My Travel Book - The Warsaw Ghetto_An Immense Vacuum

In 1996, I was invited to exhibit 35 pictures in Radom, about 60 miles south of Warsaw, Poland.

It was our first time in Poland and would probably be the last one so I felt very strongly that Popeye, Swee’Pea and I, we had to go to Auschwitz.

Which we did even though I had to enter into some intense negociations with the organizers of the show. Poles are not too keen to go to Auschwitz probably because it was compulsory for young people (and probably still is).

Besides the fact that in Poland, it is quite hard to broach the topic of the Jewish mass extermination and/or anti-Semitism.

I won. They got my pictures and we went to Auschwitz. Our driver and our interpreter chose to wait for us in the car which was just fine after all.

I have read that nowadays Auschwitz has as many visitors as the Eiffel Tower and that the spirit of the place suffers a lot from the hordes of tourists plus the extensive use of digital cameras (which is nevertheless totally forbidden).

The day we went there, we were completely by ourselves. Alone. Which was great because it turned out to be a profound shattering experience. A very painful ordeal. We needed privacy.

I am a photographer but Auschwitz is the only place in the world where I simply could not and would not take pictures. Not one single picture.

Who wants to take pictures of the unspeakably unbearable?

Do we need to show that we were there? Do we need to exploit this horrifying place? Let the dead and their pitiful material remains rest in peace along with the photographs the Nazis took.

I started to cry the minute I entered the camp. I was still crying a couple of hours later while we were walking on the grounds after visiting the museum.

I still can’t get over this experience even though 17 years have gone by. We felt so devastated there. The day we were there, the place was really a shrine filled with silence.  And this silence somehow awakened memories that were not ours, memories beyond words.

The pictures I never took are still so clear in my memory I feel like crying again whenever I let them sweep though my mind.

We went to Auschwitz after the private viewing of my show and from there we took a train to Warsaw to visit some friends and then we flew back home to Paris.

Last week, we went back to Warsaw even though we were not too happy about going back.

But we had no choice. Swee’Pea had been attending a worldwide conference there. Due to a very tight schedule, he just could not  come to Paris.

So we flew to Warsaw instead.

Warsaw looks so different from the 1996 Warsaw. Now it is a modern, clean and affluent city.

We spent our first day walking around the ‘Old Town’ which is not this old after all since Warsaw was almost totally destroyed by the Nazis and the historical buildings were rebuilt after the war.

On Sunday, we decided to get to places we had never been to in 1996. It turned out very handy to hire a cab because some of the places we wanted to go to were quite far out.
Our English-speaking driver picked us up at the hotel. A very nice young man, very eager to share Warsaw with us... Actually he was more than nice as soon as he learnt that Swee’Pea is an astronomer.

Why are you in Warsaw?
Because I went to this astonomers’ conference...
Oh! You are an astronaut?

Well, he kept being nice even after Swee’Pea explained that he’s only studying galaxies and not flying around in a space shuttle!

We then drove around to parks and palaces...

But actually I wanted to go through the Warsaw ghetto or what used to be the ghetto. I don’t want to sound ghoulish but I was getting a little bit tired of memorials to WW II and the Warsaw Uprising, of royal palaces, of monuments to popes and kings and poets and of Catholic shrines. You find them everywhere in Warsaw. Each one of them with fresh flowers and candles.

I don’t know what I really wanted though. The ghetto has been levelled in 1943 after the uprising but I had read that you could still find fragments of the wall here and there. Not that fragments of a brick wall would help me to understand what had happened in the ghetto.

I guess I just wanted to walk around through history... Was this some kind of a Gernika syndrome again? Probably.

In 1996, our friends in Warsaw refused to talk about this facet of their history. We had been shown a couple of very beautiful houses though... that used to belong to Jewish families... before the war that is. The perfect demonstration that Jews had been «gorging» on poor Poles hence deserving their fate. A commonly held assertion at least at the time we were in Poland. (I have heard the same argument in France.)

In 2013, things seem to be a lot different. A museum opened last year about Jewish History in Poland and there are lots of official reminders of the Ghetto. 

Nowadays plans and steles guide you along an immaterial wall.

I am pretty sure our driver believed that we were Jewish because he decided on his own to drive us to the Grzybowski square (Plac Grzybowskiego). This is the area where you find every fragment of the wall you can possibly find in Warsaw plus several buildings that were enclosed in the Ghetto and survived its levelling in 1943 and the 85% destruction of Warsaw in 1944.

In all of Nazi Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto was the biggest ghetto ever. A brick wall was erected, 3 meters high, 11 miles long enclosing a surface of 1.5 square miles.

The wall cut off 500.000 Jewish people (found in Warsaw and its region) -- 30% of the Warsaw population living in less than 2.4% of the city.

Before the war, the city of Warsaw had one of the most important Jewish community in Europe, about one third of its population actually -- almost 400.000 people. In May 1945, survivors were down to 300.

Most of the Warsaw Jews were gassed in Treblinka. Those who didn’t starve to death or weren’t shot in the Ghetto by the Nazis, that is.

This walk through whatever was left of the ghetto was a very sobering experience. Not as distressing as in Auschwitz though. Well, different.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was a concentration camp, a labor camp and an extermination camp. It has been partially destroyed but things are still extremely concrete there when you walk through the exhibits in the museum and the barracks.

In the ghetto, everything tends to the abstract. The vacuum is unbelievable because it has been somehow filled up. Levelled living quarters were replaced by ‘new’ buildings aeons ago. People are living there along those very streets that used to be part of the ghetto and so close to what’s left of the wall. No Jews there either.

A couple of buildings that were part of the ghetto remain but they are so derelict. Fragments of the wall do exist but what is a brick wall to our collective unconscious?

Therefore it is quite impossible to grasp that 500.000 people disappeared forever from there, never to return even if we have read books or seen movies about them. Even if the little boy "forcibly pulled out of dug-outs» in the ghetto preys in our minds from time to time.

The Warsaw ghetto has become an immense vacuum indeed.


A few pictures from our walk through the immaterial Warsaw Ghetto

The Wall or what's left of it --


Buildings from the ghetto --

Markers --

The divide between the two ghettos linked up by footbridges. The streetcar kept running below them throughout the war.         

And... the wall and "new" buildings that were built after the war over the ghetto --

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Myrna Layton said...

I almost went to Warsaw -- that is where the viola congress was, but I opted not to attend because the timing was awkward. I read a lot of WWII historical fiction...it would be really interesting to see the places in which these very sobering stories were set.

Nancy said...

I remember having similar feelings in Riga when I was there. The ruins of The Great Choral Synagogue were chilling.

Yad Vashem was equally sobering, though it was almost paradoxical to walk through a museum decrying cultural cleansing immediately after visiting the West Bank...

Thank you for sharing Warsaw with me.