‘Idealists with no military training’: remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
“Jewish workers, unite: you have nothing to lose except your enslavement in blood.”
– Der Oifbroise, Hashomer Hatzair newsletter, paraphrasing the Communist Manifesto
The seventieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is upon us. The battle, started on April 19th 1943 – the eve of Passover – has been registered in historical memory as a crucial point in the Second World War and in the destruction of European Jewry.
Weeks after the Nazis had consolidated their occupation of Poland, Governor Hans Frank ordered 400,000 Warsaw Jews to enter a prepared ghetto. By November 1940, around 500,000 Jews from across Poland had been sealed into the ghetto walls, effectively severed from the outside world and plunged into total isolation. With a 10ft high brick wall surrounding the ghetto, the act meant relocating approximately 30% of Warsaw’s population into approximately 2.6% of the city. The designated area, which was no more than 2 ½ miles long, had previously housed just 160,000 people. Here, the Jews were forced to live in chronic hunger and poverty, with many families inhabiting a single house and an extremely thin food rationing divided between many children in an every-day struggle. At least 100,000 tried to survive on no more than a bowl of soup a day. The sanitation system soon collapsed, and disease became rampant. By March 1942, 5,000 people were dying each month from disease and malnutrition.
The situation was dire. And yet, the initial response of the Jewish community as a whole was not to fight. The Judenrat (Jewish Council), created with Nazi blessings for the applying of Nazi directives in the hands of a Jewish establishment gave many a false sense of security. Others saw, through the lens of Jewish history, that this was yet another persecution that the Jews would outlive. After all, this wasn’t the first time the Jews had been in ghettos. Shmuel Braslaw, an activist in the Marxist-Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair grew disillusioned and somewhat alarmed with the popular attitudes of the Jewish youth: ‘Our young people learn to doff their hats when encountering Germans, smiling smiles of servitude and obedience … but deep in their hearts burns a dream: to be like [them] – handsome, strong and self-confident. To be able to kick, beat and insult, unpunished. To despise others, as the Germans despise [us] today’.
To Braslaw and fellow leftist Jews eager for signifiers of defiance, the unorganised and disorientated Jewish masses’ overall attitude towards the Nazis was between moral apathy and servitude. The only bases of resistance could be found in the self-organisation of young leftists into cells affiliated to various political parties. The Bund, a social-democratic party which enjoyed popularity on the pre-war Jewish street were big political players alongside the Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist Left Poale Zion and the Communist Party, only recently resurrected from a Comintern-imposed dissolution in 1938 for ‘Trotskyist’ crimes. All parties had the core intention of reviving attitudes of collectivism and dignity in the disaffected young Jewish workers.
The cell structures of the organisations in wartime provided a social and psychological anchor in the face of hunger and demoralisation. ‘The day I was able to re-establish contact with my Communist Youth group was one of the happiest days in my hard, tragic ghetto life’, wrote Dora Goldkorn. The ultimate hope of these cells was for developing the future potential of collective resistance, as well as a method of maintaining spirits and raising morale; dividing food equally and passing out flyers encouraging popular resistance went hand-in-hand to those in political cells. In 1942, the ghetto Communists drafted a manifesto that proposed the formation of an ‘antifascist bloc’, which could provide a blueprint to unite the Jewish Left in all ghettos. In its call for a ‘national front’ against the occupation and for its call to unite all progressive forces around simple common demands and causes, it echoed the organisational methodology of the Popular Front; not only did the Left-PZ join enthusiastically but so did the Hashomer Hatzair.
The Bloc existed for two short months due to internal bickering and the absence of the Bund, who were ambiguous on their support for what they deemed to be a Communist front organisation and who still wished for Jewish-Polish unity in fighting rather than a specifically Jewish militant group. Its organ Der Ruf (The Cry) twice reached publication, its contents overwhelmingly focused around applauding the Soviet Union and awaiting liberation at the hands of its Red Army. The Bloc’s squads in Warsaw had representatives belonging to all varieties of socialist forces, but the overall driving force was Pinkus Kartin, whose ‘very appearance’ in the ghetto ‘undoubtedly impressed the Jewish underground’, in the words of Israel Gutman. A Communist stalwart and a veteran of Spain, his arrest in June 1942 signaled the death knell for the Bloc in the Warsaw ghetto, having been effectively the sole activist instructing the fighting groups the rudimentary tenets of partisan warfare.
The Jewish Fighting Organisation (ZOB) formed in July 1942 did not involve the Communists initially due to the elimination of many of their key activists, although important allies of the Communists in the ghetto remained, such as Left Poale Zion activist Abraham Fiszelson, Kartin’s former right-hand man and also a Spain veteran. The political Right attempted a rival group in the shape of the Jewish Military Union (ZZW), which was led by the Revisionist-Zionist Betar. However, the ZZW relied upon Jewish ex-army officers who craved orthodox warfare with the Germans, unlike the ZOB which considered itself the armed expression of the combined radical movements that had existed before the war. Unlike the ZZW who separated ‘politics’ from ‘combat’ in their military groups in the insertion of regular army discipline, leading officers with military backgrounds and so on, the ZOB commanders were typically ‘young men in their twenties, Zionists, Communists, socialists – idealists with no battle experience, no military training’.
The execution of collaborators was paramount to the activities of the ZOB in the ghetto. For activists, collaborators represented an auxiliary wing of Nazi policy in operation, a ghetto bourgeoisie instrumental in facilitating and easing the deportation of the Jews. Thus, in Warsaw, a policeman who was condemned as having ‘dedicated himself with bizarre devotion’ to deportations named Jacob Lejkin was executed by activists of the ZOB, triggering widespread panic in the Jewish establishment.
Whilst only symbolic in nature, the ZOB encouraged resistance by showing the possibility of it. This was contrasted to the ‘martyrdom’ of collaborators such as Adam Czerniakow (the uneasy Judenrat leader who committed suicide in 1942) who were perceived as cowardly and disloyal towards working-class Jews. To Marek Edelman, Czerniakow ‘made his death his own private business’, a symbol of privilege to Jewish leftists teetering on the brink of a humiliating destruction by Nazism’s hand. Edelman recalls the prevailing attitude of the Jewish left was that ‘one should die with a bang …. [and] only after having called other people into the struggle’.
The ghetto uprising was in many ways a conclusion to both the processes of Jewish socialist activism and of Nazi deportation. The more people were murdered in the ghettos or deported to concentration camps, the less links these cells had to the politically uninitiated. In Warsaw, between June and September 1942 300,000 Jews had been murdered or deported, an utter liquidation of Polish Jewry. In these circumstances, activists in cells dispensed their worries over maintaining the well-being of parents or siblings on a personal or financial basis. The feeling of responsibility for further anguish stemming from Nazi reprisals to resistance acts also vanished. In many senses, the hopes and calls of the left in calling for a collective resistance to Nazi barbarity had outlived its constituency: the Jewish community was in the process of being exterminated, and the appeal to fight could increasingly be taken heed only by those making the call. What now mattered principally was the initiative activists took upon themselves, and the majority favoured an uprising. In the words of Marek Edelman, they recognised that ‘dying with arms was more beautiful than without arms’.
On the morning of Monday 18th January, six months on from the first mass deportations from Warsaw which decimated Warsaw Jewry from 400,000 to an estimate of 70,000 to 80,000, By the sheer length of the four days it lasted, it became entirely clear that the Nazis were intending to rapidly liquidate the ghetto. ZOB squads involved themselves in guerrilla activities, infiltrating lines of Jewish workers on the march to the Umschlagplatz before stepping out of rank at a given signal to assassinate the German soldiers escorting the workers. Though scores of ZOB fighters fell, they allowed some Jewish workers to flee. Even more importantly, the first Nazi bodies had fallen in the ghetto, in the plain view of ordinary Jews, at the hands of the ZOB.
This little-known event provided activists with useful preparation and experience for the ghetto uprising, which occurred on April 19th – the battle that hopeless fighters waged until 16th May. The youngest fighter killed was a Bundist activist aged 13; according to varying accounts, the red flag and the blue-and-white Star of David flag were both raised at different times in the days of struggle from different buildings. Although so clearly inexperienced, an anonymously-authored Bund internal document that reached London in June 1943 states that the ‘fraternity’ between leftist groups in fighting was ‘exemplary’. The unswerving dedication to which they clung to their ideals is summarised best in how rival groups carried out their usual ritual demonstration on May Day, a day that all on the Left gave significant emotional attachment to due to its association of universal proletarian solidarity. Instead of re-enacting pre-war rivalries, the groups ceased fire for speeches and for singing the Internationale. Said Marek Edelman:
The entire world, we knew, was celebrating May Day on that day and everywhere forceful, meaningful words were being spoken. But never yet had the Internationale been sung in conditions so different, so tragic, in a place where an entire nation had been and was still perishing. The words and the song echoed from the charred ruins and were, at that particular time, an indication that socialist youth [were] still fighting in the ghetto, and that even in the face of death they were not abandoning their ideals.
The ghetto was razed to the ground, and a mere 40 (out of perhaps 500 to 700) fighters escaped onto the Polish side. All carried on fighting in the city-wide uprising the following year, and some perished there.
Predictably, tributes are beginning to pour out to the ghetto fighters from all political realms, all attempting to stake the claims and the subsequent mythology of the uprising for their own particular ends. This is nothing new: in 1949 Le Monde Juif saw in the sacrifice of the resistance fighters “a symbol of the extreme national effort [towards] the nation-building of Israel”, and the Palmach’s conscious usage of partisan slogans during the Independence war illustrates tellingly the continuous thought process binding the Jewish struggle in Europe and in Palestine in participant’s eyes. Historian Robert Wistrich can even reference young soldiers in the Six Day War claiming the ‘six million ghosts’ fighting alongside them as an explanation for military victory, two decades on from the Holocaust.
In Britain, the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, fresh from eulogising Thatcher, used his BBC Thought for the Day to frame the Uprising as a specifically religious, Jewish occurrence: in vague sweeps he references how ‘great rabbis supported the revolt’, encouraging Jews to be ‘martyrs to their faith’. His ignorance of the backgrounds of the Warsaw ghetto fighters can only make sense in a world where those who are around to bear witness are further away, dwindling into lesser and less numbers as the years go by.
Because of this reality of a petering out of witnesses and participants, it would show more respect to not lionise the ghetto fighters of long ago but to see them as they were: young and idealistic, committed militants in leftist organisations, pushed into oblivion along with the rest of their community and political constituency. They disobeyed in practice any concept of an ethnically unified community, and castigated –sometimes killed – their ‘own’ communal figureheads, their ‘own’ bourgeoisie. Jews they were, but only by birth and community – as left-wingers they were fighting a politically defined battle consciously located inside a Europe-wide underground struggle against fascism and capitalism. It is in this spirit that the commemorative statement of the governing council of the Ghetto Fighters House, a ghetto fighter’s kibbutz-turned-museum, emphasized the legacy of the uprising as a reminder to ‘fight racism with excessive strength’ and build a just, sane world. It is a heartbreaking reminder of the twentieth century’s hellish brutality that these women and men who took up arms against Nazism amidst the Warsaw ghetto’s burning buildings cannot be here to agitate alongside us, but their sacrifice would be squandered if we were not to act, as well as remember.