Before the Second World War, Warsaw was one of the world’s most important Jewish cities. It also played an important part in the story of many of the Boys families.
It was home to 26 of the members of the Boys, who were born in the city, but far more members of the Boys found themselves in the Warsaw ghetto, among them Pinchas Gutter from Lodz and Sam Freiman, who was born in the nearby village of Jeziorna.
Jews, who lived in the surrounding villages, were forcibly moved into the ghetto and many families fled to the capital during the German invasion.
Around 7,000 Jews from Kalisz were transported to the Warsaw ghetto, most of whom died in the gas chambers of the Treblinka and Birkenau concentration and extermination camps. Jews were also transferred to the Warsaw ghetto from Bedzin and 2,000 Jews from Wiskitki were resettled to the Warsaw ghetto.
Many of the Boys’ families were also in the Warsaw ghetto.
Jews first lived in Warsaw in the 14th century but were forbidden to live in the city from 1527 to 1768. After the third partition of Poland in 1795, Warsaw was part of the Russian empire and Jews from further east flooded into the city.
The Polish capital was an important centre for both Jewish religious and secular life. All social classes and political persuasions were represented in the community.
As the war approached, however, life became increasingly difficult for the city’s Jews as Jewish shops were boycotted and antisemtic legislation was introduced.
The Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and laid siege to Warsaw, which finally capitulated on 29 September. Persecution of the Jews began immediately.
LIFE IN THE GHETTO
In November 1940, the Germans established a ghetto in Warsaw in the district of Muranow. It was the largest ghetto in occupied Poland and at its height 460,000 Jews were imprisoned there.
It is estimated that 92,000 people died of starvation in the ghetto.
A lot is known about conditions in the ghetto as Emanuel Ringelblum, an intellectual and social activist, kept an account of daily life, which he buried before he was murdered by the Nazis in 1944. From the files we have evidence of the soup kitchens and charities that existed, of the musical concerts and cabarets and the fifty or so underground newspapers that were produced.
Deportations to the Treblinka extermination camp began on 23 July 1942. As many as 270,000 of the ghettos residents were murdered there in the two months that followed.
When deportations resumed in January 1943, a resistance movement came into being in the ghetto.
When the liquidation of the ghetto began on 19 April 1943, the Germans encountered an massive and unexpected resistance. It was the first large scale act of resistance by any civilian population in occupied Europe.
The ghetto was completely demolished in May 1943 and a number of the members of the Boys were brought to Warsaw from labour camps to sort through and level the ruins.
The Uprising is regarded as the symbol of Jewish resistance and is often mistakenly cited as an exception. Jewish resistance was far more common than is widely believed and the Jewish underground fought back against the Germans in numerous ghettos and even in the concentration and extermination camps.
Even the children selected for the gas chamber in the children’s round up in Auschwitz, during the Jewish holidays in autumn 1944, resisted violently.
About 2,000 Jews were liberated in Warsaw and by the end of 1945, 5,000 Jews settled in the city. The population doubled when Jews who survived the war in Russia returned to the capital.
The city became the seat of the Central Committee of Polish Jews and a number of Jewish cultural institutions were opened in 1949.
The community immediately set about raising money to build a monument to commemorate the uprising which had already been designed by Nathan Rapoport while in exile in the Soviet Union. It was unveiled in 1948.
Antisemitism and communist persecution drove many Jewish survivors out of Poland in the post-war period. The first group left after the Kielce pogrom in July 1946, others left in the late 1950s and after the anti-Zionist campaign of the 1960s.
About 2,000 Jews live in Warsaw today, although the figure is probably far higher as many of the Jews who live in the city are secular and come from families that hid their Jewish identity under communism.
The Nozyk Synagogue survived the war and is once again used as an active synagogue and is the centre of religious life in Warsaw. There is also a community centre where secular Jews meet.
The state of the art Polin Museum stands opposite the Ghetto Memorial and is a celebration of Polish Jewish culture.
The best preserved fragments of the ghetto wall are located 55 Sienna Street, 62 Złota Street, and 11 Waliców Street.