|AN AMERICAN HEARS ABOUT THE GHETTO REVOLT
Note: Title added by the staff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Lucy S. Dawidowicz
On Thursday, April 22, the third day of the Passover festival, the Forverts ran two banner headlines:
NAZIS SLAUGHTER LAST JEWS IN WARSAW
Datelined Stockholm, the story reported that two nights earlier, on the eve of Passover, the Swedes had picked up a broadcast from SWIT, believed to be an underground Polish radio operating out of Warsaw. This is what they heard: "The last 35,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto are condemned to death. Warsaw is once again deafened with the bursts of gunfire. People are being murdered. Women and children are defending themselves with their bare hands. Save us..." At that point the radio went dead.
SECRET RADIO SAYS NAZIS BUTCHER LAST 35,000 JEWS
After two days the Polish Government-in-Exile reported that the Jews were engaged in an armed conflict with the Germans in the Warsaw ghetto. That was all. Something terrible was happening in the Warsaw ghetto, but we didn't know exactly what.
Most of my refugee friends came from Warsaw and nearly all still had family there-wives, children, parents, sisters, and brothers, to whom they used to send money and food packages. Since the summer of 1942, none had heard directly from family members in Warsaw. The news from Warsaw thereafter had been ominous. Most of the Warsaw Jews had disappeared into a void. Were they working as forced laborers somewhere to the east? Or had they been murdered? Now, it seemed, there were still Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto, Jews at war with the Germans. But how many and for how long? Every day, while my refugee friends waited to learn what was happening, the atmosphere grew tenser. All of us at the YIVO-including the Americans on staff-became caught up in their anxieties. For my part, I dreaded the news that we anticipated. I tried to visualize a battle in the Warsaw ghetto between Jews and Germans, but the only images I could summon up were Blakean, apocalyptic. The Germans were satanic, the forces of evil in the world.
While we waited for news, the Synagogue Council, an organization representing Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, announced that a six-week period of mourning for the murdered European Jews would begin on April 26, the seventh day of Passover, with memorial services in the synagogues. Christian churches had designated Sunday, May 2, for church observance as a "Day of Compassion." Meanwhile the Bermuda Refugee Conference had ended-ended in nothing for the European Jews.
At that time, Chaim Zhitlowsky, the Yiddishist philosopher and ideologue whom my father had once admired, died while on a lecture tour. It was comforting then, when we were confronting mass murder and mass suicide, to read of the natural death of one person who had died amidst his admirers in the fullness of time, at seventy-eight.
On May 12, two brief news items in the Forverts, one from Stockholm, the other from London, summarized a SWIT radio broadcast to the effect that the Warsaw ghetto had been "completely liquidated." The next day, we were shocked to read that Arthur Zygielbaurn had died in London; the day after, the news was amended to say that he had committed suicide. No one knew why; it was rumored that he'd become depressed on learning that his wife and children had been murdered. On May 14, the New York Bund received reports about the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto which Zygielbaum had mailed before his suicide. That material began to circulate among the Bund's members.
On May 18, we read in a JTA item from London that Zygielbaurn had killed himself as an act of protest against the world's indifference to the massacre of the Jews. He left a letter for the president and prime minister of the Polish Government- in-Exile. The Forverts printed the text of his suicide note on June 2, the New York Times on June 4. Zygielbaurn charged the Germans with the murder of the Polish Jews, but accused the Allied governments, including the Polish Government-in-Exile, of not having done enough to rescue the Jews from the murderous hands of the Germans. Then he wrote:
I cannot be silent. I cannot live while the remnants of the Jewish population of Poland, of whom I am a representative, are perishing. My friends in the Warsaw ghetto died with weapons in their hands in the last heroic battle. It was not my destiny to die together with them, but I belong to them and in their mass graves.
Zygielbaum's suicide astonished his friends and comrades, even those who had known him longer and better than I, who had seen only his frivolous side. None had been prepared for this noble death. After Jan Karski published his memoir, Story of a Secret State, I understood the enormity of the guilt which tormented Zygielbaum that last year of his life. Karski had given him the verbatim message which the two Polish Jewish leaders in Warsaw had sent to the Jewish leaders in the West. "Let them accept no food or drink, let them die a slow death while the world is looking on. Let them die. This may shake the conscience of the world." Zygielbaum had been a close friend of the Bundist in Warsaw who talked to Karski. He surely had taken that message as a charge to him personally. He faithfully carried out the mission the Polish Jews had imposed upon him.
By my death I wish to make my final protest against the passivity with which the world has witnessed and permitted the annihilation of the Jewish people.
I know how little human life is worth today, but since I could not do anything during my lifetime, perhaps by my death I will have a share in dispelling the indifference of those who now, at the last moment, can still rescue the few surviving Polish Jews. My life belongs to the Jewish people and I therefore give it to them.
At night I dreamed dark dreams about the Warsaw ghetto; in the daytime my head was often filled with monstrous visions. But soon the contours of the real events began to emerge. A few hundred Jews, members of an armed resistance organization, backed by the still surviving ghetto Jews, had opened fire on the SS forces who had entered the ghetto on April 19. The Germans had come to deport the remaining Jews and to liquidate the ghetto. That evening was the night of the first Passover seder. On the first day of the fighting, the Jewish combatants turned back the Germans. Then the Germans brought in reinforcements and heavy weapons. The fighting continued for weeks. In May, combat in the ghetto turned into house-by-house fighting. Then the Germans set fire to the ghetto street by street, building by building. There were not many survivors. Some 2,000 Jews were said to have been executed, 3,000 burned to death, and some 14,000 deported. The Jews had killed about 1,000 Germans and wounded about 2,300 more.
On June 19, the Jewish Labor Committee held a meeting in Carnegie Hall to honor the fallen Jews of the Warsaw ghetto. We went and we wept, yet there was pride in what the Polish Jews had done. For the first time anywhere during the German occupation of Europe, a civil ian population had taken up arms against their German oppressors. Not just any civilian population, but the most oppressed, the most helpless, the most desperate.
In the next weeks, Bundist and Zionist underground reports from Warsaw reaching the West gave details of the fighting and listed the names of the dead and the few survivors. The peo ple I knew had lost children, wives, parents, their dearest friends. One friend mourned his daughter, a member of the resistance organization, who had died during the fighting. I went to pay a condolence call. Other visitors were there. But he didn't speak to anyone. He lay on his bed, his face turned to the wall. For three days, he didn't eat, drink, or speak.
The events of the Warsaw ghetto burned into my consciousness. At times they seemed to replace the placid realities of my everyday life. They even pushed aside my real memories of Vilna. The Warsaw ghetto became a constant part of my internal life. I used to imagine myself there, test myself as to how I would have behaved. Would I have had the courage to fight? Would I have had the stamina against despair? When I was cold and reached for a sweater, I thought of winter in the ghetto. I developed a secret moral code of human behav ior that depended on options open only to those imprisoned in the ghetto. A few years later, in 1948, when I was asked to do research for John Hersey on a novel he was writing about the Warsaw ghetto, The Wall, I was ready for the task.
Dawidowicz, Lucy S. From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938-1947. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989,