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The ghosts of Muranow: A journalist's mission to illuminate Poland's haunted past

Courtesy of Adam Galica

Photos of Jews who died during World War II adorn one of the few remaining buildings on Prozna Street in this picture taken during October of 2011 in Poland's Muranow district.

Marianna Sowinska

Journalist Beata Chomatowska's new book, "Stacja Muranow," recounts the history of Muranow, a district in Warsaw where thousands of Jews were buried underneath the ruins of World War II.

When Polish journalist Beata Chomatowska walks the streets of Muranow, she can’t stop thinking about the horrible things that happened there.

“It’s a daily trauma,” she said.

Present-day Muranow, a district of Warsaw, Poland, is built on rubble and the remains of Jews who perished there during World War II, but many residents are ignorant of the area’s past.

So Chomatowska started a website to educate them called “Stacja Muranow,” which means “Muranow Stop.” And in October she published a book by the same name, chronicling the haunted past of the former Jewish ghetto.


“It’s a metaphor for Poland after the war, which largely erased the memory of its Jews,” said Chomatowska, 35, who is not Jewish but has long been fascinated by the history of Jews in Poland. A native of Krakow, she moved to Muranow in 2005 to start working at Rzeczpospolita (The Republic), a leading Polish newspaper, and was shocked by the silence and emptiness of her new neighborhood.

“How do people live in houses made of ghetto bricks?” she asked. “The houses looked artificial and so did the hills. It was scary.”

During World War II, the Germans packed 400,000 Jews into the 1.3 square-mile area that became known as the Warsaw Ghetto, where Muranow is located.

Some 300,000 Jews were deported to the killing center at Treblinka. The final deportation, on April 19, 1943, became the prearranged signal for an armed uprising against German forces. After the Jewish resistance was crushed on May 16, 1943, most of the remaining Jews were sent to death camps and the Germans razed the ghetto. Thousands were buried in the ruins. Many hid in cellars and were killed when the buildings were flattened.

Poland’s post-war communist rulers, who were faced with the challenge of building housing for its many citizens left homeless by the war, found the rubble of the ghetto too extensive to clear. Buildings were constructed on the ruins using bricks from the ghetto. Built on this rubble, the street levels are uneven and often hilly.

Handout

The ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto right after World War II.

Communist rulers touted Muranow as a utopia for workers and purposefully erased its Jewish history, leaving subsequent generations in the dark. In her book, Chomatowska tells the stories of some of the Jewish dead and laments the fact that most of today’s Muranow residents know little of the neighborhood’s history.

That is starting to change. Thirty residents have joined Chomatowska’s Muranow education project, meeting in an unfurnished office with no hint of the past. She’s particularly proud of one of the murals painted by members of the group in the entry way of an apartment building. It features prominent Jews who lived in Muranow before the war, such as the creator of Esperanto, Ludwik Zamenhoff, who hoped his universal language would unite people of different cultures.

Restoring memories of the Holocaust
In her book, which is in Polish, Chomatowska tells the stories of former Muranow residents such as Jakub Wisnia, a Warsaw Ghetto fighter who survived the Holocaust.

After researching Wisnia’s life, she described what he saw in August 1942 when Jews were being herded into trains destined for the Treblinka death camp.

One passage reads: “The streets of the ghetto were hell. Women wept. Children held their mothers tightly, and the men clenched their teeth nervously, looking for a moment when they could escape. Anyone who stepped out of line was beaten unconscious, or shot.”

Wisnia fought alongside fellow Jews during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising until the Germans arrested him and sentenced him to death. The Polish underground rescued him, and in August 1944, he joined Poles, Jews and non-Jews, in their abortive revolt against German rule. He avoided arrest by hiding in the city’s rubble for 108 days. He lived into his 80s, and was buried in Warsaw’s Jewish Cemetery in 1983.

‘Haunted’ by Muranow
The area’s tragic past have led to claims of ghosts and feelings of dread. For example, Audrey Mallet, a French researcher who wrote a paper on Muranow, said some current inhabitants fear that Jews will come back and kill them.

Holocaust historian Barbara Engelking moved out of Muranow because she said she was haunted by its past.

“It was not like living in a graveyard,” she said during an interview with NBC News at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw in October 2011. “It was like living with ghosts, and my research made them real.”

Muranow residents should not be mired in the past, Chomatowska says, but it should inform their view of the present.

Her book, centered on the oblivion surrounding Muranow, is about “how people forget,” she said. “And how the place doesn’t let them forget.”

To learn more about the book Stacja Muranow, please visit the publisher’s website: www.czarne.com.pl

Don Snyder, a veteran NBC News producer for more than 25 years, is a special correspondent for NBCNews.com.

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