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Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

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.

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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.

Jews captured by SS and SD troops during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are forced to leave their shelter and march to the Umschlagplatz for deportation.  from the notorious Stroop Report. USHMM.

Aliza Melamed Vitis–Shomron

Spring, 1943

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.

Lazar

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.

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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”.

 

 

 

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

 

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

 

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The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

We walk the edge of the wall, memorialized in bronze in the sidewalk.

 

 

 

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And we come to a section that still stands.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

 

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are hear, listening to their teacher.

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are here, listening to their teacher.

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.

18 Mila Street.

18 Mila Street.

Monument at Mila 18.

Monument at Mila 18.

 

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.

 

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~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

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July 18.

It’s been a helluva trip. I have toured authentic sites, met some good people, forged some pretty strong bonds with other educators as colleagues and friends. I’ve tramped the grounds where hundreds of my Holocaust survivor friends were held and/or had family members perish.

Our teachers in Cracow, Poland, Schindler Factory Museum of Cracow.

Our teachers in Cracow, Poland, Schindler Factory Museum of Cracow.

So. Now it is time to begin processing it all.

Writing this, I have been traveling and pondering for over 24 hours now. I am back in the USA – missing a flight,  the airlines seemingly conspired to help  extend my pensive mood by granting me a complimentary hotel room on the outskirt of nowhere near Dulles Airport- so my adventure will be extended one more night. I hardly know what day of the week it is but in a way that is kind of refreshing.

From Day One I think all of us on the trip are in the same boat- folks you know are excited and proud of you for being selected on an elite study tour for teachers, but maybe question a bit why one would spend $3 or 4K of one’s own treasure*, leave your family and loved ones for three weeks to travel with “strangers”, or forfeit 3 weeks of summer earning potential to tour the sites of the scenes of the greatest crime in the history of the world.

Well, you gotta give them that. This is kind of strange- or so it may seem if you are on the outside cupping your hand on the window glass trying to look in.

I think, as one of my Facebook followers put it,  that we did something very brave. We toured over two dozen places where I figure 3 million people were murdered.

Or to put it in maybe a more appropriate context, we saw, walked through, and touched the ground where  nearly a million families were killed. By no means did we tour the thousands of camps and subsites where millions more lives were destroyed.

 

The numbers tell the story in a way, but not completely, because try as one might, one cannot understand them. I know the numbers- I have the knowledge- but as Steve our tour historian says, there is a clear difference between knowledge and understanding. Some things are beyond comprehension.

 

Belzec. Letter from survivor to me, who lost her family there.

Belzec. Letter from survivor to me, who lost her family there.

400,000 murdered in Belzec.

1.1 million in Auschwitz II/Birkenau.

900,000 at Treblinka.

We have been to all of these places in the past three days. People comment that they can’t get their head around it, they can’t begin to fathom the mass indifference to human life that we have witnessed.

Treblinka. 900,000 lost.

Treblinka. 900,000 lost.

So let’s look at what we did come to some kind of understanding about.

What we learned was of the ripple effect of the seemingly small things that illustrated the resilience of the human spirit. That resistance does not have to be just using physical force against your tormentors- it goes way beyond that.

Madjanek. My "I'm in a really, really bad dream day". Under the Soviet era memorial lies a pile of ash and cremated bone the size of a small house.

Majdanek. My “I’m in a really, really bad dream” day. Under the Soviet era memorial dome lies a pile of ash and cremated bone the size of a small house.

The program has been in operation for 30 years, begun by survivors of  the Warsaw Ghetto, those who resisted but survived. Vladka Meed pointed out that the Ghetto Uprising in 1943, which held the Germans at bay for weeks, was begun by the young people. And it is for them, the young,  that we educators make this trip.

So, trying to keep it simple and summing it up:

1. This was not a trip about death. It was a trip about life.  I can’t say that I found God, but this trip was one of the most spiritually reflective journeys that I have ever been on, bordering on a religious experience. So folks will ask when I get home- how was it?-my answer will be:

Righteous.  For me, not epic, not amazing, not awesome.

Righteous.

2. I had many of my Holocaust educational and pedagogical thoughts confirmed and other assumptions challenged. Some ideas presented to me I felt comfortable enough to challenge myself, but in thinking about them, I came to deeper understanding. The most important understanding confirmed is a problem that all teachers must struggle with in our flawed educational system. We have to be diligent about avoiding the promotion of generalization as fact, to avoid doing a disservice to our students. If you are  teaching this history, you had better be versed enough and nuanced enough to accept inconsistencies, problematic complexities, and probe these things to induce a more intricate set of questions to your kids.

3. We have to be willing to accept that perhaps there are no correct answers- a notion that educators  are uncomfortable with- but  one that must  be accepted, nevertheless.  To promote generalities in this complex history, or any history is wrong. But especially this one, it seems to me. It was a watershed event in the history of the world, and for humanity, on many levels.

4. Lastly, it was certainly not just a trip to study how to teach the Holocaust. Perhaps reinforced more was how NOT to teach it. And  at the end of the day, it was a tour not only of authentic sites, but also of the mind, and how to make it work.

Sometimes I thought myself to the verge of tears, behind the sunglasses. Thinking-not only about answers- but about the questions.

And that’s what these teachers “did on our summer vacation”.

Memorial to Warsaw Uprising

Memorial to Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

* thanks to the American soldiers, Holocaust survivors, and special folks who were able to support my efforts.

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~Matthew Rozell, a history teacher whose project reunited hundreds of Holocaust survivors with the American soldiers who liberated them, takes a backwards journey to the authentic sites of the Holocaust, retracing the path of the survivors who are now his friends.~


A year ago I took one of the most transformative journeys of my life, with 24 fellow educators, to study the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance to it, in Washington, DC, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. I kept an extensive diary and took tons of photographs. And contrary to many assumptions, it was a journey that led to profound understandings about life, not death.  For the next several days, I have decided to go back and retrace my steps and try to process what unfolded for me.

****************************

July 16. I wrote in my journal on the bus ride back from Treblinka. The handwriting is nearly illegible due to the poor roads, underscoring the remoteness of this place where 900,000 plus were murdered.

In the afternoon we headed to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. As in many occupied  areas the cemetery also contains a mass grave.

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Wall rebuilt with smashed stones. Warsaw Jewish cemetery.

A poignant memorial statue also exists here to Janusz Korczak (1878-1942), who was murdered at Treblinka with 200 of his orphaned charges, accompanying them to the gas chambers.

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There is so much more to learn here. In the evening we dress for a Chopin recital.

 

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The dichotomy is striking. Horrible places by day. Evening debriefing and intense discussions over dinner, palatial accommodations by night. The concert is in a former palace.

 

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I’d say we deserve it.

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July 17.

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”.

 

 

 

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

 

The  Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

The Umschlagplatz. Our group. 2013.

 

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The  Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

The Umschlagplatz. As many as 10,000 Jews were deported on some days to Treblinka. Upwards of 300,000 were sent from here to their deaths.

We walk the edge of the wall, memorialized in bronze in the sidewalk.

 

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1240

And we come to a section that still stands.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

Warsaw Ghetto wall.

 

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are hear, listening to their teacher.

Warsaw Ghetto wall. Some Israeli teens are here, listening to their teacher.

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.

18 Mila Street.

18 Mila Street.

Monument at Mila 18.

Monument at Mila 18.

 

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.

 

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Yom HaShoah is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

Clara Rudnick around age 15.

Clara Rudnick, center, around age 15.

I recently visited the local synagogue where my friend Clara Rudnick was to speak.   I was very gratified that several of my students also decided to come, and that when we arrived, they and I were also invited to participate in the readings and the candle lighting for the commemoration.

My wife and daughter also accompanied me. It was their first time in temple and the commemoration deeply touched them.

IMG_0006

Clara lit up when she saw the girls and I. She came right over, smothered me with a big hug, and went right over to the girls.

She and her twin brother Avreminkeh were about my daughter’s age, early teens, when the Germans arrived in Lithuania in June 1941. Her oldest brother Itze was 23 years old, and her two sisters Chiyeh and Dorkeh were 20 and 13. Her proud parents Yossel and Chiyena Charmatz were 42 and 40. They ran a highly regard restaurant and bakery that had been in business for generations, in a community of 10,000 that had had a Jewish presence since the 1300s. Forty percent of the prewar population of Sventzion was Jewish.

The townspeople turned on their neighbors. Even the Catholic and Orthodox churches collaborated in providing information needed to terrorize the community. In July, 1941, Lithuanian collaborators took a nearly a hundred teenage boys and young men including Itze outside of town, locked them in a building, and burned them alive. Hysteria rippled through the Jewish community now. In August, nearly a hundred more, including her twin brother, were taken outside of town on Shabbat, forced to dig their own graves and shot. A few weeks later, also on the Sabbath, eight thousand men women boys and girls were ordered to stand in the town square, where they were shot, including her mother and two sisters. Clara was saved only because her father had given her his coat and told her to hide in the local steam bath.

After the shooting, he came for her at night and took her to the forest for two nights without food and water. They found a farmer who was secretly a Jew and stayed until more refugees began to arrive. Deciding it was no longer safe, they

Students Chelsea R., Paige L., Meg V., Cheyenne B., Mary R. flank survivor Clara Rudnick at reception following Yom Hashoah commemoration, 2014.

Students Chelsea R., Paige L., Meg V., Cheyenne B., Mary R. flank survivor Clara Rudnick at reception following Yom Hashoah commemoration, 2014.

moved to the farm of a Christian friend who accepted their money to hide them. Later, they found themselves in the ghetto at Swir. ” I was 15 years old, I had lost my mother, brothers and sisters, and I was very upset.” And in a constant state of peril.

In the middle of February, 1942, the Germans came to liquidate the ghetto. Clara and her father managed to escape with others across a frozen lake as the Nazis shot at them. Her father broke through the ice and placed Clara in the freezing water and lay on top of her to protect her in the cold winter night, until the Germans left.

They traveled twenty kilometers to another ghetto at Mishaleikse, where they were arrested in April and sent to the Vilna Ghetto, subjected to hard labor. Here Clara witnessed starvation, disease, street executions, babies killed and placed in the back of trucks. Mistreatment was widespread and deportations to concentration camps and extermination centers occurred almost daily. Clara again was able to escape, but this time without her father. A local cinema owner told her father he would take care of her. She would see her father only one more time.

In the summer of 1942 (the same summer that Anne Frank would go into hiding, Clara notes) a handsome sum of gold was given to another Christian and Clara was hidden in a dark hidden cellar with a trap door for seven months, emerging only once a day to answer nature’s call. One day she peeped through the hatch to see what was going on upstairs, as there was a great deal of commotion and noise. Bullets raked the hiding spot and she was grazed in the stomach, the cinema owner killed. Clara was caught again.

She was taken before the Gestapo in Kalich, where as a slave laborer she was forced to make fur coats for the Germans fighting on the Russian front. Then the slaves were placed into two trucks. One went to the execution site of Panar, the other to the camp at Kaiserwald. Clara considers it another miracle that she was on the truck to Kaiserwald. Here she worked with dangerous acid to make batteries. She was afraid the acid would scar her and she would be killed.

After some time, she was sent to Stutthof on the Baltic. It was here that she saw her father, through the chain link fence, for the last time. He and 85,000 others perished here. She was terrified.

As the Red Army closed in she was marched out and placed in a barn, locked with other women to die from starvation. It was here that she was liberated by Soviet forces on march 11, 1945. She states, matter of factly, that the soldiers moved on immediately, having no time to care for them.

Heading to Lodz,  Poland shortly after, she did not find any family members anywhere. Regaining her strength, she met another survivor, Abraham Rudnick, a Lithuanian Jew like her who had been liberated by the Americans at Dachau on April 29, 1945. They married in a DP camp and emigrated to the United States in 1949, where they raised a family and built a plumbing and heating business in upstate New York.

So tonight she is here with her grandson and recounts the story, and the postscript of her summer trip back to Vilna and her hometown in Lithuania, and her realization that no one in Lithuania seems to want to acknowledge the countries complicity in the murder of her family and hundreds of thousands of others. But here, speaking in the temple for perhaps the last time, she has her North Country family, and has certainly won over the hearts of a few young ladies this evening. They wont forget, Clara, and they are the new witnesses. It’s so.

Clara told me some years ago that her sons had my dad as their history teacher in high school and that he was held in high regard. As we bid her goodbye, she whispered in my daughter’s ear-“Don’t tell your father, but I love him!” I am blessed to know you now, as was my dad and now my girl, and my students. We’ll keep you close, and remember your mother and father, your brothers and sisters, and all those murdered in those not so distant days.

Clara Rudnick by Erica Miller

 

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