Warsaw Ghetto Memorial Plaza
For more than half a century this circular plaza at the southern end of the promenade at 83rd Street in Riverside Park has served as a place of contemplation and remembrance of the victims of Nazi brutality. The plaza takes its name from the modest granite plaque at its center. One of the first Holocaust monuments in the United States, the plaque and its surroundings were dedicated on October 19, 1947 by Mayor William O’Dwyer. A crowd of 15,000 attended, including 100 survivors of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. Each year on April 19, people gather here in memory of the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto, who rose up against their Nazi captors, and the six million other Jews martyred during World War II.
Buried beneath the plaque are two boxes containing soil from Terezin and Sered, two concentration camps in Czechoslovakia, and a scroll describing the defense of the Warsaw Ghetto, in both Hebrew and English, composed by the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. In November 1940, the Nazis confined the Jews of Warsaw within an 840-acre neighborhood (home to more than 400,000 Jews at its peak) and kept them in a state of near-starvation and rampant disease. The Ghetto was sealed off from the rest of the city by a ten foot high wall. The conditions were horrific: the mortality rate in the Ghetto reached over 6,000 per month.
In the summer of 1942, 300,000 Jews were deported by train to the Treblinka concentration camp. The Ghetto was now poised to be liquidated. In the spring of 1943, after news of an impending round of deportations, the remaining Jews vowed to fight rather than submit, and with smuggled weapons they rose up despite the dismal odds. Superbly organized into roughly 50 combat groups, the Jews managed to hold off the S.S. (elite Nazi troops), from April 19 to May 16. The Germans regained control by burning the Ghetto to near ruin. Some 15,000 of the 56,000 Jews who fought were killed and another 40,000 deported to concentration camps. Historians estimate that 300 Nazis were killed and another 1,000 wounded in the uprising.
The plaque was originally intended to serve as a cornerstone for a larger memorial. Over several decades sculpture proposals for this location were submitted by Jo Davidson, Percival Goodman, Ivan Mestrovic, and Erich Mendelsohn and Nathan Rapoport, among others, but none received funding. Over the years, the plaque itself has become the monument.
The 12,000-square-foot plaza, enclosed by garden planters, crabapple and locust trees, and a polychromed granite wall, was part of the West Side Improvement. The massive Riverside Park expansion directed by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, and designed by Gilmore D. Clarke and Clinton Loyd, was completed in 1937, and built largely with federal funds. In 1990, the perimeter gardens were designed and planted by David T. Goldstick.
In 2001, the plaza was restored and improved through a partnership between the Riverside Park Conservancy and the City of New York, part of a requirements contract funded by Mayor Giuliani. Major support was provided by the Deedy and David Goldstick Foundation, and in-kind contributions were received from the International Masonry Institute of the Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen. Landscape architect Gail E. Wittwer-Laird designed the restoration, utilizing stone patterns and details indicated, but not implemented, in the original 1930s plan. New bluestone curbing, lighting, and benches were installed, the perimeter gardens were extended and replanted, and the fencing was replaced. Today, the landscaped plaza provides a dignified memorial within this historic park.
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