Last month, some of the Tablet staff had the honor of attending the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the related commemorations throughout the city. At the event itself, we had the chance to hear Simha Rotem, one of the three surviving members of the ghetto fighters, deliver a speech in which he spoke not just of the experience of the uprising but the audacity of making the decision to fight at all.
“The thought of waging an uprising was dictated by our determination. We wanted to choose the kind of death we would die,” he said.
It’s a pretty simple human aspiration to die on one’s own terms, cruelly elusive given its simplicity. 70 years later, it’s being reported that the ranks of the remaining fighters has narrowed further with the death of Boruch Spiegel, who passed away at age 93 earlier this month. Here’s part of his story.
In the early morning of April 19, the eve of Passover, a German force, equipped with tanks and artillery, tried again, surrounding the ghetto walls. Mr. Spiegel was on guard duty and, according to his son-in-law, Eugene Orenstein, a retired professor of Jewish history at McGill University, gave the signal to launch the uprising. The scattered ZOB fighters, joined by a right-wing Zionist counterpart, peppered the Germans from attics and underground bunkers, sending the Germans into retreat once more. Changing tactics, the Germans began using flamethrowers to burn down the ghetto house by house and smoke out those in hiding. On May 8, ZOB’s headquarters, at 18 Mila Street, was destroyed. The group’s commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, is believed to have taken his own life, but scattered resistance continued for several more weeks in what was now rubble.
By then, Mr. Spiegel and 60 or so other fighters had spirited their way out of the ghetto through sewers. One was Chaike Belchatowska, whom he would marry. They joined up with Polish partisans in a forest.
“He was very modest, a reluctant hero,” his son Julius said. “He was given an opportunity and he took it. I don’t think he was braver or more resourceful than anyone else.”
Spiegel and his wife would return to Warsaw and joining in the Polish Uprising of 1944, their second fight against the Nazis.
In reprisal, the Germans destroyed 90 per cent of the city, shot many and selected others for slave labour in Germany. Boruch and Chaika and other Jews chose to hide out in a bunker in the ghetto ruins, Orenstein noted, recalling one of their favourite anecdotes.
“There was a woman with a young boy, 12 or 13, and no one wanted to help them because they were afraid of the burden.
“Boruch insisted, saying: ‘I’m not going to allow another Jewish boy to die. This boy stays with us’.”
The group remained buried in the bunker unaware the city had been liberated on Jan. 17, 1945. When a Bundist comrade and friends who knew about the hideout began digging, those underground feared the worst.
“They thought it was the Gestapo and started digging deeper. … Finally, the woman they had sheltered ventured out one night and saw people singing in the streets and dancing. She verified the fact the Germans had gone and they all came out after being buried underground for a week.”
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.