A Hero with a guilty conscience: the dramatic fate of ‘Rudy Paweł’

‘Perhaps if we had not started this work, the remnants of Jewry would have survived, and not perished from fires and bullets’, wrote ‘Rudy Paweł’, a fighter for the Jewish Military Union, a few months after the fighting ended in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was consumed by remorse and suicidal thoughts. During the uprising, he lost loved ones and dozens of comrades-in-arms. He himself survived only by a miracle – he eluded manhunts several times.

On 25 April 1943, a van appeared three times in the sleepy suburban town of Michalin. This time it did not transport the denizens to the cemetery. On the contrary, it was transporting people who desperately wanted to escape the clutches of death. These included forty-four young fighters from the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW).

The insurgents were accommodated in a villa in an out-of-the-way location near the forest, rented to them by Cezary Szemley, alias ‘Ketling’, the ŻZW’s most important underground contact on the ‘Aryan’ side. Finally, after a ghastly week of fighting and desperate escapes, they were able to recuperate. ‘Nice. A water closet, but no beds. We sleep on the floor. Food is brought to us by our boys from Otwock and Falenica,’ as one of them, the roughly thirty-year-old Rudy Paweł, laconically described the living conditions in Michalina. The mood in the group was rather pessimistic. They were wracked by uncertainty about their future. They knew they could not go on indefinitely without being noticed in such a large group in one house. They tried to force the Ketling group to move quickly to resolve the dangerous situation. They suggested that the unit be incorporated into the Polish partisans. However, the informers and German collaborators proved faster.

On Friday, 30 April, just as the fighters were starting to serve dinner, shots rang out around the villa. A moment later, a wounded sentry rushed into the house, shouting that the ‘grenade’ police had opened fire without warning. The Jews had no intention of surrender. They wanted to break through into the forest surrounding the property. When they tried to counterattack through the front door, the heavy shelling forced them to retreat. In view of this, they slipped out through the back window, one by one. ‘We fall immediately to the ground and fire a salvo at the policemen, then we run away. Behind us, no one is shooting any more,’ Paweł reported. The fighters ran into the forest in front of them, towards the Lublin road, carrying a wounded colleague.

Their days were numbered. ‘Paweł’ was probably the only one who survived to bear testimony to their tragedy.

Secrets of ‘Pinie Besztymt’

The short account of Rudy Paweł, only four typed pages long, is among the most important documents we have of the activities of the revisionist underground in the Warsaw Ghetto, because it is among the most reliable and written down ‘fresh’. Despite its enormous historical value, its author still remains a mystery to researchers.

The author’s true identity is unknown. In the Archive of the Kibbutz of Ghetto Heroes, where the original account is located, he is described as ‘Pinie (Paweł) Besztymt’. In Polish historiography, he figures under his wartime pseudonym, Rudy Paweł. His age also remains a mystery. Most likely, at the time the uprising broke out, he could have been between twenty-five and thirty years old, like most of those who took active part in it. His place of origin also remains unknown. He could have been brought up in Warsaw or, like many other Jews, he could have come to the ghetto from the provinces. What is certain is that he made it to the uprising with his twenty-year-old wife and twenty-four-year-old brother. He seems to have come from a relatively wealthy Jewish family, like most of the conspirators from the ŻZW. Dawid Klin, a member of the Bund conspiracy, remembered that Pawel ‘spoke German very well, and even had a slight Viennese accent, because he went to school in Vienna as a young man’.

Finally, we know that before the war he belonged to right-wing youth organisations – Betar or Menorah – associated with the New Zionist Organisation (Zionist-Revisionists) of Vladimir Jabotinsky. It was with acquaintances from these circles, probably in the first weeks of 1943, that he began to establish an underground network in the ghetto, the Jewish Military Union.

Inspiration, assassinations and shopping

Rudy Pawel writes that the first time the thought of taking up arms in the ghetto germinated in his mind was after a meeting with a certain ‘Polish officer acquaintance’ in early 1943. This occurred while he was staying with a friend in an unknown location on the ‘Aryan’ side. We do not know what arguments this military officer used to warm up his two Jewish interlocutors. In any case, by their second meeting, as if by way of encouragement, he gave them two revolvers with ammunition. ‘We were elated. We kept thinking about his words’, reported Paweł.

A few days later, it turned out that there were more people like them in the ghetto. Paweł met a group of twelve pre-war friends he knew from organisations linked to the revisionists. It turned out they walked from the ghetto to work at the Ostbahn outpost in the East Railway Station. They had contact with a group of Polish officers there, ‘hammering the idea of underground work into their mercantile heads’. ‘The seed was fell on fertile ground,’ wrote Pawel. In a group of fourteen, they formed perhaps the first ‘right-wing’ underground unit in the walled district. And so the Jewish Military Union was born.

Besztymt’s account shows that during the ‘January action’ (18–21.01.1943) the organisation was still in its infancy. Unlike the Jewish Combat Organisation, they were not yet ready to fight. Its seven-member command, probably including “Pawel” Frenkel and Leon Rodal, was to wait out the German operation on the ‘Aryan’ side. Its rank-and-file fighters, on the other hand, hid in the ghetto.

It was only after the action had ended that the organisation began to develop in earnest. More underground units were set up in the Schultz, Többens and ‘brushmakers’ sheds. Paweł, who most likely had served in the Polish Army, became an instructor. He trained the fighters in the use of weapons, drill, carrying out assassinations and arson, among other things. In addition, he took part in ghetto expropriation actions, which, he reports, led to ‘several million zlotys’ being expropriated from wealthy ghetto residents.

These funds were used to purchase weapons. Paweł was active here as well. One of his contractors on the ‘Aryan’ side was Roman Kowalski, alias ‘Kulas’, the king of the Wola underworld. ‘When Paweł (Rudy Paweł – ed.) offered to supply weapons, I organised some petty thieves to take weapons from the Germans on the trams. Later, I became acquainted with railway thieves who would take weapons from soldiers, throwing weapons from the trains,’ Kowalski reported shortly after the war. The arms probably reached the ŻZW through a tunnel controlled by the organisation, running under the ghetto wall from the basement of the house at 6 Muranowska Street (‘the Aryan’ side) to the underground of the tenement house at 7/9 Muranowska Street. This tunnel was prepared in the autumn of 1942.

Finally, Besztymt most likely organised assassinations of Gestapo confidants operating in the ghetto. The bloodiest of these took place less than a month before the uprising broke out. Let us give the floor to a witness of the event, Ber Beskind:

‘On Sunday, 14 March 1943, there was great commotion at 34 Świętojerska Street. A real party is taking place at the home of a notorious collaborator, Rosenberg. Three men and two women sit at a lavishly set table. They talk loud and fearlessly, laughing boisterously. They feel the protection of the powerful Germans above them. At around three in the afternoon, ten armed men burst into the flat, shouting ‘hands up!’ The guests rose and, stunned, hear out the verdict, condemning all five to death. Two of the women (H. Mangiel and Lidia Radziejewska – ed.) and one of the men (Arek Wajntraub –ed.) are killed on the spot. Two other men (including Lolek Skosowski – ed.) are only wounded’.

Soon the ŻZW was up against the Germans themselves.

A flag made of quilt and brush

According to Paweł’s account, ŻZW headquarters knew that the liquidation of the ghetto was about to begin as early as Sunday, 18 April 1943. The organisation’s 260 or so fighters stood at their designated posts from midnight on 18–19 April. Their first clash with the Germans was to take place a few hours later, around 6 a.m. at the tenement at 29 Miła St. After the skirmish and the Jews’ withdrawal, the occupiers set fire to the house. As Besztymt bitterly noted, the fire brigade that arrived on the scene was more interested in looting than in fighting fires.

After the description of the shootings on Miła Street on the first day of the uprising, the account left by Paweł becomes chaotic. He only gives the location of successive centres of resistance, without providing specific dates of the skirmishes or their course. Paweł writes of having fought at 7 Miła Street, and then at Nalewki, in a house at number 42, located at Plac Muranowski. It was here, he tells us, that the legendary episode of the uprising took place. The insurgents were to fly Polish and Jewish flags on the roof, which were made, he states, ‘from a quilt and brush’. He adds that ‘a lot of SS men died’ in the clashes over this building.

After the skirmishes at 39 Nalewki and setting fire to Brauer’s shed (39 Nalewki), Pawel fought on the main ŻZW fort. ’11-13-15 Muranowski Square, we are firing from the windows (at the Germans – ed.), our deputy commandant has been killed. Large tanks drive in. Frantic fire from ckms and cannons begins. We evacuate the area,’ he reported laconically. On 22 April, some ŻZW troops, including the organisation’s command, move through the tunnel to 6 Muranowska Street on the ‘Aryan’ side. They are armed, wearing German helmets and often uniforms. There are probably more than a hundred of them. Among them is Paweł.

The escape of ‘poisoned souls’

The fighters realised that the tenement located just outside the ghetto wall was not a safe place to hide dozens of Jews. They expected to be found out at any moment. They frantically tried to get help from a group of Polish conspirators who inspired, trained and supplied them with weapons. One of the daredevils who set out for help on the streets of Warsaw was Rudy Paweł. His mission was partly successful. Janusz Szemley, a.k.a. Ketling, mentioned earlier – the head of the PLAN (Polska Ludowa Akcja Niepodległościowa – The Polish People’s Independence Action) underground organisation, on whom, incidentally, a death sentence had been passed by the Home Army for alleged denunciations to the Gestapo, organised transport and quarters for fighters in Michalin, near Warsaw. On 25 April, forty-four of them, including Besztymt, escaped from the fateful quarters on Muranowska Street. The rest who remained were captured or killed after the shooting of 27 April, when the Germans, following a denunciation, stumbled upon their trail.

Three days later, as mentioned, the Pomegranate police also tracked down the ŻZW fighters in Michalin. Paweł and his comrades got into a shoot-out, after which they all fled to the forests east of Otwock. The Germans organised a manhunt, and. they were surrounded. For a few days, whenever they tried to break through the German cordon – in Mlądz, Teklin and the vicinity of Śródborowo – they fell under machine-gun fire. Several of them were killed. Finally, they waited out the climax of the German operation in a peasant farmyard, terrorising their hosts . After two days, when they had regained some strength, they made their way back to Warsaw in twos and threes, by rail, by bicycle, or on foot. On the way, the Germans caught another nine of them.

Besztymt was lucky once more. He managed to reach the city. With a friend from the organisation, nicknamed ‘Krzywonos’ (‘Crooked Nose’), he hid with the aforementioned criminal Roman Kowalski, at Venice Square in Wola. After about two months, when this hiding place was also ‘blown’ because the Germans had stumbled across it, he went to the Bund’s underground flat at 17 Chłodna St. It was here that he got in touch with ‘Antek’ Cukierman, a leader of the ŻOB, who encouraged him to write his memoirs. It was then, in the summer of 1943, that ‘Rudy Paweł’ drew up his priceless account.

It emanated bitterness and frustration. He resented the Polish conspirators – most likely from Szemley’s circles and the PLAN organisation – for pushing them to fight at all. ‘Maybe if we had not started this work (of creating an armed underground – ed.), the remaining Jews would have survived, and not perished in the fires and bullets’, he wrote, referring to his wife and brother, who died in a bunker discovered in the ghetto.

He recalled that a dozen days before the uprising broke out, a Polish conspirator had told them that if they started fighting the occupiers in the ghetto, they could spark an anti-German uprising in Poland and all across occupied Europe. Nothing of the sort, as we know, occurred. ‘They poisoned our souls for patriotic purposes, and we were stupefied,’ he stated bitterly. He added that the same people from the Polish underground who had so exhorted the ghetto youths to fight – Pawel never made it clear from which organisation – stated that no one wanted Jews in the partisan forces– as they were ‘communists and rapists’. Instead, they suggested Besztymt become a ‘living torpedo’, that is, that he carry out a suicide attack on the Germans. ‘This is what they have brought us down to’, he wrote accusingly.

The death of ‘Paul Gelber’

Eventually, the Polish underground, linked to the Polish Socialist Party, made use of another of Paweł’s talents: his fluency in German. He was issued a kennkarte as Volksdeutscher Paul Gelber, with which he found a legal job in the finance department of the German Warsaw Board. At the same time he travelled to Otwock, where he bought weapons for the underground from wounded Wehrmacht soldiers recovering in the local hospital.

The outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising found him in Powiśle. Rudy Paweł was to spontaneously join the Home Army soldiers attacking the Social Insurance Office in Smulikowskiego Street. He died on the third day of the uprising.

The only thing that survived from the conflagration of the war was his account, which is one of the most valuable testimonies on the Jewish Military Union, a lesser-known underground group in the Warsaw Ghetto. Nie jest to dla mnie jasne kto terroryzuje kogo.