The Great Synagogue of Warsaw, which was destroyed by German forces during World War II, made a brief reappearance as an apparition of light during commemorations for the Ghetto Uprising of 1943.
Light was projected Thursday night onto the modern glass building in the place where the synagogue used to stand. For two hours, a grand building fronted by classical Greek-style columns was returned virtually to a city where most traces of a large prewar Jewish community have vanished. Archival recordings of the synagogue’s cantor, Gerszon Sirota, revived the sounds of Jewish Warsaw. Sirota died in the ghetto.
The light-and-sound show was the work of Polish multimedia artist Gabi von Seltmann, who wants Polish society to remember the large Jewish community that was once an integral part of a multicultural country. The event was organized by Open Republic, a group that fights anti-Semitism.
“Awaking memory in Poland to me also means to teach empathy, because when there is empathy there is no fear anymore,” Von Seltmann said.
The synagogue “re-creation” happened for the second year as part of commemorations for the anniversary of the uprising Friday. This year it took place the night before so as not to interfere with the Jewish Sabbath and the holiday of Passover beginning Friday evening.
On Friday, sirens wailed in the city, and people placed yellow daffodils at memorial sites in the former ghetto.
Von Seltmann’s grandfather was a Polish school director killed at Auschwitz along with many other members of the Polish intelligentsia. Her husband, whose last name she has taken, is the grandson of one of the SS officers who inflicted atrocities on occupied Poland. The couple have written and spoken publicly about their own love story, framing it as a story of generational reconciliation.
“If we don’t work on memory we will put it on the shoulders of the next generations. They will have problems. Their children will have problems,” Von Seltmann said.
The Great Synagogue was opened in 1878 as a place of worship for followers of moderate Reform Judaism, with Polish — not Hebrew — the language of services. The use of choral and organ music marked another break from Orthodox tradition. It was the largest synagogue in a city where a third of the population was Jewish.
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising broke out April 19, 1943, when about 750 young Jewish fighters armed with just pistols and fuel bottles attacked a much larger, heavily armed German force that was “liquidating” the ghetto, meaning sending its inhabitants to the Treblinka death camp.
In their last testaments, the fighters said they knew they were doomed but wanted to die at a time and place of their own choosing. They held out nearly a month, longer than some German-invaded countries did.
The Germans razed the Warsaw Ghetto and killed most of the fighters, except for a few dozen who managed to escape through sewage canals to the “Aryan” side of the city. They blew up the Great Synagogue in a symbolic victory gesture.
To this day, the Jewish revolt endures as a powerful symbol of resistance central to Israeli national identity.