Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 70th Anniversary April 19th 2013

Last night in a quiet moment before I went to sleep I could not help reflecting on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, living as I do where these tragic events occurred only a generation ago. I decided to get out of my warm and cosy bed and read what I had written in my Polish book about this particularly valiant and frantic moment in the tumultuous history of this miracle of a city, Warsaw.

The Ghetto Uprising is too often confused by travellers to this country, understandably unfamiliar with Polish history, with the equally tragic Warsaw Uprising that began on 1 August 1944. As an Australian author with no Jewish or Polish roots, I too initially suffered from a lamentable ignorance of matters almost beyond comprehension for one raised in 'The Lucky Country' - until I began to read. In this I consider myself privileged to have a rather  more objective, what one might even term an outsider's view of such historical events. I count myself lucky not to have absorbed the cruel prejudices against Jews, Poles and Poland that are still inherited by those born into the collective unconscious of Europe.

Doubt hovers over a thought-provoking remark Stalin is reported to have once made. At the Teheran Conference “Churchill had been arguing that a premature opening of a second front in France would result in an unjustified loss of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers. Stalin responded that 'when one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it's statistics'". Quoted in David McCullough Truman (New York 1992)

Accurately sourced quotation or not, the remark points up the danger of becoming all too familiar with historic events and the relative magnitude of deaths. This particular uprising illustrates at once the most bestial in human nature and its most noble qualities of resistance, courage even poetry of the darkest hue. We are in danger not of forgetting the event itself, but of forgetting the detail of it which when once recalled or first encountered profoundly moves the soul to pity.

We are lost in the welter of information concerning the perpetration of our own current appalling atrocities, horrors which are slowly obliterating or leaching away the intensity of memory.

The metaphor changes but the bestiality remains. We must remember such past events but not to avoid them happening again. They will not be repeated in the same way by man the chameleon. He is too clever for that. Rather we need to remember and constantly remind ourselves that in human nature a brutish creature of terrifying proportions lies perilously close beneath the surface veneer of charm, moral goodness and virtuous intentions.

                                     Detail within the Childrens' Memorial in the Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw

Click on photographs to enlarge for superior image

Extract from Chapter 4 Warsaw the Phoenix from the book 
A Country in the Moon by Michael Moran (London 2010)

In a history increasingly bleached by time, the city [Warszawa] suffered gross physical destruction by the Nazis, murderous repressions without parallel in revenge for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 19 April – 16 May 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest and most infamous of the Nazi ghettos where almost 480,000 Jews died from either disease, malnutrition, execution or were murdered at Treblinka.

[Originally a footnote: This statistic is from Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940–1945, Gunnar S. Paulsson (New Haven 2002). The book is an extraordinary account of Jews in hiding with carefully researched statistics and many astounding individual stories of courageous Jewish resistance. See alsoWords Outlive Us: Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto, ed. Michał Grynberg trans. Philip Boehm (New York 2002) p. 1. This is a heartbreaking collection of first-hand testimonies of life in the ghetto. These eyewitness accounts were written by a remarkable range of people from all walks of life either in the ghetto or clandestinely outside, discovered in the rubble of Warsaw or passed through the hands of survivors. The grimmest of truths lies in the details that speak from pages that ‘challenge us to imagine the unimaginable’. This is individual suffering by real people and not the sanitized, meaningless generalized statistics trotted out as contemporary ‘history’. Indispensable if you have the courage not to turn aside.]

In the Ghetto it was said that everyone had ‘death in his eyes’ or ‘a skull instead of a face’. The creation of it necessitated the displacement of over 200,000 Poles and Jews from their homes and businesses. A popular saying among Germans at the time was ‘The Poles we hate instinctively; the Jews we hate in accordance with orders.’ The displaced lost everything. The Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto by decree on 12 October 1940 – on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

It was divided into three main sections. In the ‘Little Ghetto’ wealthy Jews and the intelligentsia lived well. The pianist Władysław Szpilman (whose memoir of the Ghetto, The Pianist, was an international bestseller) wrote of the Café Nowoczesna: ‘This was the meeting place of the rich; dripping with gold and glittering with diamonds; this was where painted harlots, at tables bedecked with delicacies, seduced the wartime noveaux riches, to the accompaniment of popping champagne corks.’ He went on to describe the hunger and illness of the poor in the ‘Big Ghetto’, dead children lying uncollected in the streets. The third section was the industrial ghetto where the Jewish workers and their families were worked to death as slave labour. 

[Footnote: Śmierć miasta (Death of a City), Władysław Szpilman, compiled by Jerzy Waldorff (Warsaw 1946). This is the original unedited text of The Pianist, trans. Anthea Bell (London 1999)]

The Ghetto witnessed the departure of the packed cattle trucks from theUmschlagplatz (Shipment Square), the transport hub for the extermination camp of Treblinka and the Lublin labour camps.The Jewish police ‘delivered’ up to twelve thousand souls per day to the Nazis in the Umschlagplatz to die or work as slaves. Desperate parents drugged their infants and concealed them in knapsacks and suitcases which were often lost on the carts. Babies woke in the terrifying dark, buried alive, never to be seen again. Jews were driven to the overcrowded holding areas of the ‘Hospital for Infectious Diseases’, a building swimming in faeces, urine and blood ‘as if designed by a satanic architect’. Cattle cars were packed with a hundred and twenty people in a space designed for twenty horses. And then the gas.

After a tiring day at the ‘Umschlag’ one sadistic SS officer habitually drove around the Ghetto streets in a Mercedes sports car picking off strays with his revolver. Another asked a woman carrying a baby on her shoulder if she had had a difficult day’s work. She responded positively to his gesture of concern. He then asked her if she would like a loaf of bread. She thanked him profusely for his generosity. As she walked away with optimism in her heart he took careful aim and shot her baby through the head.

[Originally a footnote: A rarely performed and largely forgotten but unparalleled expression in Western music of this suffering forms the seven agonizing minutes of Ein Überlebender aus Warschau Op. 46 (A Survivor from Warsaw) (1947) for orchestra and narrator by Arnold Schoenberg. In a text written by Schoenberg himself in English (a narrator living in the sewers of Warsaw), German (a violent Nazi sergeant barking orders to the gas chambers) and Hebrew (the prayer Shem’a Yisroel) he expresses how consolation in extreme adversity can come from song and prayer.]

The Ghetto uprising in April 1943, led by Mordechai Anielewicz, was an act of inconceivable courage that has achieved formidable symbolic and moral stature. Yet after ninety per cent of the Jews had been murdered and the Ghetto destroyed and replaced by the concentration camp KL Warschau (where tens of thousands of Gentile Poles died) there remained in Warsaw ‘the largest clandestine community of Jews anywhere in Europe, in fact probably the largest community of people that has lived in hiding in any city, ever.’ (Paulsson)

Some ten per cent of Poles in Warsaw helped Jews to hide, and many more provided food, clothes and money for their Jewish friends. Few were betrayed to the common enemy. Some 28,000 Jews hid on the Aryan side while so-called ‘wild’ Jews returned to the burned-out ruins of the ‘wild’ Ghetto and lived like rats.

An iconic moment of German–Polish reconciliation occurred in December 1970 when the then Federal Chancellor of Germany, Willy Brandt, spontaneously fell to his knees in a silent apology at the memorial to Jews murdered by the SS in the Ghetto. ‘On the abyss of German history and carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them,’ he commented later. This kneeling figure became a symbolic image of the way forward for a mercilessly divided Europe.

                                         Detail from the Childrens' Memorial in the Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw

A visit to the Jewish Cemetery adjacent to Powązki in Okopowa Street is a powerful  and melancholic  reminder  of the tremendous historical presence of Jews in Warsaw and the central contribution they made to the life of the city. From 1527 to 1795 Jews were not permitted to live in Warsaw. The cemetery was founded  in 1806, at that time outside the walls, and covered a massive eighty acres. 

Up to 1939 it contained  the bodies of some 200,000 Jews in marked graves. Much of it is a sad and neglected place, finely carved grave- stones  overgrown and  awry,  decorative  wrought iron  rusting  in piles, doors  to mausoleums  gaping as if the soul has fled. Despite this, clearance and dedication  by volunteers  has improved  sections immeasurably  over the years. Most moving are the common  mass graves to the Ghetto Insurgents (overgrown grassy depressions     surrounded by a circle of white marble standing stones with a simple black band) and memorial graves erected by Jewish families living abroad  to  honour family  members  murdered but  never  met.  An inscription  reads ‘In memory  of one million Jewish children  murdered by Nazi German  barbarians 1939–1945.’

   A statue of the renowned Janusz Korczak  ‘The King of Children’ gently accompanies a few of his charges from his orphanage  to their  joint  annihilation. Of  the numberless    descriptions I have read of the horrors of the Holocaust, this passage, describing the final journey  of 200 children to the Treblinka  extermination  camp, is the most heart-rending of all. It comes from Władysław Szpilmans The Pianist.

One day, around  5th August, when I had to take a brief rest from work  and  was walking  down  Gęsia  Street,  I  happened  to  see Janusz Korczak  and his orphans  leaving the ghetto.

The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered  for that  morning.  The children  were to have been taken away alone. He had the chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty  that he persuaded  the Germans  to take him too.  He  had spent long years of his life with  children,  and now,  on  this  last journey,  he could  not  leave them  alone.  He wanted  to ease things for them. He  told the orphans  they were going out into the country, so they ought  to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible, suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood.

The little column was lead by an SS man who loved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world. He took a special liking to a boy of twelve, a violinist who had his instrument under his arm. The SS man told him to go to the head of the procession of children and play and so they set off.

When I met them in Gęsia Street the smiling children were singing in chorus, the little violinist was playing for them and Korczak   was  carrying  two  of  the  smallest  infants,  who  were beaming too, and telling them some amusing story.

I am sure that even in the gas chamber, as the Zyklon B gas was stifling childish throats and striking terror instead of hope into the orphans’  hearts, the Old  Doctor must have whispered  with one last effort, ‘Its all right, children, it will be all right, so that at least he could  spare his little charges the fear of passing from  life to death.

Janusz Korczak  (1878–1942) was the pseudonym of Henryk Goldszmit, the heroic  Polish- Jewish paediatrician,  children’s author  and educational  theorist.  Andrzej  Wajda made a film of his life in 1990 called Dr Korczak. 

All extracts from A Country in the Moon : Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland (London and Warsaw 2009)

http://www.michael-moran.net/poland.htm  (English edition)

http://czarne.com.pl/katalog/ksiazki/kraj-z-ksiezyca    (Polish edition)

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