A child’s shoe. Kitchen utensils. Crockery. Books. Ceramic tiles. Corroded tools. Discoveries during archaeological excavations this summer on the site of the WW2 Warsaw Ghetto are shedding dramatic — and poignant — light on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Jews confined to the area and are furthering research on the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

“Finding these objects and giving them to the world is for me giving a voice to their owners,” Dr. Jacek Konik, an archaeologist and historian at  the Warsaw Ghetto Museum who is leading the dig, told JHE.

They could not tell their own story because someone did not allow them to and decided that they had no right to live. Now, thanks to our research, they can speak and tell a part of their story. I am glad that I can at least help them speak in this way. It is a kind of inner need and obligation for me. If I had been born earlier, I might have been in their shoes.

Work began June 7, conducted by the Warsaw Ghetto Museum together with a team of scientists from Christopher Newport University in the U.S. and the Aleksander Gieysztor Academy in Pułtusk, Poland.

The dig was scheduled to last to the end of June but has been extended until the end of July, and volunteers are welcome. (To volunteer, contact: [email protected])

Established in 2018 by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the Ghetto Museum, currently under development, is due to open in a complex of buildings that was a pre-WW2 children’s hospital in April 2023 — the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The excavations are concentrated on the site where two pre-war apartment buildings stood; they were located between two streets, with entrances at Miła 18 and Muranowska 39 and at Miła 20 and Muranowska 41. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on April 19, 1943, a bunker in the basement that had been used by smugglers housed the headquarters of the Jewish Combat Organization, led by Mordechaj Anielewicz. On May 8, 1943, as the Germans closed in, Anielewicz and scores of other Ghetto fighters committed mass suicide in the bunker. The bodies were never exhumed.

A commemorative mound made of rubble was built over the site after the war, and memorials were placed later.

This summer’s excavations seek to establish details about the bunker — but they do not touch the area in which the Ghetto fighters died. Archaeologists have uncovered walls and structural elements, as well as a range of objects.

“These excavations are important because they are the first archaeological excavations since the end of the war in the area where the headquarters of the Jewish Combat Organisation (ŻOB) was located,” Konik told JHE.

He said the researchers were trying “to verify information about the ‘bunker’ of Mordechai Anielewicz and his comrades that comes from memoirs and accounts.”

He stressed that they are not working in the central part of the bunker, as “it is a grave, and we are not digging in the grave,” but rather on the periphery of the site, where they “are likely to find one of its six exits.”

Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, is informed about the excavations, and Konik said work would halt if human remains were discovered.

The research, Konik said, “makes it possible to verify and, on the other [hand], to complete the picture of life in Warsaw’s Jewish community as it has been known up to now from photographs, films and written records.”

For example, he told JHE, some of the discoveries, including prayer books and the remains of a burned library, indicated that “religious life flourished in these buildings.”

“The Talmud, a prayer book (Sidur) and a novel in Polish were identified,” he said. They appear to have all stood together on one shelf.

This find perfectly illustrates the life of many Jewish families in Warsaw and Poland. On the one hand, faithfulness to the traditions of their ancestors, and on the other, openness to Polish culture and life in it. Objects of everyday life and fragments of the decoration of the buildings themselves testify to the fact that these buildings, built in the second half of the 19th century, were prosperous and gradually modernised. What is striking is the scale of destruction from the war and the personal belongings of the inhabitants…. testimony to the tragedy that occurred.

Konik said the finds so far “confirm and complement” the reports about everyday life in the Ghetto found in the so-called Ringelblum Archive. The Archive was organized in November 1940 by historian Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum and his clandestine Oneg Shabbat organization. The aim was to gather detailed and extensive documentation on the fate of Jews under German occupation.

The Archive materials were hidden in three batches (the last hidden  on the day before the Ghetto Uprising began). Two of these caches have been discovered. As the Jewish Historical Institute puts it:

The collected materials, numbering some 35,000 documents, usually do not have counterparts in other archival units in the world. They are often the last testimonies of life, suffering and death of both individuals and entire communities of cities and towns scattered throughout the country. They constitute an invaluable source for Holocaust study.

This summer’s excavations follow on from non-invasive research carried out in July 2021 via geoscientific tools such as ground-penetrating radar and metal detectors. These non-invasive surveys indicated an “anomaly” that led to physical excavation in October 2021 in Krasiński Park, which stands in the former Ghetto area. The anomaly turned out to be a steel beam.