By the end of 1942 the great majority of the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto were already dead; they had either died of starvation and disease inside the ghetto or had been deported to the death camp of Treblinka to be murdered with poison gas in rooms disguised as showers. Some 490,000 Jews had struggled for life inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Now only 60,000 remained and these people were terribly weakened by hunger and disease.
Among these 60,000 desperate people was 24 year old Mordechai Anielewicz. Like them, he had to decide how to react to this situation:
Should he make himself useful to the German war effort in the ghetto workshops and hope that this work would save him?
If his name was called, should be report for deportation – after all, he was young and strong and may be sent to a work camp?
Should he prepare a hiding place in the ghetto and stay there until the war was over, even though this was punishable by death and he had no idea how long the war would last and who would win?
Should he attack the Nazis who entered the ghetto to take the next group for deportation? Such an attack would mean almost certain death as there were very few weapons in the ghetto and the Nazis were well armed and highly trained. It would mean using homemade weapons to attack tanks and soldiers who were armed with machine guns, grenades and flamethrowers.
Discuss the choices that Mordecai faced. What do you think he should have done?
Freddie Knoller was among more than 80 Jewish men, women and children who were crowded onto a cattle truck on a train at Drancy, a camp on the outskirts of Paris, to be deported to Eastern Europe. Crammed into the truck, with not enough room to sit down and only one bucket of water for their toilet, they endured a journey that lasted for three days and three nights. They were heading towards an unknown destination and an uncertain fate; some believed they were travelling to their deaths, others that they were going to a work camp. Everyone was frightened and there was an atmosphere of utter despair.
Freddie and some other young people saw a chance to escape. They began to rip at the wooden boards of the cattle truck so that they could jump from the train to safety. But others on the train begged them to stop. The SS had warned them all that if just one person escaped half of all those who were still inside the truck would be shot. Elderly people, the sick and the very young could not possibly jump from a moving train and they pleaded with Freddie not to break out of the truck, saying ‘Don’t do that, they are going to kill us, this is not right, you musn’t, we are one unit.’
What choices did Freddie Knoller face as the train travelled towards the East?
What do you think he should have done in this situation?
Adam Czerniakow and Chaim Rumkowski
In March 1942 the Nazis began to force Jews out of the ghettos and deport them in overcrowded cattle trucks to ‘resettlement in the East’. The Nazis promised these people that they were being sent to work camps and ordered them to pack the belongings they would need for a new life. Families were told that they could stay together; offers of extra food were made for those who volunteered for ‘resettlement’. However, people soon began to doubt these promises of a new life and rumours spread that those who were deported were being sent to their deaths.
The men, women and children living in the hundreds of small ghettos across Poland had no choice. The Nazis, aided by foreign auxiliaries, cleared those ghettos relatively easily, rounding up all of the Jews and deporting them within a day or so. But clearing the larger ghettos was a huge undertaking, requiring massive organisation and manpower. Here the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews could take weeks or months. To make this task easier, the Nazis turned to the leaders of the Jewish communities and the Jewish police inside the ghettos and ordered them to draw up lists of names for deportation and to make sure that their people reported to the railway stations at the appointed time.
When they realised that ‘resettlement’ almost certainly meant death, these Jewish leaders were faced with a terrible choice: should they obey the Nazis and help them to deport thousands of men, women and children to the death camps in the hope that those who remained would be allowed to survive, or should they refuse to co-operate and organise a desperate last stand that would mean certain death for them all? Adam Czerniakow and Chaim Rumkowski were two men who faced this appalling choice.
Czerniakow was the head of the Jewish Council in the Warsaw ghetto. On 22 July 1942 he was told to draw up a list of 6,000 Jews for deportation, regardless of age and sex. He was to continue to draw up such a list every day until all 350,000 Jews still remaining in the Warsaw ghetto had been ‘resettled’. If he refused, the Nazis would send Czerniakow and his family on the first transport and appoint a new Jewish leader to obey their orders.
Rumkowski was the head of the Jewish Council in the Lodz ghetto. In September 1942 he too was ordered to draw up lists for deportation knowing that those he chose would be sent to their deaths in an extermination camp.
What choices did Czerniakow and Rumkowski have?
What do you think they should have done?
The young Austrian Franz Wohlfahrt had only recently become engaged to his girlfriend Maria when the Nazis arrested him. Franz had refused to join the army because it was against his religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness to participate in war. He also refused to salute the Nazi flag or say ‘Heil Hitler’ because Jehovah’s Witnesses would not praise anyone but God.
Franz realised only too well the danger he placed himself in; his father had been executed on the guillotine only weeks before for refusing to join the army. Two years later Franz’s younger brother Gregor was also executed because he too refused to fight in the war.
Franz was sent to a concentration camp where he was forced to wear a prison uniform and the purple triangle that marked the Jehovah’s Witnesses out from the other inmates. He was brutally treated and forced to do hard manual labour. The food he was given was often rotten or included bones from diseased animals and many of the prisoners developed large boils inside their mouths as a result. Tired and hungry, the 5,000 prisoners in Rollwald concentration camp had to stand perfectly still for two hours every morning while the guards counted them all; those who could not stand completely still were severely beaten.
And yet Franz knew that he could walk free from the camp at any time.
All Jehovah’s Witnesses were offered the same choice: if they agreed to sign a single piece of paper they would be allowed to go free. The declaration they were asked to sign said that the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witness movement were false and that they would leave the movement forever. They also promised that they would obey the laws of the Nazi state and would defend Germany in the event of war.
What choices did Franz Wohlfahrt face?
What were the possible consequences of each decision?
What do you think Franz should have done?
Janusz Korczak was a Jewish doctor and teacher, well known in Poland for his work with children. Before the war Korczak had a weekly radio programme giving advice on child development and he was the author of a popular series of children’s books. He also developed a children’s newspaper that was written by and for young people and ran two orphanages in the capital city of Warsaw, one for Jewish and the other for non-Jewish children.
In 1940 the Nazis forced Korczak to move his Jewish orphanage into the Warsaw ghetto. Inside the ghetto Korczak did all he could to shelter the children in his care from the horrors of starvation, disease and overcrowding that existed all around them. He tried to provide them with as normal a life as possible and struggled to feed, clothe and educate them.
By 1942 deportations were taking thousands of Jews from the ghetto every day and sending them to what the Nazis called ‘resettlement in the East’. It would only be a matter of time before Korczak’s name and those of the others in the orphanage appeared on the lists for deportation. Realising that deportation meant almost certain death, some of Korczak’s friends planned to help him to escape from the ghetto and live hiding on the Aryan side. However, there were simply too many people inside the orphanage to help them all; if Korczak took this opportunity to survive, he would have to leave the children behind.
What decision did Janusz Korczak have to make?
Discuss what choice you think he should have made.
Anna Wiechec was a Polish Catholic living in Krakow. A widow, she lived in poverty with her three young children in a one room basement flat.
One Autumn night in 1943 Anna heard a soft knock on her door. She opened it to find strangers on her doorstep: a frightened Jewish woman and a five year old Jewish girl. The woman asked Anna if she would hide them from the Nazis in her tiny flat.
Anna understood the danger that this woman and young girl faced, that they were risking their lives simply by being outside the Jewish ghetto and that the Nazis paid a good reward to anyone who helped them to find hidden Jews. Anna also knew that if she did hide these strangers and they were discovered, not only herself but also her three young children could be executed for helping Jews.
Discuss what options Anna Wiechec had.
Do you think that Anna should have helped these strangers?
Szmul Zygielbojm was a Jewish member of the Polish National Council, living in exile in London. On December 2 1942 Zygielbojm met an eyewitness who reported to him precise details of the murders of Jews in Poland.
Zygielbojm listened in shocked silence as he heard about the deliberate starvation of thousands of Jewish men, women and children inside the Warsaw ghetto; about massacres where innocent people were shot into open graves; and about the death camp at Belzec where factory methods of extermination were being used to murder trainloads of people every day.
This eyewitness also brought a desperate plea from members of the Bund inside the Warsaw ghetto for Jewish leaders in the free world to do all they could to help those still left alive under Nazi rule. They said:
‘We are only too well aware that in the free and civilised world outside, it is not possible to believe all that is happening to us. Let the Jewish people, then, do something that will force the other world to believe us. We are all dying here; let them die too. Let them crowd the offices of Churchill, of all the important English and American leaders and agencies. Let them proclaim a fast [hunger strike] before the doors of the mightiest, not retreating until they will believe us, until they will undertake some action to rescue those of our people who are still left alive. Let them die a slow death while the world is looking on. This may shake the conscience of the world.’
What options did Szmul Zygielbojm have?
What do you think that he should have done?
Gad Beck was nineteen years old when the Nazis came for his gay lover, Manfred Lewin. Manfred and his family were arrested with other Berlin Jews and held in what had once been Gad’s Jewish school. Gad knew that Manfred would soon be sent to a concentration camp but had no idea how he could help him. Manfred’s boss, a non-Jew, offered Gad his son’s Hitler Youth uniform and suggested that he use it to enter the assembly camp where Manfred was being held and try to get him out. Gad was desperate to rescue Manfred but knew that he would be taking a terrible risk if he marched into the Nazi camp. The uniform was about four sizes too large for him, so made a poor disguise and is discovered he, too, would be arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
What choices did Gad face?
What decision do you think he should have made?
Police Battalion 101
In the summer of 1942 a Police Battalion from Hamburg was ordered to the town of Jozefow in the German occupied territories of Eastern Poland. The 500 men under the command of Major Wilhelm Trapp were not fanatical Nazis; the majority were not even members of the Nazi Party and only a handful were members of the SS. They were not specially chosen or trained but were simply ordinary family men, mostly aged between 30 and 40 years old, who had been posted hundreds of miles from home and missed the wives and children they had left behind. But when they reached the outskirts of the small Polish town, this group of ordinary men were given an extraordinary order.
The men of Police Battalion 101, who were used to normal police duties, were now ordered to clear the Jewish ghetto, to round up the old and the sick, the women, babies and children, force them from their homes and murder them all. Only the men who were considered fit for work in the slave labour camps were to be spared.
Realising what an extremely difficult task he was giving his men, Major Trapp offered to excuse any member of the Battalion who did not feel that they were capable of carrying out this order, assuring them that there would be no punishment for those who did not participate in the massacre. The only men who would enter the Jewish ghetto of Jozefow and murder the unarmed families who lived there would do so voluntarily.
What sort of men made up Police Battalion 101?
What choices did the men of Police Battalion 101 face?
Out of the 500 men in Police Battalion 101, how many do you think stepped forward and asked to be excused from the murders?
What Choices Did They Make?
Mordecai Anielewicz led the Jews of Warsaw in an uprising against the Nazis that was to startle the world. As the 2,000 German soldiers entered the ghetto with tanks and flamethrowers, they expected the deportation of the remaining 60,000 Jews to take just three days but found themselves driven back by fierce Jewish resistance. Armed only with a small number of rifles, pistols and machine guns, homemade hand grenades and limited ammunition, the Jewish resistance fighters of the Warsaw ghetto managed to hold out against the might of the German army for an entire month.
On April 23 1943 Mordecai Anielewicz wrote to his friend Yitzhak Zuckerman, ‘Keep well, my dear. Perhaps we shall meet again. But what really matters is that the dream of my life has become true. Jewish self defence in the Warsaw ghetto has become a fact. Jewish armed resistance and retaliation have become a reality. I have become witness to the magnificent heroic struggle of the Jewish fighters.’
The Jewish resistance had decided to fight against impossible odds, knowing well that they could never win. The Nazis sent in reinforcements and burned down the ghetto building by building; the heat from the fires melted the pavements. On 8 May Mordecai Anielewicz was among a group of about 100 resistance fighters who were trapped by the Nazis inside an underground bunker. They committed suicide rather than surrendering. A few days later the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was finally crushed and the remaining survivors were deported to the camps.
Gad Beck put on the Hitler Youth uniform and walked into the assembly camp where the Nazis were holding Manfred Lewin and his family. He saluted the Nazi officer with the greeting ‘Heil Hitler!’ and asked for Manfred to be handed over to him, claiming that he was a ‘Jewish saboteur’ who had stolen keys from his father that they needed for their work. When Manfred was brought before them and he saw Gad dressed in the uniform of the Hitler Youth his eyes twitched in surprise. Gad’s only thought was ‘get out of here fast; just get out of here with him fast!’. But he kept his voice calm and steady as he ordered Manfred to show him where he had hidden the ‘stolen’ keys. Together they walked outside into the street and Gad felt a tremendous wave of triumph and relief as he led Manfred out of danger.
But now it was Manfred who faced a terrible dilemma. Although he had been rescued his family was still trapped and Manfred knew they would soon be deported to a concentration camp. ‘Gad, I can’t go with you,’ he said. ‘My family needs me. If I abandon them now, I could never be free.’ So Manfred Lewin turned around and walked quietly back to the assembly camp; he and Gad parted without even saying goodbye. Years later Gad Back was to recall that, ‘in those seconds, watching him go, I grew up.’
Franz chose not to sign the declaration and continued to suffer the cruelties of the camps. Inside the Rollwald labour camp in 1944, believing that he may soon be executed like his father and brother before him, he wrote the poem ‘I Stand Firm’.
In my faith I will always stand firm,
Though this world may taunt and cry,
In my hope, I will always stand firm,
For a beautiful, better time.
In my love I will always stand firm,
Though this world repays with hate,
Devoted, I will always stand firm,
Though this world disloyal stays.
From God’s Word, flows the might of the strong.
Anna did hide the Jewish woman and young girl (whose name was Marysia) in her small basement flat. Every day the woman and child would leave the house, returning in the evening to eat their meal and sleep the night. One day they must have been caught in one of the Nazi round-ups; they left the flat as usual but never returned.
Korczak refused all attempts by his friends to persuade him to escape from the ghetto; he simply would not leave the children from his orphanage behind. On 5 August 1942 the Nazis rounded up all of the staff and 200 children of the orphanage and marched them through the streets of the ghetto to the deportation train. An eyewitness reported that people wept as Korczak led the children in a silent and dignified protest, marching to the train in an orderly manner. They were deported to Treblinka death camp where they were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival.
Szmul Zygielbojm campaigned tirelessly for the Allies to save Europe’s Jews. He pinned his last hopes on the Bermuda Conference, which met in the spring of 1943 to discuss what could be done to help.
On 12 May 1943, as the conference came to an end without agreeing upon a plan to save the Jews, Zygielbojm’s hopes seemed lost. On that very day the courageous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, led by Mordecai Anielewicz was finally crushed.
In despair, Zygielbojm sat down in his London flat and wrote his last letter to the Polish President and Prime Minister. He wrote, ‘perhaps by my death I will contribute to shaking out of their indifference those who can and should act now, still, at what seems the last moment, to save from certain annihilation the handful of Polish Jews which is still alive.’
Szmul Zygielbojm then made his final protest by taking his own life.
Freddie and the other young people who ripped at the wooden boards of the cattle truck did not escape. Instead, they chose to stay on the train rather than risk the lives of their companions who would have to remain.
At the end of the journey they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau where most were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. Freddie was one of those selected for work and was one of the few to survive the appalling conditions of a camp system designed to work prisoners to death. He was liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945 and today lives in the United Kingdom.
Police Battallion 101
Ten to twelve of the 500 men in Police Battallion 101 stepped forward and asked to be excused from participating in the murder of the Jews of Jozefow. None of these men were punished as a result; they were merely given other duties. The rest of the Battallion carried out their orders and murdered the women and children, the old and the sick and deported the men who were fit for work to a slave labour camp.
Adam Czerniakow and Chaim Rumkowski
Adam Czerniakow could not bring himself to carry out the Nazi orders. He had tried desperately to get the Nazis to grant an exemption for the orphan children of the ghetto, but was told that even the children would have to be deported. On 23 July 1942 Czerniakow wrote: ‘The SS wants me to kill children with my own hands’. They were to be the final words in his diary; unable to make the terrible choice of who would live and who would die, Czerniakow killed himself by swallowing a tablet of cyanide. His suicide note confessed his feelings of hopelessness and why he felt that this final action was the only choice left to him:
‘I am powerless. My heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this. My act will prove to everyone what is the right thing to do.’
However, the deportations went ahead anyway. Over the next seven and a half weeks, three quarters of the 350,000 Jews remaining in the Warswa ghetto were forced into overcrowded cattle trucks and deported to their deaths in the gas chambers of Treblinka.
Chaim Rumkowski chose to comply with the Nazi orders by drawing up the lists that they demanded. He hoped that by giving the Nazis the elderly, the sick and the children, he would at least be able to save those who were capable of working for the German war effort. On 4 September 1942, Rumkowski stood before his people and said to them:
‘A broken Jew stands before you. Do not envy me. This is the most difficult of all orders I’ve ever had to carry out at any time. I reach out to you with my broken, trembling hands and I beg: Give into my hands the victims, so that we can avoid having further victims and a population of a hundred thousand Jews can be preserved. So they promised me: if we deliver our victims by ourselves, there will be peace.’
Rumkowski’s strategy almost succeeded. As the Jews of the other Polish ghettos were deported to the death camps, the 60,000 who remained in Lodz continued to labour in the ghetto workshops and the Jews of Lodz were the last to remain in any of the major ghettos. However, in the summer of 1944 the deportations from Lodz began again and by August only the few hundred that lay in hiding remained. Rumkowski was one of the last to be deported, but he too was placed on a train to Auschwitz. Rumkowski had been feared, hated and despised and it is rumoured that he was murdered on board the deportation train by the Jews themselves.