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Dr. Catherine Chatterley

Mila 18 Memorial

Monument for the Fallen and Murdered in the East


Dr. Catherine Chatterley: Thoughts on a Visit to Warsaw

written October 26 and posted November 13, 2012

Warsaw can be a challenging place to visit, particularly when your conference hotel sits at the corner of Muranowska and Stawski Streets, on the border of the former Nazi ghetto.


The ghetto was completely destroyed by the Germans in May 1943 after the uprising so everything in the Muranow district with the exception of two buildings is postwar construction. One walks among rather ugly apartment buildings, all of which are spray painted with graffiti along the first floor apartments, and lots of small cars parked up on sidewalks, looking for the small ghetto memorials on the map of the city. Many of the memorials are unmarked on the ground and are hard to find.

I have always sensed a distinct detachment between the Poles and the events of the Holocaust, which they understand as a German process of destruction that took place on Polish soil. Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah makes this apparent in scene after scene of interviews with Poles about their former Jewish neighbors. This was confirmed for me again in Warsaw. The people of the Muranow walk around these sites as if they are trees or benches—simply part of the scenery. There was neither interest nor hostility, just a distinct feeling of disconnection. They take little notice of the Jews visiting these sites, many of which are loaded with yahrzeit candles, stones, and the odd wreath. The Mila 18 memorial is obviously of great significance to many people because it is literally covered in these symbols of memory and deep connection.


The most disturbing place to visit is the Umschlagplatz Memorial on Stawski Street, which was the ghetto loading area for the more than 300,000 Jews deported to Treblinka between July and September 1942. One feels a need to look at a photo of the actual Umschlagplatz to bring some sense of historical reality to the place. The memorial is built right on the edge of the busy street beside the tracks used by streetcars today. The old Gestapo building, one of two original structures in existence, is across the street and now houses a psychiatric hospital.


The formal memorial complex is the site of the new Museum for the History of Polish Jews and the famous Ghetto Fighter’s Memorial. Behind this is a communist-era memorial (Kniefall von Warschau or Warsaw Genuflection) to Willy Brandt, the West German Chancellor who in 1970 knelt at the Fighter’s Memorial in a spontaneous display of remorse and wiedergutmachung (reparation).


The boundaries of the ghetto are marked in concrete under your feet throughout the Muranow district. There is only one piece of the original ghetto wall left standing and, believe it or not, it is viewed from inside someone’s back yard.


Across from the Ibis hotel in the middle of Muranowska Street is the Monument for the Fallen and Murdered in the East, an extremely imposing and disturbing memorial to the Polish victims of the Gulag system beginning in 1939. The names of Eastern Polish cities are listed on a train track that leads to an open compartment filled with metal crosses—both Catholic and Orthodox. The crosses represent the Polish nation under the USSR, an image Poles have often used to depict their (Christ-like) suffering as a nation. The problem of course is that Jews were also deported to these camps in large numbers. If you look really hard you can find one round gravestone with a Magen David on it amongst the crosses.


Like many of the former Eastern Bloc states, Poland is working to establish itself as a proud, stable European democracy that respects diversity and protects its minorities. Ironically, today’s Poland is the most homogenous state in its long history, but one can see that the process of diversification is not easy. There is no question that in Poland, and in neighboring states, the memory of communism and the crimes of the Soviet Union resonate far more powerfully than those of Nazism. However politically contrived, the crimes of the fascists have been acknowledged and memorialized since the war but not those of the Soviet Union. This history is now being reckoned with and there are many challenges involved.


There are two memory cultures--Nazism and Communism--in this part of the world and they are often in competition and conflict with one another. It is also important to know that the specific targetting of Jews by the Nazi regime is not part of the way the East understands World War II, as is the case in Western Europe and North America. In this part of the world, the people have been taught that the primary victims of the Nazis were the peoples of Eastern Europe and those on the left.


While Poland is definitely in the European sphere, traces of the communist experience are everywhere. For example, the Ibis hotel menu promoted their selections by suggesting that customers “eat greedily.” The bar at the Chopin Airport designed to cater to professionals was called “Business Shark,” complete with an aggressive looking shark on their neon sign. Face and hand towels, paper napkins and kleenex are obviously still considered luxuries in some places. And I cannot recall ever having instant coffee at a conference.

For a country that has been wiped off the map, carved up and occupied, so many times in its history, Poland is a bit of a miracle today. It is important to remember that over 85% of the city of Warsaw was destroyed by the end of World War II. The old town was rebuilt during the 1950s and made to look over 700 years old. It is quite exceptional and one cannot help recognizing and appreciating the resiliency of the people in this region.


As you leave through the gate of the old town you will find a number of people selling chachkas. Among the woodcarvings you find a variety of characters, including, unfortunately, “Goldman.” The example I bought (to show to my students) is plastic and mass produced for the tourist market. Not only is “Goldman” a Hasidic moneylender of some kind but he is wearing a Dracula-inspired caftan that gives him a distinctly demonic appearance. So, unfortunately, as much as things change they also apparently stay the same. In so many ways, Poland remains a work in progress.


* * * * * *


[Editor's note: Dr. Chatterley's description of Poles feeling disconnected with their surroundings vis- a- vis the Holocaust reminded me of the jarring feeling I had in visiting Frankfurt in January 2011, where the largest synagogue was destroyed on Kristallnacht, in an area that is called the Borneplatz. This is where the oldest Jewish cemetery in Germany is and the cemetery walls have been made into a memorial where 11000 blocks are set into the cemetery walls inscribed with the names of Frankfurt Jews who were deported and murdered--virtually the entire Jewish community of Frankfurt perished in the Shoah.


There is an apartment building right next to one part of the Borneplatz plaza. The residents of this apartment building are able to see the visitors to the cemetery silently walking the area with cameras, or quietly putting stones and candles on the little blocks or reading the names of those murdered to themselves, as I did. There I stopped to watch a German woman standing on her balcony overlooking the Jewish cemetery and this huge memorial space. She watered and tended to her plants casually one by one. Her balcony overlooking such a scene of horror and destruction is where this woman goes to get fresh air, tranquility and relaxation. It left me with a chill down my spine.

The feeling of disconnectedness also emerged when I was in the Judengasse Museum, next to the Borneplatz, where excavations have uncovered the remains of the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt.

The museum staff were all non-Jewish, hired by the Frankfurt municipality. None of them spoke English when I was there, and when I tried to ask them anything, they just shrugged their shoulders and didn't try to help at all. I sensed it was just a nine to five job, and they had little interest in learning about the exhibits in the museum.

To get inside the walls of the cemetery, you had to ask for the one available key which would be given to you only if you left your passport with this Museum clerk who seemed entirely bored and uninterested. He motioned with one hand in the general direction of where to go to unlock the gate to the cemetery --but wouldn't take one step to help me find the gate. I managed to find it by asking a couple of other tourists, and not with any help from him. I had this sick sensation when he asked for my passport--and asked him repeatedly if he would still be there when I got back (I really had no desire to leave him my passport, and think that this condition results in relatively few people bothering to ask to get the key to go inside the cemetery).

When I asked the Museum clerk if there was any English speaker with whom I could speak, who could explain to me some of what I was seeing, the clerk mumbled something to the effect that yes there was one elderly Jewish man who could explain things to me in English but this man wasn't around and the clerk didn't know when or if he'd be back that day or the next.]


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