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Martyrs and Fighters: The Epic of the Warsaw Ghetto, edited by Philip Friedman

Documents of the Warsaw Ghetto
Martyrs and Fighters: The Epic of the Warsaw Ghetto.
by Philip Friedman.
Praeger. 325 pp. $4.00.

 

Martyrs and Fighters, as far as I know, is the first attempt in English to give a connected account of the life and death of the Warsaw Ghetto. Dr. Philip Friedman, a historian of Polish Jewry and a survivor of the German occupation of Poland, has chosen to let the documents speak for themselves; his book consists of judicious excerpts from about forty contemporary and eyewitness accounts arranged under appropriate subject headings and joined together by brief editorial comments. With such a work in hand, it is possible to hope that some historian may soon present us with a full-scale history of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Dr. Friedman’s book is also noteworthy for the fact that most of its selections are from Jewish sources. With the exception of a few extracts from German occupation newspapers and several passages from General Juergen Stroop’s report on German military operations in the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto, the book portrays events as seen through Jewish eyes. Its emphasis is on what the Warsaw Ghetto Jews did rather than what was done to them. Every facet of Jewish life and death is vividly chronicled: what the ghetto Jews thought about, the books they read, the songs they sang about starving children and bureaucrats dispensing relief. There are descriptions of Jewish collaborators, black-marketeers, and Gestapo agents; Orthodox rabbis debating religious points while mending shoes in a German workshop; Jewish doctors conducting underground courses in public health and sanitation; we learn about the repertory of the ghetto’s clandestine theaters and how the ghetto manufactured explosives and hand grenades. Particularly important is the rich collection of materials detailing the organization of the resistance movement and the course of the battle.

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The book opens with a description of the bombing Of Warsaw on September 1, 1939. Then follow the first, unorganized German raids on the Warsaw Jews, the creation by the Germans of the Judenrat, or Council of Elders of the Jewish community, and the establishment of the ghetto on October 16, 1940. The Warsaw Jewish community underwent a swift underground reorganization; its welfare agencies, schools, and cultural and recreational institutions were revived in the ghetto and the Jewish political parties began to function again. Then, on July 22, 1942, the Germans began mass deportations. By the end of September, when the deportations halted, only about one-tenth of the half million residents of the Warsaw Ghetto remained. Those who enjoyed this brief respite knew beyond a doubt the fate awaiting them too: the gas chambers of Treblinka.

The Warsaw Ghetto feverishly completed its preparations to fight back, its several political parties cooperating to establish the Coordinating Committee and the Jewish Fighter Organization. On January 18, 1943, when the Germans surrounded the ghetto to launch a second round of deportations, the Jewish Fighter Organization underwent its first test. After two days of fighting, it succeeded in stopping the Germans from carrying out the deportation action. But on April 19, 1943, the Germans returned, determined to raze the ghetto to the ground, in accordance with Heinrich Himmler’s orders of February 16, 1943: “A general plan for the destruction of the ghetto must be submitted to me. At least it is necessary that the dwelling space for 500,000 subhumans available until now, which would never be fit for Germans, should completely disappear.”

For six weeks the Warsaw Ghetto Jews, led by the Jewish Fighter Organization, fought the Germans. Numerous documents describe that most unequal war. One of the most poignant is the communiqué of the Coordinating Committee, sent on May 11, 1943, to a representative of the Polish Government-in-Exile: “The Jewish Fighter Organization remains in the ghetto. While the epic of heroism is nearing its end and remnants of Jewish centers in the provinces are being completely wiped out, the free world, the world of justice, remains silent and apathetic.”

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Ever since the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto, various groups in the Jewish community have sought to identify their own parties and ideologies with the uprising, and to minimize the role of the others. Though most of these groups have been motivated by an ardent sense of personal and organizational solidarity with the ghetto fighters, their conflicting claims have frequently been unseemly and sometimes vulgar. But this undignified bickering is as nothing compared with the gross extravagances of the Communists. In the eleven years that have passed since the leveling of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Communists in Poland have completely revised the ghetto’s history; early distortions and misrepresentations have led on inevitably to outright perversion and falsification of the facts. Though the Communists played only a minor role in the ghetto (the Jews did not easily forget the Hitler-Stalin pact), it is now claimed that the Communists alone were responsible for the uprising and that most of them were not even Jews but Poles. Today the Communists are even willing to turn the record of Jewish heroism against the Jews.

In dealing with the role of the various parties making up the Jewish Fighter Organization, Dr. Friedman impartially gives us a series of documents from both Zionist and Bundist (Jewish Socialist) sources: communiqués and official reports issued by the Coordinating Committee, the Fighter Organization, and the individual parties. These documents make clear that the Jewish resistance would have been impossible without the active cooperation of the several Zionist parties and the Jewish Labor Bund. The Zionist groups united to form the Jewish National Committee (to which the small Communist group was admitted). The Bund, in accordance with its pre-war policy, refused to join the “united front,” but agreed to participate in a Coordinating Committee representing the Jewish National Committee and the Bund. To this Coordinating Committee, the Jewish Fighter Organization was responsible. It is evident from the documents that neither the Zionists nor the Bundists alone could have been the force for morale and courage that the Jewish Fighter Organization became.

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One would have welcomed more explanatory notes and a more fluid integration of the different excerpted documents, but these are minor considerations. The book’s most serious defect is technical rather than substantive. Many translations are awkward; the typography is hopelessly unattractive; the large number of typographical errors is inexcusable. Dr. Friedman’s book deserved better.

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