Before the tide of World War II turned against Germany, Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, designated certain choice building materials for a monument that would celebrate the Fuhrer’s final military victory and his successful liquidation of the Jewish people. Albert Speer brought these materials to Warsaw in 1942 in anticipation of Hitler’s imminent victory, but the “1,000-Year Reich” was defeated and the repugnant monument was never built.
What became, though, of the materials that had been specifically designated for its construction? Therein lies a tale.
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Sculptor Nathan Rapoport (1911-87) fashioned 12 renowned public Holocaust monuments in Poland, Israel, the United States, France, and Canada, but he is perhaps best known for his “Monument to Jewish Fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto,” which, of the thousands of Holocaust memorials created after World War II, is probably the most widely known and celebrated of all. It was the first post-war memorial to mark the complete annihilation of the Jews of Warsaw and the heroism of Jewish resistance to the Nazis.
His other renowned Holocaust sculptures include “Liberation,” dedicated in New Jersey’s Liberty State Park in May 1985; “Monument to Mordechai Anielewicz,” at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in Israel; “Scroll of Fire,” in the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem; “The Last March,” at Yad Vashem; and “Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs,” in Philadelphia.
A copy of his Warsaw Ghetto Monument was dedicated at Yad Vashem in 1976, and his final work before his death, “Brotherhood of Man,” was dedicated at the Magen David Adom Blood Center in Ramat Gan.
Exhibited here is an Israeli postage stamp issued April 24, 1968, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and featuring Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument. Dated and signed by him in both Hebrew and English – a most rare occurrence – it portrays the gun-toting Jewish insurgent.
Born into an Orthodox family in Warsaw as the grandson of chassidim – a butcher and a cantor – Rapoport attended cheder before he had to leave to help support his family when his father fell ill, and he became active in HaShomer HaTzair, the Socialist-Zionist youth movement. He won a scholarship to attend the Warsaw Academy of Art, but struggled with the Second Commandment’s proscription against sculpting graven images.
Quickly proving himself to be a gifted sculptor, he was awarded several prizes, including one for “The Tennis Player,” which he submitted as an entry for a “Sport in Art” exhibition (1936). Already a fervent Zionist, he refused an offer by the Polish government to send the piece to the 1936 Munich Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany, a principled, brazen stand and not without risk of adverse repercussions given the times.
Rapoport was awarded another scholarship to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1938, where he was influenced by various artistic forms, including cubism and expressionism. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, he fled to the Soviet Union with a portfolio of his work.
Recognizing his talent, the Soviets initially supplied him with a studio and materials and put him to work making statues of working class “heroes,” including a monument to Stalin. When the Soviets entered WWII, however, they forced him to work as a common manual laborer. Upon his repatriation to Poland after the war, he was awarded the commission to sculpt what became the Warsaw Ghetto Monument.
In 1944, even before the end of the war, the Central Committee of Jews in Lublin had determined to build a monument to the ghetto’s partisans. An earlier and far less grand shrine, which was dedicated on April 16, 1946, was little more than a small memorial tablet with an inscription, in Hebrew, Polish, and Yiddish: “For those who fell in an unprecedented and heroic struggle for the dignity and freedom of the Jewish people, for a free Poland, and for the liberation of mankind. Polish Jews.”
The monument was raised in the square that served from August 1942 until the Nazi’s final liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto as the site of the Judenrat and where several pitched battles between Warsaw Ghetto Jewish fighters and Nazi troops were fought.
Rapoport faced monumental challenges in designing and sculpting his more elaborate, 36-foot monument. First, on an emotional level, the assignment came not long after the loss of his entire family in the Shoah, at a time when the term “Holocaust” as a reference to the slaughter of six million Jews had yet to be coined, and the world – and Rapoport himself – were first coming to terms with the unprecedented enormity of murder and massacre.
Second, on an artistic level, non-representational modes of art had replaced the pre-war popular human forms and, Rapoport determined, contrary to the prevailing contemporary conventional view, that the memorial had to be representational and realistic. As Rapoport famously noted, “Could I have made a stone with a hole in it and said ‘Voilà! The heroism of the Jews?’”
In his initial design, Rapoport struggled to walk the line between satisfying both the Stalinist authorities and the Jewish public. Many critics condemned his original submission to the Moscow Arts Committee as too Stalinist and not sufficiently Jewish, but Soviet bureaucrats deemed it to be “insufficiently Stalinist” – in other words, too Jewish. When Rapoport was repatriated to Warsaw in 1946, he presented a revised plan to the Warsaw Jewish Committee which was quickly accepted and which became the monument we know today.
The inauguration of the monument on April 19, 1948 – the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising – was attended by thousands of people, including Holocaust survivors, representatives of the Jewish people and Polish government, and various national delegations, including one from Eretz Yisrael.
They marched through the devastated streets of Warsaw to the site of the ghetto uprising, accompanied by rabbis carrying a coffin containing remnants of tallitot gathered at Auschwitz, and an army orchestra played while the Polish education minister unveiled the monument.
At the time of the inauguration, the land surrounding the monument was essentially a moonscape-like site of rubble and debris, and the surrounding desolation brought intensity and impact to a lone monument seemingly rising out of the broken stones of the Shoah – an effect that is unfortunately lost today amidst a rebuilt and teeming Warsaw.
By the time the Jewish Museum of the History of Polish Jews was opened across from the monument in 2013, the memorial had lost all its visual prominence and blended into the surrounding landscape.
Today, the monument is viewed as one of the world’s greatest Holocaust memorials. Nonetheless, some critics continue to condemn it as “cold warrior kitsch,” and others disparage its exploitation of broad cultural archetypes, including “graceless Stalinist proletarian figures” and cliched images of Jews in exile.
According to Rapoport, the “wall” of the monument was intended to suggest not only the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto, but also the Western Wall in Jerusalem; the stones would thereby have “framed the memory of events in Warsaw in the iconographic figure of Judaism’s holiest site.”
The western part of the monument displays a group of insurgents, including men, women, and children, armed with guns and Molotov cocktails. The figures were designed to look as if they were struggling to fight their way out of the stone, much as the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto fought to free themselves from the Nazis.
However one views the sculpture, the eye always returns to the center and to Mordechai Anielewicz (1919-43), the famous leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, whom Rapoport successfully portrays as both a mythical tower of strength and power and as frail and physically weak, no mean feat. In a seeming contradiction, Anielewicz is sculpted with skeletal ribs that suggest hunger and suffering, and with a bandaged head and right arm, which indicate that he is seriously injured.
On the other hand, Anielewicz exhibits bulging arm and leg muscles and great determination; he proudly holds his head high with a resolute expression, transcends his injuries, and manifests military might as he marches forward with an air of command, gripping a grenade in his hand. That image is evocative of King David using his slingshot to defeat the far mightier Goliath, a theme that Rapoport repeated in 1951 when his statue to Anielewicz was dedicated at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai.
In fact, both representations are accurate descriptions of Anielewicz and the ragtag heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising who, though weak and starving, held off the German army for longer than the entire Polish army could.
The Warsaw Ghetto Monument consists of a display of seven figures gathered around Anielewicz. Framing him are three young armed fighters, two of whom look resolutely into the distance. In dramatic contrast, an elderly, balding, and bearded figure kneels at his feet, where a fallen fighter also lies. Many scholars argue that Rapoport was expressing thereby that the mantle of leadership had been inexorably transferred from the ghetto elders to the new, young leadership behind the uprising.
Toward the top of the sculpture, a blazing whirlwind threatens to sweep away a mother and child, whose hands are held in the universal sign of wretched despair. Some critics maintain that the sculptor’s wife, Sima, served as the model for the woman in the memorial; others claim that Rapoport memorialized his aunt, Rachel Zylberberg, and her infant daughter, Maya.
In any case, contemporary historians take issue with Rapoport’s only representation of a woman as a passive victim; they convincingly argue that, in fact, women played a key role in the uprising. With several serving as inter-ghetto couriers.
On the rear of the monument, Rapoport sculpted a bas-relief in an entirely different style to render the deportation of the Jews to the death camps and the destruction of Polish and European Jewry as a nameless crowd marching towards its extermination without resistance.
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Rapoport went to Paris to cast the figures for his Warsaw Ghetto Monument and, to frame the figures, he found magnificent granite blocks in a Swedish quarry, the very blocks that Breker, Hitler’s favored architect, had ordered for use in the planned monument honoring the Fuhrer’s destruction of the Jews.
In approximately 367 B.C.E., Haman was hanged on the very tree that he had designated for Mordechai’s execution. In 1948, the year of the birth of the modern Jewish state from the ashes of the Holocaust, Rapaport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument, which was constructed in part with materials Hitler had designated for a memorial to the destruction of all Jewry, was unveiled.
Many such “coincidences” have transpired over the centuries. What they all have in common is the hand of G-d manifesting itself through Jewish history.