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From Żydowska street to Umschlagplatz (3)

Jacek Leociak

     It would seem that in their path through Warsaw, the Jews inevitably made their way toward a place of their own, and it slowly emerged from the cityscape to await their arrival among the murmur of brooks and in the shade of gardens.

Ciepła str., 1941     The site of the future Jewish district was found between the Lubomirskie Ramparts from 1770, which marked the official city boundaries at the end of the 18th century (they ran along today's Polna, Towarowa and Okopowa streets, through the site of Gdański Station toward the Citadel), and the Zygmuntowskie Ramparts from 1621-24, which marked the urban extent of Warsaw in the 17th century. The north part of the Zygmuntowskie Ramparts ran in a curve along the Nalewki stream. They more or less cut the later Franciszkańska Street in half (at the intersection with Bonifraterska), leaving the street's western end outside. It was here that Józef Szymon Bellotti, the royal architect, built his palace in 1686. It was called "Murano" after the Venetian island from whence Belloti came. The palace later lent its name to the Muranów district, where just before the outbreak of World War II upwards of 90 percent of the Jewish population lived and where the Nazis created the ghetto. The Venetian origins of the name Muranów is a bitter irony of history in this context, because it was in Venice that the word "ghetto" was used for the first time, in 1516.

Nalewki str., 1934     The north side of this area was the village of Polkowo (also Polikowo or Pólków), known since the 14th century and situated between the Drna and Bełcząca brooks. There were water mills and fish ponds there and wonderful gardens, a place for strolls and entertainment for the residents of the capital. It was here that the Żoliborz district was born. To the west lay the farming area of Wielka Wola, the Drna brook flowing in a curve toward the Vistula River, and the Election Fields, where new kings were chosen by the nobility. It was not far from the waterworks for New Warsaw, which were built in the 16th century, used throughout the 17th century, but disappeared without a trace in the 19th. At the corner of the prewar Gęsia and Nalewki streets there were once cisterns, supplying water to the New Town Square via wooden pipes running along Franciszkańska and Koźla streets. The wooden vessels used to draw water from the cisterns were called "nalewki" (pourers), hence the name of the street. The eastern edge of the area in question was marked by the ancient trade route running along the Vistula, called Zakroczymska Road in the late 15th century, being an extension of Świętojańska Nowomiejska streets. It led northward to Zakroczym and Toruń. At the south side of Muranów were the lands of the Leszczyński family's town, situated within the boundaries of Old Warsaw, outside the Zygmuntowskie Ramparts, which became the Leszno jurydyka in 1648.

     It is this area that became the promised land for the Warsaw Jews. They associate everything that was Jewish in Warsaw with it. The streets and alleyways, apartment houses and courtyards, the distinctive atmosphere, the unique local color, and the one-of-a-kind multilingual hubbub. Jewish Warsaw was a microcosm of its own. It contained an infinite variety of forms and aspects of life, it held enormous contrasts in wealth and customs, and was a singular example of a city within a city. The topography of this place was complicated and multi-layered, though subjected to its own order and hierarchy. Let us quote Isaac Bashevis Singer once more, who wrote these words in July 1944, when there weren't two stones left one on top of the other of Jewish Warsaw:


Miła str., 1941    "The Warsaw Jews divided the capital into 'these' and 'those' streets. ... This general division of the city roughly corresponded with the northern and southern parts. ... Streets located in the northern part of Jewish Warsaw were considered good: Śliska, Pańska, Grzybowska, Twarda, Grzybowski Square, Gnojna, Krochmalna, and Mariańska. ... Here there lived the most devout and conservative part of Jewish Warsaw. Large companies weren't usually headquartered here; most often were seen small stores selling food, spices, milk or candy and coal yards. Most of the residents lived meagerly, but if someone was rich, he was a sound rich man, without any bankruptcies, debts or mortgages. On 'these' streets in almost every courtyard was a Chassidic shtibl [small house of prayer], and for every few buildings there was a ritual baths. Boys and young men studying the Torah rarely if ever hid their side curls by winding them around their ears - here there was no such need. ... On Friday evening, before the Sabbath began, a guard would make rounds of the entire neighborhood to make sure that all shops were closed earlier than on the other days of the week. It never happened that some store or warehouse was open on the Sabbath. On Saturday morning the streets were full of the scent of cholent and kugel. The sound of Sabbath songs rang out from all windows. Here was the Land of Israel. ...

Jewish district      'Those' streets included the following: Dzielna, Pawia, Gęsia, Miła, Niska, Stawki, Muranowski Square and first and foremost Nalewki and Franciszkańska. Those Jews traded before the First World War with Vladivostok, Petropavlovsk and even China. They had their stores packed up to the rafters with merchandise. The rents in that area were high, because every apartment was a little business. Truly, no one could count all the little manufactories that fit in there. The racket of the frenziedly bargaining voices did not let up for even a moment in the course of the day. There were also houses of study and Chassidic shtiblech, but they were invisible among the stores, workshops and factories that surrounded them. On 'those' streets people rushed about and took a tram even if they were not going far. Thousands of door-to-door salesmen set out from there with goods to distant points. ... Almost every apartment on 'those' streets served simultaneously as a shop or lodgings. The unloading of incoming merchandise continued without cease. There were enormous mercer's emporia, where customers from all over Poland stocked up. It was here people discussed the rise and fall of share prices, commented on exchange rates for foreign currencies, it was here that people racked their brains whether the price of the pound sterling would go up. Here the Chassids put on stiff collars and ties because it helped in doing business. In this neighborhood the people dreamed of building Israel and of a socialist revolution. ...

     It is hard to imagine that all of that pulsating and glittering life has been extinguished, that this gigantic collection of human singularities was wiped off the face of the earth."

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