Where the Warsaw Ghetto Once Stood, Hanukkah Candles Light the Night

Two Israeli artists cite 'a strong impression that contemporary Polish culture still has strong ties to the Jewish culture that once flourished.'

Piotr Kulisiewicz

On a street in the former Warsaw Ghetto, a few abandoned buildings stand as testimony to the darkest chapter in the Polish capital’s history. Some Warsaw residents say ghosts haunt these houses.

Last week, with the start of Hanukkah, the buildings were filled with light once again. Lifted by cranes, young Poles lit Hanukkah candles on the houses’ windowsills.

The project was the brainchild of two architects, Noa Biran and Roy Talmon of the Talmon Biran Architecture Studio in Tel Aviv. They thought up the idea while spending time in Warsaw on a scholarship from the Polish Modern Art Foundation.

They proposed that artists live and create in Warsaw’s Keret House, which was built last year. That structure, considered the narrowest in the world, is named after its first guest, Israeli author Etgar Keret.

“As we wandered through the city, the abandoned houses caught our eye,” Biran and Talmon told Haaretz by email. “They stand as monuments commemorating the events of the past: not only the annihilation of the Jewish community, but also the destruction of the Jewish community’s culture, which was a significant part of Polish culture.”

The two architects call the lighting of Hanukkah candles in the abandoned buildings “guerilla art.”

They also want to “contribute to the much wider discussion of multiculturalism in Poland. From our encounters with Polish intellectuals, we got a strong impression that contemporary Polish culture still has strong ties to the Jewish culture that once flourished on Polish soil. So it was important for us to ensure that Hanukkah candles would be lit in a number of structures throughout Warsaw, and that this would be a joint project in which both Jewish and non-Jewish Poles take part.”

Biran and Talmon say their project is symbolic on a number of levels. “While the lighting of Hanukkah candles is clearly a Jewish custom and sometimes had to be performed in secret by a persecuted minority, here in Warsaw the candles are being lit openly in the windows of these houses,” they write.

“Hanukkah’s historical significance is its commemoration of the Maccabees’ revolt against the Greeks, and it is positioned here in a new context that commemorates the Nazi occupation of Poland and the extermination of Polish Jewry.”

Biran and Talmon say the lighting of the candles resembles the lighting of memorial candles. “And it gives these abandoned houses an atmosphere in which the ghosts want to declare, ‘We were here once and we’re still here.’”