The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Military and Spiritual Resistance
The fight against the German Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto was of three kinds: civil resistance (the activities of the population, which strove to survive by various means, organizing food supplies, medical care), military resistance - based on the activity of underground organizations; and spiritual resistance - based on the attitude of religious Jews, for whom the fight against the Germans consisted in remaining true to their religious principles.
Little is known of this last group; few written sources have been preserved, and survivor testimonies are rare. Because they refused to conform to the occupant’s regulations, keeping their beards, sidelocks and traditional attire, often also refusing to wear armbands with the Star of David, they were the first to be targeted by the Germans. Yet paradoxically, the tactics they had adopted since the establishment of the ghetto - i.e. non-cooperation with the Judenrat insofar as registration for any type of duties was concerned, produced a significant representation of this group, in contrast to those saved from the Grossaktion of July 22, 1942. The remainder of the population preferred to register in order to obtain work, which meant getting food rations. Religious Jews (today we would probably call them orthodox) preferred to rely on accidental and charitable opportunities, but did not take part in the ghetto’s bureaucratic system. Shutting themselves off in apartments (they tried not to be out in the streets in order not to provoke anyone with their traditional dress), then cellars and bunkers, they studied the Torah and led spiritual lives - at the same time being moral beacons to others. Some were also unwilling to have anything to do with being in the Judenrat services, and therefore forced to take part in repressions against other Jews. Dr. Hillel Seidman wrote: “Whoever wanted to forget the horror of life in the ghetto - the hunger, suffering, pain - found his way to Rabbi Awraham Weinberg. In spite of horrible conditions, Rabbi Weinberg continued to teach the Torah in his home until the Germans carried out a brutal operation in his street. He and his students were literally dragged from their study to the Umschlagplatz and deported to Treblinka on September 2, 1942. Volumes of the Talmud remained on the tables, open at the treatise Bikkurim, about which Weinberg had written a work entitled Reshit Bikkurim. The aban-doned books bore testimony to those tireless Torah scholars.” Deportations continued. Seidman relates: “I visited the underground world today. From afar, I heard the melodic recitation of the Talmud. The Talmud here? In the ghetto?! About a dozen boys were sitting at a table, avidly discussing the text. They considered ancient laws, completely plunged into another world. Their faces were pale, their eyes aflame. Most no longer had mothers or fathers. They only had their rabbi - Yehuda Leib Landau, who taught night and day.” Another story: Rabbi Itzchak Meir Kanal was 82 in 1942. He had been a member of the Warsaw Rabbinate for several years, and the deputy president of the Agudas Yisroel Rabbinical Council. His apartment, along with his huge library, burned down during the Nazi bombardments of September 1939. He had no illusions as to what the deportations meant. During a roundup, he refused to go to the Umschlagplatz, while according to another version he refused to get on the train at the Umschlagplatz, saying “whatever happens, at least I will die like a Jew.” He was shot on the spot and was in fact buried at the Jewish cemetery in Okopowa St., or, as it was then called, “on Gęsia.”
We will return to this group further on in this article.
The great deportation Aktion of July 22, 1942, begun on Tisha B’Av, dealt a fatal blow to the ghetto population. About 300 000 Jews were deported to Treblinka and murdered.
After these events, the ghetto was no longer the same. First of all, Jews shed the illusion that deporta-tions “to the East” meant anything other than brutal murder. Many, especially young people active in underground organizations, who escaped deportation, lost their entire families. This made them determined and eager to fight. All those remaining in the ghetto were now certain that they were sentenced to death.
Second of all, the ghetto no longer resembled a residential district. Its inhabitants now officially num-bered 35 000 (in fact, about 60 000 people). As Prof. Engelking and Prof. Leociak write in The Warsaw Ghetto. A Guide to the Perished City, “it resembled more of a labor camp than a residential district. It was made up of separate enclaves inhabited by the workers of the official shops [i.e. workshops - M. K.] put in barracks, and the uninhabited areas between them, where it was forbidden to stay (...). The Jews remaining in the ghetto had to work in German factories and workshops.” One of the most thriving was Walter Többens’ shop, the “Többens Werke”, which - according to Franz Konrad, head of the company charged with “reclaiming” valuables from the ghetto, the “Werterfassung” - produced 60% of all the winter clothing for the eastern front. Workers were escorted to and from work by the German Werkschutz. About 2500 people worked for the Judenrat, whose significance as an administrative body in the ghetto was gradually fading.
The account of Rabbi Awraham Ziemba, the nephew of Rabbi Menachem: “The leaders of the resistance movement knew that there was a widespread understanding of the approaching catastrophe for the [Jewish] society. People naturally gathered at my uncle, Rabbi Menachem Ziemba’s house, looking for counsel and support. My uncle had already declared a while back that whoever could escape the ghetto on Aryan papers, should do so. Whoever could not, should seek a hiding place in the ghetto. In line to see the rabbi was a young man, who said that he had arranged a place for his mother on the Aryan side, but only on condition that she would convert to Catholicism. His mother had refused, claiming she would rather die as a Jew than live without her Jewish identity. What was he to do? Rabbi Menachem looked at him and said: how can I change her decision? If your mother has decided that she wants to be a Jew, how can I take that privilege away from her? Next in line was a young couple: they wanted a get (divorce). They had gotten Aryan papers, but the wife was afraid, she had strikingly Jewish looks and suspected they might be caught if they remained together. But she wanted her husband to survive. When Többens and Schutz announced that their “shops” would be transferred to Lublin and offered their workers the “opportunity” to leave, these people came to Rabbi Menachem. Should they go? The rabbi didn’t want to take personal responsibility for their decision. After consulting other rabbis and social activists he said that he thought the Germans were lying....”
Coming back to military resistance: in the fall of 1942 Jews began to rebuild and reinforce their under-ground. Traitors and collaborators were sentenced to death and executed. Those killed included Jakub Lejkin, the chief of the Jewish police who oversaw the police during the Grossaktion; Israel First, who collaborated with the Gestapo, and others. The second wave of assassinations took place between January-March 1943 - preventive measures against any potential leaks.
Contact was established with the Polish underground. On request from Leon Feiner of the Bund, Jan Karski (a courier of the Polish government-in-exile in London) visited the ghetto twice before embarking on his London mission in 1942 in order to see personally what the conditions were like and to meet with the leaders of the resistance.
The Jews’ appeal for help, or at least to make the fate of Polish Jewry known, was not only directed to the Polish government-in-exile, but to all of the “free world” and “Jewish leaders.” Jan Karski delivered this message faithfully, both in London, and later in the United States. Unfortunately the world did not react to this tragedy.
In London, Karski reported the situation to the Polish government and spent a long time explaining it to Szmuel Zygielbojm, the representative of the Bund on the London National Council, who - along with the other Jew on the Council - Dr. Ignacy Schwarzbart, who represented the Zionists - took up intensive efforts to persuade the Allies as well as Jewish communities in the free countries to come to the aid of the Jews being murdered by the Germans in Poland and Nazi-occupied Europe. Their efforts met with no real response. Paradoxically, a meeting of the American and British governments had been scheduled for April 19, 1943, in Hamilton, Bermuda, to discuss the war with Germany. The situation of the Jews in occupied Europe appeared on the agenda.
In Warsaw, meanwhile, as information was prepared for Jan Karski, talks continued with the Polish underground. Arie Wilner was nominated for the talks with the Home Army and to establish permanent contacts with the Polish resistance. Wilner made contact with Henryk Woliński, nom de guerre Wacław, from the Jewish Department of the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Home Army Command. Wacław was a Righteous among the Nations - during the war, he hid 25 Jews in his apartment, for which he was awarded the Yad Vashem medal after the war. The Polish side responded positively to the initiative, suggesting that it preferred to work with a unanimous representation of all the under-ground organizations active in the ghetto. The Jews (in spite of ideological differences) also recognized such a need. On November 9, 1942, the unanimous (without the ŻZW - more on this, below) ŻOB rep-resentation informed the authorities of the Underground State of its establishment, and appealed for help in acquiring weapons. General Stefan “Grot” Rowecki responded positively to these declarations. In December, 10 (sic!) pistols were delivered to the ghetto.
The Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) was comprised of: Hashomer Hatzair, the Dror, Akiba, Gordonia, Poale Zion Left, Poale Zion Right, HaNoar HaTzioni and the PPR. The revisionists (and Betar) remained unaffiliated with these structures. The Jewish National Committee was the political wing of the ŻOB. A Social Committee was also formed, whose mission was to collect funds and bring together authorities supporting the military initiative. The ŻOB had about 600 members.
Next to the ŻOB, another military organization was active in the ghetto, led by Paweł Frenkel and Dawid Apfelbaum, and connected with the Revisionist Zionists and Betar as well as the Jewish Military Union - Jewish Combat Organization. The ŻOW was much better armed than the ŻOB and enjoyed the support (amongst others, probably) of the Security Corps, a Polish secret organization (subordinated to the Home Army General Command since 1942), one of whose units, led by Maj. Henryk Iwański, nom de guerre Bystry, fought a battle against the Germans, shoulder to shoulder with the ŻOW, in the area of Muranowski Square on April 27, 1943. A German tank was burned during this operation. It is in Muranowski Square that two flags were flown from a roof - a Polish and a Jewish one. All of the fighters of the Jewish Military Union perished in the ghetto, along with ten heroic combatants from Bystry’s unit. After the war, due to communist propaganda which supported the leftist Bund (which also came to dominate history on account the political makeup of the ŻOB and the prevalence of Zionists in the organization), the contribution of the ŻOW and of Maj. Bystry’s troops was completely omitted. Poles fighting in the ghetto are mentioned by SS general J. Stroop in his report on the quenching of the uprising, as well as by Stefan Korboński.
The outbreak of the uprising in April 1943 was preceded by the so-called January self-defense. Himmler visited the closed district on January 9, 1943, and noted that there were still “too many” Jews in the ghetto, ordering their “liquidation.” This was resisted by the German entrepreneurs who were not con-tent at the idea of reducing their work force. They soon came to an agreement with the SS that their companies would be transferred to the labor camps at Trawniki and Poniatowa together with the work-ers. At this point, people no longer believed the German assurances that they would be sent to work. Summons to assemble were boycotted. It was only after 5 days that the Germans managed to catch about 5000 people - on January 18, 1943, the SS entered the ghetto and carried out a classic roundup. Many of the ŻOB activists thought they were dealing with the final liquidation of the ghetto, and fighting broke out in a number of places. Sixty Bund activists were shot at the Umschlagplatz - they had refused to get onto trains.
Based on the contacts established between the ŻOB and the AK (December 4, 1942), the Żegota Council to Aid Jews was founded on the Aryan side at the initiative of individuals and various underground groups. The Council obtained documents, arranged food aid, medical care and hiding places for Jews, with special efforts made to protect Jewish children. The operations of Żegota were financed by the Polish government-in-exile in London, Jewish organizations and numerous private donors. This is a beautiful chapter in Polish-Jewish relations and it is a pity that it is so often ignored. The Council was made up of a dozen individuals, both Poles and Jews. Its best known members include Prof. Władysław Bartoszewski, Irena Sendler, Adolf Berman and Leon Feiner. Every member of the Council was aided by his or her own network of collaborators.
Sometime between January and April 1943, a meeting of the last three surviving members of the War-saw Rabbinate - R. Menachem Ziemba, R. Szimszon Stockhammer and R. Dawid Szapiro - was held in the ghetto. The Catholic Church had offered to help them. R. Szapiro spoke first: “I am the youngest of us. What I say is not binding for you. It is clear that there is no way we can help the Jews remaining in the ghetto. However, the fact that we have not abandoned them can lend some moral support. I cannot abandon the people.” After a moment of silence, Rabbi Ziemba said: “There is nothing to discuss.” And they all went their separate ways.
Rabbi Menachem Ziemba (1883-1943) was one of Warsaw’s greatest rabbis. During the interwar period, he was the rabbi of Warsaw’s Praga district and a member of the city Rabbinate. He was a great halachic authority. In Praga, he lived at 34 Brukowa St. (today’s Okrzeja St.), just a few steps away from the no longer extant synagogue on Szeroka St. (today’s Kłopotowski St.). In the ghetto, he lived on Kupiecka St. - the area of the fighting of the ŻOW.
There is debate about his factual and clear support for the ghetto combatants. Although as a public fig-ure he could not become actively involved in preparing for armed resistance, he is supposed to have been one of the first people to have contributed funds for the purchase of weapons. At a meeting on January 14, 1943, he gave his rabbinical approval to an uprising. He said: “out of necessity we must stand up to our enemy on all fronts... we will no longer obey his orders... the sanctification of the Name takes various forms. During the first crusade in the eleventh century the Halacha defined one way of reacting to the situation of the Jews in France and Germany, and in the middle of the twentieth century, during the liquidation of Jews in Poland, it requires us to take a wholly different approach. In the past, faced with religious persecution, we were required to lay down our lives. Now, when we are faced with an archenemy whose unbelievable brutality and program of destruction knows no bounds, the Halacha would have us fight and resist until the very end with unvanquished determination and will in order to sanctify the Divine Name.”
The fighting in January made it possible to improve the organization of the combatants. Most im-portantly, it was decided that units would reside in the same or in adjacent apartments in various key locations throughout the ghetto. A certain mental barrier was also overcome - the Jews were now capa-ble of raising their heads and fighting. “The Home Army Information Bulletin” stated: “the heroic stance of those who have not lost their sense of honor in the saddest moments of Jewish reality, elicits respect and is a beautiful chapter in the history of Polish Jews.”
At that moment, no one could doubt any longer that the days of those still alive in the ghetto were numbered. The ghetto population engaged in feverish preparations: food was stockpiled, secret passages and tunnels were prepared as well as hiding places (bunkers) for long - as was thought - months of resistance. Those who had put off escape to prearranged shelters on the “Aryan side” did so immediately. The prices of food and building materials smuggled into the ghetto, or weapons sold to Jews, in-creased. The last were the most difficult to obtain.
In spite of agreements with the AK the ŻOB still lacked weapons. Following the December shipment, which seems only to have been symbolic, the AK delivered a further 50 pistols, 50 grenades and 4 kg of explosives at the end of January. In March 1943, the ŻOB wrote to the AK: (...) right now we have ten bullets for every gun. This is catastrophic. Giving us guns without ammunition gives the impression of cynical mockery of our fate and confirms the suspicion that the poison of anti-Semitism still consumes the circles of those who rule Poland in spite of the cruel, tragic experience of the last three years... I ask for at least 100 grenades, 50 pistols, 10 guns, and a few thousand ammunition of any caliber.”
Apart from the abovementioned underground groups of the ŻOB and ŻOW there were other armed groups unaffiliated with the above structures, which also prepared for armed resistance. Fragments of information from survivors seem to indicate that there were groups of religious Jews who decided to take up arms. We know of a group led by a certain “Matys” Matetiahu Gelman, who was a Chassid, a follower of the tzadik of Góra Kalwaria, and Rabbi Josef Aleksander Zemelman from Przedecz, who, according to accounts collected by the Michlal Institute in Jerusalem, fought actively in the ŻOB and was killed at 44 Zamenhof St.
Meanwhile religious Jews prepared for the holiday of Pesach, whose eve was on April 19, 1943. Clean-ing was probably not a priority, but an attempt was made to prepare small matzos and wine from raisins or beets (it exists - I checked!). Rumors of an uprising or a new liquidation operation intensified, and all were at the end of their nerves. Knowing the habits of the Germans, a new Aktion was expected to take place at daybreak.
“During the evening hametz hunt (on April 18), news spread that the Polish police was gathering at the entrances to the ghetto,” Rabbi Awraham Ziemba relates. “Everyone went home to take the most essen-tial things down to the bunkers. The atmosphere was very tense. Members of the underground assumed their posts.”
And indeed the tradition of disrupting holidays was maintained. The Germans entered the ghetto in the evening of April 19. This time, although they always perversely planned their operations on Jewish holidays, it was not about Pesach, but about Hitler’s birthday, which fell on April 20. The SS wanted to make their boss a nice gift, reporting that Warsaw was “Judenrein.” A German column advanced from the side of Gęsia/Zamenhof Sts. and down Nalewki. It was greeted by a shower of bullets and Molotov cocktails, thrown from ŻOB positions. The civil population were already for most part down in the bunkers and shelters.
Interestingly, the ŻOB had prepared no bunkers, shelters or ways out of the ghetto for its members... because they were not thinking about the future. As Itzchak “Antek” Cukierman wrote in his memoirs: “We did not seek ways to survive, our goal was to fight... we prepared no shelters... We prepared no plans of rescue because we did not take into account that any of us would remain alive.” In the end, as the uprising raged, it was the civil population who admitted the fighters into their bunkers.
Bela Szapec-Bar recalls the first day of the insurgency: “The uprising began on the evening of Pesach. We could hear bullets whistling by, and explosions, but Rabbi Herszel Rappaport said that we were to continue preparing for the seder. Nearly 70 people sat down to the table. Most were Gur Chassidim (followers of the tzadik of Góra Kalwaria), mostly young people, but 20 neighbors from the same courtyard also joined in. Among them was a well-known doctor who had never been religious, but had recently joined the Chassidim because he wanted his soul to depart with those of the holy men. Rabbi Herszel led the seder, but rapidly mounting gunfire forced us out to our hiding place in the attic. Rabbi Herszel remembered to take a small Torah scroll with him. Outside, fires raged, while inside we prayed and sang Chassidic songs. When the smoke grew thick, Rabbi Herszel said to us: “It is time. At this very moment we must be strong in order to keep from thinking that God has abandoned us... we want to live so badly, but at this moment His will is that we sanctify His Name, and we accept our fate with joy.” The SS finally found us. They took us outside, took away all of our valuables, and asked R. Rappaport if he was a rabbi....”
Rabbi Ziemba’s hiding place was located in an attic at 7 Kupiecka St. As many as 100 people had gath-ered there in the evening. He asked if everyone had matzos. In the preceding days he had advised eve-ryone to bake k’zait matzos - the minimal size acceptable by Jewish law (a bit larger than half a palm) - and to keep them in their pockets. Who knows where one will be spending the evening? Shooting sub-sided after nightfall. The seder was begun, the Haggadah read. In the morning, fighting resumed, and the Germans began to burn down house after house, rounding up survivors. On Shabbat, neighboring tenements caught fire, and everyone from 7 Kupiecka St. had to evacuate. During the escape, Rabbi Menachem was shot dead along with his five-year-old grandson. He was given a provisional burial in the courtyard at 4 Kupiecka St. After the war the grave was found (thanks to the efforts of Awraham Ziemba and Rabbi Menachem’s daughter, Rebetsin Rojza Weidenfeld, who witnessed his death), and the remains of this illustrious man were transferred to Jerusalem. It is is a pity that there is no street named after him in Warsaw.
The German command was well aware of the existence of shelters, and adopted a suitable strategy: their inhabitants were to be systematically “smoked out” by setting fire to and blowing up building af-ter building. The drama of those days is witnessed by a photograph from Stroop’s album, showing a mother with a baby on her arm, holding on to a balcony railing. She is hanging on the outer side of the balcony, located on the second floor. Flames and smoke blaze out from inside the apartment. How many such mothers and children were there?
On April 22, 1943, Stroop reported: “At night, the fire we had set forced the Jews to come out of resi-dential buildings in order to avoid the flames. Until then, they had remained hidden in cellars, apartments, attics and other places which our searches had not revealed. In great numbers, whole families of Jews, engulfed in flames, jumped from windows or lowered themselves on sheets tied together. Efforts were made to liquidate all of them immediately.” The account of a ghetto fighter: “The situation in the bunkers is tragic and hopeless. Air, water and food are in short supply. Days pass. Ten days after the beginning of the Aktion [here: the outbreak of the uprising], the ghetto is burned. There are charred remains everywhere. In the streets, courtyards, cellars - people buried alive.”
On April 30, 1943, a paid advertisement placed by the Zionist Committee for a Jewish Army (a non-formal organization) appeared in the New York Times, condemning the ineffectualness of the Bermuda Conference. Senator Henry S. Truman, who, as President of the United States, will support the United Nations resolution approving the establishment of the state of Israel, resigns from the American delega-tion’s negotiation committee.
On May 8, 1943, the last ŻOB bunker putting up armed resistance is destroyed. 18 Miła St. becomes the last fortress, the eternal resting place of Mordechaj Anielewicz and his comrades, a grave, a mausoleum to this day. It was not until 2008 that this place was registered as a national monument and grant-ed legal protection thanks to the efforts of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage and the Jewish Community of Warsaw.
On May 12, 1943, Szmuel Zygielbojm commits suicide in London. He finds out that his wife and son have been killed in the Warsaw ghetto. In a letter to the president of the Polish Republic, Raczkiewicz, he writes: “The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime.” The letter was kept secret for several years. The press was informed of a “tragic death.”
When Stroop sends his famous report to Hitler on May 16, 1943 (“Es gibt sinen judischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr!”), Adolf has other matter to tend to - on that and the following day the Allies bombed 3 dams in the Ruhr Valley as part of the famous Operation Chastise. The destructive power of water caused enormous losses. On May 15-16, four German submarines were sunk.
Photograph from the “Stroop Report”
In the United States, it was only on October 6, 1943, that a march of rabbis took place - an appeal for help for the Jews in Europe. The march was organized by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis and the Vaad Hatzalah (Rescue Committee), formed in November 1939, which attempted to rescue Jewish religious luminaries (in particular) from Europe. It was thanks to its efforts that in 1940 the entire Mir yeshiva was able to escape Lithuania. The president of the United States, Roosevelt, did not meet with the delegates.
Fifteen more months pass and the Warsaw uprising breaks out. Meanwhile the history of Warsaw’s Jews has already come to an end. The Germans have a plan to turn the former ghetto area into a park once the ruins have been sifted in search of reusable materials. For the moment, it is the site of KL Warschau, where Jews from Greece, Yugoslavia and France, mainly brought from Auschwitz, are hard at work.