Warsaw

Jewish Warsaw

At the time Hitler chose to expand Germany’s territories under the odious excuse of providing ‘living space’ for the German people, Warsaw’s Jewish population numbered 350,000 and growing. Neither pogroms nor the occasional boycott of Jewish businesses deterred Jews from settling in the Polish capital and only New York could boast a larger Jewish community. Yet within six years Warsaw’s thriving Jewish scene was all but wiped from the map, with over 90 percent perishing either in the Ghetto or the gas chambers of Treblinka.

Although anti-Semitism was by no means rare Poland was seen as a relative safe haven, and it drew settlers forced into flight by more discriminatory regimes elsewhere. By the inter-war years the Jewish population had made significant contributions to the social, political and cultural fabric of Poland, a contribution that would eventually be extinguished by the monstrous racial policies of the Nazis. When Warsaw fell following a brief yet brutal siege the city’s ancient Jewish population was damned to destruction. By 1940 Jews were forcibly penned into an area that already housed most of the Jewish population.

On March 27, 1940, the Judenrat, a Jewish council answerable to the Nazi’s whims, was ordered to build a wall around the ghetto and a resettlement deadline of October 15 was handed to the city’s Jews. Failure to move into the assigned area was punishable by death. Spanning 18 kilometres and enclosing 73 of Warsaw’s 1,800 streets, the area was carved into a ‘small’ and ‘large’ ghetto, the two linked by a wooden bridge standing over ul. Chłodna (E-2). Today an installation titled ‘Footbridge of Memory’ stands at this spot, with optical fibres illuminating the former handrails over the street at night.

From the beginning conditions in the city were harsh; recovered Nazi files show that while ethnic Germans were granted a food allowance totaling 2,613 calories per day, Jews and other groups deemed ‘sub-human’ were expected to survive on 184 calories. Unsurprisingly a black market supported by a smuggling network ran rife, with some 80 percent of the food in the ghetto supplied through illegal means. Still it was not enough and as the noose tightened starvation became the principal enemy. In 1941 over 100,000 died in this way, their bodies often left to rot in the streets.

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