Jewish Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto
By Vladka Meed
Dimensions, Vol. 7 No. 2, 1993
(reprinted with permission)
Vladka Meed became a courier for the Jewish Fighting Organization of Warsaw (the ZOB) and the Jewish underground during the Nazi occupation of Poland. She is the author of On Both Sides of the Wall, which has been published in five languages, most recently in Japanese. Mrs. Meed is the director of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Summer Fellowship Program. She chairs the Education Committee of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, is vice president of the Jewish Labor Committee, and is the director of J.L.C.'s Yiddish Culture and Holocaust Program.
Fifty years have gone by, and I can still see before my eyes the flames from the burning Jewish houses leaping over the ghetto walls, and through the clouds of thick smoke, I can still hear the sound of explosions and the firing of Jewish guns. In their glare, I see the Jews of Warsaw. I see their life, their struggle, their resistance during all the years of Nazi occupation. For it was the Jews’ daily struggle, their vibrant drive for survival, their endurance, their spirit and belief, which the Nazis failed to crush, even with their most dreadful atrocities. This was the foundation from which resistance in all its forms was derived.
For Jewish armed resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, when it came, did not spring from a sudden impulse; it was not an act of personal courage on the part of a few individuals or organized groups: it was the culmination of Jewish defiance, defiance that had existed from the advent of the ghetto; and its significance is diminished if it is remembered only to glorify the honor of those who perished.
Today, many efforts are being made to learn more about the Holocaust to understand it, to introduce Holocaust studies into the schools. Scholars are searching through documents in the newly opened archives of Moscow, Riga, and Kiev. Teachers are being trained, seminars and exhibits are being organized. Well- known photographs of life in the ghettos and concentration camps, of emaciated Jews near barbed wire fences, of half-naked beggars in the ghetto streets, are being displayed. Most of these pictures were taken by the murderers themselves, whose very purpose it was to demonstrate the helpless, spineless inadequacy of those whom they were planning to destroy. Of course, we survivors know that the pictures are real. They are seared into our memories and into our hearts. But we also know that they present only one part of what occurred under the German occupation, that beyond the murder and destruction, there was life. Yes, life, filled with meaning, with loyalty, even with holiness, of which hardly any photographs remain and all too little is known. The life of the individual Jew, who, in his day-to-day painful struggle, created a universe for himself, and sought to survive with his self-respect. He was overshadowed by the dreadful events around him. He was, most likely, ground to dust in the gigantic murder machine. He is still waiting to be extracted from the abyss of darkness.
I recall the streets of my ghetto. Warsaw, crowded with starving people. I remember the corpses covered with papers, lying unclaimed on the sidewalks, the carts loaded with books, and children, swollen from hunger, begging for a crumb of bread. The typhus epidemic reached into almost every house. I see my own home, my mother, with eyes puffed from hunger, hiding a slice of bread from us hungry children for my little brother's teacher, the melamed. I can see our neighbor, Mrs. Ziferman, hurrying with her little girl to a secret class. I recall the sounds of a sewing machine, amidst the hushed voices from a nearby hidden "shul" (synagogue), and, suddenly, the piercing voice of our ghetto clown, Rubinstein, calling aloud "Yingl halt sich" (translated freely, "Hang on, boy!"). Names come to mind, faces of friends, young and old people. There are the teachers: Virowski, Lindner, Rosa Synchourer, Emanuel Ringelblum, and so many others, whom I met at secret ghetto meetings. They were the ones who, together with the youth from various political groups, organized the extensive relief and cultural activities in the ghetto. Over 2,000 house committees came into existence, together with hundreds of public kitchens, in order to fight starvation. At the same time, a Jewish cultural organization, "Zkor," promoted a broad, clandestine program. There were secret schools which thousands of children attended, a nursing school, courses on agriculture, heders, yeshivas, synagogues, hidden libraries, and choral groups. In addition, various political organizations in the ghetto conducted a vigorous traffic in underground publications. Let me recall a lecture, held on a cold winter's evening in 1941 in one of the soup kitchens. We were a group of youngsters, 15-16 years old, huddled together for warmth, and despite the hunger that gnawed at each of us, we listened to the leader speak about the writer Y. L. Peretz. Later, we had to spread out to various houses, to talk on the same subject. My assignment was on No. 30 Pawia Street. I managed to get there before the curfew. I remember the large room, in which 40 occupants of the house had gathered. The windows were blacked out. A guard had been stationed outside the room, in case of a surprise "visit" by the Germans. My talk was on the Peretz story, "Bontshe Shveig." I do not recall the discussion, but I can never forget the wonderful atmosphere, the feeling of being able, even for a short time, to get away from the bitter ghetto reality.
I see the twin sisters, Pola and Zosia Lipshye, happy, dancing girls, full of life and enthusiasm. They became the souls of the so-called "children's corners" in the ghetto houses. Together with other youngsters, the two girls worked diligently, teaching children to write, and to sing. They staged performances of operas which they themselves had learned before the war. They brought a bit of joy, of spirit, to the starving youngsters until they were caught in the Nazi vise.
The historian Emanuel Ringelblum, one of the cultural leaders of the Warsaw ghetto, formed the so-called "Oneg Shabbat Group" of writers and scholars; they did research on, and documented what was happening to the Jews.
Acts of violence against the Germans -prior to the uprising- were not committed because we in the ghetto did not believe that such acts would serve our purpose. The Germans enforced a diabolical method of collective responsibility: for every German killed by a Jew, hundreds of Jews would be killed. Our aim was to survive, to live, to outwit the enemy and witness his destruction. Every effort that lent strength to this goal, I see as an act of resistance. Our determination to resist derived from our desire to survive as a people: we refused to allow our spirit to be crushed.
But the Germans weren't satisfied with the slow pace of Jewish deaths from starvation, typhoid, casual persecution. They had different plans. The carefully coordinated Nazi machinery of mass murder eventually went into operation.
Blitz deportations: Suddenly, streets and houses were surrounded by soldiers and police and fast, fast, with the sounds of blows and shots, we were forced to line up. I can still remember the thousands and thousands in those lines. The German officers standing at the head of the lines, pointed with sticks---left, right, left, right. I can still feel the fear as I stood in that line, left to the trains, right to a few more days of ghetto life. I still see them-our ghetto Jews-among them my dearest ones, walking on their last march, to the trains, in silence. As their footsteps echo in my mind, I can hear their unuttered outcry to God, and to the world that allowed this to happen.
Yet even then, many of those remaining in the ghetto still nourished the hope that those who were deported would somehow survive. Even 1, who learned from my work in the underground the actual destination of the trains, could not believe, when my mother, brother, and sister were taken away, that they would be killed. I found myself hoping that maybe, after all, they had been sent, as the Germans claimed, to another city for resettlement. How could our people, who believed in human values, imagine such utter madness as an enemy who planned our total annihilation?
How could we grasp the scope of such a huge killing apparatus - installed by German scientists, operated by trained military and civilian squads, supported by German industry and the German people? The deportations from the Warsaw ghetto began on July 22, 1942; soon after, a clandestine meeting of representatives of all the illegal ghetto organizations took place. Although reports of the killing of Jews in other ghettos had already been received, the majority attending that first meeting opposed an immediate, Jewish counteraction in Warsaw, arguing that it would serve as an excuse for the Nazis to kill all the Jews. Painful as it is, some argued, "it is wiser to sacrifice 70,000 Jews for deportation, as the Germans demanded, than to endanger the whole ghetto, the lives of half a million. The Germans will not dare to do the same to the Jews of Warsaw, the capital of Poland, as they have done to the Jews of smaller towns."
Months passed before the ghetto residents started to recognize and believe the terrible truth of the gas chambers -a truth brought back by individuals who had somehow escaped the death camps. These reports, plus the sight of hundreds of thousands of Jews being deported, hammered into the minds of those who remained the brutal fact that the Nazis would spare no one.
Then, only then, did the idea of armed struggle - the determination to go down fighting - come into its own.
In October 1942, the coordinated Jewish Fighting Organization of Warsaw, ZOB, was formed. I, a member of the Jewish Labor Bund underground, was ordered to live among the Poles outside the ghetto in order to obtain arms for our fighters' organization. More than 500 fighters were organized into 22 units. Other armed groups were also formed by other Jews. The core of the armed resistance was made up of the various illegal youth organizations: Zionists, Socialists, Bundists, Communists, remnants of the pre-war political youth movements. Most of the fighters were in their teens or early twenties and they were imbued with a spirit of idealism and a determination to act.
Those who say that organized Jewish armed resistance came too late in the ghetto would do well to remember that it was the earliest uprising of its kind in Europe. The other underground movements launched similar uprisings only when the Allied armies were practically at the gates of their major cities, so as to insure their success. This was true of the French in Paris and, later on, of the Poles in Warsaw. But the Jews, the most persecuted group in Europe, in the most hopeless position, were the first to revolt. On January 18, 1943, as soon as we got hold of a few revolvers, the first German soldiers fell in the Warsaw ghetto. The surprise act forced the Germans to halt the deportations. January 18th marked a turning point, for on that day, the ghetto dared to strike back in an organized fashion.
By setting fire to German factories, by carrying out death sentences against informers and collaborators, the Jewish Fighting Organization won the support of the remaining Warsaw ghetto Jews. Through bulletins placed on the walls of ghetto buildings, the ZOB informed non- combatant Jews of the aims and work of the underground. The ZOB imposed a tax on the wealthy and on the remaining ghetto institutions. Money and jewelry were collected. Bakers and merchants secretly supplied bread and food to the Jewish fighting units. Those who still had possessions of value had to contribute them for armaments. "RESIST! Don't let yourself be taken away"-was the call.
"I no longer have any authority in the ghetto," Mark Lichtenbaum, the head of the German-appointed Jewish Council, admitted to the Nazis when he was ordered to supervise further deportations. It was the Jewish Fighting Organization that expressed the will and the feelings of the remaining 60,000 Warsaw ghetto Jews.
Our biggest problem was obtaining arms. We sent out desperate pleas to the outside world, begging for guns, but in vain.
I can still recall when, as a courier, I came to one of the ghetto's fighting units in Swietoerska 32 and my young friends would repeatedly ask me about our relations with the Poles, with the outside world. "When will they send us help?" they would ask. "When will we receive arms; hiding places for our ghetto children?" And I would stand there, forlorn, unable to give them the answers they so desperately sought. Pitiful was the response from the Polish underground.
And so, our own Jewish resistance organization had to find its own way. I will never forget when Michael Klepfish, our armament engineer, and I, together tested our first homemade Molotov cocktail in a big factory furnace outside of the ghetto walls. It worked!
With mounting excitement, some of us smuggled chemicals and some dynamite into the ghetto. I remember one incident. After a long search outside the ghetto, we were able to secure 10 pounds of dynamite, and I was entrusted to smuggle it to the Jewish fighters. Through a secret telephone, the ghetto underground was informed and arranged for some of my friends to wait for the dynamite at a location near a part of the ghetto wall where Polish smugglers sometimes bribed the guards to allow them to bring food into the ghetto. Against the ghetto wall, on the non-Jewish side, stood a ladder; we paid the Polish ringleader and waited our turn. It was necessary to climb quickly, cross over the top of the wall and descend to the ghetto side. As I reached the top, shots rang out from the street. A German patrol was approaching. In an instant, the smugglers snatched the ladder away and took cover. There I was, sitting on top of the wall, holding my parcel. The ghetto wall was over 3 meters high. I was afraid to jump because the explosives might go off. The shooting came closer and I was sure that my time had come. Just then, I heard shouts from the Jewish side of the wall: "Wait, we'll help you." Three of my ghetto friends came running to the wall. They had watched me from their hiding place. In a moment they had formed a human ladder, snatched my bundle, and helped me descend. In no time we ran away from the wall. Other colleagues were not so lucky.
On my missions, I could hear the sounds of hammering: Jews were secretly building bunkers and hiding places. Shots rang out: young people were learning to handle firearms. The whole ghetto was preparing to face a new deportation. The historic role of the young at that time has to become better known. None of them expected to survive a Nazi attack. Nor did we expect to influence, in the smallest way, the outcome of the war. But we were fueled by the conviction that the enemy must be fought.
On April 19, 1943, Passover, the German soldiers marched, in full gear, into the Warsaw ghetto, to make it "Judenrein." Suddenly, they came under fire. From buildings, from windows, from the rooftops of houses, Jews were shooting. The enemy withdrew. They set up artillery around the ghetto walls and systematically bombarded our positions. We were so poorly equipped; only a small number of grenades and revolvers and primitive Molotov cocktails against the combined might of the Wehrmacht. In the first days, the Jewish combatants tried to fight from fixed positions. Then they shifted to partisan methods. Groups would emerge from the bunkers to seek out the enemy. In these encounters, whoever saw the other first and was the quickest with a weapon, was the victor of the moment. Inexperienced, untrained civilians fought against a well-trained army. A primitive Molotov cocktail against a tank, a gun against a flamethrower, a revolver against a machine gun. One side of the street against the other. The Germans set fire to block after block, street after street. The fires that swept through the ghetto turned night into day. The flames, the heat, and the suffocating smoke drove the Jews from their houses and bunkers. Men, women, and children jumped out of windows and ran through the burning ruins, looking for places where they could breathe. But where could they go when everything around them was burning?
At that time I was on a mission outside the ghetto. I can still see the towers of fire. I can still smell the stench of burning houses and hear the agonizing screams for help. In this flaming hell our Jews fought until the entire ghetto was charred rubble.
General Jürgen Stroop, who was in charge of destroying the Warsaw ghetto, stated in an official report that the Jewish uprising came to an end on May 16th, after four weeks of struggle. We know, of course, that after that date the ghetto was unable to continue organized resistance, since most members of our military organization had been killed. Many others were burned to death. But for long weeks after May 16th, Jews remained hidden in the still-smoldering ruins and bunkers and would not give themselves up. For weeks after the "official" end of the uprising, shots were still board in the ghetto.
General Stroop, in another report, informed his superiors that he blew up or gassed 631 Jewish bunkers. This means that there were at least 631 bastions of Jewish resistance. No one knows exactly the number of Jews who perished in the bunkers. No one can describe their last hour and their death, Those final days united them all, those who had fallen with arms in hand, those who were gassed, those who suffocated in the smoking ruins, and those who were burned to death. They were all united in one great chain of resistance against their enemy.
During the days of the uprising, members of the Jewish underground stationed outside the ghetto radioed information to our representatives in the Polish government-in-exile in England. We pleaded for ammunition, for help, But the world sat silently by. During the final days of the uprising, outside the ghetto, not far from the, ghetto wall in Krasinski Square, a carousel was turning, music was playing, children frolicked, and the joyous atmosphere of Easter was in the air. None of' the visitors to the square seemed pay attention to what was going on behind the ghetto will. Our people were entirely alone, abandoned. Those of us who survived can never forget the feeling of desertion we experienced. We shall never be able to find justification for having been forsaken in our last hours of struggle. Only one year later, after the ghetto rebellion, I was in the Polish uprising in Warsaw. I remember at that time, the planes flying over the city, dropping arms and medical supplies for the Polish fighters. But when our ghetto fought, the skies over the ghetto were empty.
In the months after the ghetto rebellion, we learned that other Jewish uprisings were taking place. The news of the battle of' the Warsaw ghetto had spread over the wall and through the barbed wire to other ghettos and camps.
What must be remembered is that, throughout the Holocaust, every Jew in his or her own way resisted the Nazis. Each act of resistance was shaped by its unique time and place. The soup kitchen, the cultural events in the ghettos and camps constituted forms of resistance, the goals of which were survival with dignity, with “menshlekeit.”
The Warsaw ghetto uprising erupted when we knew that the Nazis would spare no one. Our objective then became to choose how we would die and the choice was to die with weapons in our hands. For other Jews, dying with dignity meant going to the crematoria wrapped in talisim and reciting a prayer. Their self-assertion and our armed resistance intertwined in the chain of Jewish resistance, a chain that grew, link by link through the long years of the Holocaust.
Yes, we now stand at a distance from the events which shaped our lives and which reshaped history; and, standing at a distance, we look back and remember. For our memory is the ringing warning to all people in all times.