Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Poland: Extensive Marker Program Recalls Warsaw Ghetto Boundaries

Poland: Extensive Marker Program Recalls Warsaw Ghetto Boundaries
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) When I was recently in Warsaw I took most of a day to walk around the area of the Warsaw Ghetto which had, of course, also been among the most densely populated Jewish neighborhoods of the city before the Shoah. I made my way to many of the monuments which I already knew, and I wanted to get a sense of where the new Museum of the History of the Jews in Poland would rise - across from the Ghetto Uprising Monument by Natan Rapoport.

This part of Warsaw is a baffling one, since there are entire layers of history - streets, buildings, houses, stores, people - all lost beneath the post-war and post -Ghetto building boom that transformed this area into vast acres of wide streets and big apartment blocks. The Ghetto monuments are among the few distinctive landmarks.

Gone too, is any sense of the perimeter of the Ghetto, the infamous Wall which figured so mightily in wartime reality and post-Holocaust imagination. Together with the chimneys of the Death Camp crematoria, the Warsaw Ghetto Wall is the architectural form that has came to represent most the suffering of the Poland's Jews under German occupation. As the Ghetto was made smaller, as the wall tightened, so too did Jewish hopes diminish. But today, wandering the new Warsaw cityscape - where is the wall?

To my surprise, I came across a new monument on ulica Bielanska, not far from the site of the (destroyed) great Synagogue, that gave me a clue about the Wall. I had not heard of this monument and it is not yet included on any map or in any guide. As it happens it is but one small part of an ambitious new project by the City of Warsaw and the Ministry of Culture in cooperation with the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI) is bringing the memory of the wall back. The work is still in progress, but will be officially inaugurated at the JHI on November 19th.

This project of Ghetto memory sees the city as a palimpsest - and under the lines of the new street the old patterns can still be seen - albeit faintly. 21 bronze reliefs are being installed along the route of the Ghetto wall. 13 reliefs are placed on still-extant patches of wall used as part of the Ghetto enclosure. The rest are set onto freestanding stelae. Together they mark the ghetto border when it was at its biggest. Explanatory texts help orient the viewer. Some of these markers - the ones where no part of the wall survives - include strips of pavement labeled "Ghetto Wall" that are embedded in the surrounding pavements and give a sense of exactly where the wall once was. This method of tracing outline of lost walls is not new (a good example is the memorial for the Orphan Boys' Home in Amsterdam, where an outline of the building in whose site is mostly covered by the new Town Hall was laid out with ceramic tiles in the surrounding pavement by artist Otto Treumann), but in Warsaw it is done very well.

I'm very impressed by this project. It is one of the very best that I have seen anywhere that endeavors to reorient the viewer to an historic topography rather than the contemporary one. For Jewish sites this type of evocation of lost places is essential, since throughout Europe so much of Jewish culture is lost, destroyed and built over. The Warsaw project demonstrates that there are ways that are both aesthetically and didactically satisfactory - that these lost places and spaces can be recalled, if not actually recovered. The effort to create and install a system of distinct but related markers is important. Whether for the Ghetto Wall, or for relocating Jewish communal institutions or any other set of sites, a system indicates that recovered sites were not individual, casual or accidental creations, but they are part of a complex network of places and community now gone. This technique can work with any kind of lost heritage, not just Jewish. But for Jewish heritage - especially in cities once full of Jews where few physical remains survive - markers are a must.

I don't know who is responsible for this new marker system, but I am sure my friends Eleonora Bergman, Director of the Jewish Historical Institute and Jan Jagielski, researcher of Jewish sites par excellence are involved. Both Lena and Jan, by the way, have new books out about Jewish Warsaw before and during the Ghetto period. I'll write about them another time.

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