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The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City, by Barbara Engelking & Jacek Leociak (translated by Emma Harris). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.  936 pp.  $75.00.


The Warsaw Ghetto was the biggest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe. At its peak in 1941 it was inhabited by over 445,000 people. In order to fully comprehend this number we have to realize that nearly 10 percent of Holocaust victims came through the Warsaw Ghetto. But the difference between the Warsaw Ghetto and other ghettos was not purely quantitative. Due to the Ghetto’s size its inhabitants had to cope with and resolve problems that did not appear elsewhere. When we think about the Warsaw Ghetto we focus too often on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Still, we have to understand that—however tragic and important the Uprising was—it was only an episode in the over four year Ghetto history. And behind the Ghetto walls everyday life was still going on. The book by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak is a unique and detailed monograph that gives the reader an insight into the daily life of Jewish inhabitants of the closed district.

            I read The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City for the first time in 2001 when the book was published in Polish, and I found it very useful for my own research on place memory. Therefore I was delighted when I discovered that the book has been translated into English and published by Yale University Press. Comparing both editions of A Guide to the Perished City I could not find any significant differences between them. The translation by Emma Harris is very close to the original, and it reflects linguistic nuances of each author’s style. Her skill in translation of original sources is impeccable. It is worth emphasizing because The Warsaw Ghetto is over 900 pages long, and the translation is as important as the authors’ work.

            The book begins with an introduction to the history of the Jewish population of Warsaw. The authors describe the beginnings of Jewish settlement in the city and trace it back as early as the fourteenth century. They also describe the development of the Jewish district. This background allows the authors to put the history of Warsaw Ghetto into a more specific historical context. On the macro level, the Warsaw Ghetto was a Nazi institution used for—using Hilberg’s term—concentration of the Jewish population. However, the specific organization of the Ghetto can only be understood when we see it as a continuation of the prewar life of Warsaw Jewish population. The book ends with a short chapter devoted to the history of Ghetto areas after the Second World War. Almost no visible traces of the Jewish district survived the end of the war. But the ghetto areas became an important place of commemoration of Jewish history. In 1948 the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial by Nathan Rappaport was erected, and in 1988 a special commemoration route was established. Although the authors do not mention it, a Museum of the History of Polish Jews is being erected at the moment in the very heart of the former Jewish district. This last chapter shows how the history of the Ghetto was incorporated into the collective memory of Varsovians.

            But the most important part of the book is over 800 pages of quasi-encyclopedic entries dedicated to various aspects of life in the Warsaw ghetto. The book provides detailed information about the institutional structure of the ghetto, its relations with the Nazi government, important social institutions, and the economic and community life of the ghetto population. Separate chapters are also devoted to the two most tragic events in the history of Warsaw Ghetto: the Deportation Action and the Uprising. As an addition the book contains maps showing the changes in the borders of the districts over time and the original Ghetto area layered on the current map of Warsaw. The book contains also maps showing the location of different institutions (e.g. schools, fire stations, Judenrat offices) that were active during the war. A detailed map of places related to the Warsaw Uprising (e.g. bunkers, major military struggles) is also attached. All of this can be of a great value not only for scientist but also for cultural and historical heritage tourists.

            When it comes to historical description, the authors are very scrupulous. For example, in the chapter on commerce and services over 180 manufactures and shops are listed together with their addresses and specialization! The same painstaking approach is used when it comes to other topics—the educational system, press, Judenrat, etc. The Warsaw Ghetto by Engelking and Leociak was not written for easy reading. One cannot possibly imagine a person who could go through the book in a few nights and not be overwhelmed by the facts and information it contains. The book is a compendium of knowledge about the Warsaw Ghetto and is a good starting point for anyone who would like to begin his own investigation in that area. However, the value of the book is not purely aggregative and encyclopedic. Many sources, especially personal accounts, were used and quoted for historical research for the first time. The use of personal documents also allows authors to expand their narrative beyond pure description. It introduces the perspective of Ghetto history eyewitnesses and the way they understood ongoing events.

            Summing up, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City is a must have for anyone who is interested in the history of Holocaust and/or Jewish studies. But its possible audience is much broader, its readers can be recruited from social sciences as different as urban studies, sociology anthropology, environmental psychology, etc.  It can be also used as a real guide for historical and heritage tourism. Reading this book may not be easy, but the effort is compensated by the accurateness and scrupulousness of its description.

Adrian Wójcik

Faculty of Psychology

University of Finance and Management