Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
On the eve of Passover 1943 — the nineteenth of April — a group of several hundred poorly armed young Jews began the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, one of the first insurrections against Nazism.
For a small group of fighters, realizing — in the lyrical words of one militant — that “dying with arms is more beautiful than without,” an isolated group of Jewish militants resisted for twenty-nine days against a much larger foe, motivated by a desire to kill as many fascists as they could before they themselves were killed. The uprising, etched into the collective memory of postwar Jewry, remains emotive and emboldening.
That their heroism was a crucial part of the war is disputed by nobody today. But less known is the extent to which the uprising, far from being a spontaneous one of the masses, was the product of planning and preparation from a relatively small — incredibly young — group of Jewish radicals.
Within a few weeks of the Nazi consolidation of Poland, Governor Hans Frank ordered four hundred thousand Warsaw Jews to enter a ghetto. By November 1940, around five hundred thousand Jews from across Poland had been sealed behind its walls, severed from the outside world and plunged into social isolation. Surrounded by a ten-foot-high barrier, the creation of the ghetto meant the relocation of approximately 30 percent of Warsaw’s population into 2.6 percent of the city, the designated area being no more than two and a half miles long and having previously housed fewer than 160,000 people.
In the ghetto, Jews were forced to live in chronic hunger and poverty. Many families inhabited single rooms, and the dire lack of food meant that roughly one hundred thousand people survived on no more than a single bowl of soup per day. The sanitation system collapsed, and disease became rampant. By March 1942 onwards, five thousand people died each month from disease and malnutrition.
The situation was dire — and yet, the initial response of the Jewish community leadership was one of inaction. Following the creation of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) — a collaborationist organization established with Nazi approval to allow easier implementation of anti-Jewish policies — some inhabitants fell into a false sense of security. An attitude permeated the ghetto, proffered through the lens of Jewish history, that Nazism was just another form of persecution that the Jewish people must suffer and outlast.
Others — such as the Hashomer Hatzair militant Shmuel Braslaw — began to recognize a jealous respect for the Germans among the ghetto’s residents. “Our young people learn to doff their caps when encountering Germans,” wrote Braslaw in an internal document, “smiling smiles of servitude and obedience . . . but deep in their hearts burns a dream: to be like [the Germans] — handsome, strong and self-confident. To be able to kick, beat and insult, unpunished. To despise others, as the Germans despise Jews today.”
Against this demoralization, circles of defiance could be found in the self-organization of the left-wing of the Jewish community. Communists, Socialist-Zionists of varying descriptions, and social democrats organized themselves into sections in the ghetto, aiming to transform the misery into meaningful political organization. All parties — the Bund, a social-democratic mass organization that had enjoyed huge pre-war popularity; the Marxist-Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair; the left-wing Zionist party Left Poale Zion; and the Communist Party dedicated themselves to this strategy, organizing cells that sought to revive collectivist attitudes among an emotionally crippled and disaffected Jewish youth.
In dark times, the cell structures of youth organizations provided a social and psychological anchor against hunger and depression. “The day I was able to re-establish contact with my group,” wrote the Young Communist militant Dora Goldkorn, “was one of the happiest days in my hard, tragic ghetto life.” In the project to develop a resistance leadership among the youth, keeping spirits high was crucial; acts of friendship such as the sharing of food were as important as distributing anti-Nazi literature.
By 1942, the various youth organizations felt confident enough to consider the formation of an “Anti-Fascist Bloc.” On the insistence of the Communists, a manifesto was drafted that sought to unite the Jewish left in the Warsaw Ghetto, with the hope of generalizing this political unity across other ghettos.
Calling for a “national front” against the occupation, for the unity of all progressive forces on the basis of common demands and for armed antifascism, the manifesto echoed the pre-war Popular Fronts in its organizational methodology.
The Left Poale Zion enthusiastically joined, as did the Hashomer Hatzair — who re-emphasized their fidelity to the Soviet Union, despite the Kremlin’s opposition to Zionism. The Bund, however, were less reliable, due to their historic anticommunism and rejection of specifically Jewish armed action; a party that resolutely stated Poland was the home for Polish Jews, many Bundists refused avenues other than Polish-Jewish unity of action.
The paper of the Anti-Fascist Bloc, Der Ruf, reached publication twice. Its contents overwhelmingly focused on applauding Soviet resistance and urging the ghetto inhabitants to hold out for imminent liberation at the hands of the Red Army.
The bloc’s fighting squads contained militants belonging to all varieties of labor movement groups, but the lynchpin of the organization was Pinkus Kartin. A stalwart of communism in prewar Poland and a veteran of the International Brigades to Spain, Kartin was a leader both politically and militarily. To the historian Israel Gutman, who himself was active with Hashomer Hatzair in his youth, Kartin “undoubtedly impressed” the underground’s young and inexperienced cadre.
It was the arrest and murder of Kartin in June 1943 that signaled the end for the Anti-Fascist Bloc. His arrest triggered an intense repression against the prominent Young Communists, who saw their numbers decimated and were driven into hiding. It is for this reason that when the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) was founded several months later, the Communists were absent at first — although their political line was upheld and applied by those such as Abraham Fiszelson, a Left Poale Zion leader who had been Kartin’s right-hand man and had befriended him in Spain.
During this period, figures from the right-wing of the Jewish community formed a rival group, the Jewish Military Union (ZZW). Led by the right-wing Zionist group Betar and funded by high society, the ZZW relied upon ex-army officers who could fight orthodox warfare with the Nazis using regular army discipline — unlike the ZOB, which considered itself the armed expression of the Jewish workers’ movement. Furthermore, the ZZW’s connections to Polish nationalists, the antisemitic Polish government-in-exile and the right-wing Revisionist-Zionist movement provoked suspicion among the ZOB leadership.
By contrast, in the eyes of Israel Gutman, the typical ZOB volunteers were “young men in their twenties, Zionists, Communists, socialists — idealists with no battle experience, no military training.” While the propaganda of the ZZW was staunchly nationalistic, the ZOB’s propaganda and literature encouraged antiracist internationalism, offered intellectual positions on the world situation, and debated the labor movement.
Despite the darkness of their times, members of the ZOB belonged to a political tradition that desired a better world, and sought to create it through their struggle.
The ZOB set as its aim an anti-Nazi insurrection. However, it recognized that paramount to achieving this was the strengthening of the organization’s position in the wider community — it was decided that it had to involve the intimidation and execution of Jewish collaborators with the occupiers.
For ZOB militants, collaborators represented an auxiliary wing of fascism that was instrumental in facilitating the deportation of Polish Jewry. To demonstrate that this stance would not be accepted in the ghetto, ZOB militants chose to execute Jewish policeman Jacob Lejkin. For his “dedication” in deporting Jews to Auschwitz, Lejkin was shot, and his example triggered widespread panic in the collaborating establishment. This was followed by the execution of Alfred Nossig in February 1943. Józef Szeryński, the former head of the ghetto police, committed suicide to avoid his own fate.
These acts ensured ZOB’s centrality in the resistance movement, and also encouraged resistance from beyond their ranks. They aimed to prove that challenging collaboration was both possible and a moral duty — and within a short period of time had won many ghetto inhabitants to this position.
As the months progressed, the specter of death became ever-present. Between June and September 1942, three hundred thousand Jews had been deported or murdered, a destruction of the Polish Jewish community. In these desperate circumstances, people lost everyone and many young people began to dispense with anxieties about protecting their families and commit instead to militant political activity. Simply put, the more Jews were murdered in the ghettos, the less personal obligations were felt by survivors, and the more the feeling of responsibility for causing further anguish from Nazi reprisals receded.
Contempt was shown for the self-determined martyrdom of Adam Czerniakow, the Judenrat leader who committed suicide in July 1942. For young Jewish socialists such as the prominent Bundist Marek Edelman, Czerniakow had “made his death his own private business,” a symbol of privilege in contrast to Edelman and his working-class comrades awaiting their turn on the deportation lists. For them, he said, the overwhelming sentiment in these times was that political leadership necessitated that “one should die with a bang.”
In many senses, the hopes of the Left in calling for a common struggle against Nazi barbarity had outlived its constituency: the Jewish community was in the process of being exterminated. What now mattered was the initiative young leftists took upon themselves — and the majority favored an uprising.
On the morning of Monday, January 18, six months after the first mass deportations of Warsaw Jews (which reduced the number of ghetto inhabitants from four hundred thousand to approximately seventy to eighty thousand), ZOB militants emerged from the crowds of deportees to attack German soldiers, killing several. A series of attacks followed over four days, where militants infiltrated lines of slave laborers marching towards the Umschlagplatz [Deportation of Jews], stepped out of rank at a given signal, and assassinated their German guards. Though scores of ZOB fighters fell, the confusion created by the fighting allowed some to flee — and demonstrated to others that Nazi bodies could also fall in the ghetto.
By April 1943, there was a general awareness that the ghetto was to be entirely liquidated. A general armed revolt was scheduled to happen at the next Nazi provocation. On April 19, five thousand soldiers led by SS general Jürgen Stroop entered the ghetto to remove the final inhabitants; in response, approximately 220 ZOB volunteers began their attack, located in ersatz positions in cellars, apartments, and rooftops, each armed with a single pistol and several Molotov cocktails.
The revolt caused chaos, catching the Nazis off guard and killing many Wehrmacht and SS soldiers. In response, the humiliated German army, suffering losses at the hands of prisoners they thought long defeated, initiated a policy of systematically burning out the fighters. To paraphrase one ZOB militant, it was the flames — not the fascists — whom the fighters lost out to. Vicious hand-to-hand combat raged for days, and by late April coordinated warfare by the ZOB collapsed, the conflict now largely consisting of the Germans burning small groups of armed Jews out of bunker hideouts created to evade capture.
According to accounts, both the red flag and the blue-and-white flag of the Zionist movement were raised over ZOB-seized buildings. The youngest fighter killed had been a Bundist activist aged thirteen. Though clearly inexperienced as a fighting force, an anonymously authored Bund internal document that reached London in June 1943 stressed the “exemplary” political unity and “fraternity” between leftist groups in combat. The unswerving dedication to which the young fighters of the ZOB clung to their dreams of socialism was exemplified most movingly in a May Day rally held amid the ghetto’s ruins.
Participating in the rally, Marek Edelman reflected that
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.
Leading militants of the ZOB committed mass suicide on May 8, surrounded by the German army at their base on Mila 18. By mid-May, the ghetto had been razed, and the Great Synagogue of Warsaw personally blown up by General Stroop on May 16 to celebrate the end of Jewish resistance. A mere forty ZOB combatants had escaped onto the “Aryan” side of Warsaw, where scores more fell before war’s end in the subsequent city-wide uprising of 1944.
In our times, war criminal George W. Bush can pay comfortable tribute to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. So can fellow humanitarians David Cameron and Barack Obama, who both offered speeches dripping with moralism about the heroism of the revolt. Their platitudes are the product of the historical reduction of the event over time — something which is likely to increase as more witnesses to the Holocaust leave us, often with unrecorded testimony.
More dangerous still are active attempts to erase the politics that produced such heroic resistance. Just this week, the University of Vilnius in Lithuania announced that it would honor Jewish students murdered in the Holocaust — as long as they had not participated in left-wing political activity or anti-Nazi militancy.
Against this attack on history, the Left’s task is to defend the fighters of the ZOB from the condescension of official patronage or the dark possibilities of state demonization. We can only do this by restating what so many of these people were — young militants, committed to left-wing ideals, brimming with enthusiasm for a better world, pushed to oblivion alongside their community.
Jews by birth and communal affiliation, they also engaged in the struggle as internationalists, a determined part of a worldwide struggle against fascism and capitalism. As weakened as they were, their attitude — that to submit meant death, that resistance even in the face of impossible odds was a moral imperative — inspired imprisoned Spanish Republicans, French communist peasants, their fellow Poles watching from behind the ghetto walls, and their fellow Jews languishing in the concentration camps.
Their story is a reminder of the Holocaust’s brutality and hopelessness, but also a shining example of those who in the worst of circumstances — in the words of the partisan poet Hirsh Glik — could never say that they have reached the final road.
Marcus Barnett is a contributor at Jacobin. He is the International Officer of Young Labour, correspondent for the Morning Star and an official with the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT).