Nov 13th, 2019, 03:05 PM

Remembering Warsaw

By Lydia Wiernik
The Treblinka railroad sign overlayed on a modern photo. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik
The Invincible City on Film

From October 10 to 13, professors Charles Talcott and Brian Schiff led their Firstbridge study trip to Warsaw for the third year in a row. The Firstbridge, Memory Making (FB11), combines Talcott’s Media, Memory & Visual Culture with Schiff’s Introduction to Memory Studies to explore sociocultural ideas of memory and the preservation of narratives. 

Students visited the remains of the Warsaw ghetto, wandered through Old Town (with a traditional Polish hot chocolate), studied the artifacts of the POLIN Museum and its surrounding monuments and remembered stories of perseverance and strife at the Jewish cemetery and at Treblinka. 

The choice to document the trip on film was rooted in how the story was told.  The limited number of exposures in a roll of film makes each one deliberate. That roll then takes time to develop and scan. The spaces visited — memorials, places of remembrance and reflection — deserved a process like this, rather than a quick snap with an iPhone camera. 

Inside the bus at Warsaw Chopin Airport. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik

Welcome to Warsaw: The group touches down in Poland around noon. They were immediately immersed in the culture — it’s raining. 

The Castle, which housed past Polish presidents. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik 
Bubbles in Castle Square. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik

The group tours Old Town, the historic city center of Warsaw. During the 1939 Invasion of Poland, Old Town was reduced to rubble by German terror bombing. After World War II, it was reconstructed exactly as it was before. Pictured is Castle Square, the rebuilt castle in which the President resided, and a bubble-blower.

Architecture around Piłsudski Square. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik

Next stop: Piłsudski Square. The Saxon Palace once stood here, but it, like Old Town, was destroyed by the Nazis during the war. On top of the foundation is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, commemorating those nameless who lost their lives fighting for Poland. 

The Warsaw train station. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik 

The next day the group explored the remains of the Warsaw ghetto. 

The Pawiak Prison Museum, pictured below, memorializes the history and use of the prison. It was run by Germans during the German occupation of Poland to detain Polish Jews. Pawiak was used similarly in 1863 as a camp for Poles being deported to Siberia. During the 1994 Ghetto uprising, the prison was destroyed. 

The standing museum has incorporated some of the original gates and cells into its structure, and a barbed-wire fence stands before the museum entrance, remnants of the uprising. 

The Pawiak Prison Museum. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik


The memorial at Miła 18. Placing rocks on graves is a Jewish mourning tradition. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik

The above stone commemorates Miła 18, the former location of the Jewish Combat Organization’s bunker. The JCO, (ŻOB in Polish) was a resistance group in the Ghetto during WWII. The bunker harbored 300 Jewish people when the Nazis discovered it. To facilitate a surrender, the Nazis threw tear gas into the bunker. The leaders of the JCO refused to surrender, committing suicide instead. 

Saturday the group boarded a bus and rode into the Polish countryside. The Treblinka extermination camp is pictured below. 

Stones line the field, inscribed with the towns prisoners came from. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik
Nothing physically remains of the extermination camp. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik 
Another view of the stones and field. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik


The group then drove to the small town of Otwock, half an hour outside Warsaw. Though not pictured, the town is the birthplace of Swidermajer, an architectural style developed in early 20th century wooden houses. 

Pictured is the Otwock’s Jewish cemetery. Each year, students from a nearby yeshiva come to clean the graves and paint over the Hebrew text on them. 

The Otwock Jewish Cemetery. Image credit: Lydia Wiernik 

Late Sunday night, the group returns to Paris, emotionally exhausted and yet invigorated, feeling as if they have done their part in preserving the stories that must never die. 

Talcott and Schiff will return to Warsaw with another group to revisit these memories in the coming year. If you have the opportunity, go.