Warsaw 1943 In Perspective

This is a response to advance publicity regarding the NBC mini-series "Uprising".

Apart from the false claim that the ghetto revolt lasted longer than the 36-day defence of Poland (September 1-October 6, 1939--not to mention the fact that the comparison is ludicrous,) the claim about St. John's Cathedral is particularly malicious given the help that Catholic institutions provided to the insurgents.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Polish historian, Zegota member, and Yad Vashem award recipient, records that the Carmelite Sisters provided shelter to especially endangered leaders of the Jewish underground organizations. In their convent on 27 Wolska Street, situated near the ghetto walls, help was given to Jews in various ways: this was one of the places where false documents were delivered to the Jews; there, too, liaison men of the Jewish underground (ZOB) on the Aryan side-Arie Wilner, Tuwie Szejngut, and others-had their secret premises. In 1942 and 1943, the seventeen sisters lived under permanent danger of death but never declined their cooperation even in the most hazardous undertakings. A moving conversation with the Mother Superior of the Carmelites was recorded by Polish-Jewish journalist Hanna Krall in the book Shielding the Flame. Chaim Lazar, another chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, recorded the assistance provided by the Polish Catholic clergy to the Jewish Military Union (ZZW):

"This gave rise to the idea of digging a tunnel from the ghetto to the church (of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary), through which Jewish children could be evacuated. The tunnel would also be used by the Jewish Military Organization for transferring men, supplies and arms, and as a means of communication with the Aryan side. The tunnel was dug from a building near the church on Leszno St. under the crypt of the church, where a large bunker was excavated. A well-concealed aperture was made in the floor of the crypt to the bunker below. This aperture gave access from the bunker to the crypt, whence, by means of a ladder, one emerged through removable floorboards into the vestibule of the church, a few paces from the entrance. A short stairway led down to Leszno St. a busy thoroughfare open to Poles and Aryans, tranversed by tramway from the west of the city to the eastern suburbs. The bunker had another exit through a hole in the wall of the crypt. This led to an adjacent building which was occupied by nuns." 

At least two other Catholic churches near the ghetto-All Saints' on Grzybowski Square and St. Augustine's on Nowolipki Street-also served as temporary depots during the transmission of arms to the ghetto.

Below are rescue accounts involving priests from St. John's Cathedral:

The risks inherent in providing false documents are illustrated by the following account of Maria Rajbenbach, a Jewish woman who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto just before the outbreak of the uprising on April 19, 1943.

(Bartoszewski and Lewin, eds., Righteous Among Nations, op.cit., p.233.)

How did we obtain our documents? A brother of the painter Malicki was employed, together with his wife, at the Record Office of the Municipal Administration. Together with a parson [from the cathedral parish of St.  John the Baptist] they had forged both the death and birth registers to secure Christian birth certificates of two deceased women. Thus several people had to collaborate to prepare such certificates. The Malickis had supplied numerous Jews with such certificates. Unfortunately, one of these Jews was identified by the Gestapo and in this way the names of the three people became known to them. The parson was shot dead, the Malickis were sent to Treblinka [actually it was Majdanek] concentration camp and Malicki had his arms and legs broken in an attempt to extort the names of other rescued Jews. But he would not give them away. Both perished in Treblinka camp.

The following description comes from Irene Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski, Zegota: The Council for Aid to Jews in Occupied Poland, 1942-1945 (Montreal: Price-Patterson, 1999), at page 36:

When the walls were erected around the Warsaw ghetto, All Saints' church was enclosed within them. Its parish priest [pastor] was Marceli Godlewski, known quite well before the war for his anti-Jewish views. [In actual fact, he was disliked by the Jews mostly for promoting Polish business and credit unions.] However, once he witnessed the terrifying persecution of the Jews, Godlewski turned his energies to the task of helping as much as he could. He did so by remaining in the ghetto and ministering to the Jews who had been converted to Christianity. He also offered the shelter of his church to any others who turned to him.

Father Godlewski gave the Jews who came to him birth certificates of deceased parishioners, thus providing those ready to escape with an "authentic" document. He smuggled children out of the ghetto under his robes, and helped find shelter and provide food on the other side for those who did make it out.

Godlewski frequently had meetings with Adam Czerniaków, the chairman of the Judenrat, listening sympathetically and trying to give hope. Caritas, a Catholic welfare organization, opened a soup kitchen in the ghetto operated by a Father Michal Kliszko, [vicar at the cathedral parish of St. John the Baptist]. It was open to anyone who came. Several hundred Jews were kept hidden with Godlewski's former parishioners on the Polish side and in a chapel at 49 Zlota Street.

Father Godlewski and his young curates remained in the ghetto until they were expelled, but continued their work outside the walls.  Jews were also hidden in the vaults of the cathedral during the uprising of 1944.

As for the attitude and rescue efforts of the Varsovians, below are a number of accounts from Jewish sources.

Adolf Berman and Leon Feiner, Jewish executive members of Zegota, in a radio message transmitted on the second day of fighting:

"Great excitement throughout the city. The people of Warsaw are watching the struggle with admiration and open sympathy for the fighting ghetto."

Flyer issued by the Jewish Fighting Organization on April 23, 1943:

Citizens-Poles, soldiers of freedom!

We know that you are watching the war that we have been waging with our cruel occupier for many days with a sincere sense of grief and tears of solidarity, and with admiration and apprehension about the outcome of this struggle.

Zdzislaw Przygoda, former president of the Association of Polish Engineers in Canada, a Pole of Jewish origin who was passing as a Christian in German-occupied Warsaw:

The Warsaw suburb of Zoliborz was inhabited by the middle class, largely members of the Polish intelligentsia.  Many Jews were hidden among them.

The day the revolt in the ghetto began [i.e. April 19, 1943] I was riding in a streetcar in the vicinity of the ghetto.  An animated discussion ensued in which it seemed most of the crowded passengers were taking part.  One of the passengers yelled out gloatingly: "Look at the Jews burning.  We'll be rid of them at last."  At that remark most of the crowd reacted with outrage.  "Have you no shame, sir," one of them yelled back.  The first passenger narrowly missed a thrashing by jumping out of the streetcar and escaping.

Helena Elbaum Dorembus, a Jew sheltered by Polish Christians in Warsaw:

Two neighbours, Boczek and Mrs. Zaleski, return from town with incredible reports. They tell of hundreds of dead Germans, wrecked tanks and wounded, frightened soldiers being taken to hospitals. Mrs. Zaleski seems to gloat as she praises the Jews for their heroism.

Dorembus also describes a street scene on the 'Aryan' side after the Germans had set the ghetto on fire. A Jewish mother is seen leaping to her death from the third-story window of a burning building holding her little son. A Polish woman among the crowd cries out: "Jesus, Jesus, have mercy. After all, they are human beings." The woman covers her eyes with her hands.

Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Jewish underground who was on the 'Aryan" side when the revolt broke out:

We can say that the Polish street in those days was pro-Jewish. I'm not talking about fringe groups, who were thrilled that the Zhids were burned in the ghetto. what was happening in the ghetto roused extraordinary respect for the Jewish fighters. The Polish [underground] press was full of excitement and wonder, not just some leftist and liberal leaders, but the simple sympathy of the masses. You had to be a real bastard to enjoy what was happening to the Jews at that time. the general sympathetic atmosphere in the streets did help us a little; I felt it especially because I didn't have documents and, all that time, I walked around, usually near the ghetto walls or at the manhole covers, along with a few people I had with me.

As the ghetto was burning, I would mix with the crowd assembled to watch the ghetto walls. At that time, there was a lot of sympathy and admiration for the Jews, because everyone understood that the struggle was against the Germans. They admired the Jews' courage and strength. But there were also some, mostly underworld characters, who looked upon us as bugs jumping out of burning houses. But you shouldn't generalize from that. With my own eyes, I saw Poles crying, just standing and crying. Some days I would go to Zolibórz [Zoliborz, a suburb of Warsaw]. One day the ghetto was shrouded in smoke and I saw masses of Poles, without a trace of spiteful malice. And if I consider the treason carried out against me by individuals, there were just as many Jews among them as Poles. For example, when I was condemned to be executed on April 18, 1942, it was because of a Jewish denunciation.

Stefan Chaskielewicz, an economist who was sheltered by Poles in Warsaw:

I was convinced that among those [Poles] I knew in Warsaw I shouldn't have any particular enemies-people who would wish me death. I often met people I knew on the street who would look at me but not greet me [hence, did not betray], or who would greet me with open sympathy.

The fighting in the ghetto was the talk about town in Warsaw.  I attempted to listen attentively to what was being said about this matter. I did not hear even one person praising the brutal murder of the Jews or disparaging the actions of the ghetto fighters.  I was told that a passenger in a streetcar expressed out loud his satisfaction that there will no longer be Jews in Warsaw.  That was said to have incensed all the other passengers. 

In the evening the neighbours went onto the roof of the house in which I lived to look at the smoke rising from the houses burning in the ghetto.  They looked at the site with horror and were convinced that when the Germans finish off the Jews they will go after the Poles.

Many Poles actively helped Jews in a variety of ways, sheltering them or supporting them financially, risking a great deal in doing so and exposing themselves to various dangers. The majority of Poles undoubtedly felt great sympathy for the Jews and categorically condemned the humiliation of their Jewish fellow-citizens. But there were others who emphasized with pride that they were not Jews and that German treatment of the Jews was a matter of indifference to them. Some felt deep compassion for the Jews, but were subconsciously glad of the benefits their destruction brought. There were also Poles-but surely few in number-who actively collaborated with the Germans and it is difficult to ascertain whether they did this out of conviction, because of the direct material benefits, or whether they were forced to do so by German blackmail.

Can the Polish population of Warsaw therefore be categorically described as anti-semitic or philosemitic? Can the population as a whole be characterized through the actions of individuals? No, the people behaved in the same way as anyone else would probably have behaved in similar circumstances, including the Jewish population. There were good people, there were evil people, there were indifferent people. Just as there always are all over the world.

I must make one observation here. In hiding, I realised how deeply humanitarian the role of religion was, how much the teachings of the Catholic Church influenced the development of what was most beautiful and noble among believers. Just as in critical moments the majority of people turn to God for help-even if their faith is not particularly strong-so the very thought of God dictates to them the need to help theor neighbour who is in danger.

Jewish National Committee statement of July 22, 1944:

We have especially deep and sincere ties with the fighting, democratic Polish underground. Our eyes are open. We know that a certain segment of Polish society is still infected with anti-Semitism. All the more brightly and beautifully stand out numerous acts of self-sacrificing and selfless assistance on the part of the democratic and working class elements in Polish society. The deeply humanitarian stance of a significant portion of the Polish educated classes, activists of many movements, and many good, simple people will be forever etched in the minds of Polish Jewry.

Israel Shahak, professor and human rights activist, Jerusalem:

Let us take the Warsaw Ghetto. Before the beginning of the actual extermination in the summer of 1942, when of course the extermination of Jews in the other cities was known to many including the children (especially after the news came of the extermination of the Ghetto of Lublin) the life went on exactly as usual, exactly as in Polish Warsaw during the extermination of the Warsaw Jews.

More than this: when after the great majority of Warsaw Jews were exterminated in summer 1942, and in the following late autumn and winter there was a comparative lull in "the actions," that is in the rounding up of Jews to be exterminated, life in the pitifully small residue of the Ghetto that remained also returned to some level of "normality" with some entertainment and card-playing or other kinds of parties. The explanation is simply that the great majority of human beings cannot do otherwise. I am not implying that most people who witnessed such horrors, whether Poles or Jews, do not continue to suffer and to feel some sympathy for the victims, only that they must after a rather short time return to some sort of normal experience in which the sufferings of the victims do not obsess and occupy their whole lives.

No doubt, had a survivor from one of the many small towns of conquered USSR, where most of the Jews had been already exterminated, arrived at a typical Passover celebration of spring 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto, or at one of the numerous public balls, concerts, etc., he would have said, if he was as stupid as the survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto whom [Claude] Lanzmann picked [for the documentary film Shoah], that while Jews were killed in his area, in the Warsaw Ghetto "life went on as naturally and normally as before."

Of course there were Polish policemen who rounded up Jews and Poles, who blackmailed Jews whom they recognized as such. But who of the Jewish survivors does not know that there were also Jewish blackmailers, some of them even quite famous by name, outside the Ghetto, who were neither better nor worse than the Polish ones, and also Jewish policemen in the Ghetto whose duty in the first weeks of the extermination of summer 1942 was to deliver, each of them a specified number, Jewish victims to "be sent" to extermination. The attempt by Lanzmann to find the "essence" or the "essentials" of the Polish situation is unfair and wrong in both senses of the word. It is not honest and it is not true. It is also presumptuous and racist.

It is of course true that there was another small group which either helped the Nazis, or expressed, quite loudly too, their satisfaction that the Jews "are gone.". But in justice it should be pointed out that on many, perhaps most, of those occasions, there was also a verbal opposition to such a statement. I had, by the way, many occasions to think about this and similar occasions, when I heard completely similar statements made by Israeli Jews in the summer of 1982, when a minority (but a greater one I am sure than in conquered Poland of 1943) expressed delight in every report of the death of Palestinians and Lebanese.

A more typical reaction of the majority of the Poles could be illustrated by a completely casual conversation which I overheard quite by chance: A group of workers were eating and conversing about the lack of food and of money, and one of them observed that those who blackmail Jews "make a lot of money.  Will you do it?" he added, turning idly to another. "No" came the answer.  "Why?" "Because I will not be able to look on my own face in the mirror.".

I will quote one really typical story which I myself vividly remember:

It was on a railway, a short time after a control of personal papers carried out by some German soldiers. The people in the crowded railway truck began to converse about the sufferings caused by the occupation when one person suddenly exclaimed: "after we have our independence I also want to donate money in order to put a golden statue of Hitler in Warsaw for freeing us of Jews." There was a short silence and another person exclaimed-and I am translating him literally as his words are branded in my memory: "Fear God, Sir! They are human beings too!" There was then a total, rather long silence.

Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, attempted to put the charges leveled against Poles in their proper perspective:

Near the ghetto one always found a crowd of Poles looking at the Jews who were going to work. After leaving the ghetto gate one of the Jews might leave the work column, remove his armband, and steal away. Among the crowd of several hundred Poles there would always be one, two, perhaps three betrayers who would apprehend the Jew. The entire crowd, however, did not act that way. I didn't know who among the crowd was a betrayer. One has to remember that there were not a thousand or five hundred betrayers; there were maybe five of them. It was the same way with neighbours; one didn't know if the neighbour was upright. We lived on Leszno Street and across from us there was a suspicious dwelling. Ours was also suspect. After the uprising [of August 1944] broke out, it turned out that that dwelling was an AK [Home Army] station. The mistress of the house had been afraid of us and we of her.

In view of the foregoing testimonies, it is apparent that Jürgen Stroop's comment that the "Polish population has by and large welcomed the measures implemented against the Jews," was purely gratuitous and undoubtedly inserted in his report to placate his superiors. In that same passage Strrop reported that he had approved a special proclamation informing the Polish population of the reasons for destroying the former Jewish quarter, in which he blamed the Jews for "recent assassinations in the city of Warsaw and the mass graves found in Katyn." The proclamation called on Poles to assist in the fight against Communist agents and Jews.  Stroop's earlier remark about the Poles, whom he refers to elsewhere in his report simply as "bandits," can thus be construed as a boastful statement of the success of his mission in Warsaw. From an historical point of view, it has to be dismissed as a piece of unsubstantiated propaganda.

In this regard, it is also worth noting that the Nazi propaganda machine, with its typical mendacity and inconsistency, simultaneously published reports in a number of German papers that, after learning of the Katyn massacre, the blame for which the Germans attempted to assign to the Jews, the Polish populace spontaneously attacked the ghetto in Warsaw in order to murder the Jews, and that it was the German police who had to intervene to protect the Jews. Posters containing information about the alleged Polish assault on the ghetto were to be found in many towns in the General gouvernement.  At the same time, however, posters in Warsaw announced that the Germans embarked on the destruction of the ghetto because of the criminal activities of the Jews, who sympathized with the Bolsheviks, and called on Poles to murder the Jews who escaped from the ghetto.

Another image that is often invoked as "proof" of the alleged widespread insensitivity of the Polish population of Warsaw to the fate of the Jews is that of Poles enjoying themselves on a merry-go-round the Germans erected near the ghetto wall. The metaphorical merry-go-round was made famous in Czeslaw Milosz's poem "Campo di Fiori," though obviously any Poles who came to this amusement during the solemnities of Holy Week, when the Christian population thronged to Warsaw's churches, could hardly be said to be representative of the Polish population. More importantly, as we know from a report by the famed underground courier Jerzy Lerski, as confirmed by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and others, this image is essentially a hoax: the merry-go-round ceased to function as soon as the revolt broke out.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Polish historian, founding member of Zegota (Polish wartime Council for Aid to the Jews), decorated by Yad Vashem:

An attempt to protect one hiding Jew for a prolonged period of time called for the cooperation of several, sometimes of a dozen or so people.  Estimating the number of Jews hiding in Warsaw alone at about 15 thousand in the autumn of 1943, "placed in the homes of 2-3 thousand Polish families,"

Emanuel Ringelblum [the chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto] made the following calculation:

"Considering that those 2-3 thousand Polish families were acting with the knowledge and consent of their closest relatives, we will arrive at the conclusion that at least 10-15 thousand Polish families in Warsaw are helping the Jews to hide. Assuming that an average family is composed of four persons, this represents 40-60 thousand people [out of a Polish Christian population of some 800,000]."

One should add at this point that thousands of people had already previously been engaged in helping many Jews who, in spite of all the efforts, had not been saved and those people, consequently, are not covered by Ringelblum's estimate. It is also certain that many of the Jews who, in the year 1943, were still living in a Polish environment and who had been successfully protected for a long time, did not survive to the end of the war. They were arrested at home, in many cases together with those sheltering them, or seized in the street. An undetermined number of Jews hiding in Warsaw died during the Warsaw Uprising in August and September 1944, sharing the fate of the population of the fighting and then destroyed city.

Gunnar S. Paulsson, Holocaust historian:

In the league of people who are known to have risked their lives to rescue Jews, Poland stands at the very top, accounting for more than a third of all the 'Righteous Gentiles'.

Of the 27,000 Jewish fugitives in Warsaw, 17,000 were still alive 15 months after the destruction of the ghetto, on the eve of the Polish uprising in 1944. Of the 23,500 who were not drawn in by the Hotel Polski scheme, 17,000 survived until then. Of these 17,000, 5,000 died in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, and about 10,500 were still alive at liberation.

As it happens, there is an excellent standard of comparison, because it is estimated that in the Netherlands, 20-25,000 Jews went into hiding-about the same number as in Warsaw-of whom 10-15,000 survived-again, about the same number. The conclusion, then, is quite startling: leaving aside acts of war and Nazi perfidy, a Jew's chances of survival in hiding were no worse in Warsaw, at any rate, than in the Netherlands.

The small number of survivors, therefore, is not a direct result of Polish hostility to the Jews. The Jews were deported from the ghettos to the death camps, not by Poles, but by German gendarmes, reinforced by Ukrainian and Baltic auxiliaries, and with the enforced co-operation of the ghetto police.  Neither the Polish police nor any group of Polish civilians was involved in the deportations to any significant degree, nor did they staff the death camps. Nor did the fate of the Jews who were taken to their deaths depend to any significant degree on the attitudes and actions of a people from whom they were isolated by brick walls and barbed wire.

The 27,000 Jews in hiding in Warsaw relied on about 50-60,000 people who provided hiding-places and another 20-30,000 who provided other forms of help; on the other hand, blackmailers, police agents, and other actively anti-Jewish elements numbered perhaps 2-3,000, each striking at two or three victims a month. In other words, helpers outnumbered hunters by about 20 or 30 to one. The active helpers of Jews thus made up seven to nine per cent of the population of Warsaw; the Jews themselves, 2.7 per cent; the hunters, perhaps 0.3 per cent; and the whole network-Jews, helpers and hunters-constituted a secret city of at least 100,000: one tenth of the people of Warsaw; more than twice as many as the 40,000 members of the vaunted Polish military underground, the AK [Armia Krajowa or Home Army].

How many people in Poland rescued Jews? Of those that meet Yad Vashem's criteria-perhaps 100,000. Of those that offered minor forms of help-perhaps two or three times as many. Of those who were passively protective-undoubtedly the majority of the population. All these acts, great and small, were necessary to rescue Jews in Poland.

For the sake of comparison, the case of the Netherlands might be examined.  There, 20,000-25,000 Jews are estimated to have gone into hiding, mainly in Amsterdam, of whom 10,000-15,000 survived the war. The overall survival rate in Holland was thus 40-60 percent, and in Warsaw, after levelling the playing field, notionally 55-75 percent. Thus the attrition rate among Jews in hiding in Warsaw was relatively low, contrary to expectation and contemporary perceptions. The main obstacles to Jewish survival in Warsaw are seen to have been the Hotel Polski trap and the 1944 uprising and its aftermath, rather than the possibility of discovery or betrayal.

Despite frequent house searches and the prevailing Nazi terror in Warsaw (conditions absent in the Netherlands), and despite extortionists, blackmailers, and antisemitic traditions (much less widespread in the Netherlands), the chance that a Jew in hiding would be betrayed seems to have been lower in Warsaw than in the Netherlands.

It is clear that Warsaw was the most important centre of rescue activity, certainly in Poland and probably in the whole of occupied Europe.  The city accounted for perhaps a quarter of all Jews in hiding in Poland.  The 27,000 Jews in hiding there also constituted undoubtedly the largest group of its kind in Europe.

Risks Faced by Jews in Hiding

German reports from the period indicate that, after the liquidation of the ghetto, Poles helped in the round-ups of Jews only "in a handful of cases" ("in einzelnen Fällen").  Thousands of German troops descended on Warsaw to hunt down Jews in hiding. By way of comparison, the entire German occupation forces needed to keep Denmark in line amounted only to a few hundred. Barely 3,000 Germans were stationed in occupied France, where some 40,000 Frenchmen were on the payroll of the Gestapo. German occupation forces in Poland numbered half a million.

Martin Gilbert, British historian:

Even those [Jews] who had managed to escape to 'Aryan' Warsaw were not secure.  On May 3 [1943] the Germans arrested twenty-one women of Jewish or suspected Jewish, origin, in the streets. All were killed. Nine days later there was a second such round-up and execution.

To deter Poles from giving shelter to Jews, the Germans intensified their searches and arrests. "As a sort of object lesson," Feigele Pelter recalled, they set fire to a house on Kazimierz Place, in Warsaw, "killing the entire Gentile family living there because they had given asylum to Jews."

[January 1944]: In Warsaw, hundreds of Jews in hiding were suddenly at risk when one of the surviving liaison men of the Jewish Fighting Organization was caught and tortured. Under torture, he broke; many of those in hiding were then rounded up and killed.

[On April 6, 1944], in a raid on 'Aryan' Warsaw, three thousand Germans were deployed from four in the morning to nine in the evening in a search for Jews in hiding.  In all, seventy 'non-Aryan' men and thirty-one 'non-Aryan' women were seized: all were executed five days later.

Furthermore, Polish military assistance was not as insignificant for the Jewish insurgents as many insist. Here are some assessments by knowledgeable sources.

In the introduction to the 1979 Pantheon Books edition of Stroop's report, Andrzej Wirth acknowledged that "Jewish armed resistance would be impossible without outside help."  Stroop wrote that his soldiers "have been repeatedly shot at from outside the ghetto," prompting historian István Deák of Columbia University of New York to ask: "I wonder whether anyone fired a shot elsewhere in Europe on behalf of persecuted Jews."  "Polish bandits" is the name given by Stroop to members of the Polish underground who came to the assistance of the Jewish fighters.

Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw ghetto revolt:

"We didn't get adequate help from the Poles, but without their help we couldn't have started the uprising. You have to remember that the Poles themselves were short of arms. The guilty party is Nazism, fascism-not the Poles."

Marian Fuks, Jewish historian, writing in the Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw:

It is an absolutely certain fact that without help and even active participation of the Polish resistance movement it would not have been possible at all to bring about the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto."