Now this Holocaust-era prison of misery and death is undergoing a dramatic transformation in time for the April 19th anniversary of the start of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, a revolt that ended in death for most of the fighters yet gave the world an enduring symbol of resistance against the odds.
The change in this district of the capital and its place in Polish consciousness is embodied in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews that has risen up in a vast square in the heart of the vanished ghetto, ringed by Holocaust memorials and shabby communist-era apartment buildings.
It celebrates the Jewish life that flourished in Poland for centuries before the Holocaust, and dares to confront Poles with a truth many would once have strongly denied: That this country has had its own dark chapters of anti-Semitism.
Funded largely by Polish taxpayers, the museum's existence is a powerful sign of how far Poland has come in embracing tolerance and its own multicultural past since toppling communism 23 years ago – a new openness bolstered by a blossoming economy.
At the same time, the exhibits will take care to emphasize that Polish acts of persecution never approached the scale of Adolf Hitler's genocide and that the Holocaust was Germany's crime, not a product of any local Polish-Jewish tensions.
Still, many nationalistic Poles prefer an image of their country as a model of heroic resistance to centuries of past oppression, both by Germans and Russians. Many grew up under a communist regime that assumed the right to dictate whose suffering should get attention.
Museum of the History of Polish Jews (Photo: AP)
Among painful episodes that the museum will address in the permanent exhibition opening next year are pogroms in the late 19th century, boycotts of Jewish businesses in the 1920s and 1930s, and calls to deport Poland's 3.3 million Jews, the largest per capita Jewish population in any European country.
Its materials promise to tell the story of the Jedwabne massacre in World War II, when about 40 Poles hunted down the town's Jews, shut them in a barn and set it alight, killing more than 300 people. Also to be included is an account of the massacre in the city of Kielce, when 42 Jewish Holocaust survivors were slaughtered a year after the war ended, and the expulsion in 1968 of thousands of people of Jewish ancestry.
Even now, controversy bubbles. Krzysztof Jasiewicz, an eminent professor, recently claimed in a magazine article that the Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves by their behavior over generations. The article provoked widespread academic protest, but drew considerable support in online forums.
Memorial for 'Righteous Gentiles'?
Another debate is over the idea of raising a memorial to Polish "Righteous Gentiles" – those who saved Jews during the war – next to the new museum. Poles protected Jews at a huge risk to their own lives and their families, and more than 6,000 are officially honored by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial – by far the largest number in any country occupied by the Nazis.
But critics say that while the Righteous Gentiles deserve a monument, putting it by the museum would be an expression of Polish nationalism that would lead some to falsely believe that most Poles acted as rescuers during World War II.
"These few streets and squares stand as a unique space of memory which should above all pay tribute to Jewish suffering, not Polish heroism," researchers with the Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw said in a public appeal. "Those who want to present the attitude of the Righteous as the typical attitude of Poles during the war deviate from the historical truth."
However, Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Polish Jewish commentator, says the monument belongs near the museum and ghetto memorial. Putting it anywhere else, he said in an interview with The Associated Press, "would be incomprehensible at best and an insult at worst. If we begin by seemingly diminishing the importance of Polish heroism, then how can we expect the Poles to accept the darker side? It would be unfair."
In general, state officials, intellectuals and younger Poles have increasingly shown a willingness to make an honest reckoning with the past, something that comes amid a broader interest in celebrating the many contributions Jews made to Polish culture.
The museum, nearly 20 years in the making, will at first hold temporary exhibitions and other cultural events. It will tell the 1,000-year story of Jewish life in Poland, showing how periods of tolerance allowed Polish Jews to develop a flourishing culture and become the largest Jewish community in the world for a time.
"With its opening, the museum will become a physical space that for the first time will present the entire history of Polish Jewry, which I believe is fundamental." said Gebert.
"This change was made possible because Poland is a success story – and the fact that Poles feel good, by and large, about their country and therefore have the courage to also accept that the country has done horrible things in the past."
Seeking common historical awareness
Visually, the large, glass-paneled museum has already transformed the heart of the former ghetto where the Nazis imprisoned nearly half a million people, subjecting them to killings and starvation before sending them to the gas chambers of Treblinka.
The space around the museum already attracts huge numbers of visitors who pay homage to the ghetto fighters, many with candles or wreaths.
Multitudes come from Israel, where the uprising has long been nurtured as a symbol of national pride to counter the image of Jews meekly filing into the gas chambers. Many survivors of the uprising managed to reach Israel, which became a state three years after the war ended, and some of them founded their own kibbutz, called the Ghetto Fighters' Kibbutz.
"It makes me shiver to stand on this blood-soaked land," said Ori Horenstein, a 55-year- old lawyer from Tel Aviv who was visiting days before the anniversary. "But it makes me proud to see that there were a few who decided to go down as brave heroes."
Those fighters will be honored during next Friday's ceremonies, to be led by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
The big celebrity, however, will be Simha Rotem, born in 1924 and one of the very few remaining survivors of the uprising. Most were killed in the fighting, though a few dozen managed to escape the ghetto through sewage canals, with Rotem himself leading about 40 others out that way to the city's "Aryan" side.
The uprising broke out April 19, 1943, when about 750 young Jewish fighters armed with just pistols and other light arms attacked a German force more than three times its size. In their last testaments they said they knew they were doomed but wanted to die at a time and place of their own choosing.
In the end, the fighters held out nearly a month, longer than some German-invaded countries did.
As part of the new desire to celebrate Poland's Jewish past, organizers, led by the city of Warsaw, are making an unprecedented effort to get residents involved in four weeks of commemorative films, lectures, even a communal cleaning of the Jewish cemetery. They wrap up on May 16, the day in 1943 when the Nazis, having killed most of the fighters, celebrated their victory by blowing up the city's Great Synagogue, a jewel of 19th-century architecture.
To raise awareness of what the Jews suffered, hundreds of volunteers will go around the city handing out small paper daffodils for people to pin to their clothes as a sign of respect. On their website, organizers lament that the uprising, "which in the world is a symbol of the struggle for dignity, is little known in Warsaw" and say they want it to become "the common historical awareness of Poles and Jews."