Originally published in a pamphlet called The Warsaw Ghetto: The 45th Anniversary of the Uprising
Dedicated to the Memory of Abrasha Blum
When the Germans occupied Warsaw in 1939, they found the Jewish political and socialworld in a state of complete chaos and disintegration. Almost all the leading personalities had left Warsaw on September 7th. The 300,000 Jews there experienced a deeper feeling of loneliness and helplessness than the others.
In such conditions it was easy for the Germans to dominate the population from the very beginning by breaking their spirit through persecutions and by evoking a state of passive submission in their midst. The experienced and devilishly refined German propaganda agencies worked ceaselessly to achieve these aims, spreading incredible–for those days–rumours which further increased the panic and derangement in Jewish life. Then, after a short period of time, the maltreatment of Jews passed the stage of an occasional punch on the nose, sadistic extractions of Jews from their homes, and chaotic nabbing of Jews in the streets for aimless work. The persecutions now became definite and systematic.
As early as November 1939, the first “exterminating” decrees were made public: the establishment of “educational” camps for the Jewish population as a whole, and the expropriation of all Jewish assets in excess of 2,000 zloty per family. Later, one after another, a multitude of prohibitive rules and ordinances appeared. Jews were forbidden to work in key industries, in government institutions, to bake bread, to earn more than 500 zloty a month (and the price of bread rose, at times, to as high as 40 zloty a pound), to buy from or sell to “Aryans”, to seek comfort at “Aryan” doctors’ offices, to doctor “Aryan” sick, to ride on trains and trolley-cars, to leave the city limits without special permits, to possess gold or jewelry, etc. After November 12th, 1939, every Jew twelve years of age or older was compelled to wear on his right arm a white arm-band with the blue Star of David printed on it (in certain cities, e.g. Lodz and Wloclawek, yellow signs on the back and chest).
The Jews–beaten, stepped upon, slaughtered without the slightest cause–lived in constant fear. There was only one punishment for failure to obey regulations–death–while careful obedience to the rules did not protect against a thousand more and more fantastic degradations, more and more acute persecutions, recurrent acts of terror, more far-reaching regulations. To top it all, the unwritten law of collective responsibility was being universally applied against the Jews. Thus, in the first days of November 1939, 53 male inhabitants of the 9 Nalewki Street apartment house were summarily shot for the beating of a Polish policeman by one of the tenants. This occurrence, the first case of mass punishment, intensified the feeling of panic amongst the Warsaw Jews. Their fear of the Germans now took on unequalled forms.
In this atmosphere of terror and fear, and under conditions cardinally changed, the Bund resumed–or, to be more specific continued–its political and social activities. Despite everything that was happening, there were among us, it seemed, people ready to attempt further work. First, psychological difficulties had to be overcome. For instance, a strongly depressing handicap was the feeling that one could perish instantly not as a result of any particular activities, but as a beaten and humiliated–not human being–but Jew. This conviction that one was never treated as an individual human being caused a lack of self-confidence and stunted the desire to work. These factors will perhaps best explain why our activities in the first period after the fall of Warsaw were mainly of a charitable nature, and why the first instinctive acts of armed resistance against the occupying forces occurred comparatively late and, in the beginning, in such insignificant forms. To overcome our own terrifying apathy, to force ourselves to the smallest spark of activity, to fight against our own acceptance of the generally prevailing feeling of panic–even these small tasks required truly gigantic efforts on our part.
Even during the darkest moments, the Bund did not suspend its activities for the shortest time. When the Party’s Central Committee was forced to leave the city in September 1939, it had placed the responsibility of continuing the political activities of the Bund in the hands of Abrasha Blum. He, together with Szmul Zygielbojm and in cooperation with the efforts of Warsaw’s mayor, Starzynski, organized Jewish detachments which took an active part in the defence of the capitai. Almost the entire editorial staff of the Folkszajtung (“The People’s Gazette”–the party daily) had left. However, the publication of the Folkszajtung was continued. During the siege period, it appeared regularly, edited by comrades Abrasha Blum, Klog, Klin and others.
Public kitchens and canteens originated during the siege continued their activities after the seizure of the city. Almost all Party and Trade Union members received financial help. Immediately following the arrival of the Germans, the new Central Bureau of the Party was organized (A. Blum, L. Klog, Mrs. S. Nowogrodzka, B. Goldsztejn, S. Zygielbojm, later A. Sznajdmil (“Berek”) and M. Orzech).
In January 1940, after the first radio transmitting station of the Polish Underground had been found by the Germans, a new wave of mass terror commenced. During a single night the Germans arrested and murdered over 300 people comprising social leaders, intelligentsia and professionals. This was not all. The so-called “Seuchensperrgebiet” (area threatened by typhus) was established, and Jews were forbidden to live outside of this designated area. Furthermore, the Jews were being forced to work for both German and Polish employers, and were generally looked upon as a source of cheap labour. This did not suffice, either. The world was to be shown that the Jews were hated not only by the Germans.
Thus, during the Easter Holidays of 1940, pogroms lasting several days were instigated. The German Air Corps engaged Polish hoodlums for 4 zloty per “working day”. The first three days the hooligans raged unopposed. On the fourth day the Bund militia carried out revenge actions. Four major street battles resulted in the following localities: Solna Street–Mirowski Market Square, Krochmalna Street–Grzybowski Square, Karmelicka Street– Nowolipie Street, and Niska Street–Zamenhofa Street. Comrade, Bernard Goldsztejn commanded all of these battles from his hide-out.
The fact that none of the other active political parties took part in this action is significant as an example of the utter misconception of existing conditions common to Jewish groups at the time. All other groups even opposed our action. It was, however, our determined stand that momentarily checked the Germans’ activities and went on record as the first Jewish act of resistance.
It was imperative that the public understand the significance of the events. It was imperative that all the beaten, maltreated people be told and shown that despite all we were still able to raise our heads. This was the immediate purpose of the first issue of The Bulletin which appeared for May Day, published on the battered Skif mimeograph machine which had been found by chance in the Public School at 29 Karmelicka Street. The editorial committee included Abrasha Blum, Adam Sznajdmil and Bernard Goldsztein. The entire issue was dedicated to an analysis of the Easter disturbances. It met, however, with indifference on the part of the public.
In November 1940, the Germans finally established the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jewish population still living outside the “Seuchensperrgebiet” was brought inside the special area. Poles living within the designated ghetto boundaries were ordered to move out. Small factories, shopsand stores were allowed two weeks more, until December 1st, to complete their evacuation. But, beginning with November 15th, no Jew was allowed to leave the Jewish precincts. All houses vacated by Jews were immediately locked by the Germans and then, with all their contents, gratuitiously given to Polish merchants and hucksters. Hucksters and small-time pedlars, the typical brood of war conditions, those were the people upon whom the Germans counted, whose favours they tried to gain by presenting them with confiscated Jewish assets and by tolerating their practice of food-smuggling.
The walls and barbed wire surrounding the ghetto grew higher every day until, on November 15th, they completely cut off the Jews from the outside world. Contacts with Jews living in other cities and towns were, naturally, also made impossible. For Jewish workers, all possibilities to earn a living vanished. Not only all factory workers, but all those who had been working in “Aryan” enterprises, as well as government agencies became unemployed. The typically war-time group of “middlemen”, tradesmen appeared. The great majority, however, left jobless, started selling everything that could possibly be sold, and slowly approached the depths of extreme poverty. The Germans, it is true, widely publicized their policy of “increasing the productive power of the ghetto”, but actually they achieved the complete pauperization of the population. The ghetto population was increased by thousands of Jews evicted from neighbouring towns. These people with practically nothing to their names, alone, in strange surroundings where others were preoccupied with their own difficulties, literally dying of malnutrition, tried to build their existence anew.
The complete segregation of the ghetto, the regulations under which no newspaper could be brought into it and all the news from the outside world carefully kept out, had a very definite purpose. These regulations contributed to the development of a special way of thinking common to the ghetto inhabitants. Everything taking place outside the ghetto walls became more and more foggy, distant, strange. Only the present day really mattered. Only matters of the most personal nature, the closest circle of friends were by now the focal point of interest of the average ghetto inhabitant. The most important thing was simply “to be alive”.
This “life” itself, however, had a different meaning to each, depending on his environment and opportunities. It was a life of plenty for the still wealthy few, it was exuberant and colourful for a variety of depraved Gestapo-men and demoralized smugglers, and, for a multitude of workers and unemployed, it was a hungry existence upheld by the meagre public kitchens’ soup and rationed bread. Everyone tried hard to hang on to his particular sort of “life” as best he could. Those who had money sought the essence of their existence in comfortable living, strove to find it in the dense, chattery air of overcrowded cafes, or plunged into the dance music of the night clubs. Those who had nothing, the paupers, sought their “happiness” in a rotten potato recovered from a garbage pit, found evasive joy in a piece of begged-for bread with which the taste of hunger could, for a while, be stilled. These were the tragic contrasts of the ghetto so often exploited by the Germans, photographed for propaganda purposes and maliciously presented to the opinion of the world. “In the Warsaw Ghetto beggars, swollen from hunger, die in front of luscious window displays of food smuggled from the ‘Aryan’ sections…”
The hunger increased daily. From dark, overcrowded living quarters it got out into the streets, came into sight in the shape of ridiculously swollen, log-shaped bodies with diseased feet, covered with open wounds, wrapped in dirty rags. It spoke through the mouths of the beggars, the aged, the young, and the children, in the streets and courtyards.
Children begged everywhere, in the ghetto as well as on the “Aryan” side. Six-year-old boys crawled through the barbed wire under the very eyes of the gendarmes in order to obtain food “on the other side”. They supported entire families in this manner. Often a lone shot in the vicinity of the barbed wire told the casual passers-by that another little smuggler had died in this fight with omnipotent hunger. A new “profession” appeared, the so-called “catchers”. Boys, or rather shadows of former boys, would snatch packages from pedestrians and immediately, while still running, devour the contents. In their haste, they sometimes stuffed themselves full of soap or uncooked peas….
Such was the misery by now that people began to die of hunger in the streets. Every morning, about 4-5 a.m., funeral carts collected a dozen or more corpses on the streets that had been covered with a sheet of paper and weighted down with a few rocks. Some simply fell in the streets and remained there, others died in their homes but their families, after having stripped them completely (in order to sell the clothes), dumped the bodies in front of the houses so that burial would be made at the cost of the Jewish Community Council. Cart after cart filled with nude corpses would move through the streets. One on top of the other the bony carcasses lay, the heads bobbing up and down and beating against one another or against the wood of the cart on the uneven pavement.
When the ghetto was once more flooded with evicted Jews from smaller cities and towns, the situation became disastrous. There were never enough houses and living quarters. Now homeless, grimy people began loitering in the streets. All day long they camped in the courtyards, ate there, slept there, lived there. Finally, when there was no other way, they turned to the specially established “points”–transient homes for refugees. These “points” were one of the darkest spots of ghetto life, a real plague with which it was virtually impossible to cope (only some of the children could be moved into children’s homes, where conditions were better).
A few hundred people crowd every large, unheated room of a synagogue, every hall of a deserted factory. Unkempt, lousy, with no facilities to wash, undernourished, and hungry (“water soups” are given once daily by the Jewish Community Council), they remain all day on their filthy straw mattresses, with no strength to rise. The walls are green, slimy, mildewed. The mattresses usually lie on the ground, seldom on wooden supports. A whole family often receives sleeping space for one. This is the kingdom of hunger and misery.
Simultaneously spotted fever raged in the ghetto. Yellow signs reading “Fleckfieber!” (Spotted Fever) were affixed to a constantly increasing number of doors and entrances. Particularly great numbers of the starvelings at the “points” were afflicted. All hospitals, by now handling contagious diseases exclusively, were overcrowded. 150 sick daily were being admitted to a single ward and placed two or three in a bed, or on the floors. The dying were viewed impatiently–let them vacate quicker for the next one! Physicians simply could not keep up with it. There had not been enough of them in the first place. Hundreds were dying at a given instance. The grave-diggers were unable to dig fast enough. Although hundreds of corpses were being put into every grave, hundreds more had to lie around for several days, filling the graveyard with a sickening, sweetish odour. The epidemic kept growing. It could not be controlled. Typhus was everywhere, and from everywhere it threatened. It shared mastery over the ghetto with the overpowering hunger. The monthly mortality rate reached 6,000 (over 2% of the population).
In such tragic conditions, the Germans attempted to establish a semblance of law and order. The Jewish Council (“Judenrat”) officially governed the ghetto from the very first day of its establishment. To secure “order” a uniformed Jewish police force was formed. The children smuggling across the barbed wires now had to be careful lest still another official would catch them, and the ghetto population received another Cerberus, making a total of three: the Germans, the Polish policemen, and the Jewish policemen. But the agencies established to give the ghetto a semblance of normal life were in reality nests of corruption and demoralization. The Germans succeeded in drafting the best-known citizens into serving on the Jewish Council. The only member of the Council, however, who had the courage to leave that agency despite the death penalty for such an act was Comrade Arthur (Szmul Zygielbojm).
Such was life in the ghetto when the first report of the gassing of Jews in Chelmno, Pomerania, reached Warsaw. The news was brought by three persons who were to be put to death in Chelmno and who had miraculously escaped. Their story showed that during November and December 1940, approximately 40,000 Jews from Lodz, another 40,000 from Pomerania and towns from other regions incorporated into the Reich, and also a few hundred Gypsies from Bessarabia had died in the Chelmno gas chambers. They had been murdered by the Germans in the now well-known vile manner. The victims were told they were being taken for work and ordered to take along hand-luggage. Upon their arrival at the Chelmno Palace they were stripped of all their clothes and everyone was given a towel and soap, supposedly for the bathing that was to follow. All appearances were kept up to the very last minute. The victims were led into hermetically closed trucks containing gas chambers. The gas was forced into the chambers by the truck engines. Afterwards, in a clearing in the woods in the vicinity of Chelmno, Jewish grave-diggers unloaded the corpses from the trucks and buried them. The woods were surrounded by 200 SS-men. A certain SS-man called Bykowiec was in charge of the procedure. Inspections by SS and SA generals occurred several times.
The Warsaw Ghetto did not believe these reports. People who clung to their lives with superhuman determination were unable to believe that they could be killed in such a manner. Only our organized [youth] groups, carefully noting the steadily increasing signs of German terror, accepted the Chelmno story as indeed probable, and decided upon extensive propaganda activities in order to inform the population of the imminent danger. A meeting of the Zukunft cadres took place in mid-February 1941, with Abrasha Blum and Abramek Bortensztein as speakers. All of us agreed to offer resistance before being led to death. We were ashamed of the Chelmno Jews’ submissiveness, of their failure to rise in their own defence. We did not want the Warsaw Ghetto ever to act in a similar way. “We shall not die on our knees,” said Abramek, “Not they will be an example for us, but men like our comrade Alter Bas.” While Chelmno victims were dying passively and humbly he, after having been caught as a political leader, with illegal papers in his pocket, and tortured in every manner known to the Germans, resisted the barbarous torment through superhuman efforts, when but a few words would have saved his life.
A few dozen copies of a report on the Chelmno murders were circulated throughout the ghetto. This report was also sent abroad, together with a demand to take retaliatory measures against the German civilian population. But public opinion abroad did not believe the story either. Our appeal found no response. Comrade Zygielbojm, our representative in the Polish National Council in London, broadcast the literal text of our message in a radio speech to the whole world. The following morning his appeal was circulated in the ghetto both in a special edition of our publication Der Weker and in the papers of all other political groups.
The beginning of the Soviet-German war (summer 1941) was also the time of extensive exterminating activities on the part of the Germans in the Western Ukrainian and White Russian territories. In November 1941, the mass shooting of Jews in Wilno, Slonim, Bialystok and Baranowicze occurred. In Ponary (vic. Wilno) tens of thousands of Jews perished in rapid killings. The news reached Warsaw, but the uninformed public again took a near-sighted view of the situation. The majority was still of the opinion that the murders were not a result of an organized, orderly policy to exterminate the Jewish people, but acts of misbehaviour on the part of victory-drunk troops. Political parties, however, were now beginning to understand the true state of affairs.
In January 1942, an inter-party conference was called. By now all parties agreed that armed resistance was the only appropriate answer to the persecutions. The Hashomer and Hechalutz organizations for the first time suggested a plan for a joint battle organization. Maurycy Orzech and Abrasha Blum addressed the conference on behalf of our movement, maintaining that an armed uprising could be successful only if carried out in agreement with the Polish Underground and with their cooperation. However, the common battle organization was not established at that time.
It was our group that called the first battle organization into being with the knowledge of the Polish Socialists (Left-wing group of the PPS–the Polish Socialist Party). Bernard Goldsztejn, Abrasha Blum, and Berek Sznajdmil constituted the Command. The first “five” of instructors was organized and comprised Liebeskind (from Lodz), Zygmunt Frydrych, Lejb Szpichler, Abram Fajner and Marek Edelman. We started our work with theoretical instruction, but the complete lack of weapons made it impossible to broaden our activities. Thus we were practically limited in our activities to intelligence work among the Germans and, in close relation to the foregoing, the warning of particular people against possible “slip-ups”. The following people were active in our intelligence service: Pola Lipszyc, Cywia Waks, Zodka Goldblat, Lajcia Blank, Stefa Moryc, Mania Elenbogen, and comrades from the PS: Marian Meremholc, Mietek Dab, etc. Despite our very limited possibilities, the mere fact of establishing such an organization was of obvious importance. Our initiative met with the full approval of all those in the know.
In those days the Bund was quite a large organization, considering the clandestine working conditions. More than 2,000 people participated in the festivities occasioned by the Bund’s 44th anniversary in October 1941. These meetings were held in many places simultaneously. On the surface nothing was discernible, and it was difficult to realize how great the number of small groups–dispersed “fives” or “sevens” meeting in private apartments–really was.
The Central Trade Union Council was also revived (Bernard Goldsztejn, Kersz, Mermelsztein), and eventually registered approximately 30,000 former union members.
The scope of the Zukunft’s work was also quite extensive. The clandestine Zukunft Committee established itself during the first days of October 1939, and by mid-November 1939, the first “fives” were meeting. In the generally tragic conditions of Jewish life, the lot of Jewish youth was the worst. Young Jews were being persecuted by the Germans with special cruelty. These young men, whom the Germans continuously hunted for forced labour, were not even free to walk the streets, let alone attempt regular work. To remedy their difficulties, the Zukunft established cooperative enterprises where young people could find employment. In 1940 two barber shops were opened, a cooperative tailor shop, and a cooperative shoemaker shop. The shops served not only as working places, but as comparatively safe meeting places for the entire organization as well. It was here that the first Zukunftsturm (Zukunft Militia) met. With the increase in the scope of work, the Zukunft and Skif Committees merged into one (Henoch Russ, Abramek Bortensztein, Lejb Szpichler, Abram Fajner, Miriam Szyfman, Mojszele Kaufman, Rywka Rozensztajn, Fajgele Peltel, Welwl Rozowski, Jankiel Gruszka, Sziojme Paw, Marek Edelman).
In 1941 a Youth Division was established at the Jewish Social Mutual Aid Organization and the Zukunft became one of the Division’s important contributors. We were able to reach large numbers of young people. Our lecturers took charge of numerous youth groups, which were at that time established under the House Committees in every apartment house. There was the choir with its active programme (public concerts were given in the Judaistic Library). School-age youth was also being organized. The SOMS (Socialist School Students’ Organization) was re-established, and numbered a few hundred members after a very short time. Comprehensive political education and cultural activities were carried out.
At the same time the Skif, whose activities were until then limited to securing financial help for its pre-war members, started large-scale work among children of school and pre-school age. A so-called “corner” was established in every house, where children found a home for a few hours every day. The Dramatic Club, led by Pola Lipszyc, gave performances twice a week. During the 1941 season 12,000 children attended these performances (Dolls and The Granary were shown 80 times). Instruction classes were held for children 12-15 years of age. The Instructors’ Council members themselves attended instruction classes covering a full secondary school course.
Six periodicals were published by us in those days: 1. Der Weker (weekly), 2. The Bulletin (monthly), 3. Tsait Fragn (“Problems of the Times”–a theoretical political magazine), 4. For Our and Your Freedom (monthly), 5. Yugnt Shtime (The Voice of Youth–monthly), 6. The New Youth (monthly). Considerable effort went into the publication of these papers. As a rule, the single old Skif mimeograph machine would be working the whole night through. Usually no electricity was available, and working by carbide gas lights proved extremely strenuous. At about 2 a.m. the printing personnel (Rozowski, Zyferman, Blumka Klog, Marek) would complain of tremendous eye pains and it would be almost impossible to continue working. On the other hand, every minute was precious. At 7 a.m. the issue, no matter how many pages it held, had to be ready for circulation. Everyone worked harder than they were physically able to. They averaged two-three sleepless nights a week. It was impossible to catch up on one’s sleep the following morning, because one had to pretend complete ignorance of the printing activities. The manager of the printing office, Marek, was also in charge of circulation (people actually circulating the paper were: Zoska Goldblat, Anka Wolkowicz, Stefa Moryc, Miriam Szyfman, Marynka Segalewicz, Cluwa Krysztal-Nisenbaum, Chajka Betchatowska, Halina Lipszyc and others). After a sleepless night, there usually followed a difficult day, always in suspense, uncertainty whether everything reached its destination, whether all was in order, whether there were no “slip-ups”.
Once Marynka was stopped on the street by a “navy-blue” [Polish] policeman while carrying 40 copies of The Bulletin. It happened under the ghetto wall, on Franciszkanska Street. She pretended she was an “ordinary” smuggler and wanted to take care of the matter accordingly–by offering a bribe of 500 zloty. The unusually high offer made the police suspicious, and they asked to be shown the “merchandise”. Now the inevitable happened. Not stockings, but printed sheets of paper fell out from under the girl’s skirt and littered the street. The matter became serious, and Marynka already saw herself in the Gestapo’s dark shadow. Suddenly a lucky “coincidence” occurred–an argument started not far away, and fists were soon flying. Such disturbances could not be tolerated near the ghetto wall. The policemen lost their heads, did not know what to do first, and turned around for an instant–long enough for Marynka to gather the papers, throw the policemen their promised 500 zloty, and disappear… As to the “argument”, it was intentionally started by “Little Kostek” (S. Kostrynski) who had noticed Marynka’s predicament.
It might be interesting to add that according to a sort of poll that we were able to conduct, our publications were being read by an average of 20 people per copy.
Our periodicals were also circulated throughout the country. This phase of our work was organized by J. Ceiemenski and I. Falk, both of whom had been previously authorized by the Party Central Committee to maintain continuous contacts with groups throughout the country. In addition, Mendelson (Mendele) was delegated by the Zukunft Committee for the purpose of organizing the work of youth groups outside Warsaw.
In the meantime the terror within the ghetto kept increasing while the ghetto’s isolation from the outside world became more and more rigid. More and more people were being arrested for sneaking onto the “Aryan side”, and finally “special courts” were established. On February 12th, 1941, seventeen people previously sentenced to death for illegal trespassing in the “Aryan section” lost their lives. The execution took place in the Jewish jail on Gesia Street. At 4 a.m. shrill cries notified the neighbourhood that “justice” was being meted out, that seventeen outcasts, including four children and three women, were being duly punished for leaving the ghetto in pursuit of a piece of bread or a few pennies. Cries from other jail cells could also be heard, the voices of future victims awaiting trial for the same offence, a total of 700 people.
The same afternoon the entire Jewish population was notified of the execution by special posters signed by the German Commissar of the ghetto, Dr. Auerswald.
The ghetto could clearly feel the breath of death.
During a short meeting of the Party Executive Committee (Abrasha Blum, Luzer Klog, Berek Sznajdmil, Marek Orzech), held the same day, it was proposed to publish and post short leaflets reading: “Shame to the Murderers.”
The ghetto was dumbfounded by the terror of what was happening and by fear of large-scale retaliations on the part of the Germans. Once more every effort to decide on armed resistance was nipped in the bud. The fear of the Germans and of their policy of collective responsibility was such that even the best refused to show any signs of protest.
Now the events began moving at a breath-taking pace. The ghetto streets became a bloody slaughter-house. The Germans made it a habit to shoot passers-by without the slightest provocation. People were afraid to leave their homes, but German bullets reached them through the windows. There were days when the toll of terror was 10-15 quite accidental victims. One of the more notorious sadists, a Schutzpolizei gendarme by the name of Frankenstein, had on his conscience over 300 people murdered in one month, more than half of whom were children.
Simultaneously man-hunts were being conducted on the streets by German and Jewish Police. The captives were sent to various labour camps throughout the General Government. The Germans gained doubly from that procedure: first, they obtained the needed working power; secondly, they were able to show that all evictions were caused by the Germans’ desire to “increase the productive power”, and that in German labour camps, even though the conditions were difficult, one had an opportunity to live through the war… The Germans were truly magnanimous. They even permitted the people to write to their families…
These letters found their way to the ghetto in great numbers and their result was disbelief of the more and more persistent reports concerning mass executions of Jews. Repeated deportations throughout the country, allegedly to Bessarabia, passed almost unnoticed, because the ghetto obstinately believed the rumours that letters had arrived from these people also. Likewise, people dismissed as untrue the story of the wholesale slaughter of almost the entire transport of German Jews brought the previous year to the vicinity of Lublin. The stories about the executions in the Lublin woods were too horrible, it was thought, to be true.
The ghetto did not believe.
We, however, did our utmost to obtain arms from the “Aryan side”. We enlarged our battle organization, whose members were mostly Bund youth cadres (Szmul Kostrynski, Jurek Blones, Janek Bilak, Lejb Rozensztajn, Icl Szpilberg, Kuba Zylberberg, Mania Elenbogen, and many others). It is difficult to describe here the manner and the handicaps of our work. It was an unbroken chain of disappointments and failures. Repeatedly disappointing difficulties in securing weapons, lack of understanding for our efforts on the part of our Polish comrades–these were the conditions in which our group worked and grew.
At one point it looked as if we were about to attain our aim, and that transports of arms would soon start arriving in the ghetto. Instead, news came about the liquidation of the Lublin ghetto. Since a few months before, when the serious “slip-up” of Celek and many others in Piotrkow and Lublin took place, communications with the groups outside the ghetto were almost non-existent. The Warsaw ghetto, lacking direct contacts with the outside, received these latest reports with skepticism too. People gave many reasons to refute the remotest possibility of similar acts of violence, refused to accept the thought that a similar murder could possibly be committed in Poland’s capital where 300,000 Jews dwelled. People argued with one another and tried to convince others and themselves that “even the Germans would not murder hundreds of thousands of people without any reason whatever, particularly in times when they were in such need of productive power…” A normal human being with normal mental processes was simply unable to conceive that a difference in the colour of eyes or hair or different racial origin might be sufficient causes for murder.
However, immediately after the arrival of these reports came the tragic and bloody events of the night of April 17th, 1942, like an omen of things to come. Over fifty social workers were dragged from their homes that night by German officers and shot in the ghetto streets. Of our comrades we then lost Goldberg (the barber) and his wife, Naftali Leruch and his father, Sklar, etc. Sonia Nowogrodzka, Luzer Klog, and Berenbaum were also hunted by the Germans. The following morning the entire ghetto, stunned, terrified, hysterical, tried to find the reasons behind these executions. The majority came to the conclusion that the action was aimed at political leaders, and that all illegal activities should have been stopped so as not to needlessly increase the tremendous number of victims.
On April 19th, a special edition of Der Weker was published, in which we tried to explain that the latest executions were but another link in the systematic policy of extermination practiced against the Jews as a whole, and that the Germans wanted to get the Jewish population’s more active elements out of the way. Once this was accomplished, the paper argued, the Germans hoped that the remaining masses would meekly accept their lot as they did in Wilno, Bialystok, Lublin and other cities. Our view, however, remained as isolated as it had been before. Only some youth groups, such as Hashomer and Hechalutz, shared our convictions.
At this time a complete reorganization of our work took place. All our clandestine activities, we decided, would now be carried out with a single view in mind: to prepare our resistance. To expedite matters the Party Executive Committee was re-established (Abrasha Blum, Berek Sznajdmil, Marek Orzech). All youth “fives” received basic military training. Special orders were issued. A detailed plan of action was worked out in the event of a German attempt to overrun the ghetto. A transport of weapons promised by the PS (Polish Socialists) was to arrive shortly and was to comprise 100 pistols and a few dozen rifles and grenades.
In the meantime our number decreased as a result of continuous executions. From April 18th to July 22nd, 1942, the Germans killed 10-15 ghetto inhabitants per night. None of our comrades slept at home during that period. It was, however, very difficult to predict the Germans’ intentions at any given time since they employed an involved pattern in choosing their victims. These stemmed from all social groups–smugglers, merchants, workers, professionals, etc. The purpose behind it was to implant fear among the population to such a degree as to render it incapable of any instinctive or organized actions, to cause the fear of death from the Germans to paralyze even the smallest acts of the people’s resistance and to force them onto the path of blind, passive subordination. This, however, was clear to a small handful only. The ghetto as a whole was unable to grasp the true reasons behind the German acts of terror.
It is difficult to relate today life in the ghetto during those days preceding the “official” exterminating procedure applied to its inhabitants. Now the sadistic and beastly methods of the Germans are well known to the world. A few examples of everyday happenings will suffice.
Three children sit, one behind the other, in front of the Bersons and Baumans Hospital. Agendarme, passing by, shoots all three with a single round.
A pregnant woman trips and falls while crossing the street. A German, present during the accident, does not allow her to rise and shoots her right there and then.
Dozens of those smuggling across the ghetto wall are killed by a new German technique: Germans clad in civilian clothes, with Jewish arm-bands and weapons hidden in burlap bags, wait for the instant when the smugglers scale the wall. At that very moment machine-guns appear from the bags and the fate of the group is settled.
Every morning a small Opel stops at Orla Street. Every morning a shackled man is thrown out of the car and shot in the first house entrance. It is a Jew who had been caught on the “Aryan side” without identification papers.
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