist past, is giving way to the high-rises, loud billboards, and glitzy shopping malls that mark Poland’s entry into the European Union and new found economic success. One by one, these new buildings fill the skyline, obscuring the empty spaces left by World War II.
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.