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
It was Aug. 15, 1943, on a fine summer evening. We had gathered for a staff meeting in Mordechai’s deserted room on Polna Street. The meeting lasted longer than usual and ended after midnight. We had no permits to move at night and were compelled to steal through the courtyards, pressing close to the walls of the quiet houses. It had been the first full staff meeting. We had finished the distribution of assignments. The mood at the meeting had been practical, and matter-of-fact. When we reached our room on Bialostochanska Street it was quite late. The room was empty. We had not yet fallen asleep when Gedalyahu came into the room. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning.
“Get dressed. An SS unit has come in through the Yuroviecka Gate and set sentries near the factory.”
“What does it mean?”
“Don’t ask questions. We have to dress and alarm the organization. I’m going to tell Mordechai.”
The ghetto bad been tranquil lately. Life had been normal. Not only that but new orders had recently arrived for the factories, from Koenigsberg and far-off Berlin. How happy the ghetto had been lately over the many Soviet victories, and Mussolini’s downfall. And now, suddenly—an aktzia.
Our plan to meet the Germans before they managed to spread throughout the ghetto, to attack them immediately on their entrance into the ghetto, was no longer possible. They came into the ghetto suddenly, at night. In a few minutes the staff, the cells, and their commanders were all alerted. In a hurried meeting in the street we decided, first, to send the cells to their regular positions according to the original plan. The general plan had to be changed. The main points of attack, which had been set near the gates in order not to allow the Germans to enter the ghetto, had now lost much of their value. All the plans based on attacks from the houses near the gates, by grenade and a rain of fire, had to be altered. The initiative had been taken from us suddenly. Still, we decided to hold onto and entrench the existing positions. The first order, therefore, was to hold onto all the positions, and from them to attack the Germans as soon as they came close. Sentries were set and lines of contact established with the sector commanders. We sent people out to knock on doors and shutters to arouse the Jews:
“Germans in the ghetto! If they call on you to appear, don’t go.”
Actually, we still did not know anything. Until we were sure the ghetto was being liquidated, we must not leave the underground, or call loudly for resistance.
Mordechai walked at my side, quietly, thoughtful. The minutes passed, and the ghetto awoke. A door creaked open; Jews, what has happened? And when the man received his answer the door closed. Fear quieted the Jews, fear walked with them, silently, knocking on doors and windows. Relatives and friends ran to each other’s homes to rouse the sleeping. Our comrades were everywhere, in every courtyard. Mordechai looked all over, meeting the people and encouraging them. I saw the faces of our young comrades that night, the movements of their hands, the way they walked, and I saw their eyes, Avremele’s and Yentel’s, Sortka’s and Lonchik’s, gleaming in the night.
It was 4 in the morning. The sun’s rays had not yet appeared when the posters went up on the ghetto walls: All the Jews of the ghetto, without exception, were ordered to appear at 9 in the morning with small hand packages, on Yuroviecka Street. From there all the ghetto residents, as well as the shops and factories, would be moved to Lublin. It was signed by the commander of the SS and the police, Dibos.
Now everything was clear. The liquidation had come. The morning was pale and cold, under the clear blue skies. Streets filled with Jews, crowding around the posters. They read them once, again, and then dispersed, frightened. There was no time for questions or for explanations; the posters spoke for themselves. Jews read them and turned away quietly, each to his home. There was no shouting; no hysteria. They groped in the morning light as if they were lost in the dark. They were not yet really awake, the cobwebs of sleep and tranquility were not yet gone. There was no wailing or weeping, only quiet tension during the slow moving hours.
We gathered at the position on Piotrokovska Street. Mordechai was there, too. He suggested dividing the members of the staff on both sides of Yuroviecka Street, the place the Germans had designated for the transport. “Those streets may be cut off, and therefore it may be better for us to divide the staff,” he argued. His proposal seemed logical, and we agreed. We decided to distribute the arms now in the stores. Those on the other side of Yuroviecka we supplied to the fighting units in their positions, and the weapons in this sector, among the cells and positions situated on this side of Yuroviecka Street. The difficulty in moving arms at this time through the ghetto was taken into consideration.
In addition, arms had already been distributed to the sectors according to the composition of the fighting forces and their numbers. Mordechai had left Piotrokovska Street and established his position at 13 Ciepla Street. We remained on Piotrokovska Street. Couriers between the two sections of the staff were chosen. The apartment on Piotrokovska Street had emptied and its occupants had all gone into hiding.
This was both a battle station and a command post for the whole sector. I can still see Gedalyahu and Zerah, Yoshko and Leibush; I remember the young people, Meir and Avremele. Every last one came to receive instructions and then returned to their positions. Most of all I remember Kuba: Kuba had not changed; he was quiet, as usual, slow and thoughtful. Only his expression had changed. He had always been friendly and easy going; now he was raging. He was angry about arms rolling about at his feet which were of no use. He had not yet managed to repair them all for combat use. There was a rifle without a safety catch, a submachine gun that was capable of shooting bullets at the enemy, but it was useless, scrap iron. Kuba sat angrily at his bench and attempted to rehabilitate at least one more rifle and perhaps one more machine gun. Time was pressing: At 9 exactly, the battle would commence. People were waiting for guns. The positions were anxious for ammunition. Time passed. Couriers came and went. There were too few of the promised “long” guns. People took pistols, but wanted better offensive weapons. They were not satisfied with guns for self-defense only. Kuba was angry as his hands manipulated the iron, his fingers shaking slightly. He sat at his bench working, with Meir helping him. The guns were finally distributed and still Kuba labored.
Suddenly Haska appeared. Yesterday she had come for a visit; yesterday had been Saturday, and Haska had come to help relax the tension. Gedalyahu ordered her to leave the ghetto immediately. Perhaps all the exits had not yet been sealed; before morning she could still get out. Haska refused.
“Haska, what will happen if some people come out of the slaughter alive and there is no one to receive them, to lend a helping hand outside the ghetto? We have a group in the forest, somebody will have to be the liaison between them and us, if we hold out. Haska, you must go, there is no choice.”
We convinced her that she must leave and said goodbye to her quickly.
Raska left and we did not know if we would ever see her again. She headed for Bialostochanska Street, toward Olia’s court. She walked, looking back, then moving forward, and turning her face toward us.
“Haska, hurry, it’s morning!”
Raska walked, her bag swinging behind her. She rose on Gedalyahu’s back and climbed onto the privy in Olia’s yard. We stopped for a few minutes, listening. In the courtyard adjoining the ghetto there was silence.
No shots broke the quiet, no movement was heard. Raska apparently had crossed safely.
The Piotrokovska apartment was in disarray. Clothes stores which we had managed to transfer to the forest were opened. Comrades were dressing, preparing. Who cared about woolen socks, about whole shoes; the main objective was that it be possible for us to move. There was no hysteria, not a single sign of confusion.
Leibush Mandelblit, a staff Communist member, leaned against the wall. He was running a high fever; he couldn’t speak—an ulcerated throat. His eyes burned. He too was determined to fight, together with his comrades. A boy of about 12 or 13 was standing next to him; he had taken the boy along with him.
Our Avremele was there, as were Lonchik and Meir and Yentel who had returned wounded from the death car after the first aktzia. After that she had guided the cells and taught them how to use arms. She had excelled in the general course; the adults nodded their heads at her in amazement, wondering where that young girl obtained that facility and knowledge about the use of death tools. Pleasant and talented, gentle, the best of the gymnasium students, she was examining her weapon and looking at her shoes to see if they were strong enough. She had been wounded but her wounds had healed. She had leaped from the death car, fallen and rose again. The rest were there, too, the members of the Tel-Amal group, all in position; commanders, teachers, couriers, taking their places, coming back, and running to their officers.
I was the only one who did not prepare for tomorrow. I did not examine my shoes, did not turn over the store’s goods thrown on the beds. I didn’t go to say goodbye to my mother. I didn’t go to her house to change my clothing. I just looked about at the tumult and the preparations and wondered. For years I had steeled them, these young people, had molded their characters, and gradually taught them the logic of action. Now they were passing before me, going to their decisive test, and perhaps travelling their last road.
Gedalyahu was there. He was joking. It was not gallows humor this time. He was joking heartily, because tomorrow he would no longer have to go to work in the despicable ghetto police contingent. He was a free man now. He too was preparing for battle, turning over the pile of stockings that Sonka had brought a few minutes ago from her father’s little “factory,” looking for some pair that fit. At daylight Gedalyahu, turned toward me. What eyes, God in Heaven! I had never seen them as they really were. I don’t know why but it seemed to me that Gedalyahu was going to express his feelings of first love. It was ridiculous for me, I felt, to allow so strange a thought to enter my mind at such a time. Gedalyahu called me aside:
Do not weep over the graves of heroes; do not weep and do not feel pity. It is not pity you are asked to give the world but deeds that will free mankind from the nightmare of oppression and enslavement.
“A few minutes ago I spoke to Zerah, the other members of the general staff, and with our leadership. You must leave the ghetto immediately. Maybe it can still be done. After all, Raska managed to get out. There is no point in your remaining here.”
“I don’t understand. Do you want to send me away now? Can’t I fight like all the comrades?”
“I didn’t want to insult you, to question your honor. On the contrary; don’t be angry, I’ll explain it to you.” Gedalyahu stopped in the middle, looked at the piece of black bread in his hand, and was embarrassed. “You understand, somebody is bound to come out alive from this business. I told Raska that we must organize the aid outside of the ghetto. We can logically assume that some of us will survive; nu—how am I going to tell you this? The world will still exist, there will still be Jews and the movement …” Gedalyahu couldn’t help himself; he spit through his front teeth as usual. “In short, we think that you are the one to come out of this safely and relish the victory.”
Gedalyahu stopped. I felt as if the world were sinking beneath my feet. My head swam. I wanted to fall on Gedalyahu and kiss him, to embrace him for his great soul, his precious character, the gentleness, wrapped in seeming vulgarity. How tall Gedalyahu had become! Suddenly he was concerned about history, about the world that would prevail after us!
“I won’t go!”
After that we never spoke about the matter again. I met him a few more times, drifting from place to place, touring the positions. I heard the sound of his laughter, and I saw him shouting near the gate. Most of all, I remember the sound of the Russian curses he spit through his teeth. They were just ordinary curses, but they were directed at what he hated, with all his heart and soul. He hated traitors, the weak, and most of all, he despised the enemy.
I met Zerah in the court on Chenstohovska Street, at the gate. Zerah wore his short jacket open to the breeze. He had on high boots. His face had thinned and had become even more handsome. His blue eyes were sunk beneath his dark brows. His wide shoulders were conspicuous in contrast to his sunken face. We met at the gate; each of us wanted to say something, but our voices were silent.
“You … you …” Zerah mumbled like a little boy, “are you going out?”
The discussion ended. I felt his warm hand in mine. It was a last handshake. We separated hastily and went our separate ways.
“Control yourself! Run, run away fast from Zerah, your dear comrade, the way you fled more than once from your own feelings and emotions. Life must be fastened tightly like a belt about one’s hopes. We must not be emotional. Oh, life, do you know the taste of a last hurried farewell before death? Have you seen the morning sun rise early during such a parting? Have you felt the courageous and loving handclasp expressing its love for you and people because they are people—our people—because they are our suffering people, whose freedom was so brutally stolen, all this expressed by the loving pressure of a hand? Can one ever forget a handclasp like that? Will we not feel it for eternity? For love of life they died, and with their last handshake gave their love to the world. Zerah, the most wonderful of men, handsome Zerah, loving, obdurate, gentle and hard, stubborn in both his love and his hatred. That is how I will remember you, Zerah; that is how I will remember you in the open gate of the courtyard on Chenstohovska Street.” Our positions were not very well hidden. We did not intend to hide. We planned to fall upon the SS soldiers coming to pull their victims out by force. The Germans would scatter, after 9 o’clock, when the concentration site on Yuroviecka Street was not full. We would defend the hiding Jews, and in that way they too would join the fighters. It was clear to us that the Jews would not go to Yuroviecka Street. In the first action no one had wanted to surrender willingly. Every house would be turned into a fortress. The positions had been stationed in high, strong-walled houses. They would not easily be taken. The one on Chenstohovska Street was on the third floor, that on Piotrikovska was also on the top floor. As they would approach the house, salvos of bullets and grenades would greet them. The plan was simple. Fighters were standing at the gates, too. True, the first groups of the SS had entered the ghetto earlier, at 2 in the morning, without our knowledge. They had established stations near the factories, which prevented us from sabotaging the factories. We knew, however, that we could outwit the guards scattered throughout the ghetto.
The positions were ready, and so were the armed fighters. In the empty rooms, abandoned by their tenants, scattered articles were lying about as if after a catastrophe. From these objects, and from the furniture, we would make barricades from behind which we would shoot. The morale in the positions was excellent. It was 7 in the morning. Four hours had elapsed since the posters had appeared; all the ghetto knew what was in store. Germans were not to be seen there, except for those guarding the factories and the Judenrat building. There were still two hours ahead of us. From the staff position on Piotrikovska Street couriers were sent to the ghetto streets to determine what Jews intended to do. Two comrades were sent to Polna Street, where the firefighting station was situated. They would order the firemen to go home, and not to dare extinguish any fires in the factories. Parts would be taken out of their trucks, so they would not be able to move them. And, finally, gasoline had to be brought from the station.
Not half an hour had passed when the couriers returned with terrible news: Masses were streaming to Yuroviecka with all their belongings. Unbelievable! What had happened? Were they going willingly? It was still only 7:30; why were they in such a hurry to die? Shameful news came from the firemen: They did not even want to hear about leaving their station and abandoning it to the crazy young people. They would not sabotage their machines, and would not supply any gasoline. We had been disappointed by the firemen, by the men who were not afraid to climb steep walls, who could make fun of everything. They were afraid of the Germans. We would have to include their station in the sabotage that would begin precisely at 9 o’clock.
The situation in the streets was even worse. It was 8 o’clock. Our couriers were scattered throughout the ghetto, holding meetings in the lager courts, explaining and persuading: “Jews, don’t go willingly. This is not an evacuation to Lublin. The Germans are lying as usual. Going out of the ghetto means dying in the gas chambers. Don’t go! Hide, then fight with anything you can find!” Comrades ran after the groups of Jews but the wave was streaming, flowing seemingly without end. Jews loaded down with feather beds, pillows, dressed in winter coats, one dragging a warm fur (now he would no longer fear; he had dragged it through all the hells of the searches and now it was hard for him to leave it). Children crying, getting lost in the confusion and again finding their parents. A child’s carriage, its wheels sagging under the weight of the load piled upon it, and a child rocking on top. Save Jewish property! The family marched in the sun, it was easier to die one among many than to struggle and suffer alone. Apparently a swift death was easier than a prolonged torture. Perhaps we had not fully understood the agony of parents looking at their famished children. What use was there in living such a life?
Perhaps it was because of all this that the masses were streaming that morning to their deaths.
In vain our comrades stood at the corners, in vain they closed the three bridges over the Bialka in a futile attempt to turn them back to their homes. They would not listen; they closed their ears to our appeals. The situation was critical. It was 8 o’clock. The staff assembled once again in Piotrokovska. It was clear now that we would remain isolated islands in the desolate ghetto. We had no masses behind us. The Germans in the ghetto were nowhere to be seen. They would take out the transport and we would remain, small groups of fighters bent on suicide. We had been deprived of the public purpose of our struggle. The Germans, prepared by the experience of Warsaw, had hit the mark in their planning. They were succeeding in emptying the urban part of the ghetto, where it was possible to conduct street warfare, where every house could be turned into a bastion. The Jews were being concentrated on and east of Yuroviecka Street. On the suburban side were gardens, empty fields and wooden houses that could serve neither as positions nor as shelter.
The situation was desperate and we had to decide immediately. To stay with our old plan meant giving up the very point of our struggle: to leave those who had been cut off from the fighters and to remain a group committing suicide to maintain its honor.
If we were to change the plan, there was only one way to do it—to go with the masses to the concentration point and arouse them to revolt. That meant giving up the city walls and narrowing the possibilities of street fighting; our forces were not sufficient for open, hand-to-hand combat. Or perhaps—a short battle would enhance the prospects of drawing in all the people? We knew that the new plan was devised more in anger and in a spirit of revolt than on any well thought out strategy. Giving up the original plan meant that we would not direct the activities, and that we would not attack. There were serious considerations and time was running out. It was already a quarter past 8. The choice was difficult.
I suggested that we adopt the new plan. No one was opposed. My proposal was accepted because there was no time left and also perhaps, because no one had the strength to argue. Zerah and Yoshko took it upon themselves to implement it. We still had 35 minutes. What justification could be found for any plan except defending the masses and saving them, organizing and leading them to liberation—and to death with honor?
During those 35 minutes all the positions across Yuroviecka Street were rushed to the other side, where our people were, to the gardens and suburbs.
A second, smaller part of the underground concentrated around Mordechai and Daniel. We had to transfer the weapons we did not want to reveal, before we opened fire. Our fighters began to mingle with the people, loaded down, like them, with bundles, feather beds, pillows and blankets, and in them, the hidden arms—rifles and pistols, grenades and ammunition. Zila, from Grodno, carried a tremendous bundle on her back. She crossed the small bridge where there were great crowds. Everybody wanted to be first. She too pushed ahead, hurried. The arms had to arrive in time. It was a few minutes before 9. The streets were empty. The last of the Jews were hurrying, running, perspiring, carrying their bundles and their children. They didn’t want to be late. They didn’t want to be beaten.
The streets were deserted. Some houses had their doors locked from the outside; some Jews apparently wanted to secure the property they had left behind. A beggar had always sat in that comer and, opposite, a woman used to lean against the wall, her handout, wailing. She wanted charity. She did not plead, she only wailed quietly, her head wrapped in rags, pressed against the wall. Her permanent spot was near the Judenrat building, and the Jewish police regularly drove her away. Now there were no police there, and no wailing beggar woman. The place was empty.
I looked for the last time at the main street and fled back to Bialostochanska. Our positions were being dismantled, one at a time. Now I only had to hurry to the bridge leading from Bialostochanska through the garbage dumps to Yuroviecka. I was the last one, I think. My hands were empty. I had no bundles, not even stockings to cover my bare feet, only worn shoes that I had put on yesterday evening. It seemed to me that I was bringing up the rear of a bloody parade with the ghetto street remaining behind, desolate.
All the fighters had already crossed the bridge. Only some small groups of twos and threes, remained, One was going to the Judenrat (where it seemed that the liquidation staff, headed by Friedl, was located). Another was headed for the factories on Roshanska Street where boots for Nazi soldiers were sewn, with tens of thousands still in the warehouses, and still another to the textile factories on Polna Street and the firefighting station there. The rest of the factories were on the other side of the ghetto, where the crowds were streaming. When there was firing on Fabryehna and Ciepla Streets they were to carry out their sabotage. They were armed mainly with grenades and pistols. They were to approach from the area, throw their grenades at the guards and destroy the machines.
We knew the factory plan well; it was easy to damage the flammable materials to be found in all the factories, the fuel stores and the warehouses. These groups, 10 persons in all, consisted mostly of young girls from all the movements. They were all young, and they all fell in battle. Jews had worked for the benefit of the Nazi front for a long time, and were forced to help join a victory of the enemy of the human race for far too long. Today the factories were still. Today the fire consuming the installations and goods would prevail!
Ruvchik was sent to head and assist all the groups dispatched by the staff to Mordechai’s place, on Ciepla Street. His special task was to direct the activity against the Judenrat building. We wanted to blow up the German command post there.
When Ruvchik crossed the border of the abandoned ghetto, Yuroviecka Street was already filled with Jews. A dense file of SS soldiers appeared along Yuroviecka Street. The way back to the urban part of the ghetto was already closed.
Ruvchik just managed to get by, and disappeared. We did not see him again. We concluded that he met his end from the sounds of the explosions, and the flames rising in that part of the ghetto.
Meanwhile, we had all assembled at 13 Ciepla Street. Here the tenants still remained, looking at us at once fearfully and confidently. The entrance to Mordechai’s room led through the kitchen. The tenants had determined not to leave their apartment. They saw young people coming and going, with the weapons discernible under their clothing. They could see the sentries near the room, and had apparently decided that it was worthwhile staying with these people. When you left the apartment you found yourself in a suburban courtyard behind the house from which you could get to Novogrodska and Hmielna Streets, where there were scattered houses separated by small lots and gardens. On the other side of Novogrodska was the attractive building where Barash and Rabbi Rosman lived. Behind the building were the large, spacious Judenrat vegetable gardens, with a barn and a tall haystack in the middle. On the right was the high ghetto wall and along the wall the small dirt streets of Gorna and Smolna.
I pushed into the crowd, making my way through Ciepla Street. What was I thinking about at that time? I don’t know. I only know that I hurried a great deal, since the last minutes were nearing. Suddenly I saw my mother in the crowd. I wanted to slip by without stopping. I was afraid of the meeting, afraid to see her in the transport. I feared to see her wrinkled face, prematurely old, her gray hair. I was afraid to see her alone. I moved back, cowardly, as if fleeing from a battlefield, but she caught sight of me.
“Chaikele, where are you going?”
I kept still, kissed her on her dry lips, and fled. I never saw her again …
When I reached Ciepla the crowding was eased. In the triangle between Ciepla, Novogrodska and Smolna our comrades of the fighting organization were stirring. Many moved back and forth, the guns obvious under their coats.
They discussed the plan: to break through the fence and to clear a path for the crowd behind us. In the ghetto itself no Germans were to be seen, except for those standing along the length of the far side of Yuroviecka Street, looking toward the ghetto. We tried to estimate the size of their forces but could not get a clear picture. We decided to open the attack without considering the enemy’s strength. There was no alternative; it was the only strategy. We knew that we would be the first to fall; that the vanguard, the attackers, would be under heavy fire and perhaps only a few would break through. The masses were behind us; if the barricade was broken. they would flee by the thousands. More than 20,000 Jews were at the concentration site—dozens would fall, hundreds might succeed; if hundreds fell, thousands might win. We would be the bridge to life for these people. We would make a way for the masses with our guns. Behind the fence was a broad suburb with twisting paths; from there the way was open to the forest.
Two fighters, one of them the Communist Zalman, who had been in a partisan group and had returned to the ghetto, would hide until dark (they were forbidden to enter the battle) and would come out of the ghetto at night to call their group to aid and assemble all those who had fled. Anyone leaving the ghetto alive had his place among the partisans. The staff as a whole voted in favor of the plan. Weapons were distributed, a hundred rifles, in addition to the pistols and grenades. There were many fighters; more than 200 remained unarmed, or only had hand weapons, for self-defense. There was one old machine gun, and it was given to Nahum Abelevich, as we had promised.
He left the room, his face shining. The few automatic guns were distributed. Most of the girls remained unarmed, but they had a different task. The sabotage and incendiary groups were comprised mostly of girls. Others were couriers, and some were nurses. They had small arms. We would have to liquidate the guards and the patrols. Here the girls rebelled and refused to relinquish their roles. The staff, too, did not yield; they were to start the fighting: That was a fast decision. Only Mordechai and Daniel would remain in the room. A chain of runners was set up and the sectors along the fence divided. The division was not difficult; it was done according to cells and sectors. I found myself in the sector which included the Smolna front.
We parted from Mordechai certain that we would see each other again but we never did. Mordechai surprised me in these last moments. His room was orderly—the beds were made, there was a colorful cloth on the table. From a closet against the wall Mordechai took the arms that had been brought from this sector’s stores. His hair was combed, he wore a gray suit, his collar buttoned, and his boots polished. He sat at the table, listening to the runners’ reports. He listened without responding, did not curse; not once did I hear his favorite “holeira.” He heard each one to the end, and briefly gave his order:
“Don’t shoot at the Germans along Yuroviecka Street. If they try to enter our area, and the war sectors, don’t let them. Shoot.”
“Try to look over the roofs of the houses toward the fence. Impossible? Then creep close to the fence and look through a hole. Do this slowly without making a sound.”
Was this Mordechai, the nervous, dynamic, quick-responding Mordechai, so easily enthused? True, his eyes burned, but his movements were deliberate and his answers were direct and clear. Was this the Mordechai whose imagination often ran away with him, whose enthusiasm so often deprived him of his equanimity? This surely was a new Mordechai. This was a commander who knew why he was doing his job.
When I informed him that the members of the staff of the other sector had all decided to go into battle, he replied:
“Right, very right. I was going to suggest that to them, but it was hard. Nu, good luck.”
He no longer looked at us. Mordechai, who, whenever a comrade left on a dangerous mission grew emotional and followed him with ardent glances, Mordechai who was so enthusiastic about people; there was no memory of that Mordechai today. There was only the reality of the liquidation of the remainder of Polish Jewry, of the last ghetto, apparently, and the fact of the approaching battle.
Daniel was quiet as usual. He, too, did not become emotional, and gave his advice deliberately and logically. Mordechai gave orders while looking at Daniel. I saw their glances meeting, and their lips moving in agreement. Daniel was pale and his cheeks were sunken. His face was pleasant even though tuberculosis had wasted it. From Kartuz Bereza, the infamous concentration camp of semifascist Poland, he had come with his tuberculosis to the command table in the ghetto.
This is the last picture, engraved in my memory, of the staff room of the revolt in the Bialystok Ghetto: the small room at 13 Ciepla Street, Mordechai and Daniel at the table covered with a colored cloth, the map of the ghetto spread out before them, the closet open wide, with arms inside.
The two men had only known each other for a few weeks. I stood by the table for a long moment and looked out of the low window. The sun shone through the window. It was hot in the room.
“Didn’t we decide that you would leave the ghetto this morning?” Daniel didn’t raise his eyes from the table. He asked in a whisper, as if seeking not to break the last shared silence.
“I decided not to go. You can’t force me, can you?”
Daniel was silent. I quietly opened the door and left. From behind I could feel their eyes on my back. It seemed to me that it was getting warmer. I unbuttoned my coat and turned toward the position; it was after 9. It would start very soon.
We found a house on Smolna Street, wooden one-story, with an attic, standing at the edge of the Judenrat’s big garden. In front, it faced the fence. The house was empty, belongings were scattered on the unmade beds and on the large family table. There were pillows and feather beds, blankets, and on the table the dishes from yesterday’s meal. The tenants had apparently gone to the transport. Zerah commanded this sector.
Nothing. He caught a glimpse of the railway embankment. No military movement was visible; the embankment hid what was going on behind it. Ten o’clock approached. Suddenly a pillar of fire shot up to the sky, not far from us. That was the signal. We set fire to the haystack, to inform every sector, all positions and sabotage groups scattered through the ghetto. (According to plan, the action was to be concentrated, and sudden.) Immediately afterward we heard explosions from the other side of the ghetto, and columns of fire rose in the distance. We knew that the girls had completed their mission. Where Ruvchik was and what happened at Judenrat we did not know. Fabryehna Street was in flames, and the explosions continued. The canvas factory was burning. Another blast, and the barn was demolished. From the Novogrodska sector shouts of “hurrah” were heard, with distant echoes. “Hurrah,” we all answered. We were breaking out. The fence was in front of us. We shot, and advanced. First there was silence. They weren’t shooting back. Where was the enemy? Where was he hiding? We were at the fence, trying to surmount it.
“Ach, Gott,” we heard a cry right near us. Here they were, hiding along the fence. We heard shooting. They were falling and groaning, not attacking us. They were frightened. “Hu … raaa …” the whole world shook, moved and we were reeling with the power of the guns roaring all along the fence. Suddenly we were under fire. One man lay in his blood. The house went up in flames; the adjoining houses were also burning like matchboxes. The house was no longer a shelter, we had to retreat. We abandoned it and reached the broad parks on Novogrodska Street. In the other sectors, too, our comrades were retreating. Fire was consuming the houses, and we were standing in the open field where the enemy could easily see us. It would be a face-to-face battle.
Now they were shooting from the embankment. They, too, had retreated, firing with heavy weapons. A machine gun began its rat-a-tat of death. Those behind the fence, who had shouted “Ach, Gott!” were using rifles, a sign that they were prepared and were ready for the revolt. Only guards armed with rifles stood along the fence. The machine gun rattled over our heads. We repeatedly attacked, and retreated.
I remember that I shot, fell, arose and ran to the fence, and then retreated with the others. I hit the barbed wire and my feet bled. I was filthy, covered with mud and soot. I shouted “hurrah” with the rest and clung to the ground with the others when the German fire grew heavier. I heard the wounded groaning, and saw a comrade fall near me. His shout was cut off. I can still see Zerah’s coat flapping in the wind; still see Gedalyahu, the air still trembles from his swift movements, his blind running at the head of the attacking unit.
“Hey, chevra, hurrah, forward,” his excited voice still reverberates. Avremele, Yentel, and Sonka and all the young people who ran with us and fell, got up again and though wounded, stormed ahead, Lonchik and Meir and all the rest …
There was sick Leibush; Chaia, the veteran Communist whose hair had turned gray in the struggle; Lilka, swift of movement despite her age, Lilka Malerevich—the last words she said as she stood to my left and ran after me, to advance and to fall, to cling to the ground and again get up and run toward the enemy, still ring in my ears: “Forward, forward, we have nothing to lose,” shouting to me, to the comrades, to the wounded, and perhaps also to the comrade who had fallen to my right.There was a field ahead of us, strewn with bodies. The battle was growing more fierce. The day, too, was getting hotter: The shooting became more intense; a heavy machine gun thundered in the air, silencing the voices of revenge. The garden, Novogrodska and Smolna Streets were strewn with dead bodies. All along the fence they lay. The sun was already high in the sky, the sound of shooting from the ghetto became fainter. There was no ammunition, no heavy machine guns. The gate on Fabryehna Street, closed and unused, was suddenly opened, and a heavy tank crawled towards Ciepla Street. It stopped suddenly; it was apparently hit by a Molotov cocktail.
There were more tanks in front of us.
People from the crowd began to join us. Ordinary people who had not been organized into cells, one woman I recognized. All kinds of derogatory things had been said about her, now she was shouting to the crowd: “Come on, what are you waiting for?” She ran past me, followed by policemen. I recognized them, Gedalyahu’s colleagues, the best of them. They had always obeyed him and he had been helped by them. Factory workers, their faces furrowed with wrinkles, their clothes tattered; not many joined us, only a few dozen, but it was encouraging. Once again we attempted to break through the Germans’ armed chain. Perhaps a way could be opened for the masses lying on their bundles in nearby Yuroviecka Street.
A plane droned overhead. It flew low, made a number of turns and disappeared. It came back, strafing us in the fields and the streets. The Germans at the embankment did not shoot even once at the masses nearby. Was it a trick? Certainly. Two columns of SS drew near, one after the other, carefully, stealthily, one from Ciepla, the other from the corner of Ciepla and Yuroviecka. Two columns, with their automatic weapons. Until now Germans had not been seen in the area of the fighting ghetto. The tanks had not succeeded. Now they sent in SS infantry. We shot at them, but the battlefield was narrowing. Many of them fell, but the column was long; they moved ahead and fired, came closer and kept firing. They came toward me from the direction of Yuroviecka-Smolna, closing the route between the masses and us. They surrounded us with blasts of fire. The SS ordered the people to lie down. We heard the commands coming from Yuroviecka Street.
“Liegen! Don’t raise your heads! We will shoot all resisters, be careful.”
They meant to isolate us from the crowds. They were protecting them from the bullets, and were aiming at the reckless rebels.
“Hey, braves, attack once more!”
We were isolated. Our ammunition was gone, there were many victims. The large groups would no longer come after us; we would not be able to draw them to the forests to join the struggle for freedom for the Jew. We had killed Germans, had fought, had become a bridge of bodies, but the masses would not break out. The Germans had used heavy arms for the revolt. The people would not dare break through after us. They were too weak.
The columns came closer and the encirclement was almost complete. Then the order came to try to break through the approaching columns and join the groups on Gorna Street. Our single machine gunner was ordered to cover the retreat. I moved, and reached the house. Behind me I heard shooting. I pressed against the wall and felt a wave of hot air, and then heard a whistle. Plaster fell at my feet. A bullet hit the wall just a few centimeters away from me.
The house was built of stone and brick, a strong building. Its other side faced Yuroviecka Street. The pistol in my hand was no longer of any use; my grenades and ammunition had run out. I had my worn coat on my back and my summer shoes on my feet. Feet and face were dirty with blood and mud, my mouth burned and my heart beat strongly. Behind me were the battlefield, the Germans and the comrades, many of whom apparently would also break through the encirclement. Before the frightened people lying on their bundles on Yuroviecka Street. Now Ciepla, too, was closed off by the second column. There was no longer any passage to Gorna. In the distance, isolated shooting could still be heard from the sides of the battlefield, Smolna and Ciepla. Our comrades whose shooting it was not difficult to distinguish, had evidently not managed to break out of the trap, and were firing their last bullets at the enemy. I tried to steal into Ciepla Street, to get to Gorna but did not succeed. I had lost my group, my comrades, and before me was only the transport. It was already between 3 and 4 in the afternoon. I stood in the crowd searching for comrades; perhaps someone else had also come here instead of getting to Gorna Street. It was hard to search; people stood and sat huddled together. Faint echoes of isolated shooting still reached my ears, but it was clear: The battle was over.
Do not weep over the graves of heroes; do not weep and do not feel pity. It is not pity you are asked to give the world but deeds that will free mankind from the nightmare of oppression and enslavement.
Look. Here is the grave. Here the last of the rebels was buried. They were 71 in number. Here they were shot, and here they fell, proud and with honor. Here, in this rubbish heap, they were buried. Look at the remains of their faces, at their fingers, that have not yet decayed. No, no, don’t cry! Look at the clenched fists; they do not arouse pity. Death with a clenched fist, with your last few bullets in your pocket, is not so tragic. In the pockets of their coats, eaten by the vermin, you will find the last bullets they left for themselves. That was a sign they were not so wretched in their dying.
In 1948, the bodies of the rebels were taken out of the rubbish heap and buried in the graveyard on Zabie Street, the ghetto cemetery. On the 16th of August, 1948, on the fifth anniversary of the revolt, a monument was set up over the grave of the last 71 rebels, the last among the fighters, the last to fall. They held out for a whole week against the automatic fire of the Germans, covering every bit of ground in the ghetto. For a whole week they battled under the ground, and fought on. Today you can visit their grave and see the monument standing proudly. Five years after they fell, their remains were taken out of the grave underneath the garbage heap, the remains of their clothing and bodies. The sight of the torn and vermin-eaten limbs brought to Jewish burial was frightful. But no one wept over their grave. Readers, do not weep either! But do not close your hearts and your ears. Listen to the voices rising from the grave. See and remember, but don’t weep …
I was in the transport, it suddenly occurred to me. Was I going to go with the transport? In all my activity in the underground I had fought against going there like sheep to the slaughter … Every day and night, I told myself and others: “Don’t allow them to take us!” I searched among the crowd. Except for the black, slowly moving mass, I saw nothing on Yuroviecka Street, the bright sun was beating down on the black mass.
Excerpted from The Underground Army: Fighters of the Bialystok Ghetto, by Haika Grossman. Reprinted with permission of Moreshet Publishing House, Israel. Read the second of two excerpts commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Bialystok Ghetto uprising tomorrow in Tablet.
Haika Grossman (1919-1996) was a member of the Israeli Knesset from 1969-1981, and 1984-1988. A Zionist leader in Europe, a partisan, and a participant in the ghetto uprisings in Poland and Lithuania, she helped organize the underground movement in the Białystok Ghetto.