Letter From Poland

The buildings of Prozna Street should not be here.

In the late 19th century, Prozna Street was a hub for trade and crafts and home to Christians and Jews. For a time in 1940, it formed the border of the Jewish ghetto, and members of the Jewish resistance later hid there. The Germans destroyed most of the city after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, but the buildings somehow survived. After the war, shop owners sold the same nails and screws and bibbs and bobs for faucets and lamps as before. Ambitious plans by the communist government to tear down the buildings were never realized, and they fell into disrepair.

Today Prozna Street is undergoing a revival--the work of the Jewish Renaissance Foundation and the idea of American philanthropist Ronald Lauder. The effort resonates deeply in a city where adults are only now discovering their Jewish roots at their parents' deathbeds and Jewish music and culture are reemerging. But Polish-Jewish relations remain strained, and any remnant of Jewish history that is also a tribute to the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Christians here can be no less than symbolic.

Before the war Warsaw's Jewish population numbered perhaps 400,000. Most were exterminated in concentration camps on Polish soil. Fewer than 5,000 Jews remain.

"Prewar Polish Jewry is gone," said Menachem Rosensaft, executive vice president of the Jewish Renaissance Foundation. Also a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Rosensaft commutes from New York's Fifth Avenue to Prozna Street. "What we are witnessing [in Warsaw] is the beginning of a new era of people trying to build a community again," Rosensaft said. "But it must also have its intellectual, cultural and religious roots in what once was."

The foundation purchased Prozna Street Nos. 7 and 9 after the World Monuments Fund included these buildings, along with Nos. 12 and 14, among the 100 most endangered international historical sites and monuments in 1996-97.

Today, no longer on the endangered list, Nos. 7 and 9 are emptied of tenants as the architects and historical consultants painstakingly restore these two distressed shells to the elegant residences they once were. The buildings will house a kosher restaurant and bakery, and a Jewish bookstore--as they did before the war. There will also be a hardware store and an apartment re-created as a tribute to late-19th-century Jewish life here. A store is planned where one can buy often difficult-to-find objects for the Jewish home, from mezuzot to menorahs. Across the street the foundation will also restore the facades of Prozna 12 and 14, which are owned by the city of Warsaw. The narrow road, now an obstacle course of cars, muddied potholes and scaffolding, will be transformed into a pedestrian walkway.

Nothing about this $10 million project has been easy. A tour of Nos. 7 and 9 shows that the foundation and its Polish subsidiary, Prozna Street Co., have their work cut out. The gutted buildings, which are slated to be fully restored in less than two years, are all graffiti--some antisemitic--and rubble. They smell of stale beer and fresh urine. Yet under the sawdust is a parquet floor; beneath thick layers of yellow paint an elegant ceiling stencil emerges. Every decorative detail, from wrought-iron banisters to door moldings, has been removed for repair.

Like many older buildings in Warsaw whose ownership was communalized, then nationalized under communist rule, Prozna 7 first had to be returned to the family who owned it before the war. The family then agreed to sell to the foundation. "We purchased their claims over two years ago," said Tomasz Zasacki, an attorney working with the foundation, "and it took us that time to get the privatization process approved by the Polish authorities." No. 9 was more complicated legally, since three families had to be resettled before work could begin.

Inevitably, Prozna Street has been compared to Kazimierz, Krakow's restored Jewish district. However, the idea that they will be somehow alike makes those working on the Prozna project bristle.

"This is not meant to be an attraction for tourists," said Rosensaft. Kazimierz, with its original synagogue, authentic Jewish cuisine, music and night life, attracts many visitors. Criticism also has been made when, for instance, a non-Jewish restaurateur opened a Jewish restaurant there.

A tour of Jewish Warsaw today is a haunting, despairing trek from monument to plaque, since the devastation was so complete. The redevelopment of Prozna Street is an effort at honoring the past but not freezing it.

"We want to bring back the atmosphere," said Zasacki, "but we cannot have it as it was. This is not 'let's close the ice and see how it was in 1938.' It has to be a part of the living city. It's not a museum."

Inside Nos. 12 and 14, the small shops will sell everything from bits of hardware to Electrolux vacuum hoses. What if one of the non-Jewish merchants should decide to open a shop of Judaica?

"If Jews can be involved in Polish life there is absolutely no reason why Poles should not take part in the Jewish educational and cultural revival," said Rosensaft. "However, if someone decided to open a Judaica shop only because it will bring in the tourists, I'd be concerned."

Rosensaft's parents, who were Polish, were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943, then moved to other camps before being liberated by the British army. Josef and Hadassah Rosensaft lost their entire families to the gas chambers. Rosensaft was born in the displaced-persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in 1948--a place his father vowed not to leave until every displaced person was resettled.

"What I really learned from both my parents is to remember the past and commemorate the past, but to do the remembering in a constructive, forward manner," Rosensaft said. "The non-Jewish Polish community must look at its Jewish heritage as well, and precisely the value of what it has lost. That's what I hope Prozna Street will be."