Today, Tłomackie is a small street hidden behind Błękitny Wieżowiec (Blue Tower), in the vicinity of the Bank Square. Even though it is a place passed through by many people rushing to the underground, bus or tram, only few know the story behind this inconspicuous alley. Before the World War II, it was one of the most important squares in Warsaw. Its history dates back to the mid 17th century.
Tłomackie Square was created as a result of the division of the Leszno jurydyka with a rampart. The area became the property of Eustachy Józef Potocki, the starosta of the Tlumach Raion. Therefore, the mysterious name of the square comes from an Ukrainian city, Tlumach, which is why up to the mid-nineteenth century, it is likely to come across another version of the name of the square: Tłumacki (it was due to the changes in spelling in the Polish language).
At the end of the eighteenth century Tłomackie Square was actually a separate town located close to Warsaw. The most characteristic building of the square is, standing still today, “Gruba Kaśka”, also designed by Simon B. Zug, serving local residents as a water intake.
One of the most important buildings of the square was, designed by Szymon Bogumil Zug, “Pod Orłem Białym” hotel which had been located at 9/11/13 Tłomackie since the 1880s. It was the only two-story building on the then square. It was demolished in 1900. Changes of the owners of the hotel led, among others, to the organising in the building the first public picture gallery, which included about thirty works, as well as transient wax museum.
Judyta Zbytkower (Szmul’s wife) founded, on the corner of Tłomackie and Przejazd, a department store (with banks), whose subsequent owner was Jakub Flatau. This building, which was raised to six storeys, was bought by Polska Akcyjna Spółka Telefoniczna (Polish Telephone Joint-stock Company) in 1929.
The only in Warsaw telephone exchange, located since the beginning of the century at the buildings at 37–39 Zielna Street, interconnecting calls using a manual CB switching system, during the interwar period no longer satisfied the needs of the capital. The exchange had the capacity of 45 thousand numbers and in the middle of 1931 there were already more than 46 thousand numbers connected to it. It also served suburban and long-distance calls. Polska Akcyjna Spółka Telefoniczna (PAST), which had been given by the government a concession for Warsaw phones, in the late 1920s, began the automation of telephone devices. In order to decentralize the network, in several points of Warsaw they built new buildings designated for district telephone exchanges. First, they built exchanges at 19 Piękna Street, 10 Tłomackie and 15 Ząbkowska Street. The telephone exchange building at 10 Tłomackie stood on the place where now there is a square between “Gruba Kaśka” and Andersa Street. It was designed and built by J.N. Czerwiński. The building did not survive the war and now its place take fast-food restaurants.
The most famous building of Tłomackie, the Great Synagogue, was raised on the site of the oldest documented building of the square: a larch manor house. The house was built for the master of King Jan III Sobieski’s small orchestra. In 1872 it became the property of Julian Simmler, and 10 years later the estate was sold to the Jewish Community, which allocated the land for the construction of the synagogue. The architectural design was commissioned from Leandro Marconi and in 1878 at 9 Tłomackie stood the most often described and commented on edifice of the square. The magnificent building of the Great Synagogue had its supporters and opponents. People admired its classical facade, intricate, Byzantine-Moorish structure and harmonious decoration. In the synagogue, despite of the tsarist ban, sermons were preached in Polish.
At the synagogue, services were held on the occasions of national holidays, but it was particularly busy during concerts of great cantors (eg. Yosele Rosenblat, Gershon Sirota, Moshe Koussevitzky) and choirs. It is worth mentioning that the capacity of the Synagogue was up to two thousand four hundred people. The Synagogue’s great pride was the magnificent choir, whose conductor and composer of the songs was David Ajzenstadt. Menachem Kipnis mentioned in his diary „Hajnt” that the concerts were listened by musicians: Ignacy Paderewski, Emil Młynarski, Walerian Bierdiajew, as well as music lovers: General Boleslaw Wieniawa-Długoszowski and Prime Minister Felicjan Sławoj-Składkowski.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century Tłomackie had been a place which gathered Jewish intelligentsia. Professor Moses Schorr lived there, and at number 13 there was the headquarters of the Jewish Writers’ and Journalists’ Association. It was founded in 1916, one year after the death of one of the fathers of Yiddish literature: Isaac Leib Peretz. Until then, Peretz’s flat at 1 Ceglana Street was a meeting place for writers and cultural figures. At 13 Tłomackie one could meet Moshe Shneur, Majer Balaban, the Singer brothers, Emmanuel Ringelblum, Peretz Markisz and the actors of the Vilna Troupe. In 1927, thanks to the efforts of the Jewish Writers’ and Journalists’ Association, Yiddish became the official language of the members of the international association of PEN Club writers.
To this unique address was devoted a book „Tłomackie 13” by Zusman Segalowicz, who recollects this place that way, “For us, Jewish writers and journalists, „Kennel” was indispensable. Without it, we could not live. Its door was always open. We felt free there. It was supposed to be the headquarters of a trade union defending material interests of writers and journalists, and became a nest fulfilling their spiritual needs. The union’s office space consisted of five rooms, a kitchen and one large room where all kinds of literary, artistic and popular science events took place. There were lectures, discussions on books, as well as social issues. In every room, it was constantly busy. Crowds used to come to listen to the lectures.”
Tłomackie Square was also a significant cluster of retail and service shops. A house standing today at al. Solidarności 95 is one of the few surviving buildings from the the Warsaw Ghetto. Lilpop’s building was not demolished as dozens of buildings before 1830.Even before 1939, it stood at the lively commercial street full of shops and always full of crowds on the pavements. A neoclassical building, whose construction began in the spring of 1830 was a part of the development of Tłomackie. It was raised next to a narrow street connecting the square with Bielańska Street.
The designer of the building was Józef Lessel, the author of the round synagogue and mikveh building in Praga. The building has two floors and an impressive neoclassical facade. It is one of the most valuable monuments of this kind in Warsaw dating back before the November Uprising. The building was commissioned by goldsmith Karol Jerzy Lilpop, who belonged to the elite of Warsaw craftsmen. In 1838, Fabryka Patenowa Odlewów Żelaznych Galanteryjnych Jana Karola Drewsa (Jan Karol Drews Iron Casting Accessories Patent Factory) moved to Lilpop’s house. The building also housed: a café, a storage of building materials, a printing-house and a currency exchange of a shipping company.
The Main Judaic Library was founded in 1879–1880 as the library of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw, on the initiative of Ludwik Natanson. For many years, until 1914, the Historical Commission worked at the library. Its task was to gather: collections of Quahals’ archival documents, and various manuscripts. In 1927, on the initiative of Moses Schorr works on the construction of the building of the library began. They finished in 1936 when the edifice at Tłomackie, designed by Edward Eber was put to use. The building was also the seat of the Jewish Studies Institute. At the Institute it was possible to study at two faculties: rabbinic or historical sciences. Rabbis, teachers of Religious Education, history and Jewish literature studied there.
Also, Żydowskie Towarzystwo Krzewienia Sztuk Pięknych (the Jewish Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts) operated there and organized exhibitions, in particular, the so-called Group of Seven (Henryk Rabinowicz, Izrael Tykociński, Roman Rozental, Stanisława Cetnerszwerowa, Maksymilian Feuring, Władysław Weintraub, Józef Śliwniak).
From November 1940 to March 1942, the building belonged to the Warsaw Ghetto. It housed successively the seat of the Jewish Social Self-Help, a temporary house for the Jews deported from Germany and a storage for the looted furniture from the ghetto. It survived, though damaged, both the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising. The library collection was looted by the Germans. After the war, part of them were recovered.
Currently, the former library building houses the Jewish Historical Institute.
The location of Tłomackie Square was used by the Germans during the occupation of Warsaw. They included it in the ghetto, but forbade religious practices in the synagogue. On 25th November, 1940 took place the first concert of a Symphony Orchestra, whose members were former members of the Warsaw Philharmonic and Opera. The creation of the orchestra in the ghetto allowed the employment of musicians and help them remain professionally active. On 22nd March the area with the synagogue and the library was excluded from the ghetto. The synagogue served as a temporary house for the Jews being transported to the Warsaw Ghetto.
The blowing-up of the synagogue was the last act of the demolition of the Jewish quarter in Warsaw and the suppression of the uprising in the ghetto. At that time, the synagogue was no longer located in the ghetto. No fighting was taking place there, nobody was hiding. The synagogue building was serving as a storage. At the time when the uprising was coming to an end, Stroop and his troops were destroying the quarter. Buildings were being set on fire and the synagogue dominated as a symbol of Jewish life. This act was a sign of the victory even though the Germans were not really succeeding in the battles on the front. The way in which the synagogue was blown up is beyond logic. It was an unreasonable move. It points out how much the Germans wanted to destroy the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, thus the murder of hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Jews. Germany fought unreasonably but effectively with defenseless people. The Jews were the surrogate for the enemy, and the Nazis wanted to show the political and military success. It is not a rational behavior, it is only an expression of revenge. Stroop planned a theatrical show of power.
Jurgen Stroop describes the blowing-up of the synagogue, „Under these circumstances I decided to complete Grossaktion on 16th May, 1943 at 8:15pm with a beautiful frame of the official closure of the Great Synagogue in Tłomackie. The preparations lasted 10 days. We had to empty its interior and drill hundreds of holes in its foundations and walls in order to place the explosives. The synagogue was a solidly built edifice. Then, in order to blow it up at once, we had to perform laborious sapper and electric works.”