Director of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum
Juan David Latorre
A wall 3 metres high and 18 kilometres long was the prison in which the Nazi state imprisoned 400,000 Jews (50,000 survived in the end) in what was called the Warsaw Ghetto for two and a half years. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising, which took place on 19 April 1943.
The Diplomat, in cooperation with the Instituto Polaco de Cultura, spoke to Albert Stankowski, director of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum, due to open in 2026, and co-founder of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
What will the Warsaw Ghetto Museum contain?
The most important thing is the building, because it is a miracle that it is still there, as 95% of the buildings in the Warsaw Ghetto were razed to the ground. This building is only 150 metres from what used to be the ghetto wall. The 3,000 m2 exhibition will cover the historical period from the end of the 19th century to 1946. It should be noted that Warsaw was the second largest Jewish community in the world after New York. One third of Warsaw’s inhabitants were Jewish.
Living conditions were inhumane, with an estimated intake of 180 calories a day compared to 1,800 for non-Jewish Poles and 2,300 for Nazi soldiers.
The story we are going to tell in this museum is very sad because three million Polish Jews lost their lives. It is the biggest genocide in the world and the biggest genocide in history, systematic, in a “factory plan”. For us, the role of oral testimonies is very important, because we have no witnesses left and that is why we are very grateful to the film director Steven Spielberg because his Soah Foundation has been collecting oral testimonies for several decades, and we have used them as a source for those testimonies that are going to be exhibited in the museum.
In terms of artefacts, we have an original copy of the so-called Stroop Report, which was given to Himmler by SS General Jürgen Stroop, very official and with many photos. And one of them is an icon of the Holocaust, the one of the little boy with the little hat and with his hands raised. Many people have seen this photo and don’t know that it comes from an official report, that is, that they were proud of it.
We also have a wagon used to transport the lifeless bodies of murdered Jews, as well as a train carriage used to send Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp. We have also found three thousand original objects in the Mila 18 bunker of the Jewish Military Self-Defence Unit, and these objects will also be in a gallery in the museum. Albert Stankowski recalled that five days earlier, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had been “very moved” by the sight of these objects found in the Mila 18 bunker, as he put it.
An interpretation centre is to be built in what was once a children’s hospital from 1868, where the pre-war children’s hero Janusk Korczak worked as a paedagogist.
What will be the real role of the museum for the city of Warsaw, for Poland and for all visitors?
We believe that we have a pedagogical mission to teach the world to learn from its past and to make it happen again. Our role goes beyond teaching about what happened in the Warsaw ghetto, because the last gallery that people will visit, gallery 9, will be about genocide in general, including genocides in contemporary history. So that people can see that it can happen anywhere, in Cambodia, in Armenia, that evil is there and can happen again.
How can there be pro-Nazi youth movements in Germany?
I would like to quote Marian Turski, a survivor of Auschwitz, a moral leader for Polish Jews, when he said ‘Evil walks in silence’. That is why I find the resurgence of these groups in Germany so dangerous, with more and more anti-Semitic incidents that the German government should react to. And the most important thing is education. Because if the evil is silent, it must be brought to light. The students of President Steinmeier’s generation in the 1960s received a lot of education about what happened, but today’s youth are not getting the same education and believe that this is no longer their problem. And therein lies the problem, because Konrad Adenauer’s generation could not imagine what was going to happen.
Did anyone imagine what was going to happen in Ukraine, with the deportation of children and families?
I am very surprised because there are people who say that we have not learned from history, but in Warsaw we have felt in a very special, very deep way the invasion of Ukraine, because they are our neighbours and there are many descendants of Ukrainians in Warsaw. When the war started, everybody thought it was a matter of days, because Zelenski, as a good Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors, knew that we had to cry out. He went to the media, he went to parliaments, he saw presidents, and that gives me a lot of hope, because we have seen the reaction at the European level. Because not only have they united, but European unity has become stronger. We have stopped evil in its tracks. This is a general lesson for politicians all over the world, but on a smaller scale, but no less important, children can learn from events like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, from David against Goliath, that it is a question of human dignity. We are not going like lambs to the slaughter.
What message can you give to the youth and the world at large?
Be vigilant. Collective memory is everyone’s responsibility.