The War­saw Ghet­to: A Guide to the Per­ished City

Bar­bara Engelk­ing and Jacek Leo­ci­ak; Emma Har­ris, trans.
  • Review
By – October 3, 2011

The War­saw Ghet­to, like much of the Holo­caust land­scape, no longer exists. It was destroyed in May 1943 as the Nazis bru­tal­ly quelled the ghet­to resis­tance. There are still frag­ments of its walls and cob­ble­stones, but the essence of the ghet­to, the doomed sealed dis­trict of War­saw that con­tained at its height almost 500,000 Jews, is cov­ered over by earth, asphalt, new build­ings and lay­ers of indif­fer­ence and ignorance.

In this ency­clo­pe­dic and impres­sive work, the Pol­ish authors, one a psy­chol­o­gist and the oth­er a schol­ar in lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture stud­ies, achieve some­thing mon­u­men­tal. They recon­struct the his­to­ry, the life and death of a city that no longer exists. If we want to see and feel that lost world that stood from Novem­ber 1940 until mid-May 1943, the authors believe we have to dig it out almost lit­er­al­ly but cer­tain­ly con­cep­tu­al­ly from under lay­ers of indif­fer­ence and intel­lec­tu­al amne­sia. And the sto­ry must be con­struct­ed from the mul­ti­ple and nuanced per­spec­tives of the vic­tims, from the inside out. The Guide is there­fore based on many indi­vid­ual tes­ti­monies, sources, and doc­u­ments. The book attempts to recon­struct the topog­ra­phy and set­ting of the ghet­to expe­ri­ence — to cap­ture the details of every­day life and as far as pos­si­ble to con­vey the atmos­phere of the ghet­to, the shift­ing mood and pulse of a sealed city under extreme duress. In this work the pri­vate expe­ri­ences of ghet­to res­i­dents are inter­twined with the over­all plan from the view­point of the offi­cial com­mu­ni­ty and the his­to­ry of the exter­mi­na­tion as it is imple­ment­ed by the Nazis. 

The book is very rich in detail. It seems as if the authors are reluc­tant to leave any­thing out lest they pre­vent the vic­tims from find­ing a locus in mem­o­ry. In fact, the only place the inhab­i­tants of the ghet­to can still be found— along with their apart­ments, the streets they lived on, the places they played, worked and prayed in, and their suf­fer­ing and deaths — is a place in our mem­o­ry. The Guide, there­fore, encom­pass­es a wide range of top­ics from food sup­ply to edu­ca­tion, reli­gious activ­i­ties to cul­tur­al life, social wel­fare to the econ­o­my. Indi­vid­ual chap­ters deal with the Juden­rat, the Jew­ish police, smug­gling, the Ringel­blum archive, depor­ta­tions to Tre­blin­ka in July 1942, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of escape, and the famous upris­ing in April 1943. It also offers detailed orig­i­nal maps that iden­ti­fy the loca­tions of busi­ness­es, social insti­tu­tions like the Janusz Kor­czak orphan­ages, med­ical facil­i­ties, impor­tant streets and the like. 

This is not an easy book to read, and it is not for every­one. But if the read­er is will­ing they will meet with­in its pages the shad­ows of Warsaw’s Jews. It offers us the extra­or­di­nary oppor­tu­ni­ty to jour­ney back through his­tor­i­cal time and place to expe­ri­ence just a small bit of what it was like through his­tor­i­cal recon­struc­tion. The Jews are gone but behind the screen of the hous­es and streets of today’s Muranów, their hid­den pres­ence will make itself felt.” The authors are to be applauded.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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