Now I live mostly in the darkness of the cellars… The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in civilian accounts

On 19 April 1943, an uprising began in the Warsaw Ghetto – the largest armed resistance by the Jewish people during World War II and the first urban uprising in occupied Europe. For decades after the end of the Second World War, writing about what happened in the ghetto on those days mainly focused on events of a military nature. Historians discussed the armaments of the fighters, the overwhelming advantage of the Germans, the strategies chosen and the locations of the battles. This picture of the uprising, however, remains incomplete without taking into account the role and vicissitudes of the civilian population in the ghetto. Without their sacrifice and silent resistance, the Jewish revolt would not have lasted nearly as long.

Analysing the fate and experiences of the civilian population during the ghetto uprising is by no means an easy task. Firstly, we do not know the exact number of people in the Warsaw Ghetto at that time. After the mass deportation to the Treblinka extermination camp in the summer of 1942, the ghetto functioned as a Restgetto (residual ghetto). It was downsized, with official figures indicating that approximately 35,000 Jews were imprisoned there. Another 15,000 to 20,000 or so stayed in the ghetto without special permission. In mid-April 1943, just before the Passover holiday, an unknown number of people who had been hiding on the ‘Aryan side’ arrived in the ghetto. While this information appears in various sources, no estimate can be made on its basis. They wanted to spend these days surrounded by their relatives and friends. Thus, there may have been as many as 50–60,000 Jews in the ghetto just before the uprising broke out. It is also worth noting the cross-section of society. At that time, women and children were in the minority. They were the first to be deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp in the summer of 1942. Researchers estimate that after these events, there were about seventy-eight women for every 100 men in the ghetto. Those between the ages of twenty and thirty-nine accounted for the largest group.

We have few remaining sources from which to learn about their fate during the ghetto uprising. In fact, the most used sources are two accounts of women. One is the fragmentary journal of a woman named Maryla. She wrote about the shelters from in hiding within one of them. The fragmentary nature of her notes, as she herself pointed out, was due to her extreme conditions in which she found herself: ‘My writing is now disorderly, as I only write when I have light, as I now live mostly in the darkness of the cellar, and when I can somewhat collect my confused thoughts’. Despite these limitations, Maryla’s diary remains an exceptional piece of civil resistance in the ghetto. A second source is the diary of an unnamed author found in the archives of the kibbutz Ghetto Fighters. Other accounts used by the researchers come from the post-war period. The extensive diary of Stella Fidelseid is important here, describing in quite some detail her daily life in the bunkers and her hiding after the end of the uprising.

Photographs are other resources for analysing the experiences of civilians. Several dozen shots of the ghetto during the uprising were attached to the so-called ‘Stroop Report’, summarising the course of events from 19 April to 16 May 1943. These are ‘official’ propaganda shots taken by the Germans, showing burning buildings in the ghetto and groups of Jews being dragged from their hiding places, or led to the Umschlagplatz to be deported to labour camps in the Lublin region or to the Treblinka extermination camp. The people captured in these pictures look terrified, uncertain of their fates to come. They include women, children and elderly people. Researchers also have unearthed photographs taken from in hiding, such as those by Polish firefighters. Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski, who served in the Warsaw Fire Brigade, took dozens of such photographs. Although they were taken in haste, illegally, and are therefore often blurred or focused on a single scene, they are an important supplement to the history of the ghetto uprising.

Life in the bunkers

Within the first hours after combat broke out, the civilian population formed an ‘underground city’ in the ghetto. After the so-called Grossaktion in the summer of 1942, when the Germans deported more than 270,000 people from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp, the few Jews who remained in the district set about creating shelters and hiding places. These were built in cellars, attics, under stairs and in living quarters. Well-stocked bunkers were also built, mostly underground, and to accommodate many people. They were all intended to serve in the event of further deportations or an armed rebellion. Maryla wrote about the start of the uprising and the move to the safe house: ‘Yesterday a real bloody fight broke out in the ghetto. Tanks rolled in, […] with heavy machine guns, declaring ruthless war on the Jews who dared to raise their heads at last a little for Treblinka, for Belzec, for Trawniki and for all the hell we had and are still suffering. From early in the morning, loud detonations could be heard, the sound of gunshots, the rattle of machine guns and the whole symphony of sounds that makes up that one little word that contains the blood of the dead, revenge, and the clash of hostile powers – combat. The ghetto was created. […] The next day turned out to be more terrible than all predictions. […] At 4 a.m. we were already in the shelter. […] At that time, the entire ghetto was already surrounded by the Gestapo. […] The shelter, that escape to a living grave, I left as a last resort. Lately, however, I had slowly begun getting used to the idea of having to escape to the shelter. I supposed, however, it was a future that was still quite distant […] So in the middle of the night a feverish running to the shelters began, with bundles and life that had become so dear to us, from constantly having death before our eyes,’ she wrote on the necessity of moving to a hideout. Thousands of others found themselves in the same situation: women, men and children in the ghetto. The outbreak of the uprising meant they had to move to the ‘underground’ city and wait there for events to unfold.

A major issue was properly camouflaging the shelter. Lazarus Menes recalled: ‘The entrance to the shelter was camouflaged with a whole pile of old iron from the workshops, which we collapsed behind us upon entering. We had the impression we had locked ourselves in a grave. […] There were about thirty of us in this stuffy little cloister instead of the twelve we had calculated, and people kept coming in from the burning upper shelters. We took them in not only for general humane reasons, but also out of fear that, driven away in final despair, they might give away our shelter to the Germans’. The better the protection of the entrance to the shelter, the greater the chance of hiding its existence from outside eyes, which reduced the chances of being uncovered.

Living in hideouts and bunkers was an extreme experience. Isolated from any information, the people locked inside did not know what exactly was going on around them. Maryla wrote: ‘With no link to the outside world, because no one would dare to look outside, after all, we had to recreate our own version of the madness unfolding based on the symphony of sounds reaching us. [Every footstep echoed an obsessive fear in our half-crazed minds, already twitching with a single thought! Will they strike us, will they find our bunker?’ Those in hiding heard both sounds of people searching for refuge and the sounds of battle. Marylka poetically described it: ‘And again and again we hear artillery, the sound of grenades, the rattle of a machine gun and some strange sounds resembling thunder in a summer storm, now moving away, now coming closer again with alarming speed’. However, they did not know how the fight was going for the insurgents. This stoked their fear and their sense of hopelessness and lack of agency. Maryla also wrote of her fluctuating emotions: ‘The panic is already doing its work, the jittery imagination already sees the thugs entering, the fear chokes me and turns my heart into some kind of crazed rushing motorbike. I am swept by alternate waves of warm and cold sweat, it is becoming increasingly difficult to draw a breath, I feel that the nervous tension has passed its crisis and I reach for my Luminal’. She did not commit suicide, she was stopped in time. However, we will never know how many other people secretly took their own lives, and sometimes those of their loved ones.

Stella Fidelseid, too, recounted the different attitudes and actions of people in the shelter: ‘Downstairs in the canteen we met our people from the basement. And they had a terrible day. One woman had a fit of hysteria and had to be beaten to calm down. Even Irka Neblova, who had held out so bravely, broke down and said she would rather give up than hide in these conditions. Her little stepson, Jureczek, always a resolute boy, trembled incessantly and whispered “I’m scared, I’m scared, Mummy save me!”. Fredowa sat still after her husband’s death, not even going out to the canteen. She kept her older girl by her side and spoke to no one. People just couldn’t stand each other any more, they stared at each other with a kind of madness in their eyes. Nobody even wanted to cook. Maddening fear prevailed over all other feelings. You were not even hungry. It was the utterly helpless feeling of an animal struggling in a trap. It was a slow death, in full awareness of what was happening’. The idleness, the waiting, the tension, the disputes inside the hideouts, all affected the behaviour and emotions of the civilian population.

The atmosphere in the bunkers grew more and more tense, almost by the hour. Former neighbours and family members, but also complete strangers and even those who were in conflict were gathered in a small space. There was a lack of intimacy, people were crowded together, condemned to each other’s constant presence. They were dependent on one another, hidden in dark, stuffy rooms. These smelled of the dank cellar, unwashed bodies, sweat, filthy clothes, buckets of faeces, smoke from burning houses. Maryla reported: ‘So many people had already gathered in the shelter that the air was a dense mixture of human fumes and it was impossible to breathe. There were more people than the shelter could hold, and as a result, the ventilation was completely inadequate […] the air was so deprived of oxygen that a match would not ignite’. Locked in their hiding places during the day, they were forced to wait there in silence, almost motionless. Leib Najberg recalled the following: ‘All day long all the people lay on their bunks or side-by-side on the ground, unable to move. The shelter was so overcrowded that one man moving from a cellar lavatory to the toilet would tear dozens of people from their seats, creating a tumult. People’s nerves were stretched to the limit, and the slightest murmur would send people into hysterical fits’. People with small children were afraid their crying would attract the Germans and lead to everyone there surrendering. Dramatic situations occurred in which not only they had to be silenced, but many times they were given the apparent choice of either leaving the shelter or murdering the children. In the following weeks, when the ghetto was engulfed in smoke from the burning buildings, and with the loss of more houses, hiding places were also lost, and the situation became even more difficult.

In a way, one could only breathe at night, when there were fewer German patrols in the ghetto. Then it was possible to leave the shelter for a while, to look for food, to prepare a meal or to practice hygiene. Maria Kolonista recalled: ‘We had a huge supply of food, water, the bunker had light, plumbing, it was completely camouflaged on the outside. We led a very peculiar life there. We traded day for night. At night we would go out to get fresh air, cook, and do all kinds of other activities. During the day you had to be very quiet to avoid drawing attention to yourself.’ In contrast, Jacob Ewinson emphasised: ‘At night the women baked bread, one-and-a-half kilogram loaves. We still had a supply of matzah from Passover as well. True, they had soaked up some moisture, but we ate them with onions.’ The hideouts’ supplies varied, depending on the level of preparation in the run-up to the uprising or the wealth of those inside. There were places equipped with electricity and running water, but there were also makeshift shelters where one could only stay for a short time. Some people tried to make their way to other shelters at night in order to find out how the fighting in the ghetto was going and possible dangers or further strategies.

After the first few battles, the Germans systematically destroyed the ghetto in the following days, burning building after building. This particularly endangered the civilians in hiding. We will never know how many people burned alive or suffocated in the smoke or gases let into the bunkers. The Germans ended the uprising in spectacular fashion on 16 May 1943, by blowing up the Great Synagogue. The civilian population’s nightmare continued, however. Some tried to hide in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto in the following weeks. According to Stroop’s report,  the Germans murdered nearly 7,000 people on the spot during the uprising, and almost 7,000 were taken to the Treblinka extermination camp. About 6,000 Jews were killed in the fighting. Almost 36,000 people, mainly from the civilian population, were deported to labour and concentration camps in the General Government (mostly to Trawniki, Poniatowa and KL Lublin). They tried to continue to function and survive there in the following months, but most of them fell victim to Opertaion ‘Erntefest’ or ‘Harvest Festival’, carried out on 3-4 November 1943 in the labour camps in Trawniki and Poniatowa, and in KL Lublin.


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