On July 22, we will begin the 70th year of remembering the destruction of Jewish Warsaw, the liquidation of the German established Warsaw Ghetto, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by young Jews on the first night of Passover in 1943. Let us remember.
Sometime in 1385, in the conjugal bed of the Lithuanian Duke, Jagiello, and the Polish Princess Jadwiga, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was conceived and birthed. It was to become the largest, most enduring, geo-political entity in Europe. It was erased in 1795, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia, and Russia devoured the Commonwealth. During that 400 years Poland became an uncommon refuge for the Jewish people driven out of Christian, western, and central Europe.
In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the Jewish people gave birth to one of its greatest civilizations. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the single greatest creation of Polish-Jewish civilization is the State of Israel itself. It was because of the Zionism of Polish Jews, the aliyah of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Jews, that the State of Israel was created. It was in and through Polish Jewry that Herzl's initial German language Zionist manifestos were given life in the Yiddish language and in the dreams and plans of Polish Jews. Every Prime Minister of Israel comes from Polish-Lithuanian Jewry.
On September the first, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. Within days Warsaw was under siege. It surrendered to the Germans on Sept. 28. Jews, who numbered approximately 3.3 million, were 10 percent of the population of Poland. Outside of the ancient Land of Israel, in no other country in the world did Jews constitute that great a proportion of the population. At the time of the invasion the Jewish population of Warsaw was 378,000, or 29% of its population. There was a failed attempt to establish a ghetto on Oct. 12, 1940.
It failed because the Judenrat, the German established Jewish communal organization, was able to exploit a bureaucratic conflict between the Gestapo and the German army. The area of the ghetto was finally walled in on Nov. 16, 1940. Approximately 380,000 Jews were moved into an area that was less than 3.5 square kilometers. To put it another way, the Jews who were 30 percent of Warsaw's population were crammed into 2.4 percent of the city's territory.
While 18,000 Jews fled the city between Sept. 1, and Sept. 28, 1939, an additional 90,000 Jewish refugees from other areas in Poland came to Warsaw. At its height in March 1941, the population of Jewish Warsaw, the ghetto area, was 460,000. By the summer of 1942, the Jewish population in the ghetto had dropped to approximately 380,000. This was the result of death from disease, exposure, and starvation. The death rates are staggering. For example, in August of 1941, more than 5,500 Jews died in the ghetto. And from that point on, until April of 1942, the monthly death toll was approximately four to five thousand.
The social, cultural, political, and religious activities of the Jews of Warsaw as an expression of seizing life, as a war of intellectual and spiritual resistance, is by now the stuff of legends. The Warsaw Ghetto became in those years one of the most creative centers of Hasidic theology, historiography, children's theatre, Talmudic scholarship, poetry and music, and so much more. It was a time and a place in which creativity and disease, eloquence, and starvation moved hand-in-hand.
On July 22, 1942, the "great deportation" to Treblinka began. The head of the Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, refusing to cooperate, took his life on July 23, 1942. His venerable gravestone in the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw bears the Biblical verse, "And I (God) passed over you, and I saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said by your blood shall you live, by your blood shall you live".
From July 22 (Tisha B'av) to Sept. 21, 1942 (Yom Kippur), more than 270,000 Jews were transported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. Treblinka was a death camp. Therefore it had no lagers or bunkers. Nobody stayed overnight. Jews left in the smoke. Approximately 800,000 Jews were murdered in Treblinka in a period of less than eight months, in a space of 1,200 by 1,800 feet. As far as we know no non-Jews were murdered in Treblinka, and not one Jewish woman survived Treblinka. This year, the period of Tisha B'av to Yom Kippur, marks the 70th anniversary of the destruction of that great and grand Jewish civilization.
On May 16, 1943, Jurgen Stroop, the SS officer in charge of putting down the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, sent a telegram to headquarters in Berlin. It read in part, "The former Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is no longer in existence. The large scale action was terminated at 20:15 hours by blowing up the Warsaw synagogue." Of course he did not have, and shall not have, the last word. The last words of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto still ring in our ears.
"The last wish of my life has been fulfilled. Jewish self-defense has become a fact. Jewish resistance and revenge have become actualities. I am happy to have been one of the first Jewish fighters in the ghetto. Where will rescue come from?"
During the revolt, 1943
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Judaic Scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.