by Barbara Steinberg
Underneath the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, the earth kept its secrets. Common objects survived in the soil, even though fire and demolition destroyed the area after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Most of Muranów, the neighborhood ebullient with the life of Europe’s largest Jewish community, had been incorporated into the ghetto when it was created in 1940.
In 2009, archaeologists excavating the area found a tree root hugging a homeless teaspoon. Perhaps the spoon started life in a silver-plated copper wedding set, which a wife packed in a suitcase as her family was shoved out the door and imprisoned in the ghetto.
Even if there are only a few holes in the silver-plated copper, oxygen from a fire can penetrate and change the colour of the copper. Once the spoon is buried, soil with high sulphate or chloride, poor drainage, the capacity to hold moisture, and a large quantity of organic waste must be in an environment where it rains frequently. Then, the copper corrodes into the familiar blue-green patina we recognise today.
Humanity also corrodes, sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity. In the Warsaw Ghetto, 400,000 people were crammed into an area of 1.3 miles. Given 800 calories a day, people starved. Diseases spread. Corpses lay in the street. Each day, a brigade of Jews loaded them onto wagons, limbs hanging, and pushed them down slides into mass graves. The slides made things easier.
With 7 people living in one room, if your humanity had not decomposed, you couldn’t watch your mother die of typhus. You couldn’t smell a 2-storey hill of waste rotting outside your building. You’d go mad. People went mad anyway.
In 1942, 265,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka. The rest soon followed.
However, this story doesn’t end with death, it continues with rebirth.
Between 1948 and 1953, modernist architects Bohdan Lahert and Józef Szanajca designed a housing estate on the ruins of Muranów. POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews faces the monument to the Ghetto Heroes. Behind its glass and concrete architecture is a tree of life, because no more needs to be said.
The teaspoon and tree root in rapt conversation was a unique piece among the 3,000 objects in the museum’s collection.
On June 26, 2020, the temporary exhibition, “Here is Muranów,” opened to the public. The spoon memorialized what the exhibition was trying to say: Humanity survives no matter the circumstance. If it gets lost, you can find it again.
The exhibition reveals the history of this neighborhood, from the 18th century to the present, layer by layer, and explores what this place meant to those who once lived there and to those living there today.
If a child saw the spoon and the tree, he might ask, “What do they mean?” His mother might answer, “Sometimes the smallest of objects eclipse the tallest of men.”
“Here is Muranów” POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
• Exhibition curator : Kamila Radecka-Mikulicz
• Originator of the exhibition and co-author of the concept : prof. Jacek Leociak
• Co-author of the exhibition concept: Beata Chomątowska
• Curatorial collaboration: Anna Miczko
• Organizational curator: Kinga Lewandowska-Doleszczak
• Exhibition space design: Tatemono | Anna Pydo, Justyna Szadkowska, Franciszek Zakrzewski, Katarzyna Pawlik, Piotr Antonów
• Artists involved in the exhibition : Jadwiga Sawicka and Artur Żmijewski
• Authors of the external part of the exhibition: Zofia Waślicka-Żmijewska and Artur Żmijewski.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblet: Chief Curator, Core Exhibition, and Advisor to the Director at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.