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One of the few survivors of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, Holocaust scholar Gutman draws on diaries, personal letters, and underground press reports in this compelling, authoritative account of a landmark event in Jewish history. Here, too, is a portrait of the vibrant culture that shaped the young fighters, whose inspired defiance would have far-reaching implications for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)|
About the Author
Israel Gutman teaches modern Jewish history at the Hebrew University and directs research at Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial. He lives in Jerusalem.
Read an Excerpt
The First Weeks of War
BY MID-MAY 1943, the rebellion of the Warsaw ghetto had come to an end. The last groups of Jews had been murdered or sent to death camps. Perhaps a few thousand were hiding underground. The people were gone; so too their homes, apartments, workshops, factories, public and welfare institutions, synagogues, makeshift houses of prayer, hospitals, and old-age homes — all had been systematically erased from the face of the earth, vanished forever.
On the fifteenth of May 1943, SS General Jürgen Stroop, whose forces had destroyed the Warsaw ghetto, triumphantly reported that the guards on duty the night before had encountered only six or seven Jews in the ghetto area. Only a handful of Jews remained within the ruins of the ghetto. Stroop also noted that he had blown up the great synagogue of Warsaw, located outside the ghetto area. This imposing structure, the work of the architect Leandro Marconi in 1878, was the pride of many Jews. To the Nazis, its destruction symbolized the final victory of German power and spirit. The Jews of Warsaw had been destroyed. The material remains of Jewish life would also be eradicated.
General Stroop began his report of May 15 with an enthusiastic description of the victorious military campaign. Heavy artillery had been employed; thousands of casualties had been inflicted on the enemy. In the words of his summary: "The Jewish quarter in Warsaw is no longer."
Indeed, Jewish life in Warsaw had ended. For nearly four years, Jews had fought for their lives, their children, and their homes. The nonJewish world ignored their struggle or simply became resigned to the situation. Only a few, a very precious few, risked their lives by coming to aid the Jews.
The final chapter of the Jewish community in Warsaw had begun only four years earlier, on September 1, 1939.
In the summer of 1939, Germany presented Poland with an ultimatum demanding changes in the boundaries between the two countries; German inducements were tangible, its threats veiled. Poland stood firm. Along with the rest of the world, Polish leaders had followed the Reich's trail of broken agreements, dictates, and territorial expansion. Poland knew from the sad experience of Czechoslovakia and Austria that initially restrained German demands soon would be followed by ever-growing claims and threats to destroy the enemy and all European democracies. The Polish affair would end with the German occupation of its enfeebled neighbor. An attack could be expected; the only question was when.
Warsaw took some modest steps to prepare for war. Volunteers dug trenches around the approaches to the capital. Members of the Polish intelligentsia, who had never held a shovel, stood shoulder to shoulder with caftan-clad Jews, and they worked feverishly to protect the capital city. On August 19, 1939, Warsaw mayor Stefan Starzynski told residents, "Yesterday, more than 20,000 men dug trenches. Therefore, there are now a dozen kilometers of trenches already in a proper condition."
The Polish political crisis occurred just as Europe was abandoning its policy of appeasement, which was particularly strong in Great Britain. Public opinion was shifting against the Nazis. The abrogation of the Munich Agreement shortly after it was signed in March 1939 and the subjugation of Czechoslovakia, perhaps the most stable and successful democracy created by the Versailles treaty, convinced many that Hitler would not be satisfied by redressing the inequities resulting from World War I or gathering all Germans into one state. The German leader was intent on conquests and war.
The British policy of appeasement and the country's desperate attempts at negotiation had convinced Hitler that Great Britain and France would be reluctant to defend Poland despite their treaty obligations. Unwilling to display any weakness, Hitler resolved to attack Poland, correctly assuming that Poland would remain isolated during a short campaign. The last step that isolated Poland and ensured Hitler's fast victory was the Nazi-Soviet pact signed on August 23. Hitler and Stalin, who were until then outspoken ideological and political rivals, united in the plot to give the Nazis a free hand in their invasion and to divide conquered Poland between themselves.
The first of September was a sunny summer Friday. Polish children were about to begin their new school year, but instead they were awakened by the sound of bombing. Zila Rosenberg, a Jewish girl who later became a member of the resistance in Vilna, remembered her terror: "I am lying in an open field, trying to shrink, to turn into a tiny invisible dot. Low-flying heavy German bombers are passing overhead. My heart is beating like a thousand hammers: oh, God, don't let them harm me."
No official declaration of war by the Nazis preceded the attack. Rather, German prison inmates were dressed in Polish military uniforms and armed with rifles, and they initiated what the Nazis claimed was a Polish attack on a radio station in the small German border town of Gliwice. The ruse was successful, and the bombing of Warsaw took its inhabitants by surprise. At about 7:00 A.M., hours after the bombing began, Polish radio broadcast the first warnings:
At 4:45 A.M., the German army, without declaring war, crossed the Polish borders from the north and the west ... the first air-attack on Warsaw this morning caused damage in the airport area Okiecie and in residential quarters ... the newspapers printed during the night do not give any news as yet of the beginning of these acts of war.
On September 3, Britain and France declared war against Germany. Euphoria swept through Warsaw. The national anthems of Great Britain and France were broadcast endlessly. No one asked how the Allies would reach the Polish battlefields or where and when the western front would be set up. Excited crowds streamed toward the British embassy, then continued toward the presidential palace. A young Jew grasped a microphone:
Brothers, Poles, Jews. The enemy is beating and murdering us, burning and destroying our houses, our property, the effort of generations. I am a simple tinsmith, I don't understand politics. But it is clear to me that when we are attacked, we must defend ourselves. All of us — the rich and the poor, and even if we think there has been some injustice in the past, this must be set aside for the time being. Now we have to think of but one thing: if we all concentrate on a single purpose, we will be united — and we will win. But if we are not united, it will be bad. Long live our homeland and its allies and down with fascist Germany!
Still, despite the demonstrations and the war, the theaters and cinemas stayed open and were well attended.
On September 4, a newspaper reported, "The first transport of wounded reached Warsaw. Discouraging news is streaming in about the situation at the front, particularly about the advance of the German army in the southwestern sector. Escaping civilians turn up from Western Poland."
The Polish authorities ordered a partial evacuation of the capital. On September 5, President Ignacy Moscicki left town. On the same day, a railway station where refugees were concentrated was attacked from the air, resulting in many casualties. On the sixth, the prime minister, General Slawoj-Skladkowski, announced that "due to the danger facing the capital, the government was obliged to leave the city in the determined hope of returning after we have achieved victory." The chief commander of the armed forces, Marshal Rydz-Smigly, also fled. The situation deteriorated rapidly as the front was breached at critical points. The commander of the Polish forces abandoned the defense of the western districts.
With the attack against Poland, the Germans launched their "blitzkrieg" for the first time, which shocked Poland and surprised the world. The speed of the attack was unanticipated by Poland's high command. It wreaked havoc before the defense forces of the country were even activated. One commentator noted,
The pace of the Germans' advance during the first week of the war astonished us ... the chaos, the unbalanced and faulty organization ... From the very outset, there was a complete devitalization of the railways ... and in the confusion surrounding the movement of the railways, one could explain the phenomena which made me realize that we were entering an entirely new phase in life: that of leaving Warsaw.
Warsaw was threatened from the air and on the ground by the German tank corps, artillery, and infantry. The colonel responsible for the information services of the Polish general command broadcast a call for all young men of recruiting age to depart for the eastern regions, where the new front would be established. His ominous words yielded unanticipated results, for masses of inhabitants started on their exodus from the city. Adam Czerniakow, who later headed the Judenrat, the Jewish Council, in Warsaw, noted in his war diary on the seventh of September, "With knapsacks on their backs, they set out for the unknown."
Government authority had completely broken down. The administration, the political party structure, and various public functions were on the brink of collapse. Individuals took their fate into their own hands, crowding onto the bridges over the Vistula River. The roads leading eastward were thronged with an endless procession of people, who made an easy target for low-flying German aircraft, which machine-gunned the exposed migrants.
Many Jews took to the roads along with their Polish neighbors. Among the first to leave were political activists and prominent public and cultural figures in the Jewish sector. Jewish leaders felt uneasy, however, about leaving the city. Some claimed that they were likely to be on a German "wanted" list because they had published anti-Nazi articles or had taken part in activities against the Third Reich, such as advocating an economic boycott. Among those heading east were the heads of the Zionist movement, such as Moshe Kleinbaum (Sneh), who was later to play a decisive role in the organization of Jewish defense forces in Palestine; Menachem Begin, the central figure of the Zionist Betar movement, who headed the right-wing Irgun underground in Palestine and later became prime minister of Israel; and Zerah Wahrhaftig of the religious Zionist Mizrachi party. They were not alone. Long-standing leaders of the leftist non-Zionist Bund, Henryk Ehrlich and Victor Alter, Communist leaders, leaders of the Left Po'alei Zion, and the head of the Warsaw Jewish community, Maurycy Meisel, also fled.
The top echelon of Jewish leadership in political life, in both municipal and civil affairs, escaped the city together with the wave of refugees. Some of those who did not flee during the first days of September took advantage of other opportunities to slip out of Poland before the summer of 1940, including Apolinary Hartglas and Moshe Koerner of the General Zionists, Abraham Weiss of Mizrachi, Shmuel Zygelbojm of the Bund, and Yitzhak-Meir Levin and the Rabbi of Ger and his retinue from the heads of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel. As a result, when Warsaw Jewry faced its greatest crisis, its most experienced leaders — political and religious — were elsewhere.
The leaders and many members of the Zionist youth movements declared that the movement's activities had ceased temporarily, and they too moved eastward. In all, it is estimated that some 300,000 Jews were in the wave of migrants streaming eastward from western and central Poland prior to January–February 1940. While no figures are known, it is likely that nearly 20 percent of all those who left were Jews from Warsaw, although some returned or eventually lost their lives at the hands of the Germans. Many who departed were young men who had left their wives and children behind. Thus, from the beginning of the ghetto, the Jewish community was disproportionately composed of women, children, and the aged.
The flight of émigrés weakened the Jews remaining in Warsaw. Only a few top-level functionaries and public figures remained behind, generally for personal or family reasons. But there were also those who deliberately-stayed behind because they would not abandon their people in distress. This spirit induced the historian and public figure Emanuel Ringelblum to stay in Warsaw during the time of the ghetto. In his diary he noted, "The nights of the 6–7th September. Thousands and thousands of young people — more than a hundred? — phone me: 'Are you leaving?'" As the hour of their greatest crisis approached, Warsaw Jews would be led by second-tier leaders. Ringelblum would not leave.
Unlike the Jews of Germany and the annexed countries, Polish Jews had no time to consider how to avoid the German snare closing around them. Jews of an older generation remembered the German troops who occupied Warsaw and parts of Poland during World War I — those soldiers had been polite and civil to the local population. Surely, they thought, the Germans could not undergo such an extreme and drastic change despite their professed ideology and territorial aggressiveness. Many Jews were convinced that the intended "solution of the Jewish problem" was the expulsion of Jews from Germany.
As the enemy approached the gates of Warsaw, two men who stood their ground earned the respect of the Warsawites, Mayor Stefan Starzynski and General Walerian Czuma, the man in charge of defending the capital. Their courage posed a stark contrast to a pathetically vague and fragmented government and the boastful arrogance of the establishment. Starzynski's voice and appeals had a calming effect and carried conviction.
The army decided to turn the city into a fighting fortress, surrounded as it was by retreating combat units lacking effective air defenses. Some thought that the city and its inhabitants could block the enemy's advance, demonstrating to the world the city's unwillingness to surrender and Poland's courageous spirit.
As the 16th Division of the German armored corps arrived at the gates of Warsaw on September 8, the 4th Armored Division attacked with air support. General Czuma announced that Warsaw was to be defended, and he called on its inhabitants "to go about their business as usual." According to Polish sources, the mission assigned to General Czuma was well beyond the power and means at his disposal. His forces consisted of several units in the city and what few troops could be realigned during their retreat.
The civilian population was asked to dig trenches and erect ramparts and barricades. Despite their enthusiasm and strong will, the many volunteers could not overcome the powerful arms and methods of the enemy. Defenses were improvised. The Poles were overwhelmed, yet still they refused to yield.
On the 12th of September at 10:00 A.M., Stefan Starzynski announced on the radio that General Czuma had been allowed to recruit an armed battalion of defenders of Warsaw made up of 600 men and expressed the hope that this unit would be raised within half an hour. Volunteers were asked to report at 11:00 A.M. before the Mostowski palace: "I need 600 dedicated, healthy, strong young men, who want to fight for Warsaw. The first unit must be ready at once. I call on 600 youths to come forward immediately; men who are determined and ready to die for their homeland and for Warsaw ..." In a dozen minutes, there were some thousand at the gathering point — from young boys still in their teens to old men.
This hastily thrown together defensive body succeeded in arresting the advance of the invading Germans and even inflicted damage in direct combat. But the true obstacle to German domination was the city itself; its houses and citizens became the front, and they paid a heavy price for it. German forces surrounded Warsaw on all sides and continued to advance, subjecting the city to murderous air attacks and artillery bombardments.
The mayor and army commander appealed to the inhabitants to withstand the assault and prevent the city's occupation. It is unclear whether this stubborn defense of the city was part of a larger plan to provide a breathing spell for the Polish army which might change in the course of the war. For the first three weeks, the inhabitants of Warsaw displayed unbelievable endurance, discipline, and spirit of sacrifice, despite the intensifying attacks, wanton destruction, disturbing shortages, and the absence of any encouraging change. One commentator wrote:
In such conditions, with no information about the real course of events, the eternally deluded Warsaw lives the life of a besieged city. The extended trenches and barricades prepared for street fighting were an aspect that the enemy had not considered at all, for there was no need or desire to sacrifice thousands of victims when such battles were absolutely unnecessary from the German point of view. They had two effective means of achieving the desired results: bombing from the air and attacking positions with heavy artillery, and in addition, there was always the possibility of letting the city starve.
Excerpted from "Resistance"
Copyright © 1994 Israel Gutman.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
The First Weeks of War,
The Jews of Warsaw Between the Wars,
A New and Different Existence,
The Ghetto Is Sealed,
The Turning Point,
Political Parties and Youth Movements,
Deportation to Death,
The Establishment of the Jewish Fighting Organization,
Between the Expulsion and January 1943,
January 1943: The First Instance of Resistance,
About the Author,