Back Story: Monument to the Ghetto Heroes
Recognized globally, no visit to Warsaw is complete without first paying your respects at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes.
Forming an integral part of diplomatic itineraries for decades, it was here that the West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, famously fell to his knees in 1970, a spontaneous act that many saw as critical in paving the path for German-Jewish reconciliation.
Authored by Natan Rapaport, the project was conceived whilst the war was ongoing. Rapaport, a Warsaw Jew that had escaped the Holocaust by seeking refuge in the Soviet Union, was working as a sculptor in Novosibirsk when news first broke of the Ghetto Uprising, and he quickly set to work sketching out ideas to commemorate its legend.
His first design was rejected after being presented to the Arts Committee in Moscow; according to them, it was “too narrow in conception, too nationalistic.” Undeterred, when he was repatriated to Poland in 1946 he presented a revised draft to the city’s Jewish Committee.
Although they’d already turned down one design from another artist (claiming it resembled “two Hassidic Jews hoeing potatoes”), they approved Rapaport’s pitch and issued an immediate green light.
Subsequently rubber stamped by the city’s arts council, Rapaport was given just one instruction: that it should be completed and ready in time for the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the rising – April 19th, 1948.
Depicting the leader of the revolt – Mordecai Anielewicz – flanked by defiant insurgents, the monument’s centerpiece was cast in bronze and created by Rapaport in Paris. Framing it, meanwhile, were giant slabs of stone intended to evoke comparisons to both the Ghetto walls and Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.
Ironically, these slabs of Swedish granite had initially been reserved by Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, for a military monument in Berlin. Although Rapaport had wanted the area around the monument cleared of rubble, when that proved impractical the debris was simply shoveled and encased within the monument itself.
As such, the monument became something of an accidental reliquary. Unveiled on schedule in 1948, whilst its artistic merit has often been called into question, the memorial’s relevance has not.
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