The burning Warsaw Ghetto - photo shot from the roof of a tenement house at ul. Kredytowa 9 at the corner of pl. Dąbrowskiego, april 1943 © Photo. Z. Borowczyk, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, gift of Edward Borowczyk through Halina Kobyłecka

Around Us a Sea of Fire

Around Us a Sea of Fire. The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is the first exhibition devoted to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to focus on the perspective of civilians. During the Uprising, they hid in bunkers and shelters, defying the German system of deportations and mass murder. Instead of responding to summons to turn up for transports heading towards imminent death, they remained in hiding. Their silent act of resistance was as important as armed combat.

Words are practically all the exhibition protagonists left behind

The exhibition we opened on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is unique on many levels. Professor Barbara Engelking, author of the exhibition concept, and Zuzanna Schnepf-Kołacz, the exhibition curator, focused on the experience of the civilians described in their diaries or notes taken during the Uprising or immediately after its suppression. Words are all that has survived, the only trace left of these people.

Thanks to these words, we recall the memory of an Anonymous Author who hid in the bunker in the vicinity of 44 Miła Street, of lab technician Stella Fidelseid who gave birth to a baby boy in the bunker, of 17-year old Leon Najberg who returned to the ghetto once he’d heard the Uprising was about to break out. Finally, we get acquainted with the story of Hena Kuczer (today Krystyna Budnicka), one of the very few people who are still alive and remember the Uprising. Ms Budnicka share the story of her family in the exposition—the story of her parents and seven siblings who all perished in the ghetto.

The exhibition retells the chapter in history which took place right here: in Warsaw, in Muranów, at the very spot where POLIN Museum stands today. It focuses on the fate of ca 50,000 civilians who hid in a labyrinth of bunkers and shelters during the Uprising. The traces of those people’s lives remain hidden under the ground.

In the face of death

We show what an everyday life in a bunker was like: what were the living conditions, with whom people shared their hiding space, how they coped with routine activities and needs. Thanks to the exhibition design by Małgorzata Szczęśniak and Saskia Hellman, the experience of being inside the bunker becomes almost tangible—the heat from burning buildings, darkness, lack of space and air to breathe. The exposition is accompanied by a soundscape which is an integral part of the exhibition. It contains excerpts from the diaries and memoirs of the exhibition protagonists read out by actors, accompanied by music composed especially for the exhibition by a renowned composer Paweł Mykietyn, laureate of the European Film Award for music to the film I.O. by Jerzy Skolimowski (nominated to the Oscars), inspired by 11-year old pianist Josima Feldshuh who died of pneumonia in a hideout on the ‘Aryan’ side on the third day of the Uprising.

We talk about relations developing between those in hiding, about their feelings and emotions. On the one hand—conflicts, fear, panic attacks, lack of hope and a sense of desolation, abandonment and indifference of the outside world, a sense of a life lost. On the other—a need for love and intimacy, a sense of agency and taking responsibility for others. A will to stay alive, saving oneself and one’s nearest and dearest, building a community whose members would support and protect one another is also a way to combat evil.

Thou shalt not be indifferent

We present these stories also with today’s world in mind—people whose houses are on fire, who are forced to flee into the unknown seeking rescue for themselves and their relatives; people who feel lonely, helpless and abandoned. Thus, we pose questions that are vital in the present-day reality: how would we behave in the face of death? How do people excluded from society, experiencing indifference and contempt feel? People who are “drowning” (a metaphor often used by the exhibition protagonists), for whom there is no rescue? How can we combat evil, how do we resist it? What is indifference and what does it lead to? Do we feel ashamed when we witness the suffering of others?