Reviewing a new Polish documentary about the Warsaw Ghetto, titled Warsaw: A City Divided, Rokhl Kafrissen reflects on the lessons of a film she terms “remarkable”:
The ghetto was officially justified by the Nazis as a “public-health” measure, serving, they said, to protect the population from “disease-carrying Jews.” The exact placement of the walls was subject to haggling with city administrators who worried about things like traffic problems. It’s odd to think about traffic patterns in relation to the murder of Jews, but it reminds us that genocide was built on thousands of acts of seemingly mundane bureaucracy.
The Warsaw Ghetto was the first and largest ghetto established by the Nazis. After the Germans finally crushed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising [in 1943], the ghetto was methodically razed, its building-by-building destruction meticulously documented by Nazi photographers and architects. Before the war, Warsaw had been the second-largest Jewish community in the world. At the end of the war, only a handful of its Jews were left alive. Today, only a few scattered pieces of the ghetto walls that imprisoned them still stand, including fragments between properties as well as the sections of the wall that were part of buildings.
Unlike Auschwitz or Dachau, the Warsaw Ghetto cannot be visited in any meaningful way. And yet, the ghetto looms large in Holocaust memory. The uprising there in 1943 is still the most famous act of Jewish resistance.
In addition to the newly discovered footage, [the film’s] writer and director, Eric Bednarski, uses a mix of archival documents, architectural plans, and, most movingly, eyewitness testimony. Irena Agata Boldok is a Jewish Warsaw resident who spent two years within the ghetto before escaping to the Aryan side. Bednarski films her in front of one of the most famous wall fragments, at Sienna Street, where a plaque commemorates the horrific events that took place inside the ghetto walls. “This was a street I was scared of, and I still am to this day. I’ve never walked this street without feeling afraid.” Boldok describes how after the war she returned, over and over, to this fragment, hoping to find the hole through which she and her mother had escaped. It’s a quietly devastating moment.