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The Warsaw Voice » Society » March 31, 2011
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A Forgotten Voice From the Holocaust
March 31, 2011   
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April 19, 2011 marks the 68th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. On that day in 1943 a few hundred very young Jewish fighters started a hopeless battle against the German army. Choosing to die as soldiers rather than as victims, they became a symbol of heroism and resistance to the Holocaust. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto is, however, not only a story of the uprising.

Over the two years of its existence, the largest Nazi ghetto in occupied Poland was a prison for, at one point, over 500,000 people. These were men, women and children; former factory workers, petty merchants as well as world-famous artists and scientists; impoverished refugees and native Varsovians, all trying to lead their daily lives in the hell behind the ghetto walls.

This article will tell the story of a small group of them — those known as “assimilated” Jews. They were people who grew up in the Polish environment; graduates of the most elite Polish secondary schools and universities; often veterans of the Polish fight for independence. Many of them faced their Jewish identity for the first time only with the onset of the German occupation of Poland.

In October 1940, a year after the beginning of World War II, the occupational authorities announced the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, referred to in German propaganda as the “Jewish residential quarter in Warsaw”. Specifically, this was a walled-in part of today’s Wola district, where all those of Jewish ancestry were forced to relocate.

The vast majority of assimilated Jews, including some who had never set foot in the traditional Jewish quarter of Warsaw, complied with the German degree. Only a few decided to risk an illegal existence with forged papers outside the ghetto, a crime which with time would put both them and those helping them at risk of the death penalty.

Hell on earth
Inhumanely overcrowded, poverty-stricken, ridden with disease and hunger, the Warsaw Ghetto was described in countless testimonies as hell on earth, set up with a clear aim of exterminating those imprisoned there. Due to their pre-war professional position, financial situation, and especially contacts outside the ghetto, members of the assimilated intelligentsia were among the most fortunate of Ghetto inhabitants. The Nazi-induced Jewish Council (the Judenrat), seen by the ghetto society as a “nest of disgusting assimilation,” was due to its overblown bureaucratic structure the most prominent job provider for lawyers left without a practice, teachers with no teaching positions, high-level civil servants, university students and employees of pre-war social help institutions, almost all of them with no previous experience in office work. The Judenrat did not pay much, but its employees were at least able to feed themselves and their families and were immune from forced labor, which collected thousands of victims from among the ghetto poor. Former officers from the Polish Army and lawyers became natural recruits to the ghetto police, the Jewish Order Service, who were purported to refer to themselves as the “most intelligent police service in the world”. However, for the majority of ghetto inhabitants they were synonymous with bribery and abuses of power. The highest ranks were filled exclusively by converts and highly assimilated Jews. The Jewish Order Service was commanded by Józef Szeryński, a pre-war colonel in the Polish police and one of the 2,000 Christians in the ghetto. Many of these converted Jews were representatives of the professional and social elite of pre-war Warsaw, who almost automatically penetrated the top layers of ghetto life, creating the feeling of a mutually supportive Catholic clique.

The symbols of the ghetto Christian community were the Nativity of Blessed Virgin Mary Church on Leszno street and the All Saints at Grzybowski Square (both of which are still standing today), which celebrated widely-attended Sunday masses. The large gardens adjacent to the church at Leszno street, one of very few places of greenery in the ghetto, were a meeting place for the elite of the quarter — professors, engineers, teachers and their families. Many of them sent their children to the parish-run clandestine primary school and for extra-curricular activities, including dance classes held by the famous ballet teacher Irena Prusicka. The adjacent buildings of All Saints housed many prominent converts and offered them living conditions starkly different from those in the rest of the ghetto. They were described by one of the inhabitants as “so quiet and peaceful that you felt like there was no ghetto and no war.”

Regarded as traitors
Already before the war the vast majority of the Jewish population held a decidedly negative attitude towards assimilated Jews, and even more so towards converted Jews. They were regarded as traitors betraying their Jewish heritage and culture. Conversion was rarely seen as a religious statement but rather a step to advancing one’s social and professional position by turning away from one’s community. The privileged position of assimilated Jews in the ghetto, so prominent against the background of the predominantly very poor, traditional, Yiddish-speaking ghetto street, only intensified these negative feelings. Yet probably more painfully felt by the assimilated community was the fact that they were rejected by the Polish community, which before the war they felt themselves to be a part of.

Pre-war Warsaw became the symbol of their lost pre-war life, in clear contrast to the reality of the ghetto: “an overflowing, stinking prison, where we stopped being human, where anyone can hit us and where we are nothing more than part of the despised masses.” Yet Warsaw remained unobtainable. As of the assimilated teenagers from the ghetto wrote, Krakowskie Przedmie¶cie street in the center of the capital was as far away as the Champs-Élysées or the Piazza San Marco. The only sight of Warsaw that the vast majority of ghetto inhabitants could obtain was from the top of the bridge connecting the two parts of the Warsaw Ghetto. Since people were not allowed to stop on the bridge, many crossed it numerous times in a day, just to cherish a glimpse of the other side of the wall.

Even more painful was the lack of contact with Polish friends and acquaintances. Just before the ghetto was sealed off, many noted a wave of visits by their Polish friends, who “brought food parcels and what we needed even more: expressions of sympathy.” After the ghetto was hermetically sealed, such visits, requiring the bribing of German, Jewish and Polish guards, became very difficult and increasingly dangerous. With no physical contact possible, the main source of information about the other side were tales and rumors, and these were mainly concerned with the spread of szmalcownictwo — a popular term for the robbery and blackmail of Jews outside the ghetto.

Additionally, the comparatively good living situation of the ghetto assimilated community started to change from mid-1941. As the price of food was constantly growing while wages remained at the same level, the proportion of people in the ghetto able to live off their pre-war assets shrank. From this point onwards there was no longer a class system in the ghetto, only an overall slide towards poverty. As one of the ghetto inhabitants wrote: “Money ends, one finds some more stuff to sell. One day there will be nothing left though. This is the end. This is what awaits most, as nothing lasts forever. It is only a question of order. We are all standing in the queue.” At that time a new wave of beggars, once members of affluent and prominent families, appeared on the ghetto streets.

Deportations start
Despite the growing persecution and poverty, very few seemed to believe that the fate of the quarter was sealed. The Gross-Aktion, the deportation of the Warsaw ghetto inhabitants to the Treblinka extermination camp, caught the ghetto unaware and unprepared. On July 22, 1942, SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, the newly appointed “Resettlement Commissioner”, informed Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat, that the “resettlement to the East” was about to begin. Between July 22 and mid-September 1942, altogether 350,000 people were deported from the ghetto and murdered. The first to go were the poorest among the ghetto inhabitants. The assimilated Jews, with high-level positions in the official ghetto institutions or the German shops, felt assured of their safety. It soon turned out that this was an illusion.

As the deportations progressed, exemption documents and passes proved to be invalid. Life and death became dependent on completely haphazard factors. Even for those who managed to leave the ghetto, that was just the beginning of their ordeal. The Hans Frank decree of Oct. 15, 1941, imposed the death penalty on those discovered outside the ghetto and also on those helping them. The excruciating cost of remaining in hiding and constant fear of denunciation transformed the greatest figures of the interwar society into distressed, bewildered paupers.

For many, the pressure did not end with the end of the war. The great educator Janusz Korczak wrote in his Warsaw Ghetto diary: “Long after the war, men will not be able to look each other in the eyes without posing the question: How did it happen that you survived? How did you do it?” To no one was this statement referring more than to the so-called “victims of privilege” — policemen and members of ghetto authorities, actors in German-licensed theatres. In the eyes of the public, the stories told by the ghetto elite could not match those of the underground fighters. They were more likely to be tried for collaboration than hailed as heroes. It was only recently that the assimilated community were given their voice again, a voice, which like all of those who endured the Holocaust, deserves to be heard.

Katarzyna Person

This article is based on the writer’s doctoral thesis submitted at Royal Holloway College, University of London
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