Great Synagogue of Warsaw ‘reappears’ on ghetto uprising anniversary

Great Synagogue of Warsaw reappears as it is beamed onto glass building at site where it was destroyed by the Nazis as they crushed ghetto uprising 76 years ago

  • Great Synagogue was built in Jewish district of Warsaw between 1875 and 1878  
  • It formed part of the Warsaw Ghetto created under Nazi occupation in 1940 
  • When Nazis destroyed the ghetto in 1943 during the uprising, it was blown up
  • Artist recreated the building using projectors on the site where it once stood 

The Great Synagogue of Warsaw ‘reappeared’ in the Polish capital on Thursday, 76 years after it was destroyed by the Nazis during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Artist Gabi von Seltmann used projectors to recreate the place of worship against the facade of the modern building which now stands in its place. 

Recordings of the synagogue’s cantor Gerszon Sirota, who died in the ghetto, were used to recreate the sounds of Jewish Warsaw.

The Great Synagogue of Warsaw was recreated virtually with light as part of anniversary commemorations of the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto

The Great Synagogue formed part of the old Jewish district of Warsaw, where Jews once made up a third of the population, before it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943

The light-and-sound show, taking place for the second year, was designed to remind Poles of a history which has now largely disappeared from the city.  

Seltmann said she wants Polish society to remember the large Jewish community that was once an integral part of a multicultural country. 

It was organized by Open Republic, a group that fights anti-Semitism.

‘Awaking memory in Poland to me also means to teach empathy, because when there is empathy there is no fear anymore,’ von Seltmann said.

The Warsaw Uprising was the largest revolt by Jews against their Nazi oppressors during World War II. It began in April 1943 and lasted until the following month.

Jewish prisoners inside the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest in Europe, fought back after Hitler’s troops began deporting people to death camps starting in summer 1942. 

Over the course of just a few months more than 250,000 Jews were sent to the death camp at Treblinka under the guise of being resettled in the east of the country.

At its peak the ghetto had contained around 400,000 Jews. between 90,000 and 100,000 are thought to have died from disease and starvation. 

The synagogue was built between 1875 and 1878 and was opened in September that year to coincide with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year

The synagogue was a place of worship for followers of moderate Reform Judaism, with Polish – not Hebrew – the language of services

Following the mass deportations, the remaining Jews began to build bunkers inside the ghetto and smuggle weapons inside with a plan of resisting Nazi forces. 

On April 19, 1943, as the Nazis tried to remove the final Jewish population to extermination camps at Majdanek and Treblinka, the uprising began.

Faced with an armed revolt, commander Jürgen Stroop ordered the ghetto to be burned block by block, killing an estimated 13,000 Jews along the way, with about half of them burned alive or suffocated.

In their last testaments, the fighters said they knew they were doomed but wanted to die at a time and place of their own choosing. 

They held out nearly a month, longer than some German-invaded countries did. 

By mid-May the ghetto had been completely destroyed, with Stroop recording in his field report on May 16: ‘180 Jews, bandits and sub-humans, were destroyed. The former Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no longer in existence. 

Warsaw was occupied by the Nazis in 1939 and in 1940 the constructed the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest in Europe, where 400,000 Jews were imprisoned within an area of 1.3 square miles

Around 90,000 Jews are thought to have died from starvation or disease inside the ghetto before the Nazis began deporting people to death camps in the summer of 1942

‘The large-scale action was terminated at 20:15 hours by blowing up the Warsaw synagogue.’

Despite the Germans suffering just 130 casualties, the revolt marked the single largest uprising by Jewish people against the Nazis during the war. 

To this day, the Jewish revolt endures as a powerful symbol of resistance central to Israeli national identity. 

Jews began arriving in Poland more than 1,000 years ago after travelling there along trading routes, and established their first permanent settlement in 1085 in the town of Przemyśl.

Encouraged to emigrate by tolerant rulers and bills that guaranteed them rights to land and businesses, Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in the world by the 16th century.

As Jews were expelled from many other countries in Europe – including Spain, Germany Austria and Hungary – they came to settle in Poland.

In spring 1943, as the Nazis tried to deport the last Jews to the death camps, the Warsaw Uprising began. In order to suppress the revolt, the Nazis burned the ghetto to the ground

Despite being vastly out-manned and out-gunned, the Jewish rebels managed to hold out against the Nazis for a month – longer than some countries that Hitler invaded

Diary entries from the Jewish fighters reveal that they knew they were doomed, but had made the choice to ‘die at a time and place of our choosing’

The Great Synagogue in Warsaw was built between 1875 and 1878 in the district where Jews had been allowed to settle by Russian Imperial authorities.

It was opened on 26 September 1878 during the celebration of Rosh Hashanah – Jewish New Year.

It was a place of worship for followers of moderate Reform Judaism, with Polish – not Hebrew – the language of services. 

The use of choral and organ music marked another break from Orthodox tradition. It was the largest synagogue in a city where a third of the population was Jewish.  

The synagogue ‘re-creation’ was just one event planned in Warsaw to mark the anniversary of the uprising with many other observances throughout Friday.

This year the ‘re-creation’ took place the night before so as not to interfere with the Jewish Sabbath and the holiday of Passover beginning Friday evening.

Von Seltmann’s grandfather was a Polish school director killed at Auschwitz along with many other members of the Polish intelligentsia. 

Her husband, whose last name she has taken, is the grandson of one of the SS officers who inflicted atrocities on occupied Poland. 

The couple have written and spoken publicly about their own love story, framing it as a story of generational reconciliation.

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