The most heroic chapter in the dark history of the annihilation of European Jewry was written by teenagers with guns. Brave beyond imagination, starving, desperate, childless, parentless, unloved by their countrymen, they fully expected to die. They had witnessed the starvation, transport and the killing of their families, friends and teachers. The leaders of the youth movements to which they belonged—left- and right-wing Zionist, European socialist, and communist alike—had mostly fled to Moscow and Palestine at the beginning of the war, leaving them in charge of their own youth groups, schools and kibbutzim.
Haika Grossman was one of the bravest and most resourceful of the Jewish ghetto fighters, as well as one of the oldest, having turned 20 just after the Nazi conquest of Poland. A leader of the youth wing of Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist Zionist party, and a student at Vilnius University, she became a key courier between the ghettos of Poland, and helped organize and lead the Bialystok Ghetto uprising. Her only illusion was that their fellow Jews, who were not members of their movements, but who were also marked for death, would join with them at the decisive moment, and fight.
After the war ended, Grossman emigrated from Poland to Palestine, where it was her fate to inform the Zionist leadership, and those who left Poland before the Holocaust, of the wholesale slaughter of their families and friends. She later became a member of the Knesset, where she helped pass laws protecting the welfare of children and establishing the rights of women to obtain abortions. She also published The Underground Army, a gripping and richly detailed account of her life as a ghetto courier, organizer and fighter.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Bialystok Ghetto uprising, we are proud to publish two excerpts from The Underground Army. It is a story of defiance as desperate and inspiring as any fight in human history, from Thermopylae to the Alamo to Selma.
We hope that this publication will help inspire a publisher to put Grossman’s unique narrative back into print in English, so that a new generation of American readers, Jewish and otherwise, can learn about the power of young people who dream of building a better world, and are willing to sacrifice everything to protect the people they love in the face of radical evil. —David Samuels
Opposite me, a group of SS men blocked the way to the deserted part of the ghetto; behind them, to the right, was the big textile plant: “The First Combinat.” From the factory there was a path leading to the Aryan side, the free city—and the forest. Where were the comrades, where were the remnants of the fighters? Was I to attempt to flee alone? I felt like one great wound. My whole being was weary, needing rest. Rest at the time meant giving up everything—life, and the last battle; I had taught my movement youngsters that the “madness of the brave” moves the world forward, and I had no strength.
Suddenly Kustin appeared. He was one of the Bund activists in the city and a member of the fighting organization staff. Apparently, he had also escaped the encirclement. He had seen about 10 people whom the Germans had captured and led away. They had not succeeded in breaking out. The command had ordered all to break out of the trap and out of the ghetto at all costs. Some who still had ammunition fled. Most had gone down into the bunker, hoping to escape at the appropriate opportunity. He had seen them all, but had not been able to get to them. He had been in the burned out barn with the Germans literally running over his head. Now he was here. He, too, had tried to get to Gorna and Hmielna where the bunker was, and to which the comrades had been told to go. Like me, he had tried and had not succeeded. The entire area from Ciepla to Smolna was closed.
“Kustin, come, let’s escape. There’s nothing to lose,” I said, though we were in the middle of the transport and all exits were closed.
“Come, Kustin, let’s find some way to the forest.”
He stood still, thinking. He would not go; it was madness; there was no way out.
I pressed his hand and attempted to get closer to the factory watchman’s shed. There was noise all around us. Some young men, who noticed my movements, made way for me, whispering. They would follow me if I succeeded. Kustin had remained in his place, clinging to the burning earth. The crowd started to move. The gate on Yuroviecka Street, near us, began to turn on its hinges. That gate had always been locked, never in use. Through it, it was possible to get to Poleska Street, to a suburb called Bialostoczek. Behind that were fields and forests. Behind the gate there was a railway line and a railway siding. The gate creaked; it was hard to open. The crowd pushed together, against it, but it opened only slowly. The crowd moved backward and forward, like waves on a beach.
I was already at the factory gate. Opposite me was an armed German, his legs apart and his weapon at the ready. Apparently I was pushed and pulled by the sleeve of my coat. I did not see anything. I pressed against the high factory fence; there was a roaring in my head, my feet and legs were taut; one more step and I would be in the shed. An old Pole with a big mustache stood in front of me:
“How did you get in? They are watching me on all sides.”
“Don’t ask; just let me pass!”
“But … ”
Before he could finish what he wanted to say I was already past the little gate and into the factory area. I found a handkerchief in my pocket. I wiped my feet and my face, without thinking, like an experienced underground person. A ray of light struck my eyes and almost blinded me. Here there were no crowds, no black mass moving back and forth. It was suddenly silent; a silence ringing in my ears and pounding in my temples. An intoxicating silence.
I had to choose a path, but my mind was blank. I knew the factory area and my feet led me intuitively. Not far away was a small bridge over the Bialka River. Across the span was the Aryan side. The bridge, however, seemed to have disappeared. How far it was to the bridge, that once had been so close? Suddenly an armed German was in front of me.
“Who are you?”
Without thinking, I began to search through my pockets. I had thrown away my elegant purse, with all my papers, before the battle. Suddenly—I couldn’t believe it—there was a paper in my pocket about which I hadn’t known. When I had last left the ghetto a few days ago I had put the document in my coat pocket, since I was carrying some eggs in the bag. I intended to show the Germans at the gate, to prove I was a food smuggler, so they would merely take the eggs. In another place I was smuggling other “goods”—pistol bullets that comrades had stolen from the Germans.
The paper was a work card for the “Textile Industry,” actually for “Combinat 4,” but that did not make it invalid, apparently, for the German. It seems I gave the impression of a Polish factory worker. I wore a summer dress, and old coat, my bare feet in sandals, and I was ditty.
I was permitted to pass. Germans stopped me every few steps. The chain was apparently tightening. I routinely held out my card and moved slowly ahead. I was at the bridge; the factory was humming. They were working there that day as if nothing had happened, without the Jews who hadn’t come to work. There were a few more buildings in front of me, and at every building SS guards were checking papers. I could have gone around them, but it was not worthwhile. The second gate, on the Aryan side, was not far away. It was better to take the risk at the gate, than to go through the barbed wire from the side. They were probably watching more carefully there. The SS man at the gate was not sure my paper was valid. He looked at it, then nodded his head in agreement. I was at the gate. Here again there was a shed, with a Polish watchman. It was his task to check the workers going in and out. The watchman stopped me.
“Where are you going? Impossible to leave the factory in the middle of work.” I shoved him aside without speaking. He retreated, but attempted to resist.
“Quiet, fool,” I whispered to him. He kept quiet; and evidently understood that something was different here.
Now I was on the Aryan side of Yuroviecka Street. What a strange world, quiet and shining. A group of Germans was standing on the corner. They were talking in loud voices, about what had happened. Jews fought back, but now everything was quiet again. Opposite was the railway embankment. Heavy machine guns were being moved some other place. They had apparently finished their task. All along the embankment were soldiers; a real front. All along Poleska Street was a line of cars, unending movement, soldiers coming and going. A new flow of reserves kept coming continually, even though the battle was over. How still the street was. Of what were they still afraid? I was the only civilian on the whole street.
They did not examine my papers; they were soldiers, not policemen. I felt their glances from behind. I had no arms; I had given my pistol to Kustin. He had lost his own and perhaps would try to break out at night, with the aid of the pistol. My bullets had run out but maybe he would find some with one of the comrades. Unarmed, I was walking in the lion’s den. I walked slowly, the sun beating down on my head, accompanied by the glances of the armed German soldiers. They had put down the revolt and I, a member of the command staff was walking among them. What had I done? Why had I left? The world was empty here; there was nothing left but the lone battle and the lone war, without the masses for whom we had fought. I was followed by the young faces and the enthusiastic, stubborn, believing eyes of Avremel, Yentel, Lonchik and Roschka, Meir and Sonka, who had fought and were no more.
Near the Cathedral of Saint Roch was a small, empty lot. Half-naked German soldiers were washing themselves, talking in loud voices, whistling and attending to their needs. A steamy mobile kitchen emitted a strange odor. My lips were parched and my head throbbed. I could still hear the shooting despite the quiet. My mind, nerves and limbs were now slowly absorbing everything that had happened. The army filling the city beat at my mind; perhaps now it was possible to understand what had taken place in the ghetto. A strange, terrible knowledge. We had faced all those who had been mobilized and brought from afar to fight against the ghetto rebels.
On the corner of Pilsudski and Saint Roch Streets a shoeshine boy was sitting on a little stool. I extended my foot. All I had were a few pennies. I had not yet eaten that day. It was most important that I wear shiny shoes … Shiny shoes for the bloody festival. Who would now say that I was a rebel and had come from the ghetto? In the nearby court there was a water tap at the gate. I wet my handkerchief and wiped away the traces of blood that had dried on my foot. Now my feet were clean. I still had to comb my hair. Haska lived nearby. I wondered if she had managed to get over in the morning without any trouble. I would visit her. An interesting call, bah! The landlady would be happy to see me, the rich cousin from Grodno. The wealthy were always welcome guests. Perhaps she would play the gramophone for me, and find the record with the tango about the two lovers, or about the one who waited, and waited … I was neat, I was going to my Aryan friends, to Haska. Toward life, or away? Where would I find the strength to overcome my despair? How was I to start all over again?
Haska was at home. She had arrived safely that morning and was waiting for somebody to come to her. She had hoped that, at the least, I would come; why, I do not know. She was afraid to leave her room lest anyone who did come would be left outside. She wanted to hear all the details of the battle. She had heard the shooting and the explosions, seen the fires rising out of the ghetto, and the armed SS units moving about the city.
Haska was blaming herself. Only yesterday before coming into the ghetto, she had seen the motorized units in the city but had not thought to say anything about them in the ghetto. She did not think that there was any connection between their arrival and the plan to liquidate the ghetto.
“If only they knew yesterday, if they only knew,” Haska kept saying, as if to herself. I knew that the matter was not important. Even if we had known we could not have changed any of our plans. But I couldn’t talk. I asked Haska to leave me in peace, since I did not have the strength to say anything. Haska was embarrassed. She fell silent. The landlady came into the room and wanted to express her happiness at my coming. Strangely, she did not notice anything different about me. She saw nothing, not in my clothing nor in my conduct, not even in my face. Soon she would play some sentimental song on the gramophone, and she would sing. Haska told the landlady that I had come to live with her, and to help her. Haska looked happy, and so was the landlady, who was called Misya.
“Well have fun, Halinka!” She was looking for entertainment, the company of young girls, merry friends, so that everything would be klawo (very nice).
It was between 5 and 6 when we left the house and went to look for the other “Aryan” girls. We all sat on one of the stones that remained among the ruins in Legionova Street. The girls crowded around and listened to my story. The sun was already at the edge of the sky, red and round. They sat bent forward and listened. I did not see their eyes nor their faces. They were all there, Haska and Bronka and Rivkele, Liza Chapnik, and Ruth, whose Aryan name was Anya, her sister-in-law. My sister had also come. We sat still, without uttering a sound. I looked into their faces, sought encouragement and support, some agreement from them that we had done all that we could have done, that what had happened was what we had all foreseen, that there really was no alternative, and that anyone who had come out or would survive the revolt would start anew and continue the war. They were still and lowered their eyes.
The red sun set. The transport was already moving toward Bialostoczek. Where were our comrades? No one had arrived yet. Perhaps they would come; certainly they would come! We would go to look for them in the neighborhood of the ghetto. We decided then to break through, no matter what! Many certainly would come, and we would have to watch for them so they should not fall into the treacherous sea. I waited for one of them to recover and order us to do something. But they all remained quiet, and it seemed to me as if the whole world was standing at attention. In the center of the dead square there was one yard in which there was a whole house. It was apparently a Polish courtyard, and therefore had been left untouched. Children were playing there.
“Look, there are Jewish women sitting,” the children began to shout, looking away from their game. They brought us back to reality. What had the little ones found Jewish in us? Was it the way we were sitting, the bent backs, the lowered heads? They couldn’t see our faces. We got up and left, each going her own way. From now on we would scout around the ghetto neighborhood all day long. That was our first practical activity. All of them had to continue working and maintaining the underground apartments. We would look for any remnants and after that our road led to the forest. Why hadn’t I thought of finding out where to look for our partisan group?
It was moving about all the time and only the regular couriers knew where it was. Why hadn’t I asked? Simply because I had not believed that I alone would need that address. The cells had been given explicit information; perhaps those who came would know. In any case we would do what we could, take them first into our apartments outside the ghetto. If only I could meet Marylka now; she sometimes moved about the city. I did not know her address, but if only I could run into her accidentally in the street! We would have to look by ourselves. It would not be easy, of course, but in the meantime, all day from dawn to curfew, we had to search in the ghetto neighborhood for anyone who might have succeeded in getting through.
It was evening and in the empty streets it was still hot. We didn’t dare go home where at that time, no doubt, the gramophone was being played. Little Vladek was at play, the grandmother was cursing and our landlady was looking for merry company. Haska and I walked the streets to put off the time when we would have to go “home.” Unconsciously we turned our steps toward the ghetto; it was dark, and giant shadows crossed the road. Every figure looked like a wandering Jew searching for a place in which to hide. We walked along the sides of the emptying streets, by the shadowy houses. Everything was gray. There was the dark bridge on Shenkevich Street and beyond it once again isolated, shadowy, slowly moving figures. There was the court at the corner of Yuroviecka Street bordering on the ghetto. Mordechai had once lived on the other side of the fence. In front of the gate was a large “billboard” column. Suddenly something moved in front of us. We were frightened and moved back. It was only a large piece of paper, a torn poster on the column, waving in the wind.
I was angry: “Where are your nerves, Haska?” And I, hadn’t I been frightened, too? I vented my anger on Haska and she kept still, lowering her head. Stunned and silent we went around the ghetto. German patrols were moving about near the fence, near the gates on Yuroviecka and Fabryehna Streets. It was quiet, the whole world seemed dead. The sentries marched slowly back and forth. From within, not a sound could be heard, not a murmur of any movement. Smoke was rising here and there, turning black in the grayness, spiraling upward and disappearing. The German factories were still burning. The revolt had died, the fires had burned out, with only the smoke left in the summer air.
On Poleska and Smolna Streets there were very many sentries, but the army had disappeared. On these streets the fences were destroyed. In one place there was a big hole in the wall; in another, twisted barbed wire loosely lay on the ground, amid bent and broken boards. That had been the ghetto wall. Here they had attempted to break through.
In the twisting streets were the suburban courtyards. Piles of rubbish, green gardens, it was impossible to stay there for any length of time. The sentries stared at you, watched your every movement. The fearful inhabitants had locked themselves in their houses. We stole through the yards and the streets, hiding from the sentries’ eyes. We knew that we looked suspicious to them, but it was not easy for us to go away. Perhaps someone was hiding here, maybe someone had broken out and was wounded and waiting for help.
We entered one yard where a Polish woman was drawing water from the well. She asked us whom we were looking for. Haska immediately made up some name. No, she did not know where that person lived, but she told us about Jews who had tried, opposite here, to jump across and flee from the ghetto. There, where the wall was broken, only an hour or two ago. Most had been caught, one was wounded but succeeded in escaping.
“Look, Pani, there, behind that pit, he got away. But many were killed. They were all taken away immediately. Only one is still there, not far away, behind our house, in the nearby street. And you know, our ‘bastards’ have already managed to steal his shoes.”
“What do you mean? He’s still there?” Haska put on an innocent face. We went to the street, a narrow, dirt road. A black body was lying in the middle. We saw woolen stockings like the ones Sonka had brought from her father’s for all the comrades. There was something white underneath the stocking—underwear. The body was covered with a long black coat. The face could not be seen, it was covered. Without hat or shoe, the body lay on its back. There were no signs of a wound, and no blood. The body seemed to be sleeping. It was one of those who had attempted to break through to freedom, and who had fled through the opening we had made. He was surely one of ours. The stockings were familiar. Part of the head, protruding from under the coat, seemed familiar, too, the hair, the color.
“Haska, I think it is Gedalyahu. The stockings, look at the stockings.” I didn’t have the courage to pull back the edge of the coat. I knew that the comrades would break out and most would be killed; what was I afraid of?
Of the simple truth about somebody close?
I turned back, resisted. To this day I cannot forgive myself for not having the courage to look at death up close. Time was pressing; in a moment a sentry would arrive. In a little while it would be curfew time.
Haska was white, but with speedy steps she bent down to the corpse. She quickly informed me: No, it is not Gedalyahu. I don’t recognize him. I did not know the anonymous face either. I almost felt better.
Stunned, we returned to Haska’s room, intent on returning to the neighborhood of the ghetto the next day. That was a frightful night. Only when darkness covered the city was the silence broken. All night long shooting was heard. The grenade explosions made it difficult to hear the cries in the ghetto.
We stood by the window and listened. The horizon turned red. Once again fires were started. They did not cease until dawn. The battle in the ghetto was still going on.
We did not speak that night. We did not close an eye. It was one of those sleepless nights when your hair can almost turn white in a few hours. The shooting shook us out of our shock. When morning came we went out. The streets were empty. Grayness seemed to envelop all the houses and the church opposite, standing high above the city. Dawn came, its light spreading over the ghetto skies.
Mordechai Anielevich wrote in 1942, in the Warsaw ghetto, “Fire burns, but it also warms.” The fire of revolt burned the ghetto and thereby seemingly sealed the fate of a Jewish community, the 60,000 Jews of Bialystok. We remained alone, fighting against terror and alienation, we the remnants of Polish Jewry. And a new day came, a day of heroic effort and struggle and new danger.
Aug. 17, 1943.
It was forbidden even to come close to the houses and courtyards bordering on the ghetto. During the night, the German SS were replaced by Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belorusian forces; the collaborators from prewar Poland’s national minorities.
We were at the Yuroviecka Gate. Three uniformed soldiers were standing there and the gate was closed. Only yesterday the big transport had been taken out; where was it now? And how many were still hiding? Who had been shooting during the night? The green soldiers were frightened. They apparently did not enjoy the ambushes set for them by the Jews remaining in the ghetto. It creaked open and revealed all of Yuroviecka Street. I climbed up on the embankment and could see the whole length of the street. Something moved on the empty thoroughfare—horses, pulling wagons loaded with piles of rags. They were living people who shook like dead bodies to the movement of the iron wheels on the stone pavement, there were children in the wagons—live children, all that were left of the living. They were crying. On both sides of the wagons marched the men in green uniforms with their rifles ready. From Yuroviecka Street the road led directly beneath the railway embankment. The wagons moved slowly through the small tunnel; in a moment they would appear on the other side. I jumped down. The wagons were at my side. The sentries were driving one of them away. I went to another wagon; if he drove me from there, I would move aside and come back again.
I made the rest of my way in a mad run. There were many people on the embankment, Poles who had come to look at the Dantean sight. Many of them were inhabitants of the suburb and had strange tales to relate. Since yesterday Jews had been lying here. They had not been given even a drop of water, not yesterday, and not today. The sun was beating down on their heads. There were three rings of SS men with ‘storks nests’ in each corner and machine guns on them. From afar the soldiers looked like green dwarfs. It was impossible to get close. The rings were at right. Every few meters there was a position. The wind was coming from that direction and blurred sounds reached my ears. The wind stopped at my feet, at the high embankment. The voices, too, reached with their faint echoes. The sun was hot on my head, on their heads. Within the rings of sentries black spots were moving, Jews, people I had seen yesterday on Yuroviecka Street, for whose sake I had fought, together with my comrades, and from whom I had fled.
Inside the armed circles were two tight blocks of black spots. Like a giant swarm of bees, there was one big block from which a thin thread eventually split into two. Where it broke was an empty field, and in the middle was a small group of men in uniform. That was the selection site. There the fate of living people was decided. Who was to die, and who was to live in slavery and die a slow death in a concentration camp. Here they separated families, fathers from sons, parents from children. One end of the thread moved slowly toward the café on the horizon, and the second end joined the other smaller clump. From afar you could see the death dance, an assembly line on which columns of people moved.
My mother was now among them. I stood and watched.
For a whole day I moved about the area. I walked along the railway and back. Bronka came too; in the evening Raska came as well. Once again we walked the streets. The ghetto was locked tight. Only the number of bodies along the ghetto fences increased; they were spread all along the street. Many tried to break through, and fought for their lives.
For three whole days I wandered along the embankment. The sun beat on their heads for all three days. Each day I found the same scene: The big block was growing smaller, thinning out, with the thread running from it without stopping. One end went to the other block, the other to the cars.
During every one of those days we searched the ghetto neighborhood. The piles of the dead increased during the three nights, and every morning soldiers collected the corpses of the rebels. In the morning they sealed the holes in the walls and mended the barbed wire. Every dawn the neighbors reported that dozens of Jews in the neighborhood were attempting to escape, that many were shooting at the Germans and killing them, and that the German bodies were being carried away immediately. The neighbors also said that it was difficult to sleep at night, that the houses shook from the many explosions nearby. The battles in the ghetto were continuing. On the third day after the beginning of the revolt, when I came to the railway embankment in the Bialostoczek suburb in the morning, I found the field empty. No imprisoned and tortured Jews, and no armed SS soldiers. The area was dead, the history of 60,000 Bialystok Jews had ended.
By the fourth day after the revolt, life in the street was back to normal. People in the city still talked about the Jews, about their desperate struggle, and their eventual annihilation. But life went on. The avenues of trees were green, birds chirped and the market behind the avenue hummed with activity of peasants bringing their “black” chickens to the city, and German soldiers looking for a “bargain” among the peasant wagons crowded in the market square.
We were looking for Jews to save, and for some link to our group in the forest. Once again I roamed the city streets. Haska continued to work for the German family and would return only in the evening. All the girls were working. Only I was wandering through the streets without any plan. The battles in the ghetto were continuing. I talked with Olla and her husband, Vladek, about going into the ghetto. He never ceased talking about the Jews’ fighting. I didn’t tell him that I, too, had taken part in the battle. He told about Germans killing Jews every night, but tried to encourage me and to convince me that the day of vengeance was not far away. However, when I told him I wanted to search the ghetto for comrades whom I could take outside the city, he argued with me:
“These are only the first days; your friends are not foolish enough to try to break out now. They will wait in the bunkers, and you, too, must wait. You know it is impossible to get into the ghetto. Look at the piles of bodies carried every day to the graveyard on Zabia Street.”
Vladek was right, but the ground was burning under our feet. This was the fourth day that we were without any contact with the fighters in the ghetto. We did not know if they were still alive—or if they were with our group in the forest. The sense of isolation crushed us. Our meetings in the evenings were gloomy; we had learned to be silent. We found that if any one of us spoke of what was in her heart all the others would follow suit, and the bitterness would become a destructive force. We kept quiet to escape despair. So, I roamed the streets. There was a lot of movement on Pilsudski Street.
It was noon, the weather was still fine. We hoped that it would rain, that soon a storm would come and wash everything away. The sun beamed its bright hot rays. Stores were crowded with German buyers.
I crossed Pilsudski Street and stopped. Behind the “Pan” movie house I saw a crowd of people all looking toward the courtyard. The movie house’s backyard bordered on the ghetto, on the court of 6 New World Street, where our first apartment had been. Now I stood there all alone in a crowd of Poles, among the wise-cracking hooligans who were to be found near the movie house all the hours of the day. They were cheering. What had happened?
“Nothing, there is a Jew hanging there.”
A Jew had hanged himself from a beam of his half-destroyed house. On the fourth day after the liquidation of the ghetto. For four days he had fought and hidden, and when he saw no way out, had hanged himself. I heard the nasty whispering, the wild laughter; I could sense their satisfaction. I looked at the crowd. There were Polish faces torn by pain. Someone had turned aside and was saying something to himself. A woman wiped away a tear.
Excerpted from The Underground Army: Fighters of the Bialystok Ghetto, by Haika Grossman. Reprinted with permission of Moreshet Publishing House, Israel. Read the first of two excerpts commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Bialystok Ghetto uprising here.