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A Memoir from the Warsaw Ghetto
by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, translated by Yuri Suhl
From the Autumn 2015 special issue of Jewish Currents on the theme, “Honoring the Jewish Resistance.” Originally translated and published in 1962.
IN THE LATTER HALF of 1943, the famous Warsaw Ghetto historian, Emanuel Ringelblum, a Left Poale Zionist, while hiding together with his family and thirty-five other Jews in the cellar of a Polish worker in Warsaw, wrote in Polish a sociological study entitled Polish-Jewish Relationships During the Second World War and in Yiddish a number of biographical sketches of some of the leading Jewish personalities of the Warsaw Ghetto, including Mordecai Anielevich (shown at left).
On March 6, 1944 the bunker where Ringelbum (shown at right) was hiding was betrayed to the Gestapo. All of its occupants were arrested and shortly thereafter executed by the Germans. Ringelbum himself had, through the intervention of a Polish family, arranged for the transfer of the two manuscripts to Adolph Berman, a colleague of his in the Warsaw Ghetto underground. In 1957 Berman handed the manuscripts over to the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw — the home of the original Ringelbum archives.
When I was in Poland in the winter of 1959-60 to do research for a book, I was privileged to receive copies of these manuscripts and authorization by the Jewish Historical Institute for their translation into English. —Yuri Suhl
HE WAS A YOUNG fellow, about 25, of medium height, a narrow, pale, pointed face, a pleasant appearance. I met him for the first time at the beginning of the war, when he came to me, dressed casually, and asked me to lend him a book. From that day on he came to me frequently to borrow books on Jewish history, especially on economics, in which Comrade Mordecai was greatly interested. Who could have known that this quiet, modest, and sympathetic fellow would emerge as the man who, three years later, would be mentioned with awe by some, with fear by others?
The war had terribly demoralized the Jewish youth. Their only idea was to live a happy-go-lucky life. Cards, whiskey, isolating one’s self within the narrow confines of one’s ego — these were the common plagues of the Jewish youth, the majority of whom had lost every interest in communal activity. If certain youthful elements made their way into communal institutions, they did so in a calculating manner, to be protected against the work camps.
Hashomer Hatzair [Socialist Zionists], led by Comrade Mordecai, was one of the groups that attracted the thinking elements of those youth whose spark of idealism, heightened by self-sacrifice for the interests of the community, had not yet been extinguished. Soon after the outbreak of the war, the Hashomer Hatzair [in Warsaw], under the leadership of Comrade Mordecai, began to conduct educational and cultural circles, embracing hundreds of young people of both sexes.
The cultural work was conducted in the refugee area at 23 Nalewki Street, where hundreds of their members from the outlying areas found a haven. The Hashomer strove not only to provide their people with spiritual nourishment but with much guidance for their spiritual development. Circles and seminars were created where the youth received both a general and Jewish education. In the seminars for older comrades, leaders were prepared for the Shomer circles.
Hashomer embraced with its activity not only Warsaw but the outlying areas as well. These seminars were attended not only by the boys and girls from the General Government [the region administered by the Nazis in Poland] but by would-be students who smuggled their way into Warsaw from the “Reich” [the part of Poland incorporated directly into Hitler’s Reich], some walking several weeks until they reached Warsaw. Hashomer instructors similarly risked their lives traveling around the country on “left” (false) permits as Jews, and more frequently as Aryans, distributing the illegal publications of the movement and revitalizing legal organizations. Only one who knew the dangers involved in moving about on trains could appreciate the heroism of a youth thirsting for knowledge, for whom there existed no obstacle in their quest for education.
Several times I was a lecturer at Hashomer seminars. Lecturing before a youth that held high the banner of idealism in the surrounding sea of barbarism was one of my most profound experiences. When I peered into their glowing faces, I forgot that there was a war on in the world.
COMRADE MORDECAI was exceptionally devoted to the people in Hashomer. Day and night they were the objects of his thoughts and concern. He was ready to leap into the fire for a fellow member. As an illustration, I should like to cite the following, which I witnessed myself. This happened to a member of Hashomer, Zandman, in Halman’s shop on Nowolipki, during the first “resettlement action” in January, 1943. The Fighters’ Organization had, at that time, carried out a number of reprisals against individuals guilty of crimes against the Jewish community of Warsaw. As punishment, they were splashed with acid. At Halman’s, a former [Jewish] policeman was splashed. Fortunately, the perpetrators escaped. But Zandman, who was connected with carrying out the verdict, was detained by the factory guards and splashed with acid himself. The German administration was also notified by the guards about Zandman’s detention.
When Comrade Mordecai learned about this, he came that very day to Halman’s shop and, together with the leadership of the Fighters’ Organization and myself, worked out the plan to rescue Zandman. Four o’clock at dawn, five masked strong men entered the headquarters of the factory guards and freed him, taking with them at the same time all the papers and charts of the guards.
This happened several hours before the beginning of the January action, during which Zandman was hauled off to the Umschlagplatz [the transfer point for deportation to death camps] — whence the comrades of the movement again freed him. [See “Among the Partisans”.] This incident was not unique. Comrade Mordecai was ready to sacrifice himself for the comrades, as they were ready to do for him. Such mutual aid and devotion was found only in workers’ organizations, which organized mutual aid groups not only in the shops but even in the work camps of the SS.
Comrade Mordecai and the others of the top leadership had, from the beginning of the war, held to a clear political line that was brought out in all the seminars and the publications in Polish and Hebrew. Neged Hazerem (Against the Stream) was the name of the Hebrew organ. The orientation was pro-Soviet, with faith in the victory of the Soviet Union and its heroic army. The only party on the Jewish scene that had the same political orientation were the Left Poale (Labor) Zion. In keeping with this line, the shomrim made preparations together with other partisan groups, established close relationships with the Polish Workers Party (Communist), and were generally ready to do everything possible for the victory of the Soviet Union.
Hundreds of Hashomer, indeed, made contact with partisan groups in various parts of the country. One should bear in mind that this did not in the slightest diminish their positive attitude to Eretz Yisroel and to Palestinism as a solution of the Jewish question. The programs of their seminars and illegal publications attest to this.
Even before the war, Comrade Mordecai had established good relationships with the Polish scout movement. This was perhaps one of the rare instances in which a Jewish organization worked together with a Polish one. In Vilna, these contacts opened the way to the Polish clergy, which assisted in the illegal activities of Hashomer. Thanks to this, some individuals from Hashomer were quartered with Polish families in the region of Vilna.
Comrade Mordecai related to me an interesting fact about the friendly relationships between the Polish scouts and the shomrim. One of the leaders of the scouts, because of his German origins, was mobilized as a doctor for the Eastern front. From Leningrad he sent greetings by field post to the illegal gathering of the Hashomer in Warsaw. Later, this same doctor, while on furlough in Warsaw, smuggled himself into the Ghetto and spent several days with the comrades of Hashomer. He recounted details of the severe catastrophe that the German army suffered in the winter of 1941-42.
The front, Comrade Mordecai told me, was then on the verge of collapse. At that time, Hitler personally visited the threatened front line areas where the demoralization of the army took on a menacing character. Hitler addressed the soldiers and restored order and discipline. Those generals who could not maintain order on their front lines were taken along with Hitler in his auto, and he later had them shot. Hitler had also visited the area where our scout was to deliver speeches and restore order. When asked by one of the Jewish friends why he had not shot Hitler, since he had stood so close to him, the scout left the question unanswered.
ONE DAY in the winter of 1941-42, Comrade Mordecai gathered all the members of the movement to strengthen in them the consciousness of collectivism and to demonstrate what a force this represents for the shomer movement. Despite the danger that this meeting entailed, I made available for them the second floor of the Judaic Institute at Tlomacki 5, the headquarters of the communal department in charge of the house committees. The evening was camouflaged as a legal literary affair.
In the hall they arranged chairs in rows and set up a real stage. There came about five hundred shomrim and shomrot, the latter dressed in white blouses. The culture program of the evening was carried out by their own members, young men and women, and the caliber was high. After the program, the entire gan (garden, i.e., youth group) marched around the room. Then came a solemn declaration of dedication to the movement. A comrade from the Polish scout movement was witness to the ceremony.
This affair demonstrated to me how much love, respect, and devotion the members of Hashomer felt for Comrade Mordecai. This same loyalty was shown him when he was commandant of the Fighters’ Organization. This power did not, however, go to his head. He remained as modest as before.
During an intermission between lectures at the seminar of Hashomer (I was lecturing on the history of the Jewish resistance movement), the comrades Mordecai and Yosef Kaplan called me down to the courtyard of Nalewki 23, took me into a private room, and showed me two revolvers. These revolvers, they explained to me, would be used to train the youth in the use of weapons.
Bad times were approaching. From all over the country, awful reports came in, first about the terrible slaughter in Vilna and other Lithuanian cities, brought by the Comrades Vilner of the Vilner Hashomer and Solomon of the Hanoer Yatzioni (Zionist Youth). Then came the accounts of the slaughter in Slonim and other cities in the east. Comrade Mordecai realized that the fate of the Polish Jews was sealed, and that the Jews of all of Poland were doomed to destruction.
The young but quickly maturing Comrade Mordecai understood that at present there was but one question: What kind of death would the Polish Jews select for themselves? Would it be the death of sheep to slaughter without resistance, or of people with honor who want the enemy to pay for their death with his own blood? Comrade Mordecai wanted the slaughter of the Polish Jews not to come easy for the enemy; he had to be made to bleed for it.
THE MOMENT Comrade Mordecai decided on a struggle, no other questions existed for him. The scientific circles and the seminars came to an end; the manifold cultural and educational work was interrupted. Now he and his comrades concentrated only on the area of struggle.
When the National Committee, of which Mordecai was also a member, decided in February-March, 1943 to help resettle the communal and cultural activists over on the “Aryan” side, he remained very cool to this decision. He would certainly want these artists and activists to survive the war and be saved by the Jewish people, but he and his comrades would not lend a hand to this. He was against taking money from another treasury with which he was associated. For him, there existed now only one goal, and he was sacrificing all for that goal: the struggle with the enemy.
He now greatly regretted that he and his fellows had wasted three war years on cultural and educational work. They had not understood the new side of Hitler that was emerging, he lamented; we should have trained the youth in the use of live and cold ammunition. We should have raised them in the spirit of revenge against the greatest enemy of the Jews, of all humankind, and of all times.
But our Mordecai committed here a second serious error, which boomeranged on the history of the Warsaw and Polish Jews. He and his young companions of Hashomer and the workers organizations had taken too much into consideration the opinions of the older generation, of the “wise,” the “deliberating,” who weighed and measured and who had up their sleeve a host of clever arguments against the struggle with the occupation forces. A paradoxical situation had arisen: The older generation, which had half a lifetime behind it, spoke, thought, and concerned itself about surviving the war, dreamt about life, while the youth — the best, the most beautiful, the finest that the Jewish people possessed — spoke and thought only about an honorable death. They did not think about surviving the war. They did not procure for themselves “Aryan” papers. They had no dwellings on the other side. Their only concern was to discover the most dignified, most honorable death, as befits an ancient people with a history of several thousand years.
Our youth studied too little of the history of the struggles for freedom, or they would have known that the idealists who cast their lives on the scale of events were young people, whose hands and feet were not bound by family ties and children. In such instances, the older generation was confronted by accomplished facts, situations that left only one way open to them — to join the fighters. In these stormy times one had to give less consideration to resolutions of committees and administrations and depend more on oneself, one’s own healthy instinct.
Unfortunately, our youth was too well disciplined, which made it possible for the Germans to take the lives of 300,000 Jews at a ridiculously cheap price, not a single German killed. That truth was understood by the youth when it was too late, when the majority of Warsaw Jews were already in Treblinka.
Comrade Mordecai threw himself into the defense activity with all his zeal. Together with other groups and political parties, the Jewish Fighting Organization was created, at whose head the coordinating commission of the political organizations placed Comrade Mordecai. He was the soul of the organization, one of its most devoted workers. He was not one who would send others into the line of fire and himself remain at a distance. In January 1943, he participated actively in the fighting action. His revolver claimed German sacrifices.
Once when he pressed his revolver to the head of a German guard, the revolver jammed, and Comrade Mordecai was barely saved by a comrade who rescued him from the danger. He was active, too, in the April action. Death found him several weeks later, together with the best fighting comrades. He was in a hideout in the ghetto that had five entrances. Someone most likely betrayed the bunker of the valiant fighters who, from this place, went out to attack the SS and Ukrainians. The “Juden-Sieger” (Jew-conquerors), as the SS were called by the Wehrmacht, entered through five sides of the hideout, but first they filled it with gas. Comrade Mordecai fell together with the best comrades of the Fighters’ Organization.
Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944) created an extensive archive of documents about life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto before he was executed with his family by the Nazis, amid the ruins of the ghetto. He kept a descriptive diary, “Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto,” which survived his death, and also organized a group, called Oneg Shabbat, “Joy of the Sabbath,” that sealed its archive into metal containers and milk cans. Some 35,000 documents were recovered (in 1946 and 1950), and served as unsurpassed testimony about Nazi atrocities, the struggles to survive, and the final uprising of 1943.