Polish officials marked the border of the former Warsaw Ghetto on Wednesday with plaques and boundary lines traced in the ground to preserve the memory of the tragic World War II-era Jewish quarter.
The markers were inaugurated with speeches by the Warsaw mayor and other officials. A group that included Holocaust survivors and members of the Jewish community then made their way in the rain together to reflect on the past at some of the 21 memorial plaques.
The head of Poland's Jewish community, Piotr Kadlcik, called the project "very important" and "the fulfillment of a dream."
"For many years it was deliberate — no one really remembered that there used to be another city here, there used to be another reality," Kadlcik said.
The Warsaw Ghetto was set up by Nazi Germany in 1940, the year after it invaded and occupied Poland, sparking World War II. Over the next three years, half a million Jews were imprisoned in the overcrowded enclave, many dying of disease or hunger. For most, however, it served as a holding place before they were sent to the death camps.
'I realized I could die at any time'
Eleonora Bergman, the head of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, said marking the boundaries of the ghetto — shaped like a ragged puzzle piece in the center of the city — will help people understand the suffering better.
"It's not in a museum — it's in a real space," Bergman said. "It seems huge, but if you know half a million people lived here, you realize it was very overcrowded."
Krystyna Budnicka, who lived in the ghetto as a girl and escaped at age 11 through sewage canals, was among the group, and also praised the project.
"Many people don't know anything about the ghetto, and it's important to make them aware," said Budnicka, now 76. "There was fear, hunger, extreme poverty, your life was constantly in danger. I was a child, but I realized I could die at any time."
For herself, though, she said it is sometimes better not to reflect too much — and is strangely thankful that the whole area was leveled by the Nazis and later rebuilt. That way she doesn't have to walk past the building where she lived with her parents, sister and six brothers — all of whom were killed in the Holocaust.
"It's the same place, but at the same time it's not the same place. Only the street names are the same," said Budnicka, who still lives within the boundaries of the former ghetto.
A picture of history
Officials said inhabitants in the area were supportive of the project, in some cases allowing markers to go up on private property.
"For me, it was a great pleasure that nobody was against this," said curator Ewa Nekanda-Trepka, an official with City Hall's Department of Historical Preservation. "Everybody tried to support us."
Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz said she wants the city to remember the suffering of a people who made up a third of the its population before the war.
"It's a picture of the history — unfortunately the dramatic history — of the city," she said.