Our Last Days in the Warsaw Ghetto
In commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which has just been celebrated throughout the world, we here present a memoir of the uprising written by a participant who survived the liquidation of the Ghetto.
January, 1943. The new year in the Warsaw Ghetto. Nothing unusual was happening, but the air was full of forebodings.
“They’re busy at the Umschlag1 again.”
“Ukrainian and Latvian guards have arrived.”
“The Vernichtungskommando2 is on its way to Warsaw.”
“Final liquidation of the ghetto. Nobody will be spared.”
Ugly rumors circulated everywhere. Without having any certain evidence, we waited for disaster, prepared for it. Many of us were determined that next time things would not go as they had in July.3 And yet—the hope continued to plague us—could it come to that, after all?
On January 9, everyone talked only of one thing: Himmler and his staff had arrived to make an inspection of the ghetto. His limousine had been seen going through the streets, preceded and followed by armored cars bristling with machine guns, higher SS and Police Chief Odilo Globocnik heading the armed escort of SS officers. The cortege raced through the ghetto—the entire inspection was over in a few minutes. Now our premonition became real, fleshed-out: Himmler had last visited the ghetto in July.
This day was the last I was to remember for well over a week, for I had fallen ill with typhus and was almost constantly delirious. I had probably caught the fever around Christmas time, when none of us went to work and the entire population of the ghetto gathered at the corner of Mila and Zamenhof Streets. Coming home from work one day soon after, I barely managed to drag myself up our four flights; in the Warsaw ghetto the diagnosis was simple to make.
One morning Jozef Zandberg went out to open the pharmacy in which he and my wife worked. In a few minutes he was back again. “They have doubled the guard at the ghetto gate and are not letting the working groups through to their jobs. Something is up, and I don’t like the smell of it. Let’s get up to the attic. Come on—hurry!”
Though half-conscious now, I was still feverish, and had to be lifted out of bed. I don’t know how they got me through the narrow tunnel leading to the attic. When I came fully to, I was lying on a mattress on the floor and our tiny hideout was crammed with people, some of them strangers. The carpenter was closing off the entrance, and my wife was saying over and over: “I’m so grateful that it was Mr. Zandberg’s turn this morning. I would never have noticed the extra guards—I would never have noticed. We’d have been done for, if it had been up to me!”
That was January 18, the day when the second Resettlement Operation commenced. After a couple of hours, we heard a commotion in the courtyard.
“Alle Juden ‘runter! Alles ‘runter! Everything down!”
A long silence, then the thud of heavy boots on the staircase. They were at the second floor. We heard gun butts splintering doors, then nothing, then the boots on the stairs again. The third floor. Banging on doors, splintering wood again, a woman’s scream. And then they were approaching the attic. No one moved a muscle. They were on the attic landing now and at the carpenter’s apartment.
We heard the young Ukrainian guard call out: “Nemá” (No one there).
“Keine Juden?” A German voice.
“Nein,” the Ukrainian answered.
The boots were tramping downstairs now, away from us. I was bathed in sweat. Just then, there were two shots, very clear and distinct, followed by a burst from an automatic rifle, and another burst. A few minutes later, an explosion. From time to time we heard detonations in the distance that we could not identify.
In an hour Ola Kacenelenbogen appeared in the shelter and berated us loudly. In all the struggle to get me upstairs, Ola had been overlooked. No one had alerted her to the roundup, and she and her family had been taken completely by surprise when the boots resounded on the staircase. She had managed to save them by putting on a white nurse’s apron and cap and calmly opening the door to announce to the Germans, “Kein Eintritt! Fleckfieber!” (You can’t come in. Typhus). The Germans retreated at once. The very word “typhus” threw them into a panic.
The roundup, as it had last time, ended at sunset. When we came out of our shelter that night the entire ghetto was stirred by the electrifying news that a real battle had taken place at the corner of Niska and Zamenhof Streets. Members of the Jewish underground had stood off the SS with guns, hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, and pick-axes. About twenty Germans had been killed.
The resistance, such as it was in those days, had been organized by the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (The Jewish fighters’ organization) into small “nests,” some of which were hidden away in our own building and in the one next door at 56 Zamenhof (the two being connected by a secret passage). The men waited for the Germans to get inside the courtyard and then opened fire from two sides. The same sort of thing had happened around the shops in Leszno, Nowolipie, and Smocza Streets.
The new Resettlement Operation was headed by Obersturmführer (SS lieutenant) Karl Brand, a notorious murderer, and by SS Hauptsturmführer (SS captain) Theodor von Eupen-Malmedy, commandant of the death camp at Treblinka. For Eupen-Malmedy, this stint in the ghetto was a “guest appearance”; perhaps his German thoroughness had impelled him to come and inspect the raw material for his gas chambers. German headquarters for the operation was set up in Muranow Square. The Germans had at their disposal tanks, small artillery pieces, automatic rifles, and hand grenades.
During the time that I had been ill, my sister Róza had been looking after our little boy, Wlodek, then five years old. After the fight, she brought him back to us. They, too, had spent the day in a shelter, the one in her house. She told us that Wlodek had cooperated perfectly, had in fact not made a sound. He had seemed to be far calmer than the adults, many of whom were near hysteria. But Róza’s neighbors in the shelter resented his being there and insisted she bring him back. Children were, of course, a great problem in the hiding places and often became the focus of nasty fights, sometimes mortal violence. Wlodek stayed with us in the shelter for the remaining three days of the January operation; and he was a perfect soldier.
All the while the Germans remained in the ghetto, shooting continued sporadically. At night we would compare notes. Crawling out from our holes, we were unable to get a very clear picture of everything that was happening, but from what we could tell, the German operation was progressing badly. Open resistance from the underground, reinforced by the passive resistance of the rest of us, was having an incredible effect. And after four days, the whole operation was called off.
Sometimes just a few underground fighters had been enough to save the lives of everybody in a big apartment house: after the first shot fired by the underground, the Germans were afraid to search the cellars and attics. They would simply call out their mission in the courtyards, fire a few shots, and withdraw. About the only people they managed to round up this time were those who still had faith in the power of their “valid” documents. These people had gone down into the courtyards when ordered to do so. No one had asked to see their papers; they were herded at once off to the Umschlagplatz. Among them were many members, including leading officials, of the Judenrat staff. There were also during those four days many suicides, mostly by poison.
Those of the Judenrat staff who survived blamed the death of their colleagues on its vice chairman, Abram Sztolcman, who had instructed all officials to report to the Germans when ordered to do so. He had assured them that they would be perfectly safe. In the end, six thousand Jews were taken in the January roundup, but for the first time the Germans were left with a few dead and wounded of their own.
Ghetto inhabitants were making pilgrimages to the sites where blood on the snow marked the site of some successful resistance. We were a changed people. These places marked the end of a crisis that the ghetto had been going through since the September before—the crisis of shedding the last and deepest of our illusions. Three hundred thousand of us had had to die before we could begin to grasp the simplest and most self-evident of truths. There were no longer any illusions about German intentions to cling to, and we found ourselves possessed of a strange new determination.
We also knew that just as we had come to terms with the Germans’ intentions and tactics, the Germans would quickly come to terms with ours. During the first deportations, a document occasionally offered some protection. During this second one, a good shelter had served. It was clear that next time neither papers nor shelters would be of any help.
In its outward appearance the ghetto seemed to return to normal once the Germans had gone. The working parties left through the gate every morning. The agencies of the Judenrat functioned as usual. Shops and factories run by Germans were producing. The ghetto pharmacy remained open. Behind these familar scenes, we engaged in our feverish preparations: our last battle was surely coming, and we were determined to have whatever weapons we could scrape together for it.
Near the gates, the Poles continued to taunt us in their customary fashion: “That’s a nice coat, sell it to me. What does it matter if you’re cold? They’re going to make soap of you anyway.” Taunt is not quite the right word: partly they were simply saying things that they knew to be so and that the Jews seemed to them too stupid to believe.
On the other hand, some of the Poles were beginning to look at the situation with new eyes. We now heard them say things like, “They’re eating you for lunch, but they’re saving us for dinner.” We got word, too, of the fantastically exaggerated reports of our resistance that were circulating on the “Aryan” side of the walls.
However, the vast majority of the Polish population remained, as it had always been, utterly indifferent to our fate. Our underground was unable to get arms from the Polish underground, and when they attempted to get ammunition on their own, they were just as subject as ever to the hazards of Polish blackmail and informing.
Inside the gates, the ghetto was being transformed into a hidden city. Now thought of as potential living quarters for weeks or even months, shelters were being enlarged, fitted out, converted into apartments to house several families. Some of them were equipped with plumbing, electricity, radios, etc.; some had emergency exits, and a fortunate few had secret exits outside the walls. Secret passageways formed a huge underground linking network. Everyone was pledged to silence about the location of his shelter and its means of entry. In the end, of course, most of these shelters turned out to be living tombs; but no one could foresee that. For our house, we set up a look-out system on the stairs and in the courtyard. People were on duty all night in two-hour shifts, with instructions to alert everyone at the slightest suspicion. A system of alarms was installed in every apartment, and the signal was set off by a single, central button. And at the printing shop on Leszno Street in which I worked, we enlarged and modernized the shelter under the cellar. Here the entrance was covered by a printing press which could be turned on, if necessary, and put into operation.
Political power inside the ghetto was now almost completely in the hands of the Z.O.B., called “the party.” Judenrat officials were being ignored; members of the Jewish police walked around with carefully unobservant eyes. We all thought of ourselves as soldiers, and “the party” as our command group. The ghetto had in effect become an army, differing from proper armies only in that it had no arms and no conceivable hope of victory.
In the meantime, my wife, Lena, and I thought constantly about saving our little boy. We went over and over the list of the “Aryans” we knew, trying to think which of them might be both willing and able to take him. I began to write letters to our Polish friends, telling them of our situation and begging them to save the life of an innocent child. Needless to say, these letters could not go through the mails; they had to be delivered by messenger. But even if one got hold of someone willing to deliver a letter outside the walls, the recipient was usually reluctant to accept a letter from the ghetto brought by a stranger: there was too much danger of blackmail. So I first had to alert my friends by phone, and tell them to expect a letter from me. To make these calls, I used the phone in the office of the T.O.Z. (one of the Jewish welfare agencies) at 56 Zamenhof Street, which I could get to through secret passages. The phone was in constant use: by people on errands like mine, or by smugglers contacting their confederates about conditions at the gates or arranging to receive parcels to be thrown over the wall. Each call took hours of waiting my turn. And then not everyone I wanted to reach had a phone. I would often call my former partner, Stanislaw Kapko, at his office and have him get a message to someone that he was to come to Kapko’s office and await a call from me. Then I would have to call Kapko the next day to find out if the appointment had been made. When I finally spoke to the friend, I had then to persuade him to come and talk to me at the printing shop on Leszno Street. There was no danger for gentiles in coming to the printing shop because it was located outside the ghetto, and they could always pretend to be out buying Jewish goods. Still, they were not easy to persuade. Some never came, some came and refused my request. Finally one possibility to save Wlodek began to take shape: the Maginskis.
Stefan Maginski had been a member of the group with whom I had fled Warsaw in September 1939 (whence I returned to be with my family). He was a brilliant journalist and a highly cultivated man. I loved him, and he treated me rather as if I were his younger brother. His wife, Maria, a former actress, was both a beauty and a great lady. They had no children.
Mrs. Maginski agreed to meet us in Leszno Street. She spoke of a friend in the country who, for a modest fee, would be willing to take the child. She vouched for the decency and honesty of her friend, and promised us that Wlodek would be well looked after. They themselves could not take him, because they were too old suddenly to appear with a five-year-old child, and they were, besides, working night and day with the Polish resistance. The fee was indeed modest, and happily we could afford it. Sometime earlier I had managed to increase my income by going into partnership with Izak Rubin to smuggle out some of the kerchiefs made from pillowcases in the ghetto. Thus I had the money to pay for Wlodek’s care for several months in advance. By some child’s instinct for self-preservation, Wlodek did everything in his power to win Mrs. Maginski, and she was much taken with him. She promised to make the necessary preparations.
In the meantime, “the party” was growing stronger and more audacious every day. It began to execute German agents and Gestapo stooges who had been operating in the ghetto, among them Weintraub, Brzezinski, and Firstenberg (high-ranking Jewish police officials); Adam Szajn (a Gestapo agent); Anders (former trainer for the Jewish Sports Organization, the Makabi); and Alfred Nossig, a famous journalist who had been a spy for the Germans since World War I and who had written the Germans a long report on the resistance. When the executioners came to get him, Nossig declared that the Gestapo would “avenge” his death.
In “the Brushmakers,”4 where I went one day to visit my brother-in-law, I saw a mimeographed notice posted on the wall. It was an open appeal to resist the Nazis. Now, the notice announced, was not the time to think of one’s own skin but of the future of the Jews; even those who might be able to escape from the ghetto were urged to stay on and fight. It was signed “The Jewish Military Organization.”
The underground took to itself the power to levy taxes. Money was needed to buy arms and to maintain the fighting core. The tax was compulsory, but no compulsion had to be used on most of the population. Everyone took great satisfaction from the thought that members of the Judenrat, the Jewish police, and the shop managers were being forced to contribute—and most of all, that the Approvisioning Agency of the Judenrat had been hit for an enormous tax. Marek Lichtenbaum, president of the Judenrat, had been personally assessed for 50,000 zlotys. When he refused to pay, his son was taken hostage, and within twenty-four hours he had given over the full sum. The underground had also carried out a number of “expropriations”: most famously, an armed raid on the Judenrat treasury and on the bank at 37 Nalewki Street.
My young partner Izak Rubin—who was far more than a partner and would have given his life for Lena and Wlodek—related a conversation he had had with Zygmunt Frydrych. Zygmunt, who, like Izak, looked totally “Aryan,” had been a youth leader in the Bund, an employee of the Approvisioning Agency of the Judenrat, and was one of the leaders of the resistance movement. He told Izak of the heavy casualties the movement had suffered in January. “The fact is, our men lack military training. They have not the least concern about laying down their lives, but the merest German private knows more about organizing warfare than we do. The Polish underground gives us nothing. Izak, we need more men, we need men like you.” He also told him the name of the commander of “the party”—Mordecai Anielewicz, a member of Hashomer Hatzair.
Izak was eager to join, but he felt he could not meet the condition of membership—which was to move into the underground’s common living quarters—until the affairs of my family had been settled. In addition there was the problem that the men were being barracked along party lines, and Izak belonged to no party. So it was finally decided that Izak should organize his own fighters’ group in our house at 44 Muranowska Street. He would also have to undertake to provide his own arms. Zygmunt agreed with Isak that the underground was not making enough use of the printing shop and proposed that he should organize a group to be based there as well.
Izak was terribly wrought up by the conversation, and he determined to get out of the ghetto and see what he could do in the way of acquiring some arms and ammunition. He and I agreed on the following plan: first, Wlodek must be disposed of; next, Lena and my sister Róza must be provided with a secure hiding place on the “Aryan” side; then we would be free to dispose of ourselves.
I had now to hurry to press my Polish contacts to arrange something for the women and to get Izak help for our underground work. For weeks I had been trying to persuade Kapko to come and meet me. He had been very helpful to me in reaching others, but was reluctant to come himself to Leszno Street. Finally, however, I forced him to make an appointment. When he arrived, I sensed that he would try to remain guarded, evasive, with me. But I had no time then for delicate perceptions and launched straight into my appeal. I told him that no one in the ghetto would live to see the defeat of the Germans—so certain to come now, after Stalingrad—unless the others came to our aid. He must help us, in the name of humanity, of patriotism, of Christianity, of our friendship. If not us, he must at least help save the women. I talked at length and passionately, hardly knowing what I was saying. Through it all, Kapko kept smiling sympathetically and nodding his head, and when I finished he said, “Yes, yes, I’ll do all I can. But there are blackmailers and informers everywhere; we’re afraid of our own shadows. Don’t worry, though—I’ll look around and see. You’ll hear from me soon.”
I knew from his tone and from the way he was avoiding my eyes that I had failed. Suddenly something was released in me, and I ceased appealing to his pity. “Kapko,” I said, “it’s wonderful that you’ve been making money and that you are willing to help people less fortunate than yourself, but we are coming to a time that will make such things insignificant. Sooner or later, you’ll be called to account: ‘Sergeant Stanislaw Kapko, member of the Warsaw Municipal Council, vice-president of the Union of Non-Commissioned Officers, member of the Polish Publishers’ Association, what did you do for Poland in the days of Wawer, Auschwitz, and Treblinka? You were a businessman? Making money? That is your battle record?’ Listen, Kapko, when you and I were running away together in September 1939, nothing but defeat behind us, you were the man of vision. It was you who talked to the rest of us about guerrilla warfare, and we did not understand you then. Now victory is in sight, and where are you?” I went on and on, painting for him the picture of a glorious resistance, Jews and Poles side by side, and his own heroic role in it. I do not remember how long it took me and all the things I said, but when I finally looked at him Kapko was weeping and muttering, “So help me God!” We embraced and parted with his promise to present me with some plan of action within a week.
At the end of March, Mrs. Maginski came once more to Leszno Street—this time to tell us that all the arrangements for Wlodek had been made and we had two weeks in which to prepare him for leaving us.
Two weeks: in which we tried to memorize our five-year-old son to the look and to the touch, and in which I watched approvingly while my son’s mother taught him to disavow his connection with us. “Remember, you have never lived in the ghetto. You are not a Jew. You are a Polish Catholic. Your father is a Polish army officer who was taken prisoner. Your mother is away in the country. Mrs. Maginski is your Auntie Maria.”
The two weeks turned out to be only seven days. Mrs. Maginski unexpectedly returned to the printing shop one afternoon, terribly upset. The Polish underground had received word that the liquidation of the ghetto was to take place any day now; the child must be smuggled out the next day. Next morning, Lena washed and fed her baby for the last time. At eight o’clock we joined the printers’ marching column, and at eleven Mrs. Maginski came to the shop for him. Wlodek was quiet, smiling. But just as we were to say goodbye, he clutched his mother and said, “Is it true that I’ll never see you again?” “What a silly boy you are!” she managed to say. “Just as soon as the war is over, I am coming to get you.”
Mrs. Maginski took Wlodek’s hand and walked briskly out of the building. Wlodek skipped beside her, and didn’t look back once. They crossed Leszno and turned into Orla, out of sight. A Jewish policeman who was a friend of ours followed them for a little way on his bicycle. Everyone crowded around to congratulate us. We had been very lucky, they said. So, indeed, we had.
Mrs. Maginski’s news about the liquidation of the ghetto came as no surprise. That month Walther Casper Toebbens, the work boss of the Ceglana and Leszno Street shops, had been made the overseer of a new Resettlement Operation. The SS were retiring from the scene, we were told, and now we were to be Toebbens’s “own” Jews. Toebbens had explained to us that by order of Himmler, Warsaw was to be made Judenrein. According to the usual Nazi procedures, we were told that the entire workshop personnel, together with equipment and machinery, were to be transported to Poniatow and Trawniki, labor camps in the province of Lublin. The Jewish workers, with their wives and children, would spend the rest of the war in this wholesome country air, provided with excellent living conditions. We would all be out of danger.
But our willingness to swallow such promises had disappeared; to believe the Germans now was a piece of insanity. Toebbens had gone so far as to import several Jewish foremen from shops in Lublin, who stood by and nodded in corroboration of what the German shop-owners were telling us. They worked hard at persuading us, and some of the Jewish shop managers cooperated with them. There were, however, only a few volunteers.
The Z.O.B. issued a proclamation to the people of the ghetto warning them that the new “resettlement” program was simply part of the plan to exterminate all the Jews. “Hide your wives and children and take up arms! Only resistance can save the remnants of the ghetto population!” On the walls of buildings was scrawled the motto “Poniatow and Trawniki = Treblinka.” Members of the underground beat up the foremen from Lublin, and one of the shop managers who was cooperating with the Germans was shot dead on the street in broad daylight.
One day I ran into Leon Berkowicz. Before the war, he had been one of the owners of a big advertising agency and also of a chemical plant. He had seen active duty as a commissioned officer under General Bortnowski, and had distinguished himself at the battle of Kutno during the September 1939 campaign. I had always liked him and considered him a friend.
“I’m glad I ran into you,” he told me. “I was actually on my way to see you.”
“To see me? What for?”
“I have a proposition to make to Lena. I want her to come along with us to Poniatow and organize a pharmacy there. I can guarantee you good living conditions, and even the chance of making some extra money.”
“You must be insane. You actually expect us to volunteer for Poniatow?”
“But what else is there to do? They’ll deport us from Warsaw in any case.”
“But don’t you realize, Poniatow is a trap! Do you seriously mean to tell me you trust Toebbens?”
“Yes, I do. I think he’s telling the truth. Not that I think he’s a better man than the others, but he’s making too much money from the Jews to be so eager to get rid of them. He’d stop at nothing to keep the shops going, and he’s got more influence than you may think.”
“But didn’t you see what ‘the party’ has to say about all this?”
“They’re just a bunch of romantic kids. I happen to know something about soldiering, and I know how hopeless it would be to try to stand off the Germans in the ghetto. There’d be nothing left but a pile of rubble. I’d rather leave voluntarily than be dragged away by force. At least I’ll be able to take some of my belongings.”
Around this time there was a great burst of coming and going. People were escaping the ghetto every day. And on the other band, many of those who had been living in hiding on the “Aryan” side began to return. It was getting more and more difficult for them to hide among the Poles, where blackmail and informing were intensifying every day. And there was something else, more difficult to define: many people were beginning to prefer death in the ghetto to life outside it. The Kacenelenbogens’ fifteen-year-old daughter, Ada, who had been sent out of the ghetto by her parents after the July resettlement, was among those who came back. “I’d rather die with you here,” she said over and over, to her parents’ despair. Later, she joined the underground, and when her parents pleaded with her she said to them: “I can’t understand you. I should think you’d be proud of me and give me your blessing. We’re all going to die anyway, you know.”
For those who had no thought of escaping, there was only one preoccupation, obsession really: how to get hold of a weapon—a pistol, or even a single hand grenade. “Let’s give them some of their own back,” we kept repeating to one another. “A German for every Jew!”
Izak Rubin returned full of hope from his mission outside the walls. He had got hold of “Aryan” papers, and with Kapko’s help, he had brought back a drum-type revolver and several rounds of ammunition. He also brought me a message that Kapko would be coming to see me on Friday at the printing plant with a plan of action. For the first time in my life I held a revolver in my hands. What magic in this piece of metal! With it came the knowledge that though we might die, we could no longer be slaughtered like dumb animals. Now all we had to do was arrange for places for the women outside the ghetto. Getting them out would not be difficult—I had managed to have them listed on the roster of the printing shop workers and from the shop it was easy to make one’s way. The problem was living quarters.
The Friday of Kapko’s visit finally came—April 16, 1943. He told me his plan. He wanted to recruit one hundred men for a partisan unit (he was a former Uhlan, and spoke of “a hundred sabers”) and send them to the province of Lublin. He thought he could even transport the men legally, by having a certain business firm he was in close touch with make application for an allotment of a hundred Jewish workers. They would be transported out of the ghetto by truck and taken to Lublin; and once in the vicinity of Lublin, they would make their escape into the woods. If the application for a hundred workers was not approved, he would have to set up a kind of underground railroad for facilitating individual escapes. We must start recruiting at once, limiting ourselves to able-bodied young men, preferably with some military training. In September 1939, some of “his boys” had buried a cache of weapons and ammunition, he said, but he would have to have a drawing account of from 300,000 to 400,000 zlotys for purchasing additional arms and equipment. Liaison officers would remain in Warsaw, both inside and outside the ghetto, to continue recruiting suitable men. Arms would be supplied to the ghetto only on a temporary basis, until he could arrange for more and more men to escape into the woods. Such was the plan of a Polish-Jewish guerrilla resistance—enjoying a short and ironic existence in April 1943.
Kapko told me that after our last conversation, he had had a bill of sale drawn up for the apartment house I owned in Warsaw; the proceeds were to go to our military fund. We embraced and parted. This was to be our last meeting.
Monday night Passover was to start. We had not prepared to observe the holiday fully, but its spirit was very much with us. Under the circumstances, the Haggadah took on a special meaning. And many visitors came from outside the walls, particularly young people returning to spend the holiday with their old parents. It was also my thirty-eighth birthday. On Sunday, what remained of our family gathered together: my sister, Lena’s brothers and their wives, and Izak Rubin.
We talked mostly of Wlodek. We did not know that we were enjoying our last chance to be together. The night before, the SS General Jürgen Stroop had arrived in Warsaw, bearing in his pocket a secret order from Himmler:
I order the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto.
On that very same Sunday (April 18) at 6 o’clock P.M., Polish police surrounded the ghetto. Within an hour the underground declared a state of emergency. The fighters were assigned to their posts. Weapons, ammunition, and food were distributed, along with supplies of potassium cyanide. By 2 A.M. the next morning (April 19) the Poles had been joined by Ukrainian, Latvian, and SS units, who ringed the ghetto walls with patrols stationed about thirty yards apart.
I had just come on guard duty at our apartment house when two boys from the Z.O.B. arrived to order us all to our shelters. They were about twenty years old, bareheaded, with rifles in their hands and grenades stuffed into their belts. It did not take long to alert everyone; by dawn the ghetto was a ghost town. I awakened Lena and the others in our flat; we put on the best clothing we could find, and took the linen bag we had filled with lump sugar and biscuits cut up into small squares. About thirty people gathered in our shelter.
We had only one weapon among us: Izak’s revolver. Izak crouched at a peephole near the entrance to the shelter, from which he could see part of the courtyard. An ingenious network of tunnels connected us with the “outside” world. Through a tunnel extended to the front attic of our house, in turn connected with others, one could reach a spot just above the corner of Muranowska and Zamenhof Streets. The north side of the building, which fronted on Niska Street and the Umschlagplatz, could be reached by a special passage that had been drilled through the carpenter’s apartment. This same passage connected with No. 62 Zamenhof Street, where a resistance group was preparing to make its last-ditch stand. On the second floor a hole had been bored through to one of the lavatories in No. 42 Muranowska, from which we were put into connection with every building on the block.
Despite all our elaborate preparations, the German operation came upon us suddenly enough to upset all plans—those of the hundreds of people who had prepared to slip out to the “Aryan” side at the very last moment, and had documents and lodgings waiting for them, and, of course, Kapko’s grand scheme. That “very last moment” had come, and it was now too late for anything.
On Monday morning, the Germans marched into the ghetto through the gate at Gesia and Zamenhof Streets and took up positions in the little square opposite the Judenrat offices. Convinced that the resistance would not fire on Jews, they sent members of the Jewish police in their front ranks. Our fighters let the Jewish police go by, and barraged the Germans who followed with bullets, hand grenades, and home-made bombs. The intersection of Zamenhof and Mila Streets, where the resistance occupied the buildings on all four corners, became the scene of a real battle. Home-made incendiary bombs, flung from an attic window, hit first one tank and then another. The tanks burst into flames and their trapped crews were burned alive. The troops panicked and scattered in disorder.
I lay on the attic floor with Izak, watching all this going on below. Izak’s orders were to cover the withdrawal of our unarmed people should it become necessary for them to leave the shelter; several times I saw him point his gun and then, reluctantly, withdraw it. Below us German officers were trying to urge on their panicked “Judenhelden” with pistols and riding crops: the men who had been so powerful and assured when dealing with women and children and old men, were now running from the fire of the resistance. Scores of German bodies lay scattered on the pavement.
When Isak and I returned to the others in the shelter to report on what we had seen, people embraced and congratulated one another, laughing and crying. Some began to chant the Psalms, and an old man recited blessings aloud.
(Later we learned from some of the fighters that the first battle of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance had occurred at the corner of Nalewki and Gesia Streets, where a German unit marching into the ghetto had been caught totally off guard and where, after several hours, this first German unit withdrew, leaving behind their dead and wounded. But replacements came, and the fighting continued at this corner off and on all day. The resistance group’s meager supply of grenades and bombs finally gave out, and they then had to retreat through the back of the house at 33 Nalewki Street. Before pulling back, they set fire to the warehouse at 31 Nalewki, where the SS stored their Jewish loot. The warehouse continued to smolder and burn until the very end.)
It was night before the gunfire, most of it coming from the direction of Muranow Square, seemed to have stopped. We waited till it got very dark, and then crept down into the courtyard to exchange information with our neighbors. Huge billows of smoke were rising from around Nalewki Street. There had been very little activity at the Umschlagplatz, we learned, and only a few Jews had been led out through Zamenhof Street. Two fighters came into the courtyard (giving us a bad moment—they were dressed in SS uniforms) and told us the day’s happenings.
The shooting we had heard from Muranowska Street came from a battle between a strong resistance group at 42 Nalewki Street and a German unit retreating from the fighting at Nalewki and Gesia Streets. This unit had backed into the doorway of the building and had been entirely wiped out from the rear. Later in the afternoon, a second German unit had appeared in the Square, this time armed with howitzers and flame-throwers. The resistance men there were under the command of Pawel Frenkel and Leon Rodal, and were the best armed and best trained in the ghetto. They occupied the houses along the eastern and southern sides of the Square, and using the passageways between the buildings, were able to keep changing the direction of their fire. The enemy retired from the ghetto after sunset.
The original battle, the one at Nalewki and Gesia Streets, had not gone so well for us. There had been heavy losses on both sides; but when our boys were forced to retreat from their position, the Germans took over Gesia Street and with it, the ghetto hospital. The SS first worked its terrible vengeance on the sick, going through ward after ward with bayonets and guns; then they shelled the building and set fire to it. Those patients and staff members who had made it to the shelters died in the fire.
All day Tuesday we watched the glow in the sky that indicated shelling in the vicinity of the Brushmakers. The Brushmakers had its own independent fighting unit, headed by Marek Edelman; and when the Germans opened attack on the district—for only 28 people out of 8,000 responded to the Germans’ summons to report for deportation—they walked into a mined booby-trap at the entrance to 6 Walowa Street. Stroop then called for artillery fire on the entire Brushmakers’ area. The resistance suffered very heavy losses, and house after house caught fire. Fighting was taken up again in Muranow Square. There the Germans had set up a concentration of tanks, heavy machine guns, and flame-throwers. The resistance, on the other hand, had an underground passage to the “Aryan” side, and throughout the battle was being supplied ammunition by the Polish resistance. Muranow Square was the only Jewish position that did not suffer from an extreme shortage of weapons. In the end, some of the Jewish fighters managed to escape through their passage to the “Aryan” side.
From our observation point, we could actually see flashes of the fighting going on in Zamenhof and Mila Streets. And from time to time there were columns of deportees moving up Zamenhof, under SS escort, to the Umschlagplatz. One of these columns was rescued by gunfire from 29 and 62 Zamenhof, which scattered the escort and allowed the deportees to get away.
The apartment house across the street caught fire, and the sparks carried by the wind constituted a real danger to us. In accordance with a plan previously agreed upon, I made my way to the building next door where—amazingly enough—there was still a telephone in working order. I calmly reported the fire to the fire department, and within a few minutes they appeared to put it out. It took some time before the fire department, undoubtedly under German orders, ceased responding to our calls.
Tuesday evening a blood-red glow hung over the southern end of the ghetto, and here and there throughout the rest of the ghetto a building was burning: in some instances, like that of the warehouse, from a fire set by the resistance, more often from the shelling and occasional air bombardment. That night the grapevine offered sensational news: the uprising had spread from the ghetto to the whole of Warsaw. Organizations like the AK (the Home Army) and the GL (the People’s Guard) were joining their Jewish comrades; an unlimited supply of arms was making its way to the ghetto; more important, we heard, the Allies had promised to parachute troops and supplies to us. We would show the bastards yet!
For the first time in two days, we lit the stove and ate cooked potatoes and kasha from our reserve stock. We then went to sleep in our own beds, full of hope for tomorrow.
But Wednesday was no different from the day before. We could hear the same gunfire and explosions. The fires were spreading. This was the day that Stroop began to close in, using two thousand trained troops, and thirty officers, with tanks, machine guns, and air power. Ammunition was giving out. And our boys were retreating from one position to another. There was no question that we would be defeated—but everyone fought on.
For Stroop the major problem was the tens of thousands of civilian Jews holed up in their shelters. Himmler’s order had been categorical, but to pull the Jews individually out of their hiding places before destroying the ghetto might take months. The resistance understood this too, and after two days of street fighting, decided to save their ammunition for the defense of the bunkers. Stroop, then, was faced with the challenge of extricating Jews from the ghetto at the risk of a house-to-house skirmish for each and every one of them.
It was a challenge he was equal to. He called in the army engineers and ordered them to set fire to every building. The engineers moved methodically from house to house, drenching the ground floor with gasoline and setting off explosives in the cellars. The ghetto was to be razed to the ground. However much substance there might have been to Tuesday night’s life-giving rumors, there would be nothing to save us now. And activity was stepping up at the Umschlagplatz.
The ghetto by day was filled with death: fire spreading unchecked, street fighting at an end, lines of contact from section to section broken; but by night, it became pure phantasmagoria: flames and clouds of smoke and the crackle of burning wood. The crash of collapsing buildings drowned out the sound of gunfire, but occasionally the wind would carry a nearby moan or a distant scream. In his report of April 22, 1943, Stroop wrote: “Whole families of Jews, enveloped in flames, leaped out of windows or slid to the ground on bedsheets tied together. Measures were taken to liquidate these Jews at once.”
Then came Easter Sunday. The day was bright, and the citizenry of Warsaw, dressed in their finest, crowded into the churches. I thought, perhaps Wlodek is among them. When the mass was over, the holiday crowds pushed through the streets to catch sight of Warsaw’s newest spectacle (stopping for a moment, maybe, in Krasinski Square, to see the new merry-go-round?). Batteries of artillery were set up in Nowiniarska Street, from which the Germans kept up a steady barrage against the ghetto. And everywhere the flame, and the stench of roasting human flesh. The sight was awesome—and exciting. From time to time a living torch would be seen crouched on a window sill and then leaping through the air. Occasionally one such figure caught on some obstruction and hung there. The spectators would shout to the German riflemen, “Hey, look over there . . . no, over there!” As each figure completed its gruesome trajectory, the crowds cheered.
Fighting of a sort was still going on inside the ghetto-scattered and disorganized, but determined. Those people who had been burned out of their shelters were roaming the streets, looking for hiding places. We allowed another ten people into our shelter.
It was now the ninth day of the uprising, Tuesday, April 27. Someone who had been sent out to reconnoiter brought us word that the Germans were coming into our street. We heard shots in the courtyard, and then the call: “Alles ‘runter! Alle Juden ‘runter!”
“They are setting fire to the staircases and the ground floor apartments,” Izak whispered. We could hear nothing, but in half an hour the heat became unbearable and black smoke began to fill the shelter. Our turn had come.
Izak announced that we were to evacuate the shelter. Nearly half our companions refused to budge. They had chosen to use their potassium cyanide, and with a kind of gentle indifference they sat watching the rest of us scurrying around. Below us was an inferno; our only way out was by the roof. There were five of us now, Izak, Lena, I, and two other friends; I never saw what happened to the others. We crossed the roof onto that of the neighboring house, not yet on fire. Then began a tortuous journey through attics and passages and dug-outs and cellars. Our plan was to get as far away from our burning house as possible, and, under cover of night, cross the pavement to the backs of the houses on Mila Street, then down Mila and across Nalewki to a certain house that still had a passageway out of the ghetto.
By late afternoon we were at the middle of the block. At dawn Izak went to scout: we had to cross the street, find a shelter, contact a fighting group. Before he returned, we heard the now-familiar sound of windows breaking and smelled the smoke. The staircases in this building were in worse condition than our own had been. We went to the roof again, and sat, dazed by the fresh air and sunshine, straddling the roof’s peak. What were we to do now? The look of death had come over Lena’s face and I discovered that in the scramble for the roof, the little bag she had been wearing around her neck had slipped loose and was gone. In that bag was our last refuge: cyanide. We had to decide, then, whether to remain on the roof and bum alive or to try to make our way down. One of our friends decided for us: “There is always time to die,” he said. We scrambled down through the burning staircase and ran out of the doorway with our hands above our heads. We were led by a waiting German officer out into Muranowska Street. A large number of Jews from the surrounding apartment houses were already gathered there. Among them were a few of our neighbors.
One of the SS men kept staring at Lena and asked her her name. She gave him her married name, and he walked away without a word. They had been classmates together at the university.
We were lined up five across, and made our way toward the Umschlagplatz. As we passed Niska Street, Lena clutched my hand. A woman, holding a child by the hand, stood screaming at an upper-story window and then threw herself into the street. This was our last sight of the Warsaw Ghetto.
1 Umschlagplatz: reloading square, a railroad siding where captured Jews were loaded onto death trains.
2 Vernichtungskommando: extermination squad.
3 July 22, 1942: beginning of the big “Resettlement” in the Warsaw Ghetto that resulted in deportation to Treblinka of more than 300,000 Jews.
4 One of the German-led production centers in the ghetto; it occupied several blocks on Swietojerska-Walowa Streets and housed over 8,000 Jews.