Yitzhak Suknik soon became an invaluable member of the Jewish Fighting Organisation, the ZOB.
We know that before the War, Yitzhak studied metalwork at the vocational school on Stawki Street in Warsaw:
On his return to Warsaw, he put his metalworking expertise and knowledge of weapons learned from his military training to good use, running two underground workshops to manufacture grenades and repair small arms. He also trained other recruits in the use of guns. In Out of the Flames Chaim Frymer wrote:
‘We would come twice a week to the house of Lotek Rotblat … on 44 Muranovska Street for weapons training. The first lesson was attended by Krysia, Zalman Holland, Rivka Pasamonik, another guy, and a few girls whose names I fail to recollect, and me. We sat in the room waiting for our instructor while Lotek went out to show him the way. After a while, he returned with a short guy, firm but agile, with an honest face and clever eyes. His nickname was Koza, and he belonged to Hashomer Hatzair.
‘In the first lesson, we learned about the pistol’s parts, their names, and its mechanics. We disassembled and reassembled the pistol. We competed amongst ourselves to see who would be the quickest to do so. We continued with these drills until we were well acquainted with the pistol.
‘Koza was cheerful and witty, full of jokes. To get us to treat the weapons cautiously he told us that they’re prone to let out a “wonder shot” once a year. This can happen even if it’s not loaded and without anyone pulling the trigger. One can never know when this mysterious shot might happen.
“If you ever hear a gunshot and the person holding the gun swears he did not pull the trigger, then you witnessed a wonder shot,” said Koza.
By the start of 1943 fewer than fifty thousand Jews remained in the Ghetto. The Jewish Fighting Organisation – the ZOB – along with the smaller right wing ZWW probably comprised around a thousand fighters. Marek Edelman – one of the leaders of the Uprising who survived the war – claimed the Organisation had fifty combat units with an average of twenty-five members in each. Most were in their twenties and a significant proportion were women. They were soon put to the test.
The head of the SS and the police in Warsaw was SS Brigadier General Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, who’d been in charge of the Grossaktion deportations in the summer of 1942. In January 1943 he was given the task of clearing the Ghetto for once and for all.
At seven thirty on the morning of 18th January Sammern-Frankenegg’s force moved into the ghetto. The plan was to round up 8,000 Jews to be sent to Treblinka death camp and a further 16,000 to be sent to the labour camps in the Lublin district.
Despite being taken by surprise at reports of Jewish prisoners being marched towards the Umschlagplatz the Jewish Fighting Organisation was nonetheless able to mobilise five combat units to that part of the ghetto.
One Hashomer Hatzair unit was commanded by their leader, Mordechai Anielewicz. According to Reuben Ainsztein (The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt) they were armed with ‘five revolvers, five grenades, Molotov cocktails, crowbars and clubs.
’The fighters joined the line of hundreds of prisoners concentrated on Mila Street and as they reached the corner of Zamenhof and Niska, they attacked them, each member of the unit targeting a German soldier. This account is from Ainsztein.
‘Anielewicz killed several Nazis with his two grenades and disarmed a gendarme, capturing his rifle and Luger. In the end he found himself surrounded by several gendarmes and was only saved by Suknik, one of his comrades. The Nazis bolted, leaving behind their caps, helmets and some arms and the column of Jews scattered in search of shelter.’
In Melech Neustad’s account of the incident in Devastation and Mutiny of Warsaw Jews ‘ he (Koza) saved the life of Mordechai Anielewicz (one of the founders and commander of ZOB the Jewish Fighting Organization) by throwing two grenades at the SS officers who were pursuing him one grenade exploded killing two Germans the others ran away.’
Another version of this important battle is recounted by Tuvia Borzykowski in Between Tumbling Walls. He tells how from 58 Zamenhofa Street he witnessed the column of Jews being marched to the Umschlagplatz. ‘Only when the convoy reached the corner of Zamenhofa and Niska did the Hashomer Hatzair people hurl grenades at the German guards and the members of the S.S special task force. Several of them fell, the others ran for shelter, and the entire convoy fell apart.
The fighters set up a barricade in a little house on Niska street and held it against the Nazi German reinforcements which soon arrived. The Nazi Germans set it afire. The fighters inside continued firing until the last bullet.’ The 18th January was of enormous significance and Koza’s role in it is not to be underestimated. Had Mordechai Anielewicz not survived that day then his leadership would have been lost to the Uprising when it began in April.
But January 18th was important for other reasons. It taught the Jewish Fighting Organisation an important tactical lesson. In Marek Edelman’s words: ‘After that battle we realised that street fighting would be too costly for us, since we were not sufficiently prepared for it and lacked proper weapons. We, therefore, switched to partisan fighting.
’This realisation was to be crucial for the planning and execution of the main Uprising. It goes a long way to explaining when the Jewish resistance held out for as long as it did.
The 18th January would have also had a significant impact on morale in the Ghetto. It is hard to underestimate the sense of doom and fear that must have pervaded the Ghetto, the feelings of exhaustion and oppression which must have marked every moment after more than three years of German occupation. Yet now there was a glimmer of hope that the Germans could be resisted. In Borzykowski’s words:
‘For the first time since the occupation we saw Germans clinging to walls, crawling on the ground, running for cover, hesitating before making a step in the fear of being hit by a Jewish bullet…’
And as Chaim Frymer wrote in Out of the Flames, once the Jewish resistance began the inhabitants of the Ghetto saw themselves differently.
‘They were no longer sheep, but fighters.’
Alex Gerlis & Jeff Kutcher