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Finding the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw: Top 10 Sites

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7 months ago

Warsaw today is very different to the Warsaw of the past. Beneath the skyscrapers of modern Warsaw lie a tragic past. I am in Poland very regularly and always seek to learn more about the history of Polish Jews. In this guide, I’ll be sharing my top 10 sites to learn more about the Jewish history of Warsaw – including a fascinating day trip at the end.

Today, Auschwitz is the most visited tourist attraction in Poland. But you don’t need to travel from Warsaw to Krakow to learn about the Jews of Poland.  As anyone who has done a tour to Eastern Europe will know, to truly grasp the city of Warsaw, I think it’s essential to understand the Jewish history of Warsaw.  

pink building in warsaw old town
Warsaw Old Town

Before you go: Visiting Warsaw in 2024

Warsaw is rapidly emerging as one of Europe’s hottest destinations. From budget travelers to those visiting Europe with kids, the low costs and vibrant nightlife make Warsaw a must-visit destination on any Eastern Europe itinerary.  

However, it is impossible to talk about the history of Warsaw without talking about the history of the Jews in Poland. Since the 14th century, Jews have played a pivotal role shaping Warsaw’s culture, commerce and intellectual life.  

onion bialys with poppyseed
The famous onion bialys – often associated with the Jews of Poland

The history of Warsaw’s Jews came to a tragic end in World War II, with the Holocaust and Warsaw Ghetto Uprising changing Warsaw forever. Through these 10 must-see Warsaw sites, you will learn about the rise and fall of the Jews of Poland.

1. POLIN Museum and Monument to Ghetto Heroes  

If I asked you to visit only one Jewish site during your tour of Poland, it would be the POLIN museum. Even beyond the history of Polish Jews, POLIN may well be the best Jewish museum in the world.

For those on a weekend or 3 day itinerary in Warsaw, I highly recommend dedicating a few hours to the POLIN museum (often known as just the Jewish Museum of Warsaw).  

architecture of POLIN museum of the history of polish jews in warsaw
POLIN’s cutting edge style was designed by the Finnish architecture studio Lahdelma & Mahlamäki

The POLIN Museum is a captivating journey through the history of Polish Jews, spanning over a thousand years. The museum is relatively new and uses the latest state-of-the-art styles of museum design including interactive exhibits and truly immersive displays.  

If you don’t believe me that POLIN is worth a visit, in 2016 POLIN was awarded the European Museum of the Year Award!  

wooden polish-style synagogue at POLIN museum of the history of polish jews

POLIN houses a number of treasures, and I won’t ruin the experience for you. But keep your eyes open for a reconstruction of a Polish-style wooden synagogue, with exquisite paintwork displaying Jewish zodiacs. Sadly, none of these synagogues survived the Holocaust which makes POLIN one of the last places on earth to experience this treasure of Jewish heritage.  

Travel tip: POLIN is home to Warsze, an incredible deli-style restaurant. Don’t miss out on all favorite Jewish goodies, including my personal favorite, potato latkas and blueberry cake!  

POLIN can get very busy. To avoid waiting line, pre-buy your entrance ticket.

monument to warsaw ghetto
Monument to Ghetto Heroes (across from the POLIN entrance)

Next to the museum is the Monument to Ghetto Heroes which commemorates those who resisted the Nazis during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. If this site looks familiar, it’s because it probably is – most foreign dignitaries visiting Warsaw will usually stop past to lay a wreath and pay their respects.

2. The Warsaw Ghetto 

The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest Nazi ghetto in Europe during World War II – the forced home of almost 500,000 Jews from across Poland.  

warsaw ghetto wall and map

The Warsaw Ghetto was notorious for its brutal living conditions, with an average of 9 people per bedroom and chronic starvation. Most of the Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants were murdered in the Holocaust.  

My top tip would be to try and avoid understanding or visiting the sites of the Warsaw Ghetto on your own. I’m going to be pushy here, but I mean it – find yourself a guide.

ruined building in the former warsaw ghetto -history of polish jews
Surviving building from the Warsaw Ghetto

There are certain areas of the world where a regular visitor cannot simply access or understand the sites on their own. Here, much of the Warsaw Ghetto was destroyed but there are still a number of spread-out sites associated with the Ghetto.  

I’ll be frank: Without a guide you really won’t understand the significance of them, nor the hidden stories within them.  

warsaw ghetto brick wall
Original parts of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall

You’ll want to make sure your Warsaw Ghetto tour includes: 

1. Próźna Street: one of the few streets to survive the ghetto’s destruction  

2. Waliców Street: a marked border of the Ghetto 

3. Chłodna Street: the famous footbridge that connected the two wings of the Warsaw Ghetto.  

3. Warsaw Ghetto Museum 

If you are stubborn and refuse to go on a walking tour of the Warsaw Ghetto, then at least make sure you visit the Warsaw Ghetto Museum. The powerful exhibitions here provide an in-depth insight into the daily lives, struggles, and resistance of those who lived in the ghetto.  

warsaw ghetto markers on footpath history of polish jews
Throughout Warsaw, public markers show the extent of the Warsaw Ghetto walls

If you have gone on a walking tour of the Warsaw Ghetto, you have my permission to skip this museum. 

4. Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery  

The Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. I often say the best way to understand a historic community is to visit their cemetery. This huge cemetery is like a full-blown lesson of the history of Polish Jews.

Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery  main avenue

The gravestones tell stories of prominent figures and everyday people, offering a glimpse into the lives they once led. From humble gravestones of pious spiritual leaders to large Art Deco mausoleums of Warsaw’s secular Jewish elite.  

Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery  

In Ashkenazi Jewish tradition certain gravestone designs can give you insight into the person buried there. Some more famous motifs include: 

1. Broken candlesticks: a woman who died before her time  

2. Tall candlesticks: a woman who died in old age  

broken candlesticks on ashkenazi jewish grave
Broken candlesticks on the grave of a woman who died young

3. Spread out hands: a Cohen (Jewish priest) 

4. Books: a learned person 

5. Moneybox: a giver of charity

jewish tombstone in poland

The Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery is home to some of the most famous personalities in Polish Jewish life.  

grave of ludwick zamenhof at the warsaw jewish cemetery
The grave of Ludwik Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto

These include: Ludwik Zamenhof, founder of Esperanto, I.L. Peretz, one of the most famous Yiddish authors and Solomon Anski, author of the famed Jewish tale The Dybbuk.  

5. Nozyk Synagogue  

Built in 1898, the Nozyk Synagogue stands as a symbol of resilience and the only surviving pre-war synagogue in Warsaw.  

Serving as a Nazi stables, the synagogue miraculously managed to survive World War II.  

6. Jewish Historical Institute  

In 1946, a collection of milk cans were found which contained the written archives of Jews living in the Warsaw Ghetto. 

milk can which hid testimony at the Jewish historical institute
One of the original milk cans which hid the testimony

A small group of Jewish historians, writers and social workers assembled an archive of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, collecting about 35,000 pages of testimony. The archives were then buried, with 2 of the 3 caches of testimony later found after the war.  

The Jewish Historical Institute preserves and showcases the final memory of Poland’s Jews in their own words.  

handwritten yiddish letter from warsaw ghetto at the jewish historical institute in warsaw - history of polish jews
Handwritten letter from the Warsaw Ghetto

I think this site is one of the more confronting sites of any Poland Holocaust tour. It’s one thing to hear about numbers and statistics, but it’s extremely powerful to read the haunting handwritten letters of those who knew death was certainly next.  

7. Umshlagplatz  

Umshlagplatz was the site from which over 250,000 Jews were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.  

memorial wall with jewish names at Umshlagplatz
A memorial wall of Umshlagplatz

Today, the memorial site is a place of reflection and remembrance. An essential site to comprehend the depth of the horrors endured during that dark period.

8. Miła 18 (Mordechaj Anielewicz’s Bunker)  

Mordechaj Anielewicz was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Miła 18 was the headquarters of the main Jewish resistance group in the Warsaw Ghetto

Mordechaj Anielewicz's bunker in warsaw - history of polish jews

The bunker today stands as a memorial to the heroism of Anielewicz and resistance against overwhelming odds.  

For those on a budget Eastern Europe backpacking trip, Miła 18 does not have any entrance prices!  

9. National Museum

You won’t find the National Museum advertised as a Jewish site by any Poland travel agency. But in my opinion, there are a few Jewish treasures hidden in this museum. 

the jewess selling oranges in a gold frame at national museum in warsaw
Gierymski’s the ‘Jewess selling Oranges’

The National Museum in Warsaw houses a collection of notable paintings of Jews and Jewish scenes by Aleksander Gierymski, a renowned Polish artist. 

The ‘Jewess with Oranges’ was looted by the Nazis during World War II and was only returned to Poland in 2011!  

These artworks offer a unique image of Jewish life in Poland during the late 19th century.  

feast of trumpets painting close up of hasidic jews in warsaw - history of polish jews
A close up of the ‘Feast of the Trumpets’ which depicts a scene from the Jewish practice of tashlikh in Warsaw

Keep an eye open for my personal favorites: the ‘Feast of the Trumpets’ (1884) and ‘Jewess selling Oranges’ (1880). 

10. Jewish Theatre  

End your exploration of Warsaw’s Jewish heritage with a visit to the Jewish Theatre. It’s a cultural institution that continues to celebrate Jewish traditions through performances and artistic expressions. 

If you are lucky enough to be in Warsaw when a performance is on, I highly recommend grabbing some tickets (even if you don’t speak Polish, Yiddish or Hebrew!) 

Warsaw’s most fascinating day trip: Treblinka

There are countless day trip options available from Warsaw.

treblinka extermination camp railway line - history of polish jews
The former railway to Treblinka extermination camp

For those interested in learning more about the fate of Warsaw’s Jews, or if you are on a longer Holocaust tour of Poland – I highly recommend a day trip to Treblinka.  

treblinka memorial jagged rocks

Treblinka was the second deadliest extermination camp after Auschwitz, and the site where most of Warsaw’s Jews were murdered.  

main memorial at treblinka - history of polish jews

The best way to travel in Poland (and get to Treblinka) is with your own rental car, with the journey taking about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

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