Lessons of History: Ghetto that resisted to the end: 50 years ago today, the Poles who felt Jews lacked the will to fight were proved wrong, writes Jozef Garlinski
Monday 19 April 1993
Over three weeks, using flame throwers and listening devices, they emptied every hiding place. Finally, the Nazis set the ghetto on fire. On 16 May, they declared it destroyed and blew up the main synagogue. About 7,000 Jews died in the conflagration and more than 30,000 were sent to death camps.
In the very early spring of 1943, as a young man, I was head of the security department at the HQ of the Polish underground army (called the Home Army) in Warsaw, under the German occupation.
It was essential to gather information on what happened to people who were arrested, and which names they gave the Gestapo. Then we knew who to hide, and who to give new identities to. Many of those arrested were detained in the political prison, called Pawiak which lay in the middle of the Jewish district. The Germans could not staff the prison completely with their own people. I got information from Polish wardresses and warders and some Polish doctors.
Before the war there was a Jewish district in Warsaw, but like the East End in London, it was voluntarily occupied mostly by Jews, who were also residents of all other districts in the Polish capital. After the September campaign in 1939 and the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, Hitler had ordered that all Jews under German control - and there were about 2,500,000 of them - must move into ghettos. The largest was in Warsaw with 450,000 inhabitants.
The ghetto was separated from the city by a high wall and lay outside my duties, but my agents brought me news of what was happening there. I knew that the people there were dying of hunger, that the Germans were deporting them by the thousand, that they were being murdered, but I did not know the details of these crimes.
In the autumn of 1942 my contacts reported that the transports from the ghetto to an unknown destination were so large that the number of inhabitants had fallen to 80,000. At the same time my network reported that Jewish emissaries were secretly crossing the wall to the Aryan part of the city and buying cement, petrol and small arms. It was obvious that the Jews were preparing to dig themselves in for a fight.
In December 1942 a Jewish Fighting Organisation (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa - ZOB) was set up. This organisation was led by a very young man, Mordechaj Anielewicz, and its task was to train fighters and obtain weapons, ammunition and explosives. The leader contacted the Home Army and obtained a positive reply, promising assistance in the form of training and arms.
It was a difficult problem, because the Home Army supplies were very limited and the parachute drops from Britain quite insufficient. Also not all Home Army officers believed that the Jews would fight. They changed their minds in January 1943 when the German units entered the ghetto and for the first time met with armed resistance. One hundred pistols with ammunition, 500 grenades and some explosives were sent to the Jewish district. It was very little, but more than nothing. The Germans were still deep inside the lands of the Soviet Union, and the West, although well informed about the tragedy of the Jews, was limited to declarations condemning German brutality.
The uprising of the whole of Warsaw was at that time out of the question. When, more than a year later, in August 1944, the Home Army attacked the German garrison and the whole city took part in the fight, it drowned in the ocean of blood, with a quarter of the inhabitants killed and the city almost razed to the ground. And then the Red Army was on the other side of the Vistula, only a few miles from the fighting capital, completely inactive.
One day I was out walking near the ghetto. I saw soldiers in dirty green- coloured uniforms with black lapels and Soviet tin helmets, guarding every inch of the wall. Later I learnt that the soldiers were Latvians, used by the Germans as auxiliary units.
Next day - it was 19 April 1943 - my contacts hurriedly reported that the Germans had opened an assault on the ghetto, using artillery, which the Jews were resisting. Two flags, Polish and Jewish, were hoisted on a high building.
Only a day later my entire life was suddenly changed. I was on a tram going to call on a friend on a personal errand, not connected with my underground work, when I was suddenly conscious of someone behind me. As I turned my head I heard 'Halt] Hande hoch]'. Two young men rushed towards me, the dark metal of revolvers in their hands. I was unarmed and had absolutely no chance of getting away. In half an hour we were at Gestapo headquarters.
A former classmate from school had betrayed me. The Gestapo were looking for another person called Gerlinski, and he had directed them to me. They did not know about my underground responsibilities, and they did not know that I was carrying false identity papers. At half past five in the afternoon the guard was changed, and my chance of a lifetime occurred. The guard was in a hurry to go off duty and did not search me. During the night, spent on a cell bench, I managed to destroy my papers, hoping that would mean they would not find out about my underground activities.
At five o'clock the next afternoon I was taken to the Pawiak prison by a black van with several other prisoners. Under its hood we were unable to see what was going on around us, but after crossing into the ghetto we saw clouds of smoke and heard the detonations of shells and fire from small arms and grenades. The Pawiak was an island in the midst of the fighting ghetto.
There were four of us in a small cell for newcomers in the building's basement. Among us was a young Jew with an Aryan look and good false papers. Unfortunately he had been caught on the street by the German agents, brought to the Gestapo HQ and searched. The truth emerged, he was terribly beaten and, covered with blood, sent to Pawiak. We were below street level, the cell windows looked into the yard. We had heard an aeroplane circling in the sky and not far away grenades were bursting.
During the next few days I got used to prison discipline and after Easter when the corridor-sweeper was sent to another section, I was given his job. I had some freedom and saw what was going on around us.
Section seven of the prison, for newcomers, was directly connected with section eight, for Jews only. Throughout the fighting, groups of them, dragged out of the ruins and cellars of their burning houses, were being brought in. They were exhausted and speechless with fright, crying 'water, water'. Sometimes, when the German guards were absent, we managed to help them with a quick drink and exchanged a few words. From one of them I learnt that he had been captured in the centre of the ghetto, from a large underground bunker. Day by day they were brutally murdered in the prison yard.
The fires came nearer and nearer, the houses round Pawiak were in flames, the fire brigade arrived and the firemen played their hoses on the roof and walls of the prison. We watched the flames creeping higher and higher and devouring the tall chimneys on the street.
No one was safe, suddenly the Germans shot 100 Polish prisoners in the Pawiak, but the Jews were brought in day after day and murdered in the most cruel way. The ghetto was still fighting, but becoming more subdued, the detonations were sporadic, the shots further and further away.
Human nature automatically protects individuals against the pressure, especially in deadly danger. Thousands of Jews were killed each day, many in the prison yard before my eyes, but my mind was occupied mostly with my own problem. The Gestapo took me for someone else, they knew nothing about my secret activity. I had an easy defence. With all my heart I longed for my wife. I longed for my underground work, but my mind was occupied with one powerful problem: I had a chance, I would survive.
One day, among a group of newcomers, there was one young Polish boy, slightly wounded and exhausted. Going to the lavatory he whispered to me that he had been captured near the wall of the ghetto, where a unit of the Home Army had tried to force open the German cordon and allow some Jews to escape, but in vain. Many of his mates were killed.
On 12 May a rumour went around the prison that a large transport was going to Auschwitz next day. I was on the list of about 500 prisoners. During the night we were counted, searched and inspected. Suddenly powerful detonations rocked the prison. Only later I learnt that it was a Soviet attack which missed its military targets and hit the dying ghetto.
Before my arrest I had read a secret report of a young man who was released from Auschwitz, so I had an idea about the life there. But frankly, even under the cruel German occupation, I did not believe that such a factory of death could really exist. People killed during work, people hanged in front of other prisoners, the whole camp standing to attention for hours because one had escaped. Why?
But when I heard I was to be transported to Auschwitz, I did not think about this. I even preferred to go to this death camp rather than stay in the ghetto, where it was certain all of us would be buried under the ruins.
It was a sunny May day. We were loaded on to the column of lorries, which moved out slowly, climbing up the heaps of ruins and slithering down on to the fragments of the former streets. The ghetto was burning down, covered by smoke. There was no sound of any voices, no rattling of machine guns, no detonations.
Jozef Garlinski survived Auschwitz and labour camps, and after liberation joined the US Army as a translator. In London after the war he was reunited with his wife and worked in business. He later took a doctorate and has written seven books. He has given hundreds of lectures on his wartime experiences: 'The lessons I try to pass on are the dangers of nationalism and the secret of my survival which was based on my love for my wife and friendship.'
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