Warsaw’s Great Synagogue destroyed 80 years ago today
An act of spiteful symbolism, the destruction of the Great Synagogue eighty years ago today drew a line under the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – but perhaps every bit as shocking was the gleeful manner in which its obliteration was reported.
“What a marvellous sight it was,” wrote SS-Brigadeführer Jurgen Stroop. “A fantastic piece of theatre. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device which would detonate all the charges simultaneously.
“I glanced over at my brave officers and men, tired and dirty, silhouetted against the glow of the burning buildings. After prolonging the suspense for a moment, I shouted: ‘Heil Hitler’ and pressed the button.”
Continuing in this flowery vein, Stroop added: “With a thunderous, deafening bang and a rainbow burst of colours, the fiery explosion soared toward the clouds, an unforgettable tribute to our triumph over the Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was no more. The will of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been done.”
Speaking to PAP, Dr. Martyna Grądzka-Rejak of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum said: “blowing up such a large building in the middle of the occupied capital was supposed to symbolize the German triumph over both the fighters that had been resisting for over three weeks, and the civilian population that had been hiding in bunkers and shelters.
“This was to be the last chord of the Ghetto’s existence,” she added.
Located on Tłomackie 7, the synagogue was one of the largest in Europe with the responsibility for its design initially decided by a competitive process. However, whilst Stanisław Adamczewski was declared the winner, it was Leandro Marconi’s project that was actually chosen.
Regarded at the time as the city’s best architect, his Neo Renaissance design was approved by Warsaw’s Russian governor in 1874. The cornerstone was laid two-years later on May 14th, 1876.
Officially opened on September 26th, 1878, this grand landmark had aisles divided by two-storey arcades and a central nave spanned by a barrel vault. Seating 2,200 people, it also featured state-of-the-art elements such as an innovative central heating system and gas-powered lighting.
Striking in its aesthetics, other touches included a Torah ark built using cedar wood imported from Lebanon as well as a majestic dome capped with a Star of David.
Initially, though, the Jewish community failed to fully embrace their new synagogue with many openly critical of its Polish-language services.
Gradually attitudes softened and during the inter-war years it became an important centre not just of worship, but cultural life as well – concerts and choral performances became popular and commonplace.
Closed by the Nazis in January 1940, a report the following year by Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Judenrat, mentioned the damage it had sustained. Among other things, it’s altar had been upturned and its roof pierced.
Reopened briefly in 1941, it was again closed a few months later when the borders of the Ghetto were shifted. Looted by the Germans, from 1942 it served as a storage space for belongings confiscated from the Ghetto.
Yet whilst it fell outside the Ghetto’s boundaries, such was its importance, the Nazis did not overestimate the impact that destroying such an iconic part of Warsaw’s silhouette would have on the supressed population.
“Blowing up a random building, for instance, an ordinary tenement in the ghetto, would not have had the same psychological effect,” says Grądzka-Rejak. “But we know that its demolition was not as simple as Stroop’s description would otherwise suggest.”
Taking sappers ten days to fit explosive charges, it’s said that several attempts were made to destroy it before Stroop was finally able to claim success at 8.15 p.m. on May 16th.
Delighted with his work, Stroop was able to report to Heinrich Himmler: “The Jewish residential district is no more!”
In spite of the meticulous and methodical approach of the Nazis, some elements survived – a silver tray, two half-metre columns, and a metal coat check number, all of which are now displayed in the nearby Jewish Historical Institute.
Vanished though the synagogue is, it has continued to occupy a place in Warsaw folklore and has become the source of one of the city’s most enduring urban legends.
According to some, a rabbi placed a curse following its demolition stating that no building would ever again take root on the plot.
As such, what is now known as the Blue Tower, a 120-metre skyscraper that was built on top of the vacated area, took 26-years to construct before being opened in 1992 – so say many, it was only completed after another rabbi was recruited to lift the curse.