Warsaw’s Path of Remembrance—a walk through the heart of what was once the city’s vibrant Jewish community. A walk through history as it memorializes the people who died fighting the Nazis in the Jewish Ghetto uprising of 1943.
It’s impossible not to know the story of the Holocaust, how Nazi Germany systematically killed millions of Jews during WWII. Many books and movies chronicle the horror of that time. But one of the books that made the deepest impact on me was not about the horrors of the concentration camps, but about the Jewish uprising in Warsaw, the story of Jews who fought back saying, “We’d rather die than let you slaughter us.”
I don’t know why this book, Mila 18 by Leon Uris, captured my attention so thoroughly. It might just have been the dashing, larger-than-life, Polish-Jewish army officer, Andrei Androfsky, who was a central character of the book.
But I got caught up in rooting for the underdog. I so wanted that handful of Jews, who were standing up to courageously face the evil of Nazi Germany, to win. And yet most were killed, with just a few escaping through the sewers of the city. In novels, the courageous fighters usually win. In real life, it doesn’t always happen that way.
The area that was once the bustling heart of Warsaw’s Jewish community of 350,000 people is now comprised of quiet, unassuming residential streets. As I walked the Path of Remembrance, the only activity seemed to be people walking their dogs or juggling shopping bags as they carried groceries from small neighborhood stores. It’s hard to believe this was once the center of so much human drama and tragedy.
Yet on each block were memorial markers for the heroes of the uprising. And at Mila 18, the location of the underground bunker where the Jewish resistance took their last desperate stand against the Nazis, there was a large memorial mound built from rubble of the once thriving community. Following the Jewish custom, I found a stone to place on the memorial, a symbol of remembrance.
The people I “knew” who died in the uprising were just characters in a book. But they represent real people who fought and died in the real uprising. “Knowing” them made my memorial walk through the old Jewish heart of Warsaw feel a bit more personal than merely experiencing this as a tourist, reading about a terrible, but faceless, tragedy.
Rest in peace, resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto.