Discovering the Beauty and Culture of Jewish life in Warsaw
Visiting Poland for the first time is an amazing experience and should be at the top of most people’s lists when thinking about a European vacation and a Jewish Heritage Tour.
World Heritage sites designated by UNESCO preserve cultural and historical artifacts of Poland’s past. These sites make great destinations for travelers to this country, which I will describe later on in this article. There’s also a growing appreciation of the rich Jewish heritage. You can trace the history at your own pace, even beyond the deeply affecting Holocaust memorials, synagogues that are being sensitively restored, and former Jewish centers.
After travelling around Poland, I realized something: Warsaw is different. Rather than being centered on an old market square, the capital is spread across a broad area consisting of a diverse architecture, which shows restored Gothic, communist concrete, modern glass and steel.
This medley is a sign of the city’s tumultuous past. Warsaw has suffered the worst of what history could provide, including virtual destruction at the end of World War II – and survived. As a result, it’s a fascinating accumulation of neighborhoods and landmarks. Excellent museums interpret its complex history, whether it’s the joys of Chopin’s music, the Polin Museum of Jewish History, or the tragedy of the Jewish ghetto.
My first visit was to the Palace of Culture & Science, which is my top choice for historical buildings in Warsaw. This building, a gift to Warsaw from Joseph Stalin, is a huge complex, and at 231m high, remains the tallest building in Poland. Love it or hate it, every visitor to Warsaw should visit this iconic, socialist realist PKiN (as its full Polish name is abbreviated).It’s home to a huge congress hall, theatres, a multiscreen cinema and museums. It reminded me of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, and I later found that the Russian architect had lived and worked in Chicago for many years before returning to Russia. Take the high-speed lift to the observation deck on the 30th floor (at 115m) to take it all in. The views are awesome and a great place to take photographs. Well worth a visit. And it provides amazing views over Warsaw!
Next, I took a walk around the Old Town. You will be surrounded by beautiful seventeenth- and eighteenth century merchants’ houses, and a lively square, which is filled with street vendors, cafes, shops, galleries and some of Warsaw’s top restaurants. It’s a special place to watch and wander. All of the buildings around the square are reconstructed based upon paintings of the area. However, the most fascinating thing to see was how much effort had been put into re-building the square to look as it did before WWII. This gives it a feeling of history, albeit sometimes with a Disney-esque feel to it. Don’t miss it!
A must-see is the Lazienki Royal Park, a Magnificent palatial and garden complex that was built by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski during the second half of the eighteenth century and features the neoclassical Palace on the Water (Lazienki Palace) surrounded by magnificent gardens, canals and ponds. The gardens are stunning and there are stacks of wildlife including peacocks and red squirrels that will actually come and eat out of your hand. The monument to Chopin was magnificent. Enjoy a free Chopin concert here, held every summer Sunday at 4p.m. The best park in Warsaw. Stunning and Breathtaking!
A stop at The Umschlagplatz is a must. This is where the Nazis established a holding depot for hundreds of thousands of Jews, next to a railway station, for deportation to the death camps. The monument symbolizing an open railway car was erected in 1988 close to the forty-fifth anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising. It has four memorial plaques that state in four languages the awful fate of so many. Carved on the stonework are the first names of the four hundred most prevalent Jewish-Polish names, each honoring 1000 victims. A Beautiful Memorial in the Jewish Ghetto. Moving and must be visited.
One of the highlights of my visit to Warsaw was The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
This is the first and only museum dedicated to restoring the memory of the civilization created by Polish Jews in the course of a millennium. The Museum’s building faces the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw and it completes the memorial complex. At the monument, they honor those who perished by remembering how they died. At the museum, they honor them, and those who came before and after, by remembering how they lived. The Museum’s core exhibition is a journey through the 1000-year history of Polish Jews. You will automatically immerse yourself in the story. You will encounter those who lived in each period – their words are quoted throughout the exhibition. You will enter the scene – a salon, tavern, home, church, synagogue, or schoolroom. There are surprises in drawers, which you can open, screens and objects you can touch, and much else that you can see: Artifacts, photographs, documents, and films.
It takes a lot of skill to present such massive documentation, covering a millennium of history, in a format that keeps the visitor engaged for hours on end, and Ms. Agnieszka Biesiadecka , a licensed guide and tour leader (in English, French and Polish) did exactly that at the museum.
Each visit to the museum will be different. There will always be something new for inspiration. As a side note, there is a great children’s area that offers activities and supervision for young children. There is also a great kosher coffee bar and restaurant and a bookstore, as well as a family research center (for people hoping to find information on ancestors or relatives).
It is a must- visit in order to understand the 1000 years of the Jewish life. It’s beautiful, informative, thought- provoking, and powerful. Simply, a great museum! It’s one of the best history museums in the world that copes very delicately with some of the most sensitive issues of Jewish history. You will find everything you ever wanted to know about Jews in Poland, right here at this museum. Definitely a must- see and not to be missed.
I can also recommend the Soho Factory; a fairly new place on the Warsaw’s cultural map, but a pretty important one at the same time. That’s where the famous Neon Museum is located, where you will find some of the best restaurants, as well as design shops. This is the place to be! The Neon Museum is not your typical museum, but a small hidden gem, and phenomenal in its content. You will see unique neon pieces that you will not find anywhere else. It is awesome, stunning and meaningful!
Then, if you would like to chill out, visit the Vistulla Boulevards. This is a great place to enjoy the sun by the river bank and watch a stunning sunset with Warsaw’s skyline in full sight. Many locals meet here for an after-work beer or a leisurely picnic. Great place for families, friends etc.
Another highlight was my visit of the Villa Zabinskich, which is now a Hollywood movie called “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, directed by Niki Caro. It has opened in Polish cinemas and has been rolling out internationally. It is based on actual events, and stars the incredible Golden Globe-winner Jessica Chastain.
Jan and Antonia Zabinski, former Warsaw zookeeper and his wife, saved the lifes of dozens of Jews through various methods, including hiding Jews in animal enclosures. Many cages in the zoo had been emptied of animals during the September 1939 air assault on Warsaw. Żabiński decided to utilize them as hiding places for fleeing Jews. Over the course of three years, hundreds of Jews found temporary shelter in these abandoned cages on the eastern bank of the Vistula River until finding refuge elsewhere. In addition, close to a dozen Jews were sheltered in Żabiński’s two-story private home on the zoo’s grounds. In this dangerous undertaking he was helped by his wife, Antonia, a recognized author, and their young son, Ryszard, who nourished and looked after the needs of the many distraught Jews in their care.
Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance centre later recognized the Zabinskis as Righteous Among the Nations, a title bestowed upon non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust.
Last, but not least – the Beauty of the Nyzek Synagogue: The synagogue itself is a living, breathing piece of history, being that it’s the only synagogue in Warsaw that survived the war and is still functioning as a daily place of worship. This small Synagogue is hidden away, surrounded by Soviet-built apartment blocks, and it was built between the years 1898-1902, and designed by an unnamed architect in the Romanesque style with Byzantine and Moorish ornamentation. There is a male section on the ground floor, and the female section on the mezzanine can accommodate up to 600 people.
The building was the only one out of 400 synagogues, which survived the demolition of the city during WWII. At present, Nożyk Synagogue is the main place for gatherings and prayers for the Jews in Warsaw. A Mikveh – ritual bath – is located in its basement. During the summer, they have prayers at around 07:15 for Shavrit and around 20:30 for Mincha/Ma’ariv. You can e-mail or call to get the specific times. It’s a small synagogue in an area of skyscrapers and truly is a hidden gem!! A beautiful synagogue and a living memorial for Poland’s Jewry.
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide
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To plan a trip to Poland, contact the Polish National Tourist Office North America or log on to:https://www.poland.travel/en