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Little left of Warsaw ghetto 70 years after uprising

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A building here, a building there, some cobblestones, a synagogue: almost nothing remains of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto set up by Nazi Germany in World War II.

Only a chunk is left of the wall that isolated around 480,000 of the capital's Jews before the Germans deported most of them to their deaths.

"The Germans completely demolished this neighbourhood," said Jacek Leociak, co-author of the "The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City".

They razed it after crushing the Warsaw ghetto uprising, when a few hundred young Jews decided to take up arms against the occupying Germans.

A year and a half after the ill-fated revolt, which took place 70 years ago on Friday, the Nazis flattened the rest of the city after a second doomed uprising by the Polish underground.

"The communist regime later built new housing developments directly on the rubble," Leociak told AFP.

The ghetto's few surviving houses stand on the streets Prozna, Chlodna and Sienna, which were incorporated into the rest of the city after the massive ghetto purge of 1942.

From July to September the Nazis dispatched around 300,000 Jews by train to the Treblinka death camp east of Warsaw.

With its coat of white paint, the five-storey residence at Chlodna 20 looks newer than its neighbours despite being one of the ghetto's rare buildings still standing today.

So much so that the news comes as a surprise to one of its long-time residents.

"Oh God I had no idea this was the ghetto," said Bozena Falkowska, who has lived at the address since 1965.

"I knew the ghetto started just a couple metres from here, but I had no idea our building was part of it," the 61-year-old retired bank employee told AFP.

The communist regime gave her family the apartment without going into the details of its history.

"We were happy to even have a home, but for sure we're aware -- especially us older people -- of the dramatic fate Jews suffered here in the ghetto."

Her neighbour Ewa Skurska, who runs a law practice out of the building, added: "When Jewish groups tour the neighbourhood, we welcome them with open arms."

Another relic of World War II's largest Jewish ghetto is the Nozyk synagogue, which survived because it was used by the German army as a warehouse and stable.

Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich said running the still active synagogue is an honour that comes with "the responsibility to keep things going".

He recalled how the notoriously brutal German commander Juergen Stroop ordered Warsaw's Great Synagogue to be blown up at the end of the ghetto uprising to mark his "victory over the Jews".

Stroop's goal was to stamp out all Jewish life in Warsaw, and for Schudrich his duty today is to ensure that wish should never come to pass.

He runs his synagogue as not just "a monument to the past but really a living synagogue for living Jews doing Jewish things".

Dotted around the area are memorials to the time, including the Umschlagplatz monument that stands where Jews were rounded up to be taken to Treblinka.

Nearby is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, where in 1970 former German chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees in a plea for forgiveness for the war.

Today it faces the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opens Friday as a reminder of the rich 1,000-year Jewish presence in Poland that was crippled by the Holocaust.

"After five years of war, the city didn't have the means to rebuild the neighbourhood, not even to remove the rubble," Leociak said, adding that new buildings were built from blocks of ground-up rubble.

"So while it's true that on the surface nothing remains of the ghetto, below the buildings, below the asphalt of the new streets, you'll find its roots, with thousands of buried victims.

"They will rest there forever."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130416/little-left-warsaw-ghetto-70-years-after-uprising