The first two times I had visited Warsaw, I was underwhelmed by the sites dedicated to the murdered Jews. The former bunker at Mila 18, where Analewicz and his men had fought to the death, was just a mound. The Jewish cemetery was locked. The last remaining segment of the Warsaw ghetto wall was in an apartment courtyard where residents paid more attention to their laundry drying on lines. And as I stood before the powerful testament to the resistance fighters, a man sidled up beside me and allowed his dog to urinate on the steps that led up to the statue.
Besides the monument at the Umschlagplatz, which attracted zero visitors because it looked more like an unfinished building, there was little else to remind the Poles that they were largely culpable, denouncing my people to Nazis or just murdering Jews on their own. For the most part, Poland has not done much to accept their role in the Holocaust: education is limited, restitution is unheard of, and radical right wing politicians aim to enact laws to make criticism of Poland’s role during the war punishable with three years in prison.
The first time I had visited Warsaw in 2004, I issued no reproach to that man with the urinating dog because of what he had told me just after his dog shook himself done. He said that the people of Warsaw were celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising that evening. I was shocked and elated. For my entire life I had been told that the Poles did not care about the Jews. That they hated Jews. So to hear that they were now honoring my people’s uprising thrilled me. I was happy to be proved wrong.
Jewish Life in Warsaw?
Later that evening, when I joined the festivities, I learned quickly that there was quite a difference between the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising. The Warsaw Uprising honored the Poles who decided to fight back against the Nazis sixteen months after the Jewish ghetto uprising had been suppressed and the last remaining Jews were sent to the camps. The festivities were not held to honor my people.
I wanted to time travel. Not to kill Hitler or choke out the Polish policeman who murdered Grandma’s brother in the last weeks of war. At that angry moment, I couldn’t be bothered thinking that far back. I wanted to time-travel to punch the dog-walker in the face.
A Return to the Ghetto
On my most recent trip to the Polish capital, days before the weeklong Jewish culture festival that honors Isaac Bashevis Singer got underway, I noticed that a few things had changed. Most impressive, was POLIN, the Jewish museum in Warsaw. The focus is not supposed to be the Holocaust, as the museum wants to pay tribute to the Jewish life that was once so prosperous in Poland–despite the unyielding pogroms that preceded a near extinction. But the exhibit on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism felt most important in this place.
But prior to having that feeling, walking through the exhibit enraged me. The room that remembered the Polish-Jewish Brotherhood of the 1800s felt like the beginning of a state-sponsored propaganda tour. But I had misinterpreted it. I read about vicious attacks on Jews in old Polish newspapers and vitriol issued by powerful politicians. This sounded more familiar, more true.
One sign in the museum best summarized how the Poles behaved during the war:
“What was the attitude of Poles to the Jewish tragedy? Few chose to risk their lives and the lives of their families by trying to save Jews. Many were simply too preoccupied with everyday hardships of the occupation to concern themselves with the fate of Jews. Some Poles denounced Jews to the Germans or murdered them themselves.
“How did those on the Aryan side react to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? Some sympathised with Jews and admired their heroism. Most, however, were indifferent, while others made antisemitic comments.”
A Different Story
In the Warsaw Zoo, however, we find the story of two of those righteous gentiles. The house that stands past the cacophony of shrieking birds was once the home of the Zabinskis, for whom The Zookeeper’s Wife, both a book and newly released movie, is about.
When war broke out, the zoo was ruined: the Nazis had overrun the place, embarking on an inglorious urban safari and slaughtering the zoo’s animals. When they bombed the city much of the zoo’s infrastructure was destroyed, and whatever animals the Nazis did not murder, Zabinski was forced to kill, as he could no longer contain them.
Sans animals, the Zabinskis still lived at the zoo. When a Jewish friend and celebrated entomologist, Tennenbaum, asked the zookeeper to care for his hundreds of cases of insects while he was imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, Zabinski agreed.
With all the empty space, Zabinski also sheltered Polish partisans in the animals’ former habitats. Then, a Wehrmacht soldier, who happened to be an entomologist too, met Tennenbaum. He asked Zabinski to hide the famed entomologist. When Zabinski agreed, he received permits for himself and Tennenbaum to travel into and out of the Warsaw ghetto. But Tennenbaum, having discovered new species of bugs in the ghetto, could not abandon his latest discovery. Tennenbaum’s permit, however, did not state his name, so Zabinksi used the open permit to rescue other Jews, repeating this trip time and time again.
The zookeeper’s house, named the Crazy Star Villa, is one of the few buildings in Warsaw to survive the war. Featured at the house are secret exits from the basement, as well as Tennenbaum’s displayed bugs. Zabinski’s study, with a white tiger rug and an ashtray that supported his endless habit, is filled with artifacts, including myriad books on science and nature, and his desk, where the permits for travel through Warsaw are displayed. In the neighboring saloon stands the replica piano that Ms. Zabinski played to warn the partisans and Jews hiding in their zoo. (Visitors to the zoo can enter the Crazy Star Villa by appointment only. Contact: Janusz Owsiany at firstname.lastname@example.org)
It Feels Wrong
That evening, back in the ghetto where my grandparents once starved, and where many Jews died from disease and hunger, I went to a fine restaurant on Ulica Prozna called Kieliszki na Proznej. It stood across from one of the only buildings to have survived the war, on a street that, at one point, had been part of the Warsaw Ghetto.
This fact troubled me. One of the reasons I had returned to Poland was to write a story about the neighborhood beside concentration camp Majdanek. On my first visit to that camp, years earlier, I had stood in the camp, and while most couldn’t comprehend how 18,000 Jews were gunned to death in the field beside Majdanek on a day in November, I couldn’t wrap my head around the proximity of the neighboring village. The village had been built two stone’s throws from the gas chamber. I had watched a man on his balcony take a drag from his cigarette. I could see the curl of smoke. For a long time I struggled with the idea that people could live with their homes facing concentration camp Majdanek. How could they sit on their terraces on a summer morning and enjoy the newspaper or a cup of coffee? How could normalcy return to a place like this? But if you refused to eat where the Jews were murdered, you’d have to take all your meals in a neighboring country, or a neighboring continent.
The restaurant in Warsaw had been part of my grandparents’ prison and home. The waiter flicked open my napkin and poured me a wine that he said paired best with the first course. I noticed that the brick walls on the ground floor of the restaurant were old. I excused myself from the steak tartare dolloped with a quail’s egg and descended into the basement where it was cool and dank and the exposed brick crumbled with age. At one point, without a doubt, this basement had been home to Jews living in the ghetto. It was hard to return to the table. The new wines and incredible foods gave me guilt.
I remembered Grandma’s story about how her father had brought in a small package into the ghetto. It contained horse meat. Even in the context of dying, the thought of eating it disgusted her.
At this swanky place, it was probably on the menu. The cake came with basil ice cream and crumble, as well as a sense of history, a sense of progress, and a sense of compunction.
After the dinner, I went to the site where the bridge, which ran above the Polish streets, had connected the two ghettos during the early 1940s. Today, an artistic sculpture spans the avenue. While it wasn’t illuminated the night that I had visited, a young Polish couple, on a date perhaps, stopped at one of the light bridge’s columns to peer into what looked like a coin-operated binocular, which one finds at tourist lookouts. Inside the viewfinder were images from that past. The photos were fuzzy and dark and without context. Did the lovers understand?
I looked at where the lights should have been–where the bridge had been–and wondered if my grandparents had ever marched across this avenue, forced to look down at the free world beneath them. The world that didn’t want them. Ever. Not during the war. Not centuries before. And now? Who knew?
The couple kissed without a care in this new Warsaw.
If you’re interested in my grandparents’ stories, pick up a copy of my book about their lives, A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets.