First stop - Warsaw, Poland
Below the street sign affixed to the building at the end of the street, there was a plaque that read "This building -- a witness to the history of Jewish Warsaw -- was renovated and preserved for future generations -- thanks to the support from the Jewish Renaissance Foundation, Mr. Ronald S Lauder and Warimpex. TRIUVA as current owner contributes to the revitalization process of Próźna St."
I was in shock – the building, and all the others on the block except for the one with the bullet holes, looked like brand new replicas of pre-War buildings. To consider this “preserved for future generations” one needs to have a very shallow view of history and what happened on this street. What was preserved? Pre-war architecture? There was absolutely nothing about the Jewish lives lived there prior to 1940 and nothing about its use as a prison, deportation area or killing field. We did learn that this renovation is consistent with how Warsaw's Old Town, which Hitler ordered totally destroyed in retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising, had been reconstructed to appear as it did earlier, giving it an odd, Disneyesque feeling.
Why was I not surprised to learn later that TRIUVA is “a leading provider and manager of structured real estate products for institutional investors in Germany.” And that Lauder, heir to Este Lauder cosmetics, is a right-wing Zionist from the United States. Warimpex is a Vienna-based “real estate development and investment company with special focus on hotel properties in Central and Eastern Europe.” The Jewish Renaissance Foundation, oddly enough, is a “faith-based, nonprofit corporation in New Jersey that provides community coordination, emergency services, education, food and nutrition, family development, and employment and training.”
On the rest of the trip I would repeatedly see the tension -- played out in this instance by corporate interests and a Jewish individual and NGO -- between wanting to expose history for commercial, political or religious reasons and wanting to whitewash it or make it invisible or illegible.
We also went to POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews which was crammed with information. Plan to spend most of a day there but take a long lunch break before you feel overwhelmed.
I flew into Warsaw and met Susan, who was already in Europe on work related travel. Oscar, who was also in Europe traveling with his sweetheart, joined us a few days later. We planned to stay only a few days because I don’t have family from Warsaw, though it was once the city with the second largest Jewish population in the world after New York. I wanted to see what was left of the Ghetto, since it had been the largest and its residents had staged an armed uprising there. The Nazis squelched the rebellion by bombing and burning the area, leaving most of it in ruins. Monika Rogowska Stangret, a colleague of Susan’s, offered to show us around. She took us to Próźna Street where four pre-War buildings were still standing. When Monika was younger the buildings were in semi-ruins, making their history more visible. The structures we saw had been renovated and looked like upscale apartments and offices. One building’s street level façade, though, was pocked with bullet holes. Its upper floors were covered with a screen on which images of windows were printed, with the building’s actual wrought iron balconies poking out, masking the “renovation” of the building into a hotel.