The Warsaw Ghetto uprising: ‘Against the occupier until the very end’

Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Women and children being rounded up by German soldiers in the Warsaw Ghetto, May 1943.

The Ghetto Fights, Warsaw 1943-45
Marek Edelman
Bookmarks, 2013
98 pp., $14.00

“Through the din of German cannons, destroying the homes of our mothers, wives and children; through the noise of their machine guns, seized by us in the fight against the cowardly German police and SS men; through the smoke of the Ghetto, that was set on fire, and the blood of its mercilessly killed defenders, we, the slaves of the Ghetto, convey heartfelt greetings to you.”

Those are the opening sentences of the Manifesto to the Poles, issued by the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB , Jewish Fighting Organisation) during the first days of the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943.

Clearly, as the battle for Gaza rages, these words have a special poignancy.

Marek Edelman was a member of the five-person command team that led the heroic uprising against the Nazi death regime. This short memoir is his account, first published in 1945 of the struggle, of which Edelman was one of the few survivors.

After World War II, he refused to emigrate from Poland. Instead, he stayed true to his socialist principles and remained, as an anti-Stalinism, in his homeland.

He was also an opponent of Zionism until his death in 2009. As the London Independent said in his obituary: “He took to his grave his unshakeable belief, rooted in his strong sense of humanist Judaism and forged in his teenage years as a member of the Jewish, Anti Zionist, Socialist Bund, that racism could be overcome and that a politics which speaks to a common humanity would ultimately prevail.”

Starting in November 1940, the Nazis sealed about 400,000 Jews into a ghetto in Warsaw and met very little resistance for a considerable period. “The Jews — beaten, stepped upon, slaughtered without the slightest cause — lived in constant fear,” Edelman says.

This resulted in a “terrifying apathy”. The fact that “one was never treated as an individual human being caused a lack of self-confidence,” he says of the ghettoised Jews.

It is an eerily similar description of the Palestinian population in the decade following Al Nakba (The Catastrophe — the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that came with the establishment of Israel). It took many years for Palestinian national consciousness to cohere and armed rebellion to begin.

British socialist John Rose, who has contributed the book’s introduction, met Edelman in 1989. He found that Edelman was still unforgiving of the respectable Jewish community leaders who cooperated with the occupation and allowed the Nazis to deport to the death camps two-thirds of the Ghetto population.

Opposing that passivity, the ZOB was formed from the Bund, the Socialist Zionists and the Communists. In another Ghetto history, Who Will Write Our History by Samuel Kassow, it is recorded that the ZOB financed its armaments purchases via forced expropriations from rich Jews who were doing quite well in the Ghetto while those around them starved to death.

ZOB activists broke into the apartments of the rich and, at knife point, “taxed” them.

It was not until December 1942, well after the Nazis started deportations, that the first shipments of arms arrived from the Polish Home Army, just 10 pistols. The ZOB’s first military action was planned for January 22 1943, “a retaliatory measure against the Jewish police”, the most hated collaborators.

However, the Nazis mobilised for the Second Deportation on January 18 and were met with the first armed resistance. Four-fifths of the ZOB fighters perished in the uneven fighting. However, the Germans suffered a psychological defeat.

One 60-strong ZOB detachment was captured without arms and taken to the death camp train. The fighters refused to enter the train and were executed on the spot.

“This group's behaviour, however, served as an inspiration that always, under all circumstances, one should oppose the Germans,” Edelman writes.

When the German army tried the final deportation in April 1943, the pathetically poorly armed ZOB allowed them to walk into a prepared ambush and smashed their advance. Molotov cocktails destroyed SS tanks, all retreat was cut off and the entire German force was killed.

Edelman’s exciting and moving account details the names of the heroes. He tells of how the Nazis, in desperation, chose to burn the entire Ghetto rather than continue the house-to-house fighting.

Then resistance fighters took to the sewers under the feet of the Nazis. Occasionally, when marching jackboots could be heard above, individual fighters would throw open the iron cover and emerge, shooting in all directions, killing as many Germans as possible before themselves being killed.

Two ZOB battle groups remained, cut off, fighting in the Ghetto until, in June 1943, “every trace of them disappeared”.

Edelson says: “Those who were killed in action had done their duty to the end, to the last drop of blood that soaked into the pavements of the Warsaw ghetto.”

The ZOB Manifesto to the Poles, issued in April 1943, makes plain that their struggle was not just in solidarity with the Polish national struggle, but with all oppressed humanity.

“We, as well as you, are burning with the desire for vengeance,” it says, in words that echo down the years. “It is a fight for our freedom, as well as yours; for our human dignity and national honour, as well as yours!

“Long live freedom. Death to the hangmen and the killer. We must continue our mutual struggle against the occupier until the very end.”

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From GLW issue 1020