Warsaw as a Jewish Metropolis? Aborted Reconstruction in the Aftermath of the Holocaust

David Engel

New York University

By mid-1946, more than 200,000 Jews had gathered on Polish soil after the Holocaust and created a ramified network of new social and cultural institutions.  Yet unlike in the decades before the Second World War, that network was not centred in Warsaw.  The Polish capital, once home to some 11 percent of all Polish Jews, was now at best Polish Jewry’s fifth largest community.

That situation was not inevitable, however.  Indeed, statistics recorded by various agencies suggest that during the first half of 1945 Warsaw was on its way to re-establishing its former position as the demographic, institutional, economic, and cultural center of Polish Jewish life.  That process was aborted in mid-1945, with other urban communities, most notably Łódź and Wrocław, wresting primacy from it.  This development was in part the result of a spontaneous adjustment to regional differences in the postwar Polish housing and employment markets, but it was also aided by the deliberate actions of government and Jewish communal agencies, who worked together to direct as many Jews as possible away from the Polish capital.

Although the available documentary evidence does not indicate unequivocally why such actions were undertaken, the effort to create new centres of Jewish life far from Warsaw was consistent with the post-war communist regime’s determination to represent itself as an authentic creation of the ethnic Polish community.  Government plans for rebuilding the Polish capital reveal an intent to construct a thoroughly Polish city, offering no hint of the Jewish life that had once pulsed through its streets but only of the uprising that accompanied the Nazi ghetto’s demise.  For Jews Warsaw was henceforth to serve only as a memorial site, not as the heart of a re-born Polish Jewry.


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