The Great Synagogue which was situated where today the Blue Tower stands on Bankowy Square, was the most beautiful and most grandiose synagogue in Poland. It was opened in 1878 and served the community of progressive Jews. It could sit 2,000 people, was home to the outstanding choir, world famous cantors were singing there. Their performances were attended by those religious as well as laymen, Jews and Poles (f.e. Ignacy Paderewski, prime minister Felicjan Sławoj-Składkowski, Emil Młynarski, etc.)
In 1936 a new building was erect in the closest proximity to the Great Synagogue with the intention to become home to the Main Judaic Library. Its style matched the style of the Great Synagogue. It was positioned sidewise towards the square, closing the synagogue’s yard. It was home to the collection of approx. 30,000 volumes.
Beginning from 1940 both buildings were within the ghetto borders. In the Library offices of Jewish Self-Help were located, as well as were held some concerts (including symphonic concerts) and other cultural events. In disguise of Self-Help operations the underground organization Oneg Shabbat was working, documenting the Holocaust of Polish Jews. It is its members who we owe the most comprehensive source on the Warsaw ghetto: Ringelblum Archive.
On the 16th of May 1943, in an act of symbolic end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, SS-general Jürgen Stroop planned spectacular blowing-up of the grand temple. He described this barbaric act in details and with pride to Kazimierz Moczarski, which the latter included in his book “Conversations with an Executioner”:
Blowing up the Great Synagogue provided a beautiful closing for Großaktion Warschau. Preparations took ten days. The synagogue was a solid construction. In order to blow the building up in one go, a lot of work from sappers and electricians was necessary. What a beautiful view it was! A fantastic image from a painterly, a theatrical point of view. The officer of the sappers unit gave me an electric apparatus which detonated the explosives. I was prolonging the moment. Eventually, I shouted: Heil Hitler! – and I pressed the button. An explosion of fire flew up to the clouds. A deafening noise. A magic spectacle of colors. An unforgettable allegory of triumph over Jewry. The Warsaw Ghetto ceased to exist. (translated by Olga Drenda)
The fire that broke out as a consequence of the explosion burnt also the edifice of the Main Judaic Library. Until this very day the floor in its main hall bears the traces of fire of 1943.
However, contrary to intentions of German torturers, as early as in 146 burnt building was renovated and became home to Jewish Historical Institute. Jews who survived the Holocaust returned here to collect testimonies of murdered culture from all over Poland: books, art, documents. It is in JHI where miraculously found after the war. Today, number of the volumes kept in JHI nearly equals the number of volumes in pre-war Main Judaic Library. The collection is probably even more precious, though originating from orphaned, annihilated Jewish communities from all over Poland.
During a renovation, which has been taking place due to preparations to an exhibition What we were unable to shout out to the world, dedicated to the Oneg Shabbat group and the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, we have made a very special discovery. We managed to reach wooden elements of the ceiling, which were charred in the fire of 1943!