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At the heart of pre-war Jewish world

The European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) was presented last year at a ceremony held in San Sebastian, Spain. This prestigious title was awarded to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which was among 49 nominees from 24 countries and it is situated in my hometown, Warsaw. Despite its doors were opened to the public in April 2013, I have not been to the museum until my British friend asked me to take him there on last Christmas. It made me explore the history of Polish Jews and tell you more about that. Have you ever known …

… Poland was known as a “Jewish paradise”?

From the Middle Ages until the Holocaust, Jews comprised a significant part of the Polish population. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, known as a “Jewish paradise” for its religious tolerance, attracted tens of thousands of Jews who fled persecution from other European countries, even though, at times, discrimination against Jews began surfacing in Poland, too. However my country was a major spiritual and cultural centre for Ashkenazi Jews and served as the centre for Jewish culture. A diverse population of Jews from all over Europe sought refuge there. At the start of World War II, more than 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland, the largest Jewish population of Europe and second largest Jewish community in the world.

In spite of Judaism having a history dating back 1,000 years in Poland the country is seen as a site of Jewish death and suffering …

… because – as you perfectly know – the Nazis carried out most of the murderous work of the Holocaust in occupied Poland, and reduced a population of more than three million to just a few thousand, many people outside the country see it only as a site of Jewish death and suffering. Kraków was particularly notorious, with an infamous ghetto, and just an hour drive from Auschwitz.
Kraków Ghetto was established for the purpose of exploitation, terror, and persecution of local Polish Jews, as well as the staging area for separating the “able workers” from those who would later be deemed unworthy of life. It was formally established on March 3rd, 1941 in the Podgórze district and not, as often believed, in the historic Jewish district of Kazimierz.
The Ghetto was surrounded by the newly built walls that kept it separated from the rest of the city. All windows and doors that opened onto the “Aryan” side were ordered to be bricked up. Only four guarded entrances allowed traffic to pass in or out. Small sections of the wall still remain today, one part is fitted with a memorial plaque, which reads: “Here they lived, suffered and perished at the hands of Hitler’s executioners. From here they began their final journey to the death camps”. From May 30th, 1942 onward, the Nazis began systematic deportations from the Ghetto to surrounding concentration camps. Thousands of Jews were transported in the succeeding months as part of the Aktion Krakau.
There were a few famous people living in Kraków Ghetto, among them famous movie director Roman Polański, best known for the horror film “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and many others which won many international awards. In his 1984 memoir Polański evoked his childhood experiences there before the mass deportations of Operation Reinhard in Kraków. Polański wrote:


“My own feeling was that if only one could explain to them that we had done nothing wrong, the Germans would realize that it all was a gigantic misunderstanding.”

Many years later, Roma Ligocka, Polish artist and author, and a first cousin to Roman Polański who, as a small girl, was rescued and survived the Ghetto, wrote a novel based on her experiences, „The Girl in the Red Coat: A Memoir”. She is mistakenly thought to be portrayed in the film “Schindler’s List” (1993). The scene, however, was constructed on the memories of Zelig Burkhut, survivor of Plaszów work camp. When being interviewed by Steven Spielberg before the making the film, Burkhut said about a young girl wearing a pink coat, no older than four, who was shot by a Nazi officer right before his eyes. Oskar Schindler was portrayed in the Thomas Keneally novel “Schindler’s Ark” (filmed by Steven Spielberg as “Schindler’s List”). In an especially dramatic event, 300 of Schindler’s workers were deported to the Auschwitz death camp despite his efforts, and he personally intervened to return them to him.

Warsaw Jewish community second only to New York City

Before World War II, Warsaw was a major center of Jewish life and culture in Poland. On the eve of the war the Jewish population in Warsaw numbered 337,000 about 29% of the total population of the city, this figure rose to 445,000 by March 1941. The Warsaw`s Jewish community was the largest in both Poland and Europe, and was the second largest in the world, second only to New York City.
Less than a week after German troops entered Warsaw occupational officials ordered the establishment of a Jewish council (Judenrat). On September 23rd, 1939 Mayor Stefan Starzynski appointed a Jewish engineer named Adam Czerniaków (being portrayed by actor Donald Sutherland in the 2001 Warner Bros. motion picture, “Uprising”) as Chairman of the Jewish Community in Warsaw. Czerniaków wrote in his diary: “A historic role in a besieged city. I will try to live up to it”. As chairman of the Jewish council, Czerniaków had to administer the soon-to-be established ghetto and to implement German orders. He wrote in his diary on September 14th, 1939: “At the Jewish cemetery, 130 bodies burned by incendiary bombs on September 13th” and on September 15th: “Heavy artillery fire mainly in the area where I live. Blazing fires lit up the city”. On November 23rd, Hans Frank the Governor General issued a decree that all Jewish men, women and children over 10 years old were required to identify themselves by wearing in public white armbands with a blue Star of David. In addition Jewish shops were to be marked, restrictions proclaimed on travel by train, and radios were confiscated from Jews and Poles from December 1st, 1939. The German authorities closed Jewish schools, confiscated Jewish-owned property, and conscripted Jewish men into forced labor and dissolved prewar Jewish organizations.
The harshest measures came with a number of decrees on economic affairs, such as the prohibition of non-Jews buying or leasing Jewish enterprises without obtaining a special permit for this purpose, decreed by Dr Ludwig Fischer, the District Governor of Warsaw on October 17th, 1939.
In November 1939 more decrees followed concerning the handling of money by Jews, they were ordered to deposit their money in blocked bank accounts. The bank could release no more than 250 zloties per week to the holder of the account. These orders made it impossible for Jews to carry on economic activity in the open, and particularly outside of Jewish circles. In addition to blocking Jewish accounts and putting a stop to economic activity, the Germans also embarked upon the confiscation of Jewish companies, excluding small stores in the Jewish areas. Jewish managers and staff were often removed from their positions, only being retained if this suited the new owners.


An area the size of New York’s Central Park

On October 12th, 1940, the Germans decreed the establishment of a ghetto in Warsaw. They did not use this term, but called the area the Jewish Quarter (Jüdisches Wohnbezirk). A Jewish Police force (Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst) was established primarily to combat smuggling, and generally to keep order with the ghetto, at its height numbered 2,000 members.
The decree required all Jewish residents of Warsaw to move into a designated area, which German authorities sealed off from the rest of the city in November 1940. The ghetto was enclosed by a wall that was over 10 feet high, topped with barbed wire, and closely guarded to prevent movement between the ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. The population of the ghetto, increased by Jews compelled to move in from nearby towns, was estimated to be over 400,000 Jews. German authorities forced ghetto residents to live in an area of 1.3 square miles, with an average of 7.2 persons per room.
Jewish organizations inside the ghetto tried to meet the needs of the ghetto residents as they struggled to survive. Among the welfare organizations active in the ghetto were the Jewish Mutual Aid Society, the Federation of Associations in Poland for the Care of Orphans, and the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training. Financed until late 1941 primarily by the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, these organizations attempted to keep alive a population that suffered severely from starvation, exposure, and infectious disease.
Food allotments rationed to the ghetto by the German civilian authorities were not sufficient to sustain life. The daily food rations allocated to the Jews of Warsaw consisted of only 181 calories, about a quarter of the rations Poles were granted, and much less than what was allocated to Germans. Czerniaków wrote in his diary entry for May 8th, 1941: “Children starving to death.” This totally inadequate level of food, reduced the ghetto to a slow murder through mass starvation, unsurprisingly the mortality rates reflected this:
During 1941 deaths rose from 898 a month in January, to a peak in August of 5560, and right through to May 1942 where 3,636 died. The average monthly mortality rates for the seventeen months January 1941 – May 1942 was 3882.
Between 1940 and mid-1942, 83,000 Jews died of starvation and disease. Widespread smuggling of food and medicines into the ghetto supplemented the miserable official allotments and kept the death rate from increasing still further.
From July 22nd until September 12th, 1942, German SS and police units, assisted by auxiliaries, carried out mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka killing center. During this period, the Germans deported about 265,000 Jews. They killed approximately 35,000 Jews inside the ghetto during the operation.
On April 19th, 1943, a new SS and police force appeared outside the ghetto walls, intending to liquidate the ghetto and deport the remaining inhabitants to the forced labor camps in Lublin district. The ghetto inhabitants offered organized resistance in the first days of the operation, inflicting casualties on the well-armed and equipped SS and police units. They continued to resist deportation as individuals or in small groups for four weeks before the Germans ended the operation on May 16th. The SS and police deported approximately 42,000 Warsaw ghetto survivors captured during the uprising to the forced-labor camps at Poniatowa and Trawniki and to the Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp. At least 7,000 Jews died fighting or in hiding in the ghetto, while the SS and police sent another 7,000 to the Treblinka killing center.
For months after the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, individual Jews continued to hide themselves in the ruins and, on occasion, attacked German police officials on patrol. Perhaps as many as 20,000 Warsaw Jews continued to live in hiding on the so-called “Aryan” side of Warsaw.


She saved more Jews than any other individual during the Holocaust

Irena Sendler was a Polish nurse, humanitarian and social worker who served in the Polish Underground in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II, and was head of the children’s section of Żegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews (Rada Pomocy Żydom), which was active from 1942 to 1945.
As early as 1939, when the Germans invaded Warsaw, Sendler began helping Jews by offering them food and shelter. Assisted by some two dozen other Żegota members, Sendler smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then provided them with false identity documents and shelter outside the Ghetto, saving those children from the Holocaust. With the exception of diplomats who issued visas to help Jews flee Nazi-occupied Europe, Sendler saved more Jews than any other individual during the Holocaust.


“Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.”
Irena Sendler

When the Warsaw Ghetto was erected in 1940, Irena Sendler could no longer help isolated Jews. The Ghetto was an area the size of New York’s Central Park and 450,000 Jewish people were forced into this area.
Once the Warsaw Ghetto was formed, she started by saving the orphan children. In August 1943, Irena Sendler was nominated by Żegota to head its Jewish children’s section. She used her papers as a Polish social worker to enter the Warsaw Ghetto. Officially she visited there to check for signs of typhus, a disease the Germans feared would spread beyond that area. During these visits, she wore a Star of David as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people. Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions within the site, Sendler and her co-workers smuggled out babies and small children. They used many methods to do that. There were five main means of escape: 1/ using an ambulance a child could be taken out hidden under the stretcher, 2/ escape through the courthouse, 3/ a child could be taken out using the sewer pipes or other secret underground passages, 4/ a trolley could carry out children hiding in a sack, in a trunk, a suitcase or something similar, 5/ if a child could pretend to be sick or was actually very ill, it could be legally removed using the ambulance.
Jewish children were placed with Polish Christian families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or Roman Catholic convents such as the Little Sister Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate.
Irena Sendler and her network made sure that each family hiding a child realized the child must be returned to Jewish relatives after the war. She and her co-workers buried lists of the hidden children in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities. The aim was to return the children to their original families when the war was over.
On October 20th, 1943, Irena Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo. She was placed in the notorious Pawiak prison, where she was constantly questioned and severely tortured. The German interrogator was young, very stylish and spoke perfect Polish. He wanted the names of the Żegota leaders, their addresses and the names of others involved. Irena Sendler fed him the version that she and her collaborators had prepared in the event they were captured. During the questioning she had her legs and feet fractured. Despite this, she refused to betray any of her comrades or the children they rescued, and was sentenced to death by firing squad. Unbeknown to her, Żegota saved her life by bribing the German executioner on the way to her execution. He helped her escape. On the following day the Germans loudly proclaimed her execution. Posters were put up all over the city with the news that she was shot. Irena Sendler read the posters herself.
After her escape, she lived hidden, just like the children she rescued. Later she returned to Warsaw under a fake name and continued her involvement with Żegota. During the Warsaw Uprising, she worked as a nurse in a public hospital, where she hid five Jews. She carried on until the Germans left Warsaw, retreating before the advancing Soviet troops.
Irena Sendler was the only one who knew where the children were to be found. When the war was finally over, she dug up the bottles and began the job of finding the children and trying to find a living parent. Almost all of the children’s parents had been killed at the Treblinka extermination camp or had gone missing.

Righteous vs. Prejudiced

Poles are the single largest group on the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial’s list of “righteous among the nations” in Israel, those who risked their own lives to save Jewish friends, neighbours, colleagues or acquaintances.
But prejudice also has deep roots. Many Polish Jews survived the Holocaust only because they had fled pogroms before the Nazis arrived. And within months of the liberation of Auschwitz, dozens more had died in new pogroms and fights over confiscated property.
In 1968, one faction within the communist government launched a cynical antisemitic campaign, as part of an internal power struggle, which cost hundreds of people their jobs and prompted thousands more to leave for Israel.
Pope John Paul II did much to tackle antisemitic attitudes, condemning them outright, visiting Auschwitz to pray in 1979, on his first visit to the country since becoming leader of the world’s Catholics, and forging high-profile relationships with Jews and Jewish communities.


Approximately 3,200 Jews remain in Poland

The vast majority of Jews were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, particularly through the implementation of the “Final Solution” mass extermination program. Barely 11% of Poland’s Jews – 369,000 people – survived the war. After massive postwar emigration approximately 3,200 Jews remain in Poland.


Polish Jews make the Earth a better place

Many famous people have Polish Jewish origin. They are active in many industries, they are the best scientists and pioneers in many fields. I am going to show you just a few profiles.
Kazimierz Funk, Polish biochemist was generally credited with the first formulation of the concept of Vitamins in 1912. The ophthalmologist Ludwig Zamenhof invented Esperanto which is seen by many of its speakers as an alternative or addition to the growing use of English throughout the world. Shimon Peres, born Szymon Perski in Wiszniewo, Poland, at the time of his retirement in 2014, he was the world’s oldest head of state. He was considered the last link to Israel’s founding generation.

Polish Jews make the world more prosperous

The most recognizable brands have been created by Polish Jews. André Citroën, industrialist, engineer and founder of a major French automobile manufacturer Citroën. His mother Masza Amelia Kleinman came from Warsaw, capital of Poland.
Max Factor Sr., Polish Jewish cosmetician, founder of the cosmetics giant Max Factor & Company, largely developed the modern cosmetics industry and popularised the term make-up in noun form based on the verb. He was born in Zduńska Wola, a city in central Poland.
Helal and Henry Hassenfeld, Polish immigrants founded Hasbro, a textile company that sold remnants called Hassenfeld Brothers. The brothers would move on to sell pencil boxes, school supplies, and later, toys. After the success of Mr. Potato Head and G.I. Joe the Hassenfeld Brothers would create Hasbro Industries in 1968.
John Factor was Max Factor`s brother. He was a Prohibition-era gangster and con artist affiliated with the Chicago Outfit. He later became a prominent businessman and Las Vegas casino proprietor, owner of the Stardust Resort and Casino. It is alleged that he ran the operation on behalf of the mob, with a lifetime take of $50–$200 million.

Polish Jews invented cinema and built the most prosperous industry

Samuel Goldwyn born in Warsaw was a Jewish Polish American film producer. He was most well known for being the founding contributor and executive of several motion picture studios in Hollywood. He was co-founder of MGM – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – once the largest, most glamorous, and most revered film studio.
Warner Bros. Entertainment, the company’s name originated from the four founding Warner brothers born Wonskolaser: Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner. They emigrated as small children with their parents to Canada from Krasnosielc which was located in the part of Congress Poland that had been subjugated to the Russian Empire following the 18thcentury Partitions of Poland.
Aleksander Ford born Mosze Lifszyc was a Polish film director and head of the Polish People’s Army Film Crew in the Soviet Union during World War II. Ford became director of the nationalized Film Polski company following the Red Army occupation of Poland. In 1948 the new communist authorities appointed him professor of the National Film School in Łódź (Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Filmowa). Roman Polański was among his students. Another of Ford’s protégés was the Polish film director Andrzej Wajda. Following the anti-Semitic purge in the communist party in Poland, in 1968 Ford emigrated to Israel and from there through Germany and Denmark, to the United States.


Polish Jews entertain people around the world

Stanley Kubrick, film director, writer, best known for “Paths of Glory” (1957). His ancestors on father`s side were Polish, Austrian and Romanian origin.
Agnieszka Holland, film director and writer best known for her films “Europa Europa” (1991) and her 2011 drama “In Darkness”. Her father was Jewish.
Roman Polański, Polish – French film director, producer, writer and actor, best known for “Rosemary`s Baby” (1968), “Chinatown” (1974), The Ghost Writer” (2010). His father was Jewish and mother was half-Jewish.
Andrzej Wajda, Polish film director, best known for “Kanał” (1956), “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), “Man of Marble” (1976), “Man of Iron” (1981) and”Katyń” (2007). In 2000, Wajda received an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Aaron Spelling, film and TV producer, best known for “Charlie`s Angels” (1976 – 1981), “Dynasty” (1981 – 1989) and “Beverly Hills, 90210” (1990 – 2000). He was the son of Pearl and David Spelling, who were Jewish immigrants from Poland.
Natalie Portman, Israeli and American Polish actress, best known for “Léon: The Professional” (1994), “Star Wars” (1999, 2002, 2005), “V for Vendetta” (2005). She starred in the psychological horror film “Black Swan” (2010) for which she earned her first Academy Award for Best Actress. Natalie’s paternal grandfather Zvi Yehuda Hershlag born in Poland was Jewish immigrants to Israel.
Paul Newman, American Polish Jewish actor and director, best known for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), “The Sting” (1973), “The Verdict” (1982) and “The Color of Money” (1986). Newman’s Jewish father was the son of Simon Newman and Hannah Cohn, immigrants from Hungary and Poland.
Scarlett Johansson, actress and singer, is considered one of Hollywood’s modern sex symbols, and has frequently appeared in published lists of the sexiest women in the world. As of July 2016, she is the highest-grossing actress of all time in North America, and tenth overall. Her mother’s ancestors were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Minsk in the Russian Empire.
Gwyneth Paltrow, American-Polish-Jewish actress, best known for “Shakespeare in Love” for which she won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award and two Screen Actors Guild Awards. Paltrow’s paternal great-great-grandfather, was a rabbi in Nowogród, Poland, and a descendant of the well known “Paltrowicz” family of rabbis from Kraków, whose best known descendant is R. David HaLevi Segal.
Arthur Rubinstein, a Polish American classical pianist, received international acclaim for his performances of the music written by a variety of composers and many regard him as the greatest Chopin interpreter of his time. He was described by “The New York Times” as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. He was born in Łódź, Congress Poland to a Jewish family.
Władysław Szpilman was a Polish pianist and classical composer. Szpilman is widely known as the protagonist of the 2002 Roman Polański film “The Pianist”, which is based on the book of the same name recounting his survival of the German occupation of Warsaw and the Holocaust.


“Here you should dwell”

And here I was at the very modern museum. I have been to several museums while travelling abroad but I was most impressed by Polin. It stands in what was once the heart of Jewish Warsaw – later turned by the Nazis into the Warsaw Ghetto. Before World War II, this was the central point of a district inhabited mostly by the Jewish population, while during the war and after setting up the ghetto, the building served as the seat of Judenrat, a ghetto council selected by German authorities. Also, this was where the Germans – having put down the ghetto uprising – established the “Gęsiówka” concentration camp. Yet, many visitors find this place very symbolic. In 1970, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Willi Brandt knelt down in a historic gesture at the foot of the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes, right on the opposite side of today’s Museum. This event was hailed figurative German apologies for the crime of Holocaust.
This significant location and its proximity to the Monument, demanded extreme thoughtfulness on the part of the building’s designers, who carefully crafted a structure that has become a symbol of the new look of Warsaw. In 2008, with the building still under construction, it received the prestigious Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Award. And as I mentioned on the very beginning, the Museum also received the prestigious title The European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) 2016.
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is currently a cultural and educational centre with a rich cultural programme, including temporary exhibitions, films, debates, workshops, performances, concerts, lectures and much more. The Core Exhibition, presenting the thousand-year history of Polish Jews, does immerse visitors in their world, from the arrival in Po-lin (word definition at the end of the text) as travelling merchants in medieval times until today. It enables visitors to come into intimate contact with those who lived each story through images, artifacts, first-person accounts, and interactive multimedia.
Some Jewish historians say the Hebrew word for “Poland” is pronounced as Polania or Polin in Hebrew. As transliterated into Hebrew, these names for Poland were interpreted as “good omens” because Polania can be broken down into three Hebrew words: po (“here”), lan (“dwells”), ya (“God”), and Polin into two words of: po (“here”) lin (“[you should] dwell”). The “message” was that Poland was meant to be a good place for the Jews. In later centuries up to 80% of the Jewish world population lived in Poland.
I hope I inspired you and interested you in visiting Warsaw and learning more about Jewish history. I would be glad if you found a way to my hometown. And using double meaning of Hebrew word, I am going to say:


See you in Polin!

By Agata Szostkowska

Photos: Michał Stanisławski

© Copyright www.communications-unlimited.nl, 2016. All rights reserved.


Warsaw Ghetto boundary markers

The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial

41, Chłodna Str. That townhouse comprised Western Ghetto boundary marker.

The Warsaw Ghetto city plan

Built in 1882 – 1902 founded by couple Zelman and Ryfka Nożyk. The only Warsaw synanogue to survive the war. Address: 6, Twarda Str.

A part of the Ghetto wall has been preserved in the yard of one of Warsaw`s high schools.

Jewish cemetry in Warsaw

The Monument of the Ghetto Heroes

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews

The Core Exhibition

The Warsaw Ghetto wall being incorporated into The Aurum Office Building

The Pawiak Prison

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