Chapter 21




As soon as the Nazis invaded Poland, the Jews were doomed. Hitler intended that the conquest of Poland would provide 'lebensraum' for German colonists. Some Poles, the racially better stock, would be forcibly assimilated to the German nation, the rest would be ruthlessly exploited as slave labourers. Given these radical goals for the Slav population, it was obvious that there could be no place for the Jews in the expanded Reich. The Nazis permitted, and even forcibly encouraged, Jewish emigration from Germany and Austria until late in 1941, but from the beginning emigration from Poland was reduced to a trickle in order that the flow from Greater Germany would not be obstructed. At first the occupiers allowed American Jews to send in food packages, but that was only because Hitler needed time to organise the new territory and conduct the war.


The Working Class does not Capitulate


Within days of the German invasion the Polish government declared Warsaw an open city, and ordered all able-bodied men to retreat to a new line on the River Bug. The Bund's central committee considered whether it would be better for the Jews to fight to the end in Warsaw rather than see their families fall to Hitler, but they doubted that the Jews would follow them in resisting, nor would the Poles tolerate their bringing ruin to the city; thus they decided to fall back with the army. They appointed a skeleton committee to remain, and ordered all other party members to follow the military eastward. Alexander Erlich has explained their position:


It must sound naive, because we now know that Stalin was about to invade from the East, but we thought the lines would stabilize. We felt certain we would be more effective even with a beleaguered army than we could ever be in territory held by the Germans.


When the Bund Committee drew near the Bug, they heard that the evacuation order had been countermanded. Mieczyslaw Niedzialkowski and Zygmunt Zaremba of the PPS had convinced General Tshuma, the military commandant, that it was psychologically crucial for the future resistance movement that Poland's capital should not fall without a fight. The Bund instructed two of its senior leaders, Victor Alter and Bernard Goldstein, to return to Warsaw. The road back was hopelessly clogged, and they decided to head south and then try to approach Warsaw again from that position. They got as far as Lublin, where they split up. Alter never succeeded, but Goldstein did reach Warsaw on 3 October. By then the city had fallen, but only after a determined defence by troops from the surrounding area and worker battalions organised by the PPS and the Bund.


The Zionist Leadership Disperses


Most of the prominent Zionist leaders left Warsaw when the army evacuated the city but, unlike the Bundists, none returned when they heard that the capital was to be held. After the Soviets crossed the border, they either escaped into Romania or fled northward to Vilna, which they heard had been handed over to Lithuania by the Soviets. Among the refugees were Moshe Sneh, the President of the Polish Zionist Organisation, Menachem Begin, then the leader of Polish Betar, and his friends Nathan Yalin-Mor and Israel Scheib (Eldad). Sneh went to Palestine and was to command the Haganah from 1941 to 1946. Begin was eventually arrested in Lithuania by the Russians and, after an ordeal in Stalin's camps in Siberia, he was released when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. He left the USSR as a soldier in a Polish army-in-exile and arrived in Palestine in 1942; later he headed the Irgun in the 1944 revolt against Britain. Nathan Yalin-Mor and Israel Scheib (Eldad) later rose to become two of the three commanders of the 'Stern Gang', a group which had split from the Irgun. Of the Zionists only the youth of Hashomer and HeChalutz sent organisers back into the Polish maelstrom. The others sought, and some obtained, Palestine certificates and left the carnage of Europe.

Did they abandon their people to push on to Palestine? With Begin the record is clear. He told an interviewer, in 1977:


With a group of friends, we reached Lvov [Lemberg] in a desperate and vain effort to try to cross the border and try to reach Eretz Yisroel --but we failed. At this point, we heard that Vilna would be made the capital of an independent Republic of Lithuania by the Russians.


When Begin was arrested, in 1940, he was intending to continue on his journey to Palestine and he had no plans to return to Poland. In his book, White Nights, he wrote that he told his Russian jailors in Vilna's Lukishki Prison that:


I had received a laissez-passer from Kovno for my wife and myself. and also visas for Palestine. We were on the point of leaving, and it is only my arrest that prevented me from doing so.


A few pages later he added: 'We were about to leave . . . but we had to surrender our places to a friend.'

Two of his most recent biographers, fellow Revisionists Lester Eckman and Gertrude Hirschler, have recorded that he was condemned by his movement for his flight, but they claim he thought of returning:


he received a letter from Palestine criticizing him for having fled from the Polish capital when other Jews were stranded there. As captain of Betar, the letter stated, he should have been the last to abandon the sinking ship. Begin was torn by feelings of guilt; it took strenuous efforts on the part of his comrades to keep him from this impulsive act, which probably would have cost him his life.


Begin does not refer to this in White Nights, but explains that 'there is no doubt that I would have been one of the flrst to be executed had the Germans caught me in Warsaw'. In fact there was no special persecution against Zionists in general or Revisionists in particular in Warsaw or anywhere else. On the contrary, even as late as 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Germans appointed Josef Glazman, the head of the Lithuanian Betar, as the inspector of the Jewish police in the Vilna ghetto. Begin wanted to go to Palestine because he had been the one at the 1938 Betar Congress who had shouted the loudest for its immediate conquest. An interesting postscript to this emerged on 2 March 1982, during a debate in the Israeli Parliament. Begin solemnly asked: 'How many people in Parliament are there who had to wear the Star of David? I am one.'

Begin fled from the Nazis and there were no yellow stars in Lithuania when he was there as a refugee.


The Judenrats


Upon their arrival in Warsaw the Germans found Adam Czerniakow, a Zionist and President of the Association of Jewish Artisans, as the head of the rump of the Jewish community organisation and they ordered him to set up a Judenrat (Jewish Council). In Lodz, Poland's second city, Chaim Rumkowski, also a minor Zionist politician, was similarly designated. They were not, in any way, authorised representatives of the Zionist movement, and both were insignificant figures prior to the war. Not all the councils were headed by Zionists; some were headed by assimilationalist intellectuals or rabbis and even, in one city (Piotrkow), by a Bundist. However, more Zionists were chosen for membership or leadership of the puppet councils than all the Agudists, Bundists and Communists combined. The Nazis most despised the pious Hasids of the Aguda, and they knew the Bundists and the Communists would never act as their tools. By 1939 the Nazis had a number of dealings with the Zionists in Germany and also in Austria and Czechoslovakia, and they knew that they would find little resistance in their ranks.

The vacuum of experienced Zionist leadership was augmented by the fact that for some months the Nazis permitted certificate-holders to leave Poland for Palestine. The WZO used the opportunity to pull out more of the local leadership, including Apolinary Hartglas, who had preceded Sneh as head of the Zionist Organisation. In his Diary Czerniakow told how he had been offered one of the certificates and how he had contemptuously refused to abandon his post.In February 1940 he recorded how he raged at one man who left when he came to pay his final farewells:


You louse, I will not forget you, you louse, how you pretended to act as a leader and are now running away with the others like you, leaving the masses in this horrid situation.


Yisrael Gutman, one of the scholars at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Institute, has written on this subject.


It is true that some of the leaders had good reason to fear for their personal safety in a country which had fallen to the Nazis. At the same time there was in the departure of these leaders an element of panic, which was not counterbalanced by an attempt to concern themselves with their replacement and the continuation of their former activities by others... Those left behind were mostly second or third rank leaders, who were not always capable of tackling the acute problems of the times, and they also lacked vital liaison contacts with the Polish public and its leadership. The leaders who remained included some who held aloof from underground activity and tried to obliterate traces of their past.


Some scholars have shown that not all leaders or members of the Jewish Councils collaborated, but the moral atmosphere within them was extremely corrupting. Bernard Goldstein, in his memoir The Stars Bear Witness, described the Warsaw Council in the early months before the establishment of the ghetto; the council, in order to mitigate the terror of the press gangs, provided the Germans with labour battalions. They set up a subpoena system. Everyone was supposed to serve in rotation, but:


the operation very quickly became corrupt... rich Jews paid fees running into thousands of zlotys to be freed from forced labor. The Judenrat collected such fees in great quantity, and sent poor men to the working battalions in place of the wealthy.


By no means every branch of the council apparatus was corrupt. They applied themselves briskly to education and social welfare, but few councils did anything to engender a spirit of resistance. Isaiah Trunk, one of the most careful students of the Judenrats, succinctly summed them up.


I explicitly said that most of the Judenrats had a negative approach to the matter of resistance... In the eastern regions the geographical proximity to partisan bases offered possibilities of rescue, and this to a certain extent influenced the attitude of the Judenrats... where there was no possibility of rescue through the partisans, the attitude of the great majority of the Judenrats toward the resistance was absolutely negative.


There were some outright collaborators, like Avraham Gancwajch in Warsaw. At one time a 'right' Labour Zionist, he headed the '13', So-called after their headquarters at 13 Leszno Street. Their job was to catch smugglers, spy on the Judenrat and generally ferret out intelligence for the Gestapo. In Vilna, Jacob Gens, a Revisionist, chief of the ghetto police and de facto head of the ghetto, certainly collaborated. When the Nazis heard about a resistance movement in the ghetto, Gens tricked its leader, the Communist Itzik Wittenberg, into coming to his office. Gens then had him arrested by Lithuanian policemen. The General Zionist Chaim Rumkowski of Lodz ran his ghetto in singular style and 'King Chaim', as his subjects referred to him, put his portrait on the ghetto postage. Not all were as debased as these. Czerniakow cooperated with the Nazis and opposed resistance, but during the great 'aktion' in July 1942, when the Germans took 300,000 Jews, he committed suicide rather than co-operate further. Even Rumkowski insisted on going to his death with his ghetto, when the Nazis made it clear that not even collaboration would lead to the survival of a 'core' of his charges. In their minds they were justified in what they were doing, because they thought that only by abject co-operation could a few Jews survive. However, they were deluded; the fate of individual ghettos, and even of individual councils, was determined in almost every case either by Nazi whim or regional policy and not by whether a ghetto had been docile.


'The Parties haven't any Right to Give Us Orders'


All Jewish resistance has to be seen in the context of Nazi policy towards the Poles. Hitler never sought a Polish Quisling; the country was to be ruled by terror. From the beginning thousands were executed in collective punishments for any act of resistance. PPS members, exofficers, many priests and academics, many of these likely to be believers in solidarity with the Jews, were murdered or sent to concentration camps. At the same time the Nazis sought to involve the Polish masses in the persecution of the Jews through material rewards, but there were always those who were prepared to help the Jews. The most important group was the PPS, which had stolen every type of official stamp and forged Aryan papers for some of its Bundist comrades. The Revisionists maintained contact with elements in the Polish military. Thousands of Poles hid Jews at the risk of certain death, if they were caught.

The most important advantage the Germans had was the absence of guns in the hands of the people, as the Colonels had always ensured that weapons were kept out of civilian reach. The PPS and the Bund had never developed their militias beyond occasional target shooting, and were now to pay the penalty. Effectively the only guns available were those hidden by the retreating army and these were now in the custody of the Armia Krajowa (AK), the Home Army, which took its orders from the government-in-exile in London. Under British pressure the exiles had to include token representation from both the PPS and the Bund, but control of the AK remained with the anti-Semites and their allies. They were loath to arm the people for fear that, after the Germans were driven out, the workers and peasants would turn the weapons against the rich; they developed the strategic doctrine that the time to strike was when the Germans were suffering defeat on the battlefield. They insisted that premature action would serve no purpose and just bring down Nazi wrath on the people. Naturally this meant that aid to the Jews was always ill-timed. The PPS, having no weapons of its own, felt obliged to join the AK, but they were never able to obtain sufficient weapons to assist the Jews independently in any serious way.

Those Jews who had resisted pre-war Polish anti-Semitism were the first to resist the Nazis. Those who had done nothing continued to do nothing. Czerniakow insisted that the Bund provide one member of the Warsaw Judenrat. The Bundists knew from the start that the council could only be a tool of the Germans, but felt obliged to agree and nominated Shmuel Zygelboym. Zygelboym had been the party leader in Lodz and had fled to Warsaw in the hope of continuing to fight after the Polish Army had withdrawn from his city. He then helped to mobilise the remnants of the Warsaw Bund alongside the PPS.

Zygelboym had reluctantly agreed to the setting up of a forced labour roster as preferable to arbitrary seizures by press gangs, but in October 1939, when the Judenrat was ordered to organise a ghetto, he would no go further. He told the council:


I feel I would not have the right to live if... the ghetto should be established and my head remained unscathed... I recognise that the chairman has an obligation to report this to the Gestapo, and I know the consequences this can have for me personally.


The council feared that Zygelboym's stance would discredit them among the Jews if they meekly accepted the Nazi order, and they rescinded their initial decision to comply. Thousands of Jews arrived outside their headquarters to get further information, and Zygelboym used the occasion to speak. He told them to remain in their homes and make the Germans take them by force. The Nazis ordered him to report to the police the next day. The Bund understood this to be a death sentence and smuggled him out of the country; however, his action did succeed in having the order to establish a ghetto temporarily cancelled.

The last gallant battle of the Bund took place just before Easter 1940. A Polish hoodlum attacked an old Jew and began to tear his beard out of his face. A Bundist saw the incident and beat the Pole. The Nazis caught the Bundist and shot him the next day. Polish pogromists started raiding Jewish neighbourhoods as the Germans stood by. They wanted the raids to continue to prove that the Polish people supported them in their anti-Jewish policy. The assaults on the Jews far exceeded anything the Naras had ever mounted in independent Poland; the Bund felt it had no choice but to risk the wrath of the Nazis and went out to fight. To make sure no Polish deaths would be used as a pretext for further forays, no knives or guns were used; only brass knuckles and iron pipes. Hundreds of Jews, and PPS members in the Wola district, fought the pogromists over the next two days, until finally the Polish police broke up the street war. The Nazis did not interfere. They had taken their propaganda pictures and for the moment they chose not to punish the Jews for their action. This episode marked the end of the leadership of the Bund within Polish Jewry.

Within a few months of the German occupation the leaders of the Hashomer and HeChalutz Zionist youth groups, who had also fled to Lithuania, sent representatives back into Poland, but not with any idea of organising a rising. They saw their duty as suffering with the people in their duress and in trying to maintain morale through maintaining high moral standards. The first military actions by a Zionist group came from Swit (Dawn), a Revisionist veterans, grouping. They had ties to the Korpus Bezpieczenstwa (KB or Security Corps), a small Polish unit then loosely connected with the AK, and as early as 1940 the KB sent several Jews, among them a number of physicians, into the area between the Rivers Bug and the San, where they worked with elements of the AK. However, neither Swit nor the KB had any plans for largescale resistance or escape from the ghettos.

Serious consideration of armed Jewish resistance only began after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. From the onset the Nazis abandoned all restraints in their activities in the Soviet Union. Einsatzgruppen (Special Duty Units) started systematically slaughtering Jews and by October 1941, four months after the invasion, over 250,000 Jews had been killed in mass executions in White Russia and the Baltic states. By December 1941 the first reports of gassings on Polish soil, at Chelmno, convinced the youth movements, the Bund, the Revisionists and the Communists that they had to assemble some military groups, but the bulk of the surviving leaders of the mainline WZO parties either did not believe that what had happened elsewhere would happen in Warsaw or else they were convinced that nothing could be done. Yitzhak Zuckerman, a founder of the Jewish Fighting Organisation (JFO) which united the WZO's forces with the Bund and the Communists, and later a major historian of the Warsaw rising, has put it baldly: 'The Jewish Fighting Organisation arose without the parties and against the wish of the parties.' After the war some of the writings of Hersz Berlinksi, of the 'left' Poale Zion, were posthumously published. He told of an October 1942 conference between his organisation and the youth groups. The question before them was whether the JFO should have just a military command or a military-political committee, and the youth groups wanted to avoid the domination of the parties:


The comrades from Hashomer and HeChalutz spoke out sharply about the political parties: 'the parties haven't any right to give us orders. Except for the youth they will do nothing. They will only interfere.'


At the Conference on Manifestations of Jewish Resistance at the Yad Vashem Remembrance Authority in April 1968, bitter words were exchanged between those historians who had partaken in the struggle and those who still sought to defend the passive approach. Yisrael Gutman challenged one of the latter, Dr Nathan Eck:


Do you believe that if we had waited until the end and acted according to the advice of the party leaders, the revolt would still have taken place, or that there would then have been no point in it whatsoever? I believe there would have been no revolt at all and I challenge Dr Eck to offer convincing proof that the party leaders intended at all that there should be an uprising.


Emmanuel Ringelblum, the great historian of the destruction of Jewish Warsaw, described the thinking of his friend Mordechai Anielewicz of Hashomer, the commander of the JFO:


The Mordechai who had matured so rapidly and risen so quickly to the most responsible post as commander of the Fighters Organisation now greatly regretted that his fellows and he had wasted three war years on cultural and educational work. We had not understood that new side of Hitler that is emerging, Mordechai lamented. We should have trained the youth in the use of live and cold greatest enemy of the Jews, of all mankind, and of all times.


The debate within the resistance focused on the key question of where to fight. Generally speaking, it was the Communists who favoured getting as many of the youth as possible into the forests as partisans, whereas the young Zionists called for last stands in the ghettos. The Communists had always been the most ethnically integrated party in the country and, now that the Soviet Union had itself been attacked, they were wholly committed to the struggle against Hitler. The Soviets had parachuted Pincus Kartin, a Spanish Civil War veteran, into Poland to organise the Jewish underground. The Communists argued that the ghettos could not be defended and the fighters would be killed for nothing. In the woods they might not only survive, but be able to start attacking the Germans. The Zionist youth raised real questions about retreating to the forests. The Red Army was still a long way off and the Polish Communist Gwardia Ludowa (Peoples' Guard) was viewed with great suspicion by the Polish masses, because of their previous support for the Hitler-Stalin pact which had led directly to the destruction of the Polish state. As a result the Gwardia had very few weapons and the countryside was full of anti-Semitic partisans, often Naras, who had no hesitation about killing Jews. However, there was an additional sectarian element in much of the young Zionists' thinking. Mordechai Tanenbaum-Tamaroff of Bialystok was the most vehement opponent of the partisan conception, yet the town was in an immense primeval forest.He wrote:


In the vengeance that we want to exact the constant and decisive element is the Jewish, the national factor... Our approach is fulfillment of our national role within the ghetto (not to leave the old people to their bloody fate!)... and if we remain alive --we will go out, weapon in hand, to the forests.


This line was maintained in Warsaw where Mordechai Anielewicz, feeling that thoughts of a last-minute escape would destroy the iron will required to stand and face certain death, deliberately made no plans to retreat.


The results were disillusioning; the Hashomer and HeChalutz had hoped their example would rally the ghettos, but they did not understand that the spirit of the people had been broken by the four years of humilation and pain. The ghettos could not be armed, and therefore theY saw revolt as only increasing the certainty of their death. Yisrael Gutman was quite correct when he insisted:


The truth is that the Jewish public in most of the ghettoes neither understood nor accepted the path and assessment of the fighters... Everywhere the fighting organisations were engaged in bitter argument with the Jewish public... The youth movements achieved in Warsaw what they did not in other places of revolt


The Warsaw ghetto had two potential sources of arms: the People's Guard, which wanted to help but had few guns, and the Home Army that had guns but did not want to help. They ended up with few weapons, mostly pistols, and they battled bravely for a few days as long as their sparse arsenal held out. The Revisionists had to form their own separate 'National Military Organisation' , because the other political tendencies refused to unite with a group they considered Fascist. However, the Revisionists were able to provide one of their detachments with German uniforms, three machine guns, eight rifles and hundreds of grenades. Some of their fighters escaped through tunnels and sewers and were driven to the forest by some Polish friends, were trapped by the Germans, escaped again, took refuge back in the Gentile sector of Warsaw and were finally surrounded and murdered. The end came for Anielewicz, in the ghetto, on the twentieth day of the rising. Marek Edelman, then a Bundist and deputy commander of the JFO, says he and 80 other fighters shot themselves in a bunker. Zuckerman, another deputy commander, says Anielewicz was killed by gas and grenades tossed into the hide-out.


'Jews Dream of Getting into me Homes of Wolkers'


Emmanuel Ringelblum, a Labour Zionist, had also returned to Poland from abroad. He was in Switzerland for the Zionist Congress in August 1939 when the war broke out, and he chose to return to Poland via the Balkans. He then set about the task of recording the momentous events. The value of his work was obvious to the entire political community and he was eventually chosen for a hiding-place on the Aryan side of Warsaw. He died in 1944, when his hiding-place was discovered, but not before he had written his masterpiece, Polish-Jewish Relations during the Second World War. The writing was blunt: 'Polish Fascism and its ally, anti-Semitism, have conquered the majority of the Polish people', but he took great pains to analyse Poland class by class and even region by region.


The middle-class population in toto has continued to adhere to the ideology of anti-Semitism and rejoices at the Nazi solution to the Jewish problem in Poland.


He confirmed the pre-war evaluation of Lestchinsky and the other observers concerning the steadfastness of the workers in the struggle against anti-Semitism:


Polish workers had long before the war grasped the class aspect of anti-Semitism, the power-tool of the native bourgeoisie, and during the war they redoubled their efforts to fight anti-Semitism... There were only limited possibilities for workers to hide Jews in their homes. Overcrowding in the flats was the greatest obstacle to taking in Jews. In spite of this, many Jews did find shelter in the flats of workers... It must be stressed that in general Jews dream of getting into the homes of workers, because this guarantees them against blackmail or exploitation by their hosts.


Ringelblum's testimony, that of an eyewitness and of a trained historian, shows the path the Jews should have taken both before and during the war. Whatever the failings of the PPS and KPP as parties, there is no doubt that many Polish workers stood with the Jews to the death, and that many workers did more in defence of the Jews than many Jews. It is not suggested that more than a few hundred or a couple of additional thousand Jews might have been added to those who were in fact saved, but revolts in the ghettos, when they lacked arms, never had a chance of success even as symbolic gestures. The Nazi commandant's internal report on the Warsaw rising acknowledged only sixteen deaths among the Germans and their auxiliaries and, although this figure may be too low, the rising was never a serious military matter.

Mordechai Anielewicz's apotheosis to histori immortality is entirely justified, and no criticism of his strategy should be construed as attempting to detract from the lustre of his name. He voluntarily returned from Vilna. He dedicated himself to his stricken people. However, the martyrdom of the 24-year-old Anielewicz can never absolve the Zionist movement of its pre-war failure to fight anti-semitism -- in Germany or in Poland-- when there was still time. Nor can his retum make us forget the Right of the other Zionist leaders, even in the first months of the occupation, nor the unwillingness of the remaining party leaders to initiate an underground struggle.