Sunday, April 21, 2013

Warsaw's Fighters and Martyrs - including one in London

GHETTO IN FLAMES. Germans set housing block on fire to drive out or destroy ghetto fighters. "We were beaten by the flames, not the Germans", said Marek Edelman.

SEVENTY years ago, on April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover, the Warsaw ghetto revolt broke out. The Nazis having defeated and occupied Poland had crowded Jews in the capital and some from outside into a small walled off section of the city, of which the boundaries they kept shrinking.

Weakened by hunger and sickness, and subjected to brutality and demoralisation at the hands of police, collaborators and criminals, the ghetto population was expected to fall easy prey to Nazi deportations and genocide.

But the Nazis had underestimated the resilience of the Jewish labour movement, which had a tradition of organising, defiance of authority and defence against racists; and of the cultural community which kept alive people's spirits through underground publications, arts and music through all adversity. To compound their error they brought into the ghetto some youth from movements like Hechalutz and Hashomer Hatzair who had been training for life in Palestine. Deprived of that hope, these idealistic and energetic young people would defend their honour by fighting, and if necessary falling in action, where they stood.
At first the Jewish people in the ghetto did not realise what the Nazis had in mind for them, and even the resisters thought "resettlement to the east" might only mean forced labour camps. But as more information filtered back about the Nazi camps, so grew the determination, however hopelessly, to resist. Already in January 1943 the Nazis had to cut short their mass deportation plan, as their forces met armed resistance from the ghetto fighters. By April, they were resolved to complete their plans, but meanwhile the Jewish fighters had readied themselves, preparing bunkers within buildings, and stockpiling what weapons they could, some home-made, some smuggled in from outside.

Marek Edelman, the Bundist and deputy commander of the Jewish Combat Organization, Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB), stated that the ŻOB had 220 fighters; and each was armed with a handgun, grenades, and Molotov cocktails. His organization had three rifles in each area, as well as two land mines and one submachine gun in the whole Ghetto. The insurgents had little ammunition; more weapons were supplied throughout the uprising, and some were captured from the Germans. .

Support from outside the Ghetto was limited. Some commanders in the London-backed Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK) were reportedly reluctant to spare arms for the ghetto fighters saying these might "fall into the hands of communists" . The Revisionist Zionists' separate fighting unit may have fared better than the ZOB, having links with the right-wing Polish colonels. The AK and the smaller communist Polish Workers' Party's militia People's Guard (Gwardia Ludowa, GL) did supply some weapons and amunition however, and attacked German units near the Ghetto walls, later helping some Jews escape as the ghetto fell.

On 19 April 1943, police and SS auxiliary forces entered the Ghetto. They were scheduled to  complete the deportation action within three days, but were ambushed by Jewish insurgents firing and throwing molotov cocktails and hand grenades. Two German combat vehicles were set on fire by  petrol bombs.

The German task force dispatched to put down the revolt and complete the deportation action numbered 2,090 men armed with artillery pieces, armored vehicles, minethrowers, 82 machine guns and 135 submachine guns.  Its backbone consisted of 821 Waffen-SS Panzergrenadier troops, and one SS cavalry battalion, reinforced by police battalions and Wehrmacht units, and Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian police units. From what had been planned as an orderly deporation, they turned to setting buildings ablaze, eventually deciding to raze the ghetto to the ground.  
As the defence of the ghetto fell before this onslaught, fighters and civilians alike took to the bunkers and sewers. The Nazis used dogs to locate hideouts amid the ruins, then dropping in smoke bombs, and flooding bunkers or destroying them with explosives. Still, shoot outs took place, and sometimes captured women produced grenades concealed under their clothes. Small groups of insurgents clashed with German patrols at night..

On May 8, the Germans discovered the bunker at Mila 18, the ZOB's command post. The ZOB commander Mordechai Aniliewicz was among those who perished there, but his deputy Marek Edelman escaped with a few comrades through the sewers. As late as June 5, 1943 there was a clash between German troops and Jewish fighters in the ruins of the destroyed ghetto. Some of those who escaped the ghetto were able to participate in the Warsaw uprising in June 1944. Jews deported from Warsaw to Treblinka concentration camp also took part in the revolt and break out there.

 Although many ghetto survivors went to Israel after the war, Edelman, who became a cardiologist, insisted on remaining in Poland, through all the difficult years of Stalinism and nationalism, to preserve Jewish life and uphold his ideas of freedom.  

On April 19, 1943, the same day that the Nazis were setting out to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto, the US and British governments convened a conference in Bermuda, to discuss what could be done to help the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. They did not come up with anything.


One man who had been pleading for help from the day his country was invaded was a Jewish trade unionist and socialist called Szmuel 'Artur' Zygielbojm. Before the war a city councillor in Lodz, Zygielbojm was asked by the Jewish worker's Bund to be its representative in the Polish parliament in exile, in London. He had gone to America in 1940 to raise awareness of the looming tragedy in Poland, and as reports of the ghettos and camps reached him via Polish couriers, he was able to speak in the House of Commons and on BBC radio.

By the beginning of May, it had become apparent that the Bermuda Conference was producing nothing, and with news that the Warsaw ghetto revolt had been suppressed Zygielbojm  also learned that his wife Manya and 16-year-old son Tuvia had been killed there. On May 12, Zygielbojm killed himself as a protest against the indifference and inaction of the Allied governments.
In his "suicide letter,"  Zygielbojm stated that while the Nazis were responsible for the murder of the Polish Jews, the Allies also were culpable:
The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime. By looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions tortured children, women and men they have become partners to the responsibility.

I am obliged to state that although the Polish Government contributed largely to the arousing of public opinion in the world, it still did not do enough. It did not do anything that was not routine, that might have been appropriate to the dimensions of the tragedy taking place in Poland....

I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.

By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

A monument to Zygielbojm was incorporated into a building on a housing estate on part of what was the wartime ghetto in Warsaw.

In London, a campaign partly led by the Jewish Socialists' Group (JSG) resulted in a plaque commemorating Zygielbojm being put up on the corner of Porchester Road and Porchester Square, near where he lived. Among those who participated in the memorial's unveiling were members of Zygielbojm's family, the Polish ambassador, and the mayor of Westminster.  

This year, on the 70th anniversary the JSG has called a meeting on Sunday 12th May, 7.30-9.30pm
MIC Centre 81-103 Euston Street NW1 2EZ


Remember Szmul Zygielbojm
Remember the Warsaw Ghetto resisters
Please come to an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt and the suicide here in London of the Bundist, Szmul Zygielbojm, who sat on the National Council of the Polish Government in Exile.

The evening will include talks about Zygielbojm’s life, personal reminiscences from the Warsaw Ghetto, and  Yiddish songs, poetry and readings.

Wlodka Blit-Robertson (Warsaw Ghetto survivor)
Robert Szaniawski (Polish Embassy)
David Rosenberg (JSG)
Ghetto songs from Yiddish singer/performer Rachel Weston accompanied by Carol Isaacs (London Klezmer Quartet) 

See also:Freedom in his Heart: Marek Edelman

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