The first half of May 1943. The battles – if we give such term to the clash of the mighty German forces with hopelessly armed Jewish guerrillas – had already been fought for the second week. On 1 May 1943 “Dziennik” quoted Joseph Goebbels (minister for public enlightenment and propaganda in the Nazi government) who called the fighting “very heavy”.
He emphasized with particular indignation: “Of course this jest will probably not last long. But it shows what one can expect of the Jews if they have arms.” Such perception of reality indicates that the Nazi authorities did not expect resistance from Jews on such a scale, nor for such a long time. Which points to the hidden: shame and fear. Helmuth von Moltke, present on 4 May in Warsaw, claimed that Jews – in his opinion incapable of putting up any kind of resistance – fight only thanks to the support of “airborne Russians, German deserters and Polish communists”. Such a “balance of forces” was to be the source of ongoing fights.
The Germans adopted the tactics of – literally – “scorched earth”. In early May, Jürgen Stroop, who commanded the “Grossaktion”, reported: “The best and only method for destroying the Jews therefore remains the setting of fires.” The Jewish front line, under the influence of the German tactics of firing more and more buildings, collapsed. Dozens of isolated bunkers and solitarily defended houses fought on. In the reports addressed to the superior authorities, Stroop emphasized that “the resistance of the Jews was still strong”: “They usually withdrew mostly at night to convenient positions, into inaccessible ruins. Against these points of shelter and attack, we could not use the method of setting fire, because previous fires had burned everything there that was to be burned. The new insurgent »fortresses« were difficult to break through.”
How differently the situation in the Warsaw ghetto was assessed by the Polish resistance movement. At the end of April, the Home Army’s Press Agency put the following commentary in the article “The Warsaw Ghetto Fights On”: “German embarrassment must be enhanced by the fact that proud, bumptious »conquerors of the world«, who so easily torment the defenseless, with pathetic clumsiness, lead a formal, long-term battle with a group of despised pariahs, calling in guns and tanks against them… This chronic war with the Warsaw ghetto, already ironically called the »third front«, reflects the thoughts that ridicule and discredit German talents of ruling and warring.”
Regardless of how Stroop explained the failures of the “Grossaktion”, or how the “action” was assessed by the Poles, undoubtedly the paramount goal of the German actions was to reach the most important place – the bunker of the Jewish Combat Organization’s command. It was not until 7 May that the Germans located its position at 18 Miła Street. On that day in the “Report”, the SS commander announced that the “opening by force” of the bunker of the “party leadership” (that is how he called the ŻOB command) will take place on the following day – 8 May 1943. It was the prelude to a drama whose acts were taking place in parallel. That day, everyone – Germans and Jews – would play the roles that the Nazi ideology wrote for them.
For Stroop this day was a fulfilment. From the beginning of the “liquidation of the Jewish district”, he proved that he was aware of the tasks put before him: deporting the Jews remaining in the ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp and, if necessary, murdering them “on the spot”. This is indicated by the language of hatred that he used day after day, reporting on the course of battles fought in the ghetto in April and May 1943, as well as the one he used to explain his “reasons” on the death row in the Mokotów prison six years later. At least in part, he justified his previous failures: “The fighting was both long and heavy. The ŻOB fighters fiercely defended themselves, and my soldiers felt insecure in a direct clash.” Gaining the most important bunker – the Jewish command – was explained by “the executioner of the Warsaw ghetto” as only partial success: “people whom I would like to interrogate were dead”.
For Vladka Meed (Władka Meed), that day was special. She was the Jewish Combat Organization’s (ŻOB) liaison with the Polish Underground. She was present for the last time in the ghetto on the eve of the Uprising’s outbreak. While it lasted, she was staying on the “Aryan side”. She helped escapees from the ghetto hell. On this May day, she met her acquaintances who – like herself – had been hiding: “For the first time, so many have met not to conspire. The atmosphere was heavy at first. Over time, the young people relaxed and began to talk to one another. The alcohol helped.” She read a letter written to friends from overseas (perhaps fictitious): “About how we live in occupied Warsaw, about our struggle and strong will to survive.” Everyone for a short moment managed to break away from the omnipresent evil, find some warmth and joy. However, the meeting – as she admitted years later – “was totally lined up with sadness”. She survived that day and the next several dozen years.
For Mordechai Anielewicz (Mordechaj Anielewicz), as for the majority of those who came to be in the ghetto on that very day, in the bunker at 18 Miła Street, that day was tragic. The Germans surrounded the bunker of the ŻOB command. They lacked the courage to confront the forces directly. They ordered the Jews who were there to leave the bunker. The civilians surrendered – the ghetto fighters remained. In response, the Germans threw gas grenades into five manholes they had discovered. To die with honor and to show courage, ŻOB’s commander along with the confreres took their own lives. There was dignity in tragedy. They passed away along with it.
Zivia Lubetkin (Cywia Lubetkin) was fortunate that day. She was also present in the ghetto. A dozen or so hours earlier, she had been at 18 Miła Street. In the morning she reached the bunker at 22 Franciszkańska Street. Perhaps the feeling of the forthcoming tragedy told her to return to the command’s bunker at all costs. She was restrained from the expedition which was too risky during the day, and even suicidal, by Chaim Frymer, who was subordinate in accordance with the official hierarchy. That is why she was lucky enough to survive… It was only when darkness prevailed over the ghetto that a group of fighters went to Miła Street. Zivia Lubetkin recalled the place where the bunker used to stand in these words: “Everything around looks different. The ruins are raked over, there is no guard at the entrance. Fear had squeezed everyone’s heart because there was no sign of any of the six entrances.” In the neighboring courtyard, along with their companions, they saw the motionless silhouette shadows: “They were our companions – all covered with mud and blood, weakened and trembling, they looked like ghosts. Someone was lying unconscious, somebody else could barely breathe.” Strong will and determination allowed them to live – even for a moment – longer. They beat their way through the sixth passage undiscovered by the Germans. They were fortunate, too.
Since that evening, the fates of the survivors from 18 Miła Street intertwined for a little more than forty hours (fourteen people, including Tosia Altman, Jehuda Węgrower, Tuwia Borzykowski, Mordechaj Growas, Izrael Kanał, Menachem Bejgelman, and Michał Rozenfeld) with those who provided aid to them (among others Symcha Rotem, Marek Edelman, Zygmunt Frydrych, Tadek Szejngut, and Rysiek Maselman). A rescue action was begun. The hours in the underground tunnels seemed to last eternally. Finally, on 10 May, this part of the drama came to an end. As Marek Edelman recalled: “In broad daylight with almost no cover, the trapdoor opened and one after another, with the stunned crowd looking on, armed Jews appeared.” On the “Aryan side” a truck had been waiting for them, which took the survivors – a group of thirty – beyond Warsaw, to the forest near Łomianki. They reached it.
From then on, however, the paths of the rescued and the rescuers had begun to diverge. Jehuda Węgrower died on 10 May, just after arriving. Probably as a result of gas poisoning. The wounded Tosia Altman returned to Warsaw a few days later. With other ghetto fighters she was hiding in the Praga district. Soon, like her comrades, she fell victim to a fire. She died in agony. Tuwia Borzykowski survived not only the uprisings (the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising), but also the war. He emigrated to Israel at the end of the 1940s. Pnina Grynszpan Frymer and Michał Rozenfeld acted – independent of each other – in the Gwardia Ludowa (GL) guerrilla near Warsaw. However, while Frymer survived the war, and in 1945 she emigrated from Poland (to finally settle in Israel), Rozenfeld – along with twelve brothers in arms was denounced to the Germans by a Pole and died in September 1943. In the summer of that year, Mordechaj Growas (in October 1942, he executed Jakub Lejkin), together with his ten-member guerrilla troop, was murdered by Poles from the National Armed Forces (NSZ). Izrael Kanał – hoping to emigrate – became a victim of the Hotel Polski affaire: first sent to Bergen-Belsen, he died in Auschwitz at the end of 1943.
Menachem Bigelman and Szlomo Szuster’s group made their way to the “Aryan side”. They did not manage to get out of the sewer. They were too late. The sewer exit was surrounded by the Germans. There was a clash. All of them died. It was Rysiek Maselman who was on his way to pick them up. In the morning, after 10 am, he was escorting the first group of fighters to Łomianki. That day he returned to Warsaw to take over the second group. He did not manage to do it. He died on his way to pick up the fighters. In downtown Warsaw, at Bankowy Square, he fought against the Germans. He was shot by a firing squad. Zygmunt Frydrych (in the summer of 1942, he had followed the death transport, returned and reported on the Treblinka death camp) stayed in the forest near Łomianki. Betrayed by a Polish peasant, on 15 May he died with a group of fighters. On 10 May, Tadek Szejngut co-organized aid for the fighters. He was killed a few months later in Warsaw during a skirmish with the Germans. Some of the helpers – like Symcha Rotem or Marek Edelman – survived. For decades, they were a symbol of dedication and bravery.
Did the events taking place from 8 to 10 May 1943 mean that the uprising of Warsaw’s Jews had come to an end? Each of the answers to the question formulated in this way will be rather imaginary. Stroop, after conquering the bunker at 18 Miła Street, ended his report of 8 May with the following assurance: “The undersigned is determined to continue the Grossaktion until the last Jew is destroyed.” Two days later, Heinrich Himmler (one of the most important figures in the Third Reich, i.a. the head of the SS, directly responsible for the Holocaust) issued an instruction ordering his command to direct even greater forces to suppress the resistance in the ghetto: “Calming Warsaw down – he explained – depends on the suppression of the uprising.” On 10 May, the Governor of the General Government Warsaw District, Ludwig Fischer, addressed a proclamation to the Poles, which was to convince them to take part in the fight against the “Jewish-Communism”: “No ethical considerations should be an obstacle to the destruction of Bolshevism. Whoever informs the authorities where a communist agent or a Jew is residing is only fulfilling the obvious duty towards himself and his relatives.” Such statements on the part of the Nazis can be treated as evidence that the uprising – despite the plans – had not been suppressed. Or it was ongoing. This fact was confirmed on 10 May by the Home Army delegation information addressed to London (“The heroic struggle of the Warsaw ghetto still has several points of resistance”), as well as by the national Democracy’s underground paper “Nowy Dzień” (“Resistance of the Jews is not yet broken”).
This could be evidence that the Uprising fighting was still being continued. However, it was not so. Even when in German reports such wording appeared: “Jewish troops crawl out of the earth and suddenly attack the Germans.” Clashes took place sporadically. The Jews would no longer attack. They defended themselves against the Germans with their last strength. In practice, for the next days (11-16 May), the combined German forces (SS, Wehrmacht, ethnic units) supported by the Polish Blue Police regularly searched through the rubble, murdered the Jews (“bandits and sub-humans”) and razed the remains of the ghetto’s buildings to the ground. On 15 May in the evening, a cemetery chapel, a morgue, and adjacent buildings were destroyed. A day later, the Great Synagogue at Tłomackie Street was blown up. It was supposed to be a symbolic end to the liquidation process of Warsaw’s “Jewish district”. Stroop described this “allegory of the triumph over Jewry”: “A fantastic view from the perspective of painting and theatre! A sapper officer (…) handed me (…), an electrical apparatus which caused, (…) detonation of explosives (…). In the glow of the burning buildings stood, tired and grimy, my brave officers and soldiers. I prolonged the moment. In the end I shouted “Heil Hitler!” and pressed the button.”
Was that day the final end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? It probably was. Although in German reports in the subsequent weeks, information about assaults and murders carried out by groups of fighters and attacks on German convoys leading prisoners from Pawiak to be executed among the ruins of the ghetto repeatedly appeared. But in practice, it was no longer about the victims, but only about losses and profits. German. In his last Report prepared on 24 May 1943, Stroop wrote about war trophies after the Uprising and the insurgents: weapons, clothing, and currency. And about the ghetto ruins: “Where blowing up was not carried out, only partition walls are still standing. But the ruins still contain enormous amounts of bricks and other scrap material which could be used.” The final closure of the Warsaw ghetto case was to take place by June 1944. It appeared from Himmler’s order that “the urban area of the former ghetto should be completely levelled, burying every cellar and every gutter. After completion of this work, the top layer of land will be laid down and a large park will be set up over the entire area” (in practice, only the ruins of the ghetto were totally destroyed within 12 months).
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the period from 19 April to 16 May 1943 ended many times and in parallel. How many fighters and civilians were in the ghetto – children, women, and men – and how many of these people were killed, whether fighting or as defenseless civilian victims, so many times the subsequent fragments of the insurgent puzzle would come to an end. In this upsurge, the Jews were dying as a mass and as individuals, as Polish citizens and Polish Jews. People were dying.
Paweł Wieczorek – Doctor of humanities. Specialty: contemporary history. Cooperation: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Jewish Historical Institute, and the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland. Winner of Jewish Historical Institute’s Majer Bałaban contest for the best doctoral dissertation (2014). Participant of international research programme “Pogroms of Jews in the Polish lands in the 19th and 20th centuries” (2013-2016). Author of books and articles. Research interests: Polish-Jewish relations after 1945, Jewish social and political movements, national and ethnic minorities in Poland, cold war, and totalitarianism.