You have heard a lot from me this week because April is a special month for Holocaust commemoration and remembrance. Besides marking the 1945 anniversary of the liberation of many of the camps, it also marks the anniversary of the largest single uprising against German oppression of the Jews, which occurred in Warsaw in 1943. It is important to note, however that resistance to evil manifested in many different forms, not just physical ‘pushback’, as I was reminded on my Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program tour in 2013. As the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is now upon us, I share this post, an excerpt from my recent book, also recounting the narrative of a fourteen year old Jewish resistance fighter who was told she had to leave the ghetto by her leaders, so that she might live to remember them and tell this story.
As 1943 dawned, the SS returned to the ghetto for another major deportation. They encountered the first armed resistance from the ghetto fighters and beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind wounded and weapons, and calling off the operation. For the next three months, the ghetto fighters organized and prepared for the final struggle. On the eve of Passover, April 19th, the Germans returned again, this time with the aim of liquidating the ghetto once and for all, in time for Hitler’s birthday on the 20th. By then, there were between 300-350 active fighters; the young were now the real leaders of the ghetto, having decided not between life and death, but rather, how to die.* Aliza recorded her observations of the preparations for the final battle they all knew was coming.
Aliza Melamed Vitis–Shomron
As spring approached, the atmosphere in the reduced ghetto changed. We waited for the final ‘aktion’, for the final extermination of the Jews of Warsaw’. People began to build bunkers. Experts turned up, engineers who built bunkers with electric light, in wells and toilets. Most of the bunkers were dug in cellars. There were various ways to enter the bunkers from the ground floor: by raising a cover in the kitchen stove or through an opening in the large stove attached to the wall, or in many other strange ways, according to the fertile imagination of the builders. The ghetto was preparing for a struggle.
March passed, and April came. Talk about the approaching final liquidation of the ghetto intensified. The ghetto was fully aware of it and prepared. It was the calm before the storm, suffused with energy and tension. Frequent shots near the ghetto and sudden evening searches by the SS command cars heralded what was to come. Sending off the people working for Töbens and Schultz factory workshops to Poniatow and Travniki* caused apprehension, even though they had gone of their own free will. If they are sending out the workers, what will happen to all the rest? The companies of the SS General Globocnik *, in charge of extermination, again arrived in Warsaw.
The only possibility left is to escape to the Aryan side, to dress up as a Pole and look for acquaintances or people willing to hide Jews in exchange for money. For a few thousand zloty, one could get a Polish birth certificate and a ration card. People handed over their children to Christian clerics, to monasteries and to peasants in the villages. Sacks were thrown over the walls daily and openly, at least on our side. People paid bribes to the foremen of the work crews to be able to join them going out to work on the Aryan side. Some of them did not look Jewish and were lucky enough to find ‘good’ Poles. Women dyed and oxidized their hair, and created curls by rolling their hair in pieces of paper, to look like blonde gentile girls. But they could not change the color of their eyes, or their dejected and pallid look. A Jew could also be picked out by his hesitant walk, his bent back, and his eyes constantly darting around him. We were so preoccupied by our aspiration to look like ‘goyim’ that we examined ourselves and others: Does that man look like a Jew? Will they recognize him in the street?
Of course, a new profession cropped up among the simple Polish people, with many demanding a bribe, or being paid to be an informer, a blackmailer. We were deeply disappointed; we thought that as witnesses of our tragedy, our compatriots, sharing the same language and culture, they would hold out a hand to save us. But it did not happen. A few of them hid Jews for large sums of money; these were mostly people connected to socialist activities and the left wing parties. Many devout Christians and religious scholars did so without taking money, out of true nobility of spirit. Many others, from among the simple folk, made a living by informing on Jews to the Gestapo, and collaborated willingly out of pure antisemitism. They walked around in the streets close to the ghetto, spied by the gates and the places where Jews worked on the Aryan side and looked for victims. Thousands made a living in this way.
The state of our family grew worse. We began to suffer from hunger. There were no clothes left to sell, we lived on the food we had received in the workshop, distributed by the Germans.
Aliza’s family decided to split up to increase chances of survival. Her more ‘Aryan-looking’ mother and younger sister, with a great deal of bribery, subterfuge, and nerves of steel, went into hiding on the Aryan side. Her father decided to take the chance and volunteer to go to the work camp near Lublin. Aliza herself wanted to stay and fight in the ghetto, but now only fourteen she was deemed too young and directed by the leadership of the resistance to make her way to the Aryan side as well, to live to tell the story.
Aliza’s cousin stayed in the ghetto to fight the Germans. For three days, the resistance fought on, against impossible odds. It was weeks before the ghetto was overcome; there were few survivors.
In the morning, we heard dull sounds of firing and explosions. In another house, in Swentojerska Street 34, the Z.O.B. had their positions. People from the organization told us about a mine they had detonated when the Germans decided to penetrate into our area; about battles leaving ten Germans dead; about a ‘peace delegation’ of SS officers who came with a white flag asking for an armistice to pick up their wounded, and how they fired at them at once. The fighters were elated, exhausted—but looked happy.
The battle in most of the houses in that area lasted two days. They ran from house to house. The leader of the group was the commander Marek Edelman. Dozens of fighters took part in the battle; some of them were killed. They went out at night to try to make contact with their friends. They told us that the battle inside the ghetto was still going on, that the fighters had delayed the entry of the tanks and set fire to them with homemade Molotov bottles. They were stationed at windows and changed their positions by moving across the rooftops. We in the shelters decided to open fire only when they discovered us. We made up our minds to defend our families to the end, not let them take us to Treblinka.
On the third day, fighting also broke out in the area of the workshops of Töbens and Schultz. At the last moment many people preferred to move to the Poniatow camp. In the meantime, the Germans began to set fire to the houses. On the second day of the uprising, the fighters told us about fires in the ghetto. We sat in the crowded shelter, praying that they wouldn’t get to us. We had expected the worst, but not fires. The people in the shelter said goodbye to each other. We were in despair, expecting certain death. We could already smell the smoke. Someone came from the neighboring house; people were fleeing from adjacent houses. There were no Germans around. After a night full of dread, just before dawn, we did hear German voices in the courtyard. They were calling to the Jews to come out at once, or else they’d burn us alive.
The artillery was constantly firing incendiary bombs. Whole blocks of houses were on fire. The shelter was not damaged, but the water stopped running. The electricity went out. The walls of the shelter became unbearably hot, smoke penetrated the cellar. We sat there, coughing, wrapped up in wet sheets. People wept, dragged themselves to the courtyard with the last vestige of strength. We had no choice, we would defend ourselves in the yard. The men cleared the opening and gave the order—‘wrap yourselves up in sheets soaked in the remnants of water, lie in the middle of the courtyard, in the garden.’
The yard is full of people, smoke covers everything, the top floors are in flames, the fire is running wild without any interference, parts of walls are collapsing and falling into the yard. People lying on the ground are groaning with pain…
Suddenly, we hear German voices in the street. God! We thought it was all over, that they’ve left us here. What shall we do? Several Germans burst in through the gate…
Lazar was captured and beaten, but managed to escape deportation, and made it to his cousin’s hiding place on the Aryan side.
I saw a different Lazar before me. He used to be arrogant, a show-off. The person sitting here now was thin, withdrawn; he stammered slightly when he spoke. We’ll have to live together in that small room in the cellar. Who knows how long? Until this damned war is over?
The Beginning of May, 1943
They say that the ghetto no longer exists. The wreckage of the houses is still standing; the piles of cinders still crackle, and at night shadowy figures, seeking food and shelter, still move about in there. But the ghetto no longer exists; 500,000 people have gone up in smoke. And those still alive bleed inwardly, their deep wounds will never heal. And maybe there will be no one left when freedom comes? Why are human beings so cruel and evil? They speak about the future, about truth, about Man as proof of God’s great wisdom, and it’s all lies, lies!
I know there are also good people, but they are persecuted; society rejects them as weaklings. Why am I prevented from seeing the wonders of nature and the world, from breathing fresh air?
The full narrative is available here.
The full narrative is available here.
In 2013 I visited Warsaw, rebuilt; almost nothing remains of the ghetto itself- with slight exceptions.
July 17, 2013
We tour Jewish Warsaw and finally the remnants of the ghetto wall, and also the Umschlagplatz. It is here that forced gatherings for the mass deportations to Treblinka took place. I am also reminded of the scene from the film “The Pianist”.
We walk the edge of the wall, memorialized in bronze in the sidewalk.
And we come to a section that still stands.
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was the first open fight in an occupied city against the Germans. And it was conducted by Jewish youth, who held off the Germans for half a month in the spring of 1943. Utterly inspiring and amazing. We make our way to Mila 18, the bunker command post where Mordechai Anielewicz and many of the resistance fighters breathed their last. It is another solemn moment.
We know why we are here. We are not only witnesses, but we were chosen to become, for many, the point of entry on the immense and sometimes unfathomable subject of the Holocaust, and the many forms of resistance that were taken during it. And so rightly, our trip is concluding here. The processing will only come over time.
* By then, there were between 300-350 fighters- Bauer, Yehuda. ‘Current Issues in Holocaust Education and Research: The Unprecedentedness of the Holocaust in an Age of Genocide.’ Lecture notes, International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel. July 21, 2016.
* Poniatow and Travniki– forced–labor camps for Jews in Lublin District near the concentration camp Majdanek.
* SS General Globocnik –SS and police leader who directed Operation Reinhard between autumn 1941 and summer 1943.