- Can You Tell Me How to Get to the Warsaw Ghetto?
"An enormous cap of dark grey smoke above the Extinct City in the Capital maintains, with the weight of its material, the reality of the fiction that is the emptiness: the City in the City, the City that no longer is."—Stanisław Śreniowski, a Jewish historian living in hiding on the "Aryan" side, recalling the Ghetto Uprising1
In the courtyard behind the apartment building at 55 Sienna Street, one can still visit a rare fragment of the wall that, for a brief period between November 1940 and October 1941, marked the southern boundary of the Warsaw Ghetto. Though situated just northwest of the Central Train Station, in the heart of the Polish capital's downtown, it is remarkably hard to find. To approach its east side, you have to be buzzed through a gate by a guard who, though unseen, is apparently keeping watch for visitors, who are invariably checking a map or guidebook against the addresses on the adjacent buildings, certain that if they were in the right place there would be a sign to direct them to a site of such importance. There is not. The momentary puzzlement is interrupted by the rattle of the electric lock and the reflexive desire to push the gate. Against an otherwise unremarkable red brick wall, a dusky plaque shows the contours of the Ghetto and locates this modest section of wall (fig. 1). It turns out that we are still outside the Ghetto.
The approach from the western side is more interesting, but more challenging. You have to be lucky enough to find one of the apartment entryways open in order to pass through to the inner
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courtyard, the perspective from inside the Ghetto. Should you do so, you will also see a space where two bricks have been removed (fig. 2). A small hexagonal plaque, dated August 1989, informs the visitor in Polish and English: "A casting and two original bricks of this wall erected by the Nazis to enclose the Warsaw Ghetto were taken to the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington to give authentic power to its permanent collection." An empty space once occupied by the missing bricks stares out from the middle of the wall.
However we relate individually to such material anchors of collective memory, it is clear from this example that even the most undistinguished object can attain tremendous signifying power under the right circumstances. In this case, those circumstances are not limited to the historical catastrophe of the Ghetto's brief and tragic life, which saw nearly half a million civilians crammed into an urban zone of about 1.3 square miles—roughly four times the population density of the most overcrowded cities in the world today—before the first, utterly hopeless armed rebellion of Jews against the Nazis in April and May 1943.2 More important from our contemporary vantage point is that the story of the Ghetto also encompasses the near-total annihilation of architectural traces of its ever having existed. "The place where the Ghetto used to be is empty," Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak write in their epilogue to the most comprehensive collation of information about the Ghetto published to date: "The place survived, but was somehow hollowed out, deprived of contents, an interior. The Ghetto that was here was exterminated, but the 'here' remains. … The framework remains within which a different reality is located; a topographical point remains, a cartographical abstraction."3
In this regard, the outline of space around the missing bricks may be more emblematic of the Ghetto as we now experience it than the modest section of wall itself. It suggests an economy of presence and absence, of authentic artifact and simulated space, that is central to the modern experience of the past in population centers, where we witness most readily the conflict between architectural preservation, with its roots in nineteenth-century industrialization...