Why So Few, So Late?
by Morris U. Schappes
From the Autumn 2015 special issue of Jewish Currents on the theme, “Honoring the Jewish Resistance.” Originally published in 1948.
THE DATE of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — Passover, 1943 — will be the occasion for exercises of commemoration wherever Jews live and wherever heroism in the war against Nazism is still lauded. We who mourn the loss of all our six million dead pay the special tribute of honor to those who died fighting. Boundless pathos and tragedy are stamped on the death of the unresisting millions who went down with no hand lifted against the enemy, but inspiration comes to us from those who took arms and killed Germans before they died. There is fearful warning but no example in the millions dead; but the spur to emulation rises like a light above the unmarked graves of the tens of thousands of Jews who actively resisted the Nazis.
But why was the real fight begun only after about half a million Jews in Warsaw had been exterminated, and there were only some fifty thousand left to make the last, unbending stand? Why did not more fight — sooner?
Perhaps we should first inquire: Dare we even ask the question? Dare we Americans, who did not face the terror of Nazi occupation at first hand, ask why Jews who lived under that terror in the frightful conditions of the ghetto were so slow to organize resistance? Is there not an impious righteousness and a moral insolence attached to putting the question? Should we not heed the caution of Marie Syrkin, that “those who were never subjected to a similar test should be wary of passing moral judgments” (Blessed Is the Match, The Story of Jewish Resistance, 1947)?
Once the question is placed, however, the main answers emerge without too much difficulty. In general, I should say that resistance in the Warsaw ghetto was slow in developing because the bulk of the population underestimated the Germans’ will and capacity for the destruction of the Jews and overestimated the ultimate strength of the Germans. Those who told the truth about Nazi objectives were derided as alarmists. Syrkin notes that “despite the candid declarations of policy by Goebbels and Hitler, very few believed that these pronouncements were more than threats.”
The Nazis were cunning in spreading this suspension of beliefs. They fostered every possible illusion to prevent that stage of disillusionment that might become the prelude to resistance. They sought to make the masses feel that their fate depended upon the Nazi will — goodwill or caprice — rather than upon their own courage in resisting and thwarting that will.
In the first place, there were many who accepted the very idea of segregation in the ghetto, and found “national” and spiritual comfort in the fact that the Nazis had arranged for a Jewish “administration” (the Judenrat), Jewish signs and outward symbols of authority, a Jewish police. While some Jews tried painfully to organize an underground resistance, others were soothed by the fact that they could ride in Jewish-owned street horse-cars painted in blue-and-white, with the Star of David big and clear on the sides. Thus Syrkin observes that “to some the ghetto even appeared as a shelter,” while some who had escaped from Warsaw to Soviet territory “returned to the Warsaw ghetto of their own accord. They had heard that an autonomous Jewish community had been set up in Warsaw.”
Mary Berg, who escaped from the ghetto after three years because she was an American citizen, wrote the following in her diary on December 22, 1940, about five weeks after the ghetto was officially organized:
The Jewish police is an accomplished fact. More candidates presented themselves than were needed. A special committee chose them, and ‘pull’ played an important part in their choice. At the very end, when only a few posts were available, money helped, too…. Their uniform consists of a dark blue police cap and a military belt to which a rubber club is attached. Over the visor of the cap there is a metal badge bearing the Star of David and the inscription Juedischer Ordnungsdienst (Jewish Order Service)…. I experience a strange and utterly illogical feeling of satisfaction when I see a Jewish policeman at a crossing — such policemen were completely unknown in pre-war Poland…. (Warsaw Ghetto, a Diary, edited by S. L. Shneiderman, 1945).
Those who could see progress and a promise for the future in such mockeries of Jewish aspirations were, of course, not ready to jeopardize these advantages by resistance.
ANOTHER FACTOR was the Nazi abuse of the community’s faith in education. An “official” school system was established and certain types of cultural and artistic activities were encouraged in order to dupe the people. The idea was nurtured that so long as the Jewish youth could study the history and culture of their people, learn Yiddish and Hebrew and so forth, a future of death was incredible. This idea had deep popular roots. The Nazis depended on that. Shortly before the official liquidation of the ghetto began on July 22, 1942 (during the next eight weeks about 300,000 Jews were deported to death), the Nazis allowed the Judenrat to organize several new elementary classes and kindergartens, as a blind almost to the very end.
The Palestine ideal also was exploited by the Nazis. Sometimes they were subtle and sometimes they were crude; too frequently they were successful. On May 20, 1941, Mary Berg noted this in her diary:
[T]he German authorities permit a large group of volunteer farm workers to leave the ghetto every day to cultivate the fields outside the city. The work affords the young people of the ghetto the opportunity to breathe a little fresh air. Most members of these groups are young Zionists who believe that by some miracle they will succeed in getting to Palestine. For that reason they are glad to gain experience as farm workers. I look with a feeling of pride at these ranks of boys and girls who march along the ghetto streets, returning from work outside….
Every one of them carries a loaf of fresh bread received from the peasants. Officially it is forbidden to bring bread in from the outside, but in this case the Germans let it pass because they need the labor power of these young people.
How accommodating of the Nazis, to help train pioneers for Palestine, and even to wink at infractions of their own regulations to make the Jews strong and skillful! It took time for the young Zionists, who played an important role in the resistance, to turn away from miracles and illusions to fight against the Nazis.
Cruder but even more successful was the Nazi ruse by which they beguiled many Jews who were unregistered in the ghetto to report their presence. In response to an announcement calling for registration with the ghetto authorities of all Jews who wanted to go to Palestine, more than 150,000 Jews had their names placed on a list that then made the Nazi objective of extermination easier of attainment, and the warnings of those who exposed the snare were disregarded. It was not yet seen that Palestine was attainable not by cooperation with, but only over the dead body of, Nazism.
ILLUSIONS WERE BRED on the basis of wealth and class. The ghetto was a miserable place, but there were oases, and money was useful. Mary Berg testifies: “New cafés and expensive grocery stores have appeared, where everything can be had. On Sienna and Leszno Streets, women are seen in elegant coats and dresses fashioned by the best dressmakers. The ghetto even has its own styles. Most women wear long jackets without collars or lapels, so-called ‘French blazers,’ and full skirts. The hats are mostly small… high cork heels… stylish colors are gray and dark red…”
Health and wealth had their correlations, too. Even typhus did not affect all equally. With hospitals overcrowded, despair spread. Berg records again (July 29, 1941):
Setting sick people down in front of hospitals has become a daily occurrence. Mothers, unable to stand the sight of their children suffering without medical aid, hope that by this method they will succeed in getting the patient to a hospital. The epidemic has assumed a particularly acute form in the regions of Gesia, Nalewki, Nowolipki, and Nowolipie Streets. In the Little Ghetto, the situation is somewhat better because it is inhabited by relatively well-to-do people who can afford private medical care. Recently, anti-typhus serum has been imported from Lwow, which fell to the Germans a month ago…. But only wealthy people can afford to buy it — the price runs as high as several thousand zlotys a tube.
And so it went, private medical care, free enterprise, silk dresses, a black market, and the masses in terrible, dying poverty.
There was always a “theory” to explain away the looming facts. Mass murders of Jews in other ghettos could be reported in Warsaw by eyewitnesses, but they could be interpreted as reasons for feeling safer in Warsaw. In October 1941, the news of mass executions in the Vilna ghetto arrived and was authenticated but “an explanation arose,” states Syrkin,
that the Germans were killing Jews in former Russian-occupied territories on the charge that they had supposedly been communists and had supported the Russian regime. If this reasoning were correct, the Jews of Warsaw could consider themselves safe, particularly as large factories had been opened in Warsaw in which Jews had to work as slave laborers…. The slaughter should be interpreted as anti-communist rather than as anti-Jewish.
Underlying these and many other phenomena that slowed the development of the resistance movement was an intense individualism that was the product of the basic social structure of capitalism in which the Jews of the ghetto had lived. “Save yourself” became not only an end in itself but adequate justification of any means used. Marek Edelman, active in the Bund resistance groups, reports (in The Ghetto Fights, 1945) that with the establishment of the ghetto,
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 interst of the average ghetto inhabitant…. The instinct of self-preservation finally drove the people into a state of mind permitting them to disregard the safety of others in order to save their own necks.
Did this “instinct of self-preservation” lead to self-preservation? On the contrary, it led to mass extermination, and must be judged as such. Tactically, nothing but resistance succeeded; morally, nothing but resistance was good.
THERE ARE THOSE who would exculpate, or at least warn us against harshly judging, not only those who did not resist but even those who collaborated with the Nazis with the best of intentions. Marie Syrkin, for example, remarks that the head of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, “believed that he was tempering the fury of Nazi persecution by his parleys and compromises,” and notes that when he finally realized that the Judenrat was actually administering the orders for the mass deportations to death, he committed suicide the next day. Lest we fall for similar illusions, however, what should be instructive for us is not what he believed, but that he was wrong.
“The condemnation of the Jewish police,” Syrkin reports, “is more universal,” but “in justice to them,” she asks, do we not believe that the Nazis would have been worse had they done their own policing? Evidently, however, the Nazis thought the Jewish police did so good a job that the Nazis refrained from killing them until near the very end. Mary Berg writes (July 22, 1942):
Today the Jewish police gathered up all the beggars from the streets and emptied the refugee camps…. Today we received a package of food from Uncle Abie, in which he enclosed a note. Fortunately for us, he is on the police force, otherwise he would not have been admitted to Dzielna Street. His short note expressed despair. He cannot accept the idea that as a policeman he will have to help in the deportation, and is thinking of resigning from his job. But… his job protects him from deportation. He wants to know what we think about it…. The police must supply the rest [of the daily quota of deportees] by means of force. They drag their victims out of their homes or seize them in the streets.
Nevertheless, despite the Nazi terror and the Nazi cunning, the Jewish underground began to organize itself. It was met by a propaganda preaching resistance to the idea of resistance. In the “safety” of the ghetto, resistance was denounced as “dangerous,” and the resisters were branded as enemies of the Jews. As Syrkin says very temperately: “[T]here was frequently the active opposition of the Jewish councils and the Jewish police…. The appeals of the underground were characterized as the irresponsible propaganda of young hotheads who were prepared to bring catastrophe down upon all. Again, it should be remembered that this point of view was advanced by people who held it in good faith.”
Need it again be asserted that if ever good faith was a bad justification for ruinous tactics, it was such preeminently in this “active opposition” to the underground? If we have not learned that lesson, then indeed commemoration of the heroic uprising becomes a solemn mockery, serving as an opiate that dulls the sense of battle, and fathering a code that justifies passivity and “the cult of self-preservation.”
What was the source, then, of the idea of resistance, which spread despite all obstacles? It rose primarily among organized groups based on class or national consciousness (or some combination of both), and dedicated to programs of struggle to achieve their ends. Such groups, before the war and the institution of the ghetto, had become accustomed, in their attitudes and conduct, to integrate the aims of the individual with those of the group and the cause. To the extent that they were dedicated to struggle, these groups understood that risks were involved, and that victories were never won without losses. They realized that they had an enemy to overcome, and that interfering with the enemy, and damaging him at all costs, was a necessary part of their program. In one degree or another, their philosophy was antithetical to that of the “cult of self-preservation.”
Therefore it was among the organized labor and Zionist forces — trade unionists, communists, socialists, labor Zionists, socialist Zionists — that the resistance took shape. Self-sacrifice was not alien to them. Thus, for example, Elia Moses, who had been in the International Brigade in Spain in 1936, was a military instructor of Warsaw Ghetto fighting squads until he was killed in the summer of 1942.
But to be effective, these separate resistance movements had to be unified. Unity, too, came slowly, but it came. By March and April, 1942, an anti-fascist bloc had been formed, consisting of the Hashomer Hatzair, the Poale Zionists, and the Jewish division of the (Communist) Polish Workers’ Party, known as PPR. At an all-party conference in March, “Jewish socialists… refused to merge their groups with those of the socialist Zionists,” writes Syrkin — but the anti-fascist bloc did persevere in the campaign for unity, and by October 20, 1942, all-party unity was achieved in a fighting organization that included the Socialist Bund and the General Zionists. Preparations for the large-scale military resistance were carried out under the leadership of five commanders, headed by Mordecai Anielewicz of Hashomer Hatzair, and included Michael Rosenfeld of the PPR. Other leaders came forward: Adam Berman, the Labor Zionist, Sonia Novograduka of the Bund, Henock Kirschbaum, the Zionist…
In the fighting itself, both on January 18, 1943, when the Nazis met armed resistance for the first time, and in the weeks after April 19, 1943, when the final ghetto battle was joined, mass heroism was forged. The unity that had already been achieved was further tempered in the heat of battle and the flames of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Of those who were still in the ghetto when the rising took place, most were annihilated. The Nazis lost more than 1,000 troops, materials, time, and prestige. And it was more than individual Jews that survived: An example survived, which spurred resistance in other ghettos, in death camps, and in other partisan movements.
FOR US IN THE UNITED STATES, and for Jews and other people all over the world, there have survived lessons and examples, patterns of what to do and what not to do in the fight against reaction and fascism. Some had learned these lessons even then; many have been taught only by hindsight. But it is necessary to guarantee that the hindsight of today becomes the foresight of tomorrow.
Everywhere that there is reaction, fascism, and imperialism, resistance is the only lesson. One must resist the propaganda that nourishes the “cult of self-preservation” by telling us that the attack is aimed “only” at the communists, or at “greedy” labor, or at the foreign-born, or at the Negro people, and not at “us.” The road to fascism is paved with exceptions that lead nowhere except to the extermination centers. The infinite cunning of Nazis was penetrated only too slowly and at too great cost in the Warsaw Ghetto. The American face of reaction will have its own special feature, but we must learn soon to penetrate the disguises.
In order that it be not desecration, commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto heroes should mean resistance above all; resistance immediate, continuous, and victorious.
Morris U. Schappes (1907-2004) was the editor of Jewish Currents for more than four decades. His books included The Jews in the United States: A Pictorial History (1958), A Documentary History of the Jews in the United States, 1654-1875 (1950), and two annotated collections of writings by Emma Lazarus.