It’s been hard for me to focus on the meaning of this year’s geto fayerung. Like many of you, I’ve been brought up short by events of the last few months, by our country’s leaders’ unapologetic meanness, their lack of compassion. Amidst the attacks on immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans and Latinos, women, the LGBT community, African-Americans, Native Americans, we’ve also witnessed an aggressive anti-Semitism of vandalized Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats to Jewish centers, and graffiti with swastikas. Perhaps even more disturbing has been the almost casual anti-Semitism as “slips of the tongue” or “gaffes”: the omission of Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day, references to “Holocaust centers,” and the reaffirmation of German Jews as “other” and non-Germans. I confess to feeling myself drifting toward a panic that I’d assumed had been buried and gone years ago.
But it’s a panic that I want to rebury. I want to be clear with myself that despite the resemblances of 2017 and the 1930s in Europe, they are not the same. I am not wearing a yellow star.
To enforce this difference in my mind, I decided to return to the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April and May 1943 and I’d like to pass on what I rediscovered about the aftermath of the resistance which began 74 years ago this month.
As most of you know, after learning of plans to liquidate the entire population of the Ghetto, the ZOB, the Jewish Fighters Organization of Warsaw Ghetto consisting of various Jewish political parties, decided that on April 19, 1943, it would begin to fight and resist the German occupiers, a resistance which they knew they could never win. By that time, the population of the Ghetto had been reduced from over 400,000 to fewer than 60,000—reduced by hunger, disease, direct murder in the ghetto, and transports to Treblinka. Poorly equipped, they still managed to continue the battle for weeks. On May 8, the Germans surrounded Mila 18, the headquarters of the ZOB. Many were gassed. Many committed suicide, including Commander Mordecai Anilewicz. But it was still not over. Two days later, the Bundist activist and organizer Bernard Goldstein states in The Stars Bear Witness:
On May 10 a group of fighters led by Abrasha Blum, Marek Edelman and Zivia Lubetkin made their way through the sewers to Prosta Street. With the help of guides they negotiated the barbed- wire obstructions and the booby traps.
There were, miraculously, a small number of survivors—a few—from the uprising itself; some became partisans, others became part of the Jewish population hidden and passing on the Aryan side among the Poles in Warsaw. Vladka Meed who had been working as a Bundist courier for the Jewish underground and, until the uprising, had been crossing in and out of the ghetto, recorded how she and other Bundist continued their resistance. In On Both Sides of the Wall, she describes one meeting which took place just about five months after the complete liquidation of the ghetto, sometime probably in October:
in the autumn of 1943, a small group of us [members of the Bund and Zukunft ] gathered for a symbolic celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the Bund. At a time when all that had been our lives had been destroyed, this small gathering was no more than a remembrance of yesterday, of the pulsating Jewish labor movement in which we, its survivors had been raised. And although the movement and the life belonged to the past, it comforted us a little to recall it now. There were nine of us there at the meeting including Celek [Jacok Celemenski], Benjamin [Meed], Chaim [Bolek] Ellenbogen, Zygmunt Igla, Inka Schweiger, and Bronka Feinmesser. We sat around a table decorated with flowers at Miodowa 24, one night, with curtains drawn. For some time we faced each other without being able to speak; it was only after Celek spoke of the reason for our gathering that our spirits rose a bit. Little by little, almost in whispers, we recalled the days when such celebrations had been held in vast halls before huge audiences of workers with appropriate songs, music, speeches, and fluttering flags. Now all that remained was pain and the bitter realization of a world that accepted the inhumanity in which we lived.
What I find remarkable in this event is these survivors’ refusal to cut themselves off from the past. For those Jews who were still alive after the uprising, who were passing in what was now an entirely Aryan Warsaw, who everyday were reminded by the visible rubble that was once the Ghetto of the power and determination of the Germans to annihilate the Jewish people—for them the struggle continued. And as Vladka’s description of their meeting to mark the 46th anniversary of the founding of the Bund shows, this struggle was not only physical, but spiritual; surrounded by deadening indifference, they forced themselves to hold on to the ideals and passions of their earlier life. They simply refused to turn their back on the past and marked the date with flowers on their table. I was astonished when I reread this passage: their insistence on remembering, no matter how painful, their insistence on retaining their historical Bundist roots.
Bernard gives us more details about these Bundists’ awareness that the underground needed to continue functioning. He writes:
After the ghetto had been destroyed, we faced one urgent task: organizing help for those who were left on the Aryan side, providing them with apartments, hiding places, documents and food….
Around Warsaw, hiding in the woods and in the open countryside were possibly twenty thousand uprooted homeless wanderers. We estimated that the Bund alone was helping about three thousand of them. Until the outbreak of the Warsaw [Polish] uprising the organized help of all Jewish groups and organizations had reached about eight or nine thousand.
Clearly there was work to be done and so, toward the end of 1943, Bernard reports:
At 24 Zhuravia [Street] in a large six-room apartment we set up headquarters for our party secretariat. There we kept our most important documents and our treasury. To protect this extremely important material, Chaim Ellenbogen, master craftsman… constructed a wonderful hiding place in the floor. … Our vault was so carefully and expertly made that even a close examination of the floor would not reveal the secret of the removable boards
Bernard also describes the importance of their contact with American Jews. He writes:
I remember the great joy in July 1944 when the Polish government forwarded to us a microfilm which contained articles from Unser Tsait, the New York Bund magazine. ...
Our joy was boundless. The microfilm was a direct, almost personal greeting from our comrades in America. We felt bound to them across the years of blood and suffering which divided us. Using a photographic enlarger, we transcribed all the documents, duplicated them on our machine, and distributed them among the comrades in hiding places. This contact with America did much to raise our morale. It reminded us that we had friends. It gave us the feeling that if this wonderful miracle of communication could be accomplished, all was not yet lost.
At the same time that the Polish underground is readying itself for the Warsaw Polish Uprising in August 1944, the Jewish underground provides support, but also continues its contacts with Jews hidden in and around Warsaw including Jewish partisans in the surrounding forests. Bernard records:
Among the comrades whom we had brought to Warsaw from the forests shortly before the [Polish] uprising were Hanna Krishtal and Jan Bilak. Hanna’s husband Gabrish Frishdorf, had been one of the heroes of the last ghetto battle. He had been killed in a gun battle in the Wishkov Forest a few months before the Warsaw [Polish] uprising. Hanna was a slight twenty-two-year-old-girl. She was at this time in her ninth month of pregnancy.
Bernard describes how very soon Hanna, who had survived the Ghetto revolt, is caught by the Germans during the Polish Uprising. Nine month’s pregnant she still manages to escape and goes into labor. Bernard eventually finds her a hiding place with other Jews, a cellar where, in earshot of the fighting outside, she gives birth to a baby boy, Gabrish, named after his father.
In a story that was legendary among those I grew up with, Bernard confessed that a week after the birth, he began to fear the baby might possibly give away the presence of the group and endanger Hanna herself. Bernard writes:
I looked down at the shriveled little bundle in my hands. Surely it was condemned to death anyhow. While it lived it was a burden which might drag its mother to her death. A little pressure from my fingers and all would be over.
Before me I seemed to see Gabrish Frishdorf, hero of the ghetto, rotting in an unknown grave [in the Wishkov Forest]. All that was left of him was this little flicker of life.
My fingers felt stiff. I laid the baby gently back on its little bed of rags.
The Bundists’ commitment to guarding what Bernard calls the “little flicker of life” that the children of comrades represented is another remarkable narrative of this time. I personally know of five child survivors who owed their lives to the devotion and determination not only of their parents but also of their parents’ comrades—Gabi Frishdorf, the twins Nelly and Wlodka Blitt, Elzunia Frydrich and myself. My father Michal Klepfisz, Bernard Goldstein, Vladka Meed, Marek Edelman, Helena Shefner, Bolek [Chaim] Ellenbogen, his sister Halinka (Perl) Ellenbogen—all were instrumental at one point or another in keeping the five us alive—and these are only the people that I can name—I know there were others. They took on the responsibility of ensuring our safety while their own lives were constantly in danger.
For example Halinka got a job and watched over me on the Aryan side in the Catholic orphanage where I’d been hidden. Marek, Halinka and Vladka moved Elzunia numerous times when each hiding place became dangerous. My father and Marek smuggled Nelly and Wlodka out of the ghetto and then later Vladka moved them when people became suspicious. Bernard made sure that Hanna delivered her baby in safe hiding. And, after the Polish Uprising, Bolek brought my mother and me food somewhere outside of Warsaw after Helena Shefner had found us, isolated, ill and starving. And finally at the end of the war, Marek paid off Poles who refused to release Elzunia. He insisted on claiming her though both her parents were dead.
I want to be precise in my memories. All these people endangered themselves in order to keep us children safe. Both Vladka and Bernard describe how comrades continued to protect us (and, of course, so many others—strangers, children and adults) even when they themselves were being betrayed by Poles and evicted from hiding places, when they themselves had no place to sleep at night, when they grieved after hearing of a comrade suddenly arrested and shot, or when another comrade became desperate because she was being blackmailed by a landlord or a former classmate.
I also want to remember that children were probably some of the most difficult and potentially dangerous people to hide. They were hard to control. They might cry. They might suddenly laugh. They might say something that was revealing because they were angry or frightened or because they didn’t fully understand what was happening around them and how dangerous their words might be for them and for those who were trying to help them. I want to remember that Vladka, Halinka, Marek, Bolek—had barely reached their twenties when they were saving us. And I also want to remember that there was no blood connection between these incredibly brave, committed souls and the five children I have named and all those others whom they helped.
Still, there was obviously a bond between them and us—a bond rooted in their life with their comrades before the war—a bond rooted in their memories of Tsukunft, Skif, Morgnshtern, Medem Sanatorium and, of course, the overarching organization, the Jewish Labor Bund. They were determined that we children should never forget who we are or remain ignorant of the Jewish life of our parents. We are the ones to whom they envisioned they would pass on their legacy.
It’s sometimes hard to remember these details of survival under such unspeakable circumstances. But it’s important for me to remind myself of them and to see the past clearly when I’m evaluating the present. The stories of these people are simply inspirational.
I want to end today with the document that made an enormous impression on me from the first time I heard it as a child at the April 19th geto akademyes held in the Hunter College auditorium in the 1950s in New York City. This was a time when that auditorium overflowed with survivors, when the memories of the war and the suffering it caused was close and raw. It is a document that not only affirms our responsibility to each other as Jews, but one which also points to the responsibility of all people to each other. It is a document that insists that human beings can do better, will do better.
Far from the Warsaw Ghetto in London during 1942 and the early months of 1943, Arthur Shmuel Zygielbojm, the Bund representative to the Polish government-in-exile had tried to mobilize help for the Jewish resistance and for the coming Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. When he heard about the fierce battles and then about the Ghetto’s final liquidation, he committed suicide on May 12, 1943. He left behind a letter of explanation addressing the Polish government in exile and its leaders. Though painfully aware of the silent indifference, the betrayal of Poles and of the world, Shmuel Zygielbojm still looked into the future and was able to envision the possibility of a different world. I want to read the last half of his extraordinary document:
I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.
By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.
I know that there is no great value to the life of a man, especially today. But since I did not succeed in achieving it in my lifetime, perhaps I shall be able by my death to contribute to the arousing from lethargy of those who could and must act in order that even now, perhaps at the last moment, the handful of Polish Jews who are still alive can be saved from certain destruction.
My life belongs to the Jewish people of Poland, and therefore I hand it over to them now. I yearn that the remnant that has remained of the millions of Polish Jews may live to see liberation together with the Polish masses, and that it shall be permitted to breathe freely in Poland and in a world of freedom and socialistic justice, in compensation for the inhuman suffering and torture inflicted on them. And I believe that such a Poland will arise and such a world will come about. I am certain that the President and the Prime Minister will send out these words of mine to all those to whom they are addressed, and that the Polish Government will embark immediately on diplomatic action and explanation of the situation, in order to save the living remnant of the Polish Jews from destruction.
I take leave of you with greetings, from everybody, and from everything that was dear to me and that I loved.
Irena Klepfisz is a child survivor who grew up in a community of survivors. For the past 22 years, she has taught Jewish women’s studies at Barnard College.