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Originally published Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 2:35 AM

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Activists try to save old Warsaw ghetto building

It was the place where Jewish women did their ritual bathing. It was a tuberculosis clinic. It survived the German onslaught and became a gathering point for Holocaust survivors.

Associated Press

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WARSAW, Poland —

It was the place where Jewish women did their ritual bathing. It was a tuberculosis clinic. It survived the German onslaught and became a gathering point for Holocaust survivors.

Now "the white building," the headquarters of the Jewish community and one of the few surviving remnants of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, could be torn down to make way for a multistory tower that would fit seamlessly into a modern city skyline.

The building's fate will soon be determined by the Culture Ministry, which has been asked by advocates of historic preservation to declare it a historical monument, a classification that would ban its destruction. It's not yet clear how officials will decide, though previous rulings by other state offices had declared the building not worth saving. Now those for and against destroying the old building are anxiously awaiting a verdict.

What is perhaps unexpected in this case is who is fighting for what: Warsaw's Jewish community, which owns the dilapidated three-story building, is making the case for its destruction. The community leaders argue that a bigger building is needed to accommodate a Jewish community that is re-emerging in the young Polish democracy after the Holocaust and decades of communist repression.

The white building, in the heart of the city's business district, is the place where the Jewish community gathers for lectures, Shabbat dinners, holidays, even sports. Jewish leaders argue that it is too cramped, bleak and fungus-infested to continue serving the needs of a community that has roughly tripled in number in the past decade.

Today, it can no longer accommodate all those who want to join Shabbat dinners after Friday evening prayers. There is no room for festive celebrations on the holiday of Purim. And a new Reform congregation, which embraces a modern style of worship different from the Orthodox services held in the Nozyk synagogue, must meet across town in rented rooms.

"An opinion that I can't agree with is that the building is more important than the future of the community," said Andrzej Zozula, vice president of the Jewish community. "Because unfortunately that's the gist of the conflict."

Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich has even been evoking the precedent of King Herod rebuilding the Second Temple in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago as he makes the case to tear the structure down.

"As much as we respect the past, we build for the future," Schudrich said. "As much as there was a holiness to the temple that stood, that temple was reconfigured to a much more grand scale to meet the needs, the desires of a living Jewish community. And so this in some way represents the struggle we have here."

The debate is also a microcosm of deeper issues that emerge in city planning today in Warsaw, a city that was almost totally destroyed during World War II and which has seen massive development as the economy has boomed in the post-communist era. Architectural gems key to the nation's identity were meticulously rebuilt after the war - like Warsaw's Royal Castle and Old Town Square. Some prewar buildings here and there also survived, sometimes thanks to chance, sometimes because they headquartered the Nazis and were therefore spared the leveling that was the German response to two major uprisings - the Ghetto uprising of 1943 and a larger revolt by the entire city in 1944.

In the old ghetto area, almost nothing remains of the past. Just next to the white building stands the Nozyk synagogue, the only prewar synagogue still in existence in Warsaw. It survived because the Germans turned it into a horse stable. There is a prewar church that largely survived across the street as well as four buildings on nearby Prozna Street, with aging brick facades still bearing bullet holes. Here and there fragments of the old ghetto wall can also be found.

But it's very little considering the large and vibrant Jewish community that existed before the war in Warsaw, where one person in three was Jewish, and the hell that hundreds of thousands of Jews were subjected to in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.

The debate over the white building raises questions that underlie several building projects across the city: Should rare old buildings be saved if doing so holds back modernization? What exactly is worth saving, anyway, in a city like Warsaw? Should structures like the white building, which would be unremarkable in a city like Rome or Paris, be preserved simply because almost all other relics of a past time have turned to ash and dust?

In this case, opponents of the plan say Jewish leaders don't have the right to destroy a rare surviving structure, arguing it belongs to Poland's larger patrimony. But Jewish leaders counter that it would be unfair if they are prevented from developing, when skyscrapers all around have long erased any trace of the neighborhood's prewar character.

The white building is in a clear state of decay. Though it has a cellar that dates back more than two centuries, most of the building is about 130 years old and has undergone major transformations since.

Today the interior feels sad, with old linoleum and carpeted floors and cramped offices for those who work there. It does, however, boast a couple of notable features, including a wooden staircase and two plaques inscribed in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish dating to the 1930s, when the building was a tuberculosis clinic serving the Jewish community. Jewish leaders vow to save those elements no matter what. But they want to replace the building itself with a taller structure that would contain plenty of space for a Jewish community center and additional space to rent out to support the community's financial needs.

There are no specific plans yet for the new development because investors must still be found - and that depends first on getting permission to rebuild. But Jewish leaders say they envision a building that could rise up to 80 meters (260 feet) - or nearly 20 stories.

Fighting those plans is a small but determined group of architects and others - including Jews and non-Jews - who believe the structure, located at 6 Twarda Street, should be saved as a site of historical importance to all of the city's people. They acknowledge that the white building is indeed in a sad state, but they accuse the Jewish community of letting it deteriorate to justify its destruction.

"To me this is a scandal because it's the historical legacy of all Poles," said Joanna Jaszunska, a graphic designer. "This is the last moment when we can save the building."

They argue that despite all the changes to the building, it should be preserved because it reflects the changing fate of Jewish life in Warsaw. Built in the early 1880s, it has housed a mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, and was also home to families. In the 1930s came the tuberculosis clinic, and just after the war it became a place where Holocaust survivors were registered and could lodge overnight.

"We think this object should be saved and should remain as a memento connected to the history of the Jewish community," said Janusz Sujecki, a political scientist who has written a book about the surviving buildings on Prozna Street. He belongs to an organization, the Association of Protectors of Warsaw's Cultural Heritage, that filed a petition to the Cultural Ministry asking it to be declared a historical site.

A ruling from a separate state heritage office last year refused to grant the white building the status of a historical monument. While it acknowledged its long history intertwined with Warsaw's Jews, it ultimately declared the structure "bereft of artistic qualities."

It's not yet clear when the Culture Ministry will decide how to classify the building. But Sujecki says that if his side loses, it will keep fighting and file yet another appeal.

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