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Journey to the Warsaw Ghetto

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Journeys, both physical and spiritual, always begin somewhere. I could not have imagined, though, that my recent journey to the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland would begin in a darkened movie theater at the Bonner Mall in Ponderay, Idaho. 

Days before, I watched the Academy Awards and knew The Pianist had earned Oscars for director Roman Polanski and Best Actor Adrien Brody. Brody portrayed Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who survived Nazi atrocities in the Polish capital and penned his story in the small book adapted by Polanski for the film. 

The notoriety of the Academy Awards and an upcoming visit to Poland as part of my work with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) drew me to the theater. After the movie, I walked out into the dark April night deep in personal reflection. I was unprepared for the impact of the movie on my soul and on the journey it would demand of me. 

The Holocaust, with its history of genocide, death camps and human depravity; as well as human resistance and compassion, has always had a grip on me. I have visited the Nazi camps of Dachau, Germany and Auschwitz, Poland; seen the massacre memorial of Babi Yar in Kiev, Ukraine; and stood silent at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Each encounter with this “single most horrible event in the history of humankind” has pushed me to ask questions about good and evil amidst the peoples of the earth and within myself. The Pianist would send me off again in search of understanding. 

Prior to World War II, 375,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, a center of art and culture for European Jewry. Following the invasion of Poland by the Nazis in September 1939, the systematic repression and killing of Jews began nearly immediately. In 1940, the “Jewish Residential District” was established. Forced laborers built a brick wall 11 miles long encircling businesses, residences, and people. Into the ghetto, the Nazis poured others “resettled” from the surrounding area, swelling the population to over 400,000 people. Food was scarce or nonexistent. Thirty-six percent of the city’s population was wedged into 2.4% of its land area and in 1941 alone, 100,000 people starved inside the ghetto walls. Yet in the midst of this horror, community leaders organized schools, cared for orphans, and conducted worship in hidden bunkers.

The story of the Warsaw Ghetto is at once devastating and inspiring.

At the Wannsee Conference in January, 1942, Adolph Hitler and other Nazi leaders approved final plans to annihilate all of the 11 million Jews in Europe. Also marked for death were the Roma people, or gypsies, homosexuals, and others judged by the Nazis as unfit to live. The “Great Action” – the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the nearby extermination camp of Treblinka, one of over 300 concentration and death camps across Europe — began in July, 1942. In a summer of horror, as many as 265,000 men, women, and children were herded into box cars and transported to their deaths in the gas chambers northeast of the city. 

On April 19, 1943, with few weapons and little hope for ultimate military success, Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto launched an uprising against the Nazis. For four weeks, the fighters repulsed efforts of the German army and SS to crush the resistance, but with artillery, tanks, and flame throwers, the resistance was at last put down. The few remaining thousands in the ghetto were dispatched to death at Treblinka. In an effort to destroy all evidence of what had happened in the Warsaw Ghetto, every remaining building was demolished by Polish forced laborers, leaving nothing but acres of rubble and the occasional spire of a protected Christian church. 

My journey to Poland came at the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. On a Sunday in early May, I worshipped in a sanctuary of the Reformed Church in Poland. The church building survived the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto because it was in a protected island, a little niche in the otherwise near-impenetrable wall of brick and jagged glass that enclosed the Jews. From the steps of the church, a Christian worshipper in 1942 would have been less than 50 feet from the wall and could have looked across at the buildings and the humanity inside the ghetto. Tens of thousands were starved or tortured to death inside that wall, which stood only feet from where I slept in the comfort of today’s parish house. 

What would it have felt like to worship God on a Sunday while sensing the inhumanity perpetrated just a few feet away? What would it have felt like, as in one story told to me, to attend a wedding in the sanctuary and hear the huge blast only blocks away when the Jewish Synagogue inside the ghetto was dynamited to the ground in another act of human and cultural extermination? 

My experience in Warsaw put a mirror to my face and demanded a hard look at my responsibilities as an American today. How did we feel just a few years ago when the genocide in the southern African state of Rwanda claimed hundreds of thousands of lives? What do we feel today when the television brings us images of death and brutality in the West African state of Liberia? What do we feel when we see the wall topped with razor wire and protected by a concrete moat which divides San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico? 

The streets I walked in Warsaw saw hell burst forth and witnessed horrors that continue to stun us in their brutality. Yet those streets today are lined with modern apartments, shops, trees, and children at play. They also contain memorials so time will not erase the memory of the ghetto. One stands on the site of the Umschlagplatz, the collection point where tens of thousands were herded onto trains for their final journey. A modern visitor to the memorial struggles with wanting to run away from such a place of suffering and the desire to stand and pay homage to those who passed through. 

The Umschlagplatz evokes memories of World War II, but it also pushes one to reflect upon dark moments in our own history – the forced relocation of thousands of Cherokees from Georgia to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears in 1836; the massacres of Cheyenne and Arapahoe men, women, and children at Sand Creek, Colorado in 1864 and of Nez Perce families at Big Hole, Montana in 1877. What is it in our human character that periodically drives us to eradicate others whom we see as different or a threat to “our” way of living? 

On that day of remembrance in Warsaw, I was accompanied by my friend, Burkhard, a German who serves the Presbyterian Church in its work with the Roma of Eastern Europe. Burkhard and I have things in common, yet we have distinct differences. We were both born soon after the end of World War II. We have common bonds of faith, roles as husbands and fathers, and dreams for peace and justice in our world. Yet the paths that led us to this shared day in the Warsaw ghetto were very, very different. I was raised in the United States in a land of democratically elected leaders and freedom of religion. He was raised in the former East Germany, a communist state which repressed organized religion. I share the heritage of the Allied victory over fascism in Europe. He shares the heritage of German and Axis responsibility for the atrocities we were remembering. 

As we walked, we talked and explored the question of education and what we were taught of the history of World War II. As a child, he learned that it was the communists who defeated the Nazis – the Red Army advancing eastward from the Soviet Union, linking up with the communist resistance in eastern and central Europe to defeat Hitler’s regime. My social studies lessons emphasized the D-Day invasion at Normandy and the successful push of Allied Forces from the west into Germany; it wasn’t until I was in college that I fully comprehended the role and sacrifice of Russians to turn the tide of the war long before D-Day. Neither of us had the complete picture in our youth. Both of us learned our history from within our unique cultural perspectives. 

From these remembrances, we talked about our responsibilities today to tell the story of what happened so that others might understand and reflect. We talked about enabling Holocaust survivors to speak in our communities, of encouraging school teachers who make the Holocaust a regular part of their social studies and history curriculum, and we talked about our need to speak and write about our visit to the memorials of the Warsaw Ghetto. 

My personal reflection in Warsaw demands similar thought on my responsibilities in North Idaho. How do I choose to teach my children today? Do I balance the stories of adventure, exploration, and personal courage in the opening of the great American West with acknowledgement of violence, greed, and “ethnic cleansing” in our own history? Do I teach the history of the Holocaust as something that happened “over there,” or do I acknowledge that the potential for good or evil resides within each of us and the way forward depends on choices we make each day?

The final stop for Burkhard and me was the historic Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. This centuries-old graveyard is located just outside the walls of the World War II ghetto. In a portion of the cemetery, there is a large area bounded by stone markers and left for grass and vegetation to grow. This is the mass grave for thousands who died in the ghetto and whose names and lives are not remembered on a headstone. 

Much of that day in Warsaw had been filled with images of horror and death, with reflections on human cruelty, and on the very nature of evil. Yet, as the afternoon waned, I was surrounded by budding trees, chirping birds, and the seasonal renewal of life. And then I saw it. Amidst the tufts of grass on the mass grave, a single red flower bloomed, leaning into the sun on a spring day.

My time at this place and at the Memorial of the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto was not dominated by horror and death; rather, like a single red flower emerging over the graves, I felt a sense of renewal, of hope, a transcendence from the horror that had been, to a call of what might be in a time of greater respect for other human beings. Indeed, I am given a choice in the decisions I make each day in my relationships with others and in the content and manner of how I communicate with them.

As I quietly walked out of the cemetery, my eyes were drawn to a marker with the words of the Old Testament prophet, Joel; from Chapter 1, Verse 3:

“Tell your children of it,” it reads, “and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.” 

And so, I have tried to do.

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Author info

Gary Payton Gary Payton is on a Faith Walk that takes him to Russia, Eastern Europe and Sandpoint, Idaho

Tagged as:

Bonner Mall, holocaust, Warsaw Ghetto, The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Trail of Tears

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