Category Archive: Tablet

Those Who Left and Those Who Rebelled

On the 75th anniversary of the Bialystok Ghetto uprising, a Jewish fighter remembers how the fires were lit

The most heroic chapter in the dark history of the annihilation of European Jewry was written by teenagers with guns. Brave beyond imagination, starving, desperate, childless, parentless, unloved by their countrymen, they fully expected to die. They had witnessed the starvation, transport and the killing of their families, friends and teachers. The leaders of the youth movements to which they belonged—left- and right-wing Zionist, European socialist, and communist alike—had mostly fled to Moscow and Palestine at the beginning of the war, leaving them in charge of their own youth groups, schools and kibbutzim.

Haika Grossman was one of the bravest and most resourceful of the Jewish ghetto fighters, as well as one of the oldest, having turned 20 just after the Nazi conquest of Poland. A leader of the youth wing of Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist Zionist party, and a student at Vilnius University, she became a key courier between the ghettos of Poland, and helped organize and lead the Bialystok Ghetto uprising. Her only illusion was that their fellow Jews, who were not members of their movements, but who were also marked for death, would join with them at the decisive moment, and fight.

After the war ended, Grossman emigrated from Poland to Palestine, where it was her fate to inform the Zionist leadership, and those who left Poland before the Holocaust, of the wholesale slaughter of their families and friends. She later became a member of the Knesset, where she helped pass laws protecting the welfare of children and establishing the rights of women to obtain abortions. She also published The Underground Army, a gripping and richly detailed account of her life as a ghetto courier, organizer and fighter. 

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Bialystok Ghetto uprising, we are proud to publish two excerpts from The Underground Army. It is a story of defiance as desperate and inspiring as any fight in human history, from Thermopylae to the Alamo to Selma.

We hope that this publication will help inspire a publisher to put Grossman’s unique narrative back into print in English, so that a new generation of American readers, Jewish and otherwise, can learn about the power of young people who dream of building a better world, and are willing to sacrifice everything to protect the people they love in the face of radical evil. —David Samuels


It was Aug. 15, 1943, on a fine summer evening. We had gathered for a staff meeting in Mordechai’s deserted room on Polna Street. The meeting lasted longer than usual and ended after midnight. We had no permits to move at night and were compelled to steal through the courtyards, pressing close to the walls of the quiet houses. It had been the first full staff meeting. We had finished the distribution of assignments. The mood at the meeting had been practical, and matter-of-fact. When we reached our room on Bialostochanska Street it was quite late. The room was empty. We had not yet fallen asleep when Gedalyahu came into the room. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning.

“Get dressed. An SS unit has come in through the Yuroviecka Gate and set sentries near the factory.”

“What does it mean?”

“Don’t ask questions. We have to dress and alarm the organization. I’m going to tell Mordechai.”

The ghetto bad been tranquil lately. Life had been normal. Not only that but new orders had recently arrived for the factories, from Koenigsberg and far-off Berlin. How happy the ghetto had been lately over the many Soviet victories, and Mussolini’s downfall. And now, suddenly—an aktzia.

Our plan to meet the Germans before they managed to spread throughout the ghetto, to attack them immediately on their entrance into the ghetto, was no longer possible. They came into the ghetto suddenly, at night. In a few minutes the staff, the cells, and their commanders were all alerted. In a hurried meeting in the street we decided, first, to send the cells to their regular positions according to the original plan. The general plan had to be changed. The main points of attack, which had been set near the gates in order not to allow the Germans to enter the ghetto, had now lost much of their value. All the plans based on attacks from the houses near the gates, by grenade and a rain of fire, had to be altered. The initiative had been taken from us suddenly. Still, we decided to hold onto and entrench the existing positions. The first order, therefore, was to hold onto all the positions, and from them to attack the Germans as soon as they came close. Sentries were set and lines of contact established with the sector commanders. We sent people out to knock on doors and shutters to arouse the Jews:

“Germans in the ghetto! If they call on you to appear, don’t go.”

Actually, we still did not know anything. Until we were sure the ghetto was being liquidated, we must not leave the underground, or call loudly for resistance.

Mordechai walked at my side, quietly, thoughtful. The minutes passed, and the ghetto awoke. A door creaked open; Jews, what has happened? And when the man received his answer the door closed. Fear quieted the Jews, fear walked with them, silently, knocking on doors and windows. Relatives and friends ran to each other’s homes to rouse the sleeping. Our comrades were everywhere, in every courtyard. Mordechai looked all over, meeting the people and encouraging them. I saw the faces of our young comrades that night, the movements of their hands, the way they walked, and I saw their eyes, Avremele’s and Yentel’s, Sortka’s and Lonchik’s, gleaming in the night.

It was 4 in the morning. The sun’s rays had not yet appeared when the posters went up on the ghetto walls: All the Jews of the ghetto, without exception, were ordered to appear at 9 in the morning with small hand packages, on Yuroviecka Street. From there all the ghetto residents, as well as the shops and factories, would be moved to Lublin. It was signed by the commander of the SS and the police, Dibos.

Now everything was clear. The liquidation had come. The morning was pale and cold, under the clear blue skies. Streets filled with Jews, crowding around the posters. They read them once, again, and then dispersed, frightened. There was no time for questions or for explanations; the posters spoke for themselves. Jews read them and turned away quietly, each to his home. There was no shouting; no hysteria. They groped in the morning light as if they were lost in the dark. They were not yet really awake, the cobwebs of sleep and tranquility were not yet gone. There was no wailing or weeping, only quiet tension during the slow moving hours.

We gathered at the position on Piotrokovska Street. Mordechai was there, too. He suggested dividing the members of the staff on both sides of Yuroviecka Street, the place the Germans had designated for the transport. “Those streets may be cut off, and therefore it may be better for us to divide the staff,” he argued. His proposal seemed logical, and we agreed. We decided to distribute the arms now in the stores. Those on the other side of Yuroviecka we supplied to the fighting units in their positions, and the weap­ons in this sector, among the cells and positions situated on this side of Yuroviecka Street. The difficulty in moving arms at this time through the ghetto was taken into consideration.

In addition, arms had already been distributed to the sectors according to the composition of the fighting forces and their numbers. Mordechai had left Piotrokovska Street and established his position at 13 Ciepla Street. We remained on Piotrokovska Street. Couriers between the two sections of the staff were chosen. The apartment on Piotrokovska Street had emptied and its occupants had all gone into hiding.

This was both a battle station and a command post for the whole sector. I can still see Gedalyahu and Zerah, Yoshko and Leibush; I remember the young people, Meir and Avremele. Every last one came to receive instructions and then returned to their positions. Most of all I remember Kuba: Kuba had not changed; he was quiet, as usual, slow and thoughtful. Only his expression had changed. He had always been friendly and easy going; now he was raging. He was angry about arms rolling about at his feet which were of no use. He had not yet managed to repair them all for combat use. There was a rifle without a safety catch, a submachine gun that was capable of shooting bullets at the enemy, but it was useless, scrap iron. Kuba sat angrily at his bench and attempted to rehabilitate at least one more rifle and perhaps one more machine gun. Time was pressing: At 9 exactly, the battle would commence. People were waiting for guns. The positions were anxious for ammunition. Time passed. Couriers came and went. There were too few of the promised “long” guns. People took pistols, but wanted better offensive weapons. They were not satisfied with guns for self-defense only. Kuba was angry as his hands manipulated the iron, his fingers shaking slightly. He sat at his bench working, with Meir helping him. The guns were finally distributed and still Kuba labored.

Suddenly Haska appeared. Yesterday she had come for a visit; yesterday had been Saturday, and Haska had come to help relax the tension. Gedalyahu ordered her to leave the ghetto immediately. Perhaps all the exits had not yet been sealed; before morning she could still get out. Haska refused.

“Haska, what will happen if some people come out of the slaughter alive and there is no one to receive them, to lend a helping hand outside the ghetto? We have a group in the forest, somebody will have to be the liaison between them and us, if we hold out. Haska, you must go, there is no choice.”

We convinced her that she must leave and said goodbye to her quickly.

Raska left and we did not know if we would ever see her again. She headed for Bialostochanska Street, toward Olia’s court. She walked, looking back, then moving forward, and turning her face toward us.

“Haska, hurry, it’s morning!”

Raska walked, her bag swinging behind her. She rose on Gedalyahu’s back and climbed onto the privy in Olia’s yard. We stopped for a few minutes, listening. In the courtyard adjoining the ghetto there was silence.

No shots broke the quiet, no movement was heard. Raska apparently had crossed safely.

The Piotrokovska apartment was in disarray. Clothes stores which we had managed to transfer to the forest were opened. Comrades were dressing, preparing. Who cared about woolen socks, about whole shoes; the main objective was that it be possible for us to move. There was no hysteria, not a single sign of confusion.

Leibush Mandelblit, a staff Communist member, leaned against the wall. He was running a high fever; he couldn’t speak—an ulcerated throat. His eyes burned. He too was determined to fight, together with his comrades. A boy of about 12 or 13 was standing next to him; he had taken the boy along with him.

Our Avremele was there, as were Lonchik and Meir and Yentel who had returned wounded from the death car after the first aktzia. After that she had guided the cells and taught them how to use arms. She had excelled in the general course; the adults nodded their heads at her in amazement, wondering where that young girl obtained that facility and knowledge about the use of death tools. Pleasant and talented, gentle, the best of the gymnasium students, she was examining her weapon and looking at her shoes to see if they were strong enough. She had been wounded but her wounds had healed. She had leaped from the death car, fallen and rose again. The rest were there, too, the members of the Tel-Amal group, all in position; commanders, teachers, couriers, taking their places, coming back, and running to their officers.

I was the only one who did not prepare for tomorrow. I did not examine my shoes, did not turn over the store’s goods thrown on the beds. I didn’t go to say goodbye to my mother. I didn’t go to her house to change my clothing. I just looked about at the tumult and the preparations and wondered. For years I had steeled them, these young people, had molded their characters, and gradually taught them the logic of action. Now they were passing before me, going to their decisive test, and perhaps travelling their last road.

Gedalyahu was there. He was joking. It was not gallows humor this time. He was joking heartily, because tomorrow he would no longer have to go to work in the despicable ghetto police contingent. He was a free man now. He too was preparing for battle, turning over the pile of stockings that Sonka had brought a few minutes ago from her father’s little “factory,” looking for some pair that fit. At daylight Gedalyahu, turned toward me. What eyes, God in Heaven! I had never seen them as they really were. I don’t know why but it seemed to me that Gedalyahu was going to express his feelings of first love. It was ridiculous for me, I felt, to allow so strange a thought to enter my mind at such a time. Gedalyahu called me aside:

Do not weep over the graves of heroes; do not weep and do not feel pity. It is not pity you are asked to give the world but deeds that will free mankind from the nightmare of oppression and enslavement.

“A few minutes ago I spoke to Zerah, the other members of the general staff, and with our leadership. You must leave the ghetto immediately. Maybe it can still be done. After all, Raska managed to get out. There is no point in your remaining here.”

“I don’t understand. Do you want to send me away now? Can’t I fight like all the comrades?”

“I didn’t want to insult you, to question your honor. On the contrary; don’t be angry, I’ll explain it to you.” Gedalyahu stopped in the middle, looked at the piece of black bread in his hand, and was embarrassed. “You understand, somebody is bound to come out alive from this business. I told Raska that we must organize the aid outside of the ghetto. We can logically assume that some of us will survive; nu—how am I going to tell you this? The world will still exist, there will still be Jews and the movement …” Gedalyahu couldn’t help himself; he spit through his front teeth as usual. “In short, we think that you are the one to come out of this safely and relish the victory.”

Gedalyahu stopped. I felt as if the world were sinking beneath my feet. My head swam. I wanted to fall on Gedalyahu and kiss him, to embrace him for his great soul, his precious character, the gentleness, wrapped in seeming vulgarity. How tall Gedalyahu had become! Suddenly he was concerned about history, about the world that would prevail after us!

“I won’t go!”

After that we never spoke about the matter again. I met him a few more times, drifting from place to place, touring the positions. I heard the sound of his laughter, and I saw him shouting near the gate. Most of all, I remember the sound of the Russian curses he spit through his teeth. They were just ordinary curses, but they were directed at what he hated, with all his heart and soul. He hated traitors, the weak, and most of all, he despised the enemy.

I met Zerah in the court on Chenstohovska Street, at the gate. Zerah wore his short jacket open to the breeze. He had on high boots. His face had thinned and had become even more handsome. His blue eyes were sunk beneath his dark brows. His wide shoulders were conspicuous in contrast to his sunken face. We met at the gate; each of us wanted to say something, but our voices were silent.

“You … you …” Zerah mumbled like a little boy, “are you going out?”


The discussion ended. I felt his warm hand in mine. It was a last handshake. We separated hastily and went our separate ways.

“Control yourself! Run, run away fast from Zerah, your dear comrade, the way you fled more than once from your own feelings and emotions. Life must be fastened tightly like a belt about one’s hopes. We must not be emotional. Oh, life, do you know the taste of a last hurried farewell before death? Have you seen the morning sun rise early during such a parting? Have you felt the courageous and loving handclasp expressing its love for you and people because they are people—our people—because they are our suffering people, whose freedom was so brutally stolen, all this expressed by the loving pressure of a hand? Can one ever forget a handclasp like that? Will we not feel it for eternity? For love of life they died, and with their last hand­shake gave their love to the world. Zerah, the most wonderful of men, hand­some Zerah, loving, obdurate, gentle and hard, stubborn in both his love and his hatred. That is how I will remember you, Zerah; that is how I will remember you in the open gate of the courtyard on Chenstohovska Street.” Our positions were not very well hidden. We did not intend to hide. We planned to fall upon the SS soldiers coming to pull their victims out by force. The Germans would scatter, after 9 o’clock, when the concentration site on Yuroviecka Street was not full. We would defend the hiding Jews, and in that way they too would join the fighters. It was clear to us that the Jews would not go to Yuroviecka Street. In the first action no one had wanted to surrender willingly. Every house would be turned into a fortress. The positions had been stationed in high, strong-walled houses. They would not easily be taken. The one on Chenstohovska Street was on the third floor, that on Piotrikovska was also on the top floor. As they would approach the house, salvos of bullets and grenades would greet them. The plan was simple. Fighters were standing at the gates, too. True, the first groups of the SS had entered the ghetto earlier, at 2 in the morning, without our knowledge. They had established stations near the factories, which prevented us from sabotaging the factories. We knew, however, that we could outwit the guards scattered throughout the ghetto.

The positions were ready, and so were the armed fighters. In the empty rooms, abandoned by their tenants, scattered articles were lying about as if after a catastrophe. From these objects, and from the furniture, we would make barricades from behind which we would shoot. The morale in the positions was excellent. It was 7 in the morning. Four hours had elapsed since the posters had appeared; all the ghetto knew what was in store. Germans were not to be seen there, except for those guarding the factories and the Judenrat building. There were still two hours ahead of us. From the staff position on Piotrikovska Street couriers were sent to the ghetto streets to determine what Jews intended to do. Two comrades were sent to Polna Street, where the firefighting station was situated. They would order the firemen to go home, and not to dare extinguish any fires in the factories. Parts would be taken out of their trucks, so they would not be able to move them. And, finally, gasoline had to be brought from the station.

Not half an hour had passed when the couriers returned with terrible news: Masses were streaming to Yuroviecka with all their belongings. Unbelievable! What had happened? Were they going willingly? It was still only 7:30; why were they in such a hurry to die? Shameful news came from the firemen: They did not even want to hear about leaving their station and abandoning it to the crazy young people. They would not sabotage their machines, and would not supply any gasoline. We had been disappointed by the firemen, by the men who were not afraid to climb steep walls, who could make fun of everything. They were afraid of the Germans. We would have to include their station in the sabotage that would begin precisely at 9 o’clock.

The situation in the streets was even worse. It was 8 o’clock. Our couriers were scattered throughout the ghetto, holding meetings in the lager courts, explaining and persuading: “Jews, don’t go willingly. This is not an evacuation to Lublin. The Germans are lying as usual. Going out of the ghetto means dying in the gas chambers. Don’t go! Hide, then fight with anything you can find!” Comrades ran after the groups of Jews but the wave was streaming, flowing seemingly without end. Jews loaded down with feather beds, pillows, dressed in winter coats, one dragging a warm fur (now he would no longer fear; he had dragged it through all the hells of the searches and now it was hard for him to leave it). Children crying, getting lost in the confusion and again finding their parents. A child’s carriage, its wheels sagging under the weight of the load piled upon it, and a child rocking on top. Save Jewish property! The family marched in the sun, it was easier to die one among many than to struggle and suffer alone. Apparently a swift death was easier than a prolonged torture. Perhaps we had not fully understood the agony of parents looking at their famished children. What use was there in living such a life?

Perhaps it was because of all this that the masses were streaming that morning to their deaths.

In vain our comrades stood at the corners, in vain they closed the three bridges over the Bialka in a futile attempt to turn them back to their homes. They would not listen; they closed their ears to our appeals. The situation was critical. It was 8 o’clock. The staff assembled once again in Piotrokovska. It was clear now that we would remain isolated islands in the desolate ghetto. We had no masses behind us. The Germans in the ghetto were nowhere to be seen. They would take out the transport and we would remain, small groups of fighters bent on suicide. We had been deprived of the public purpose of our struggle. The Germans, prepared by the experience of Warsaw, had hit the mark in their planning. They were succeeding in emptying the urban part of the ghetto, where it was possible to conduct street warfare, where every house could be turned into a bastion. The Jews were being concentrated on and east of Yuroviecka Street. On the suburban side were gardens, empty fields and wooden houses that could serve neither as positions nor as shelter.

The situation was desperate and we had to decide immediately. To stay with our old plan meant giving up the very point of our struggle: to leave those who had been cut off from the fighters and to remain a group committing suicide to maintain its honor.

If we were to change the plan, there was only one way to do it—to go with the masses to the concentration point and arouse them to revolt. That meant giving up the city walls and narrowing the possibilities of street­ fighting; our forces were not sufficient for open, hand-to-hand combat. Or perhaps—a short battle would enhance the prospects of drawing in all the people? We knew that the new plan was devised more in anger and in a spirit of revolt than on any well thought out strategy. Giving up the original plan meant that we would not direct the activities, and that we would not attack. There were serious considerations and time was running out. It was already a quarter past 8. The choice was difficult.

I suggested that we adopt the new plan. No one was opposed. My proposal was accepted because there was no time left and also perhaps, because no one had the strength to argue. Zerah and Yoshko took it upon themselves to implement it. We still had 35 minutes. What justification could be found for any plan except defending the masses and saving them, organizing and leading them to liberation—and to death with honor?

During those 35 minutes all the positions across Yuroviecka Street were rushed to the other side, where our people were, to the gardens and suburbs.

A second, smaller part of the underground concentrated around Mordechai and Daniel. We had to transfer the weapons we did not want to reveal, before we opened fire. Our fighters began to mingle with the people, loaded down, like them, with bundles, feather beds, pillows and blankets, and in them, the hidden arms—rifles and pistols, grenades and ammunition. Zila, from Grodno, carried a tremendous bundle on her back. She crossed the small bridge where there were great crowds. Everybody wanted to be first. She too pushed ahead, hurried. The arms had to arrive in time. It was a few minutes before 9. The streets were empty. The last of the Jews were hurrying, running, perspiring, carrying their bundles and their children. They didn’t want to be late. They didn’t want to be beaten.

The streets were deserted. Some houses had their doors locked from the outside; some Jews apparently wanted to secure the property they had left behind. A beggar had always sat in that comer and, opposite, a woman used to lean against the wall, her handout, wailing. She wanted charity. She did not plead, she only wailed quietly, her head wrapped in rags, pressed against the wall. Her permanent spot was near the Judenrat building, and the Jewish police regularly drove her away. Now there were no police there, and no wailing beggar woman. The place was empty.

I looked for the last time at the main street and fled back to Bialostochanska. Our positions were being dismantled, one at a time. Now I only had to hurry to the bridge leading from Bialostochanska through the garbage dumps to Yuroviecka. I was the last one, I think. My hands were empty. I had no bundles, not even stockings to cover my bare feet, only worn shoes that I had put on yesterday evening. It seemed to me that I was bringing up the rear of a bloody parade with the ghetto street remaining behind, desolate.

All the fighters had already crossed the bridge. Only some small groups of twos and threes, remained, One was going to the Judenrat (where it seemed that the liquidation staff, headed by Friedl, was located). Another was headed for the factories on Roshanska Street where boots for Nazi soldiers were sewn, with tens of thousands still in the warehouses, and still another to the textile factories on Polna Street and the firefighting station there. The rest of the factories were on the other side of the ghetto, where the crowds were streaming. When there was firing on Fabryehna and Ciepla Streets they were to carry out their sabotage. They were armed mainly with grenades and pistols. They were to approach from the area, throw their gre­nades at the guards and destroy the machines.

We knew the factory plan well; it was easy to damage the flammable materials to be found in all the factories, the fuel stores and the warehouses. These groups, 10 persons in all, consisted mostly of young girls from all the movements. They were all young, and they all fell in battle. Jews had worked for the benefit of the Nazi front for a long time, and were forced to help join a victory of the enemy of the human race for far too long. Today the factories were still. Today the fire consuming the installations and goods would prevail!

Ruvchik was sent to head and assist all the groups dispatched by the staff to Mordechai’s place, on Ciepla Street. His special task was to direct the activity against the Judenrat building. We wanted to blow up the German command post there.

When Ruvchik crossed the border of the abandoned ghetto, Yuroviecka Street was already filled with Jews. A dense file of SS soldiers appeared along Yuroviecka Street. The way back to the urban part of the ghetto was already closed.

Ruvchik just managed to get by, and disappeared. We did not see him again. We concluded that he met his end from the sounds of the explosions, and the flames rising in that part of the ghetto.

Meanwhile, we had all assembled at 13 Ciepla Street. Here the tenants still remained, looking at us at once fearfully and confidently. The entrance to Mordechai’s room led through the kitchen. The tenants had determined not to leave their apartment. They saw young people coming and going, with the weapons discernible under their clothing. They could see the sentries near the room, and had apparently decided that it was worthwhile staying with these people. When you left the apartment you found yourself in a suburban courtyard behind the house from which you could get to Novogrodska and Hmielna Streets, where there were scattered houses separated by small lots and gardens. On the other side of Novogrodska was the attractive building where Barash and Rabbi Rosman lived. Behind the building were the large, spacious Judenrat vegetable gardens, with a barn and a tall haystack in the middle. On the right was the high ghetto wall and along the wall the small dirt streets of Gorna and Smolna.

I pushed into the crowd, making my way through Ciepla Street. What was I thinking about at that time? I don’t know. I only know that I hurried a great deal, since the last minutes were nearing. Suddenly I saw my mother in the crowd. I wanted to slip by without stopping. I was afraid of the meeting, afraid to see her in the transport. I feared to see her wrinkled face, prematurely old, her gray hair. I was afraid to see her alone. I moved back, cowardly, as if fleeing from a battlefield, but she caught sight of me.

“Chaikele, where are you going?”

I kept still, kissed her on her dry lips, and fled. I never saw her again …

When I reached Ciepla the crowding was eased. In the triangle between Ciepla, Novogrodska and Smolna our comrades of the fighting organization were stirring. Many moved back and forth, the guns obvious under their coats.

They discussed the plan: to break through the fence and to clear a path for the crowd behind us. In the ghetto itself no Germans were to be seen, except for those standing along the length of the far side of Yuroviecka Street, looking toward the ghetto. We tried to estimate the size of their forces but could not get a clear picture. We decided to open the attack without considering the enemy’s strength. There was no alternative; it was the only strategy. We knew that we would be the first to fall; that the vanguard, the attackers, would be under heavy fire and perhaps only a few would break through. The masses were behind us; if the barricade was broken. they would flee by the thousands. More than 20,000 Jews were at the concentration site—dozens would fall, hundreds might succeed; if hundreds fell, thousands might win. We would be the bridge to life for these people. We would make a way for the masses with our guns. Behind the fence was a broad suburb with twisting paths; from there the way was open to the forest.

Two fighters, one of them the Communist Zalman, who had been in a partisan group and had returned to the ghetto, would hide until dark (they were forbidden to enter the battle) and would come out of the ghetto at night to call their group to aid and assemble all those who had fled. Anyone leaving the ghetto alive had his place among the partisans. The staff as a whole voted in favor of the plan. Weapons were distributed, a hundred rifles, in addition to the pistols and grenades. There were many fighters; more than 200 remained unarmed, or only had hand weapons, for self-defense. There was one old machine gun, and it was given to Nahum Abelevich, as we had promised.

He left the room, his face shining. The few automatic guns were distributed. Most of the girls remained unarmed, but they had a different task. The sabotage and incendiary groups were comprised mostly of girls. Others were couriers, and some were nurses. They had small arms. We would have to liquidate the guards and the patrols. Here the girls rebelled and refused to relinquish their roles. The staff, too, did not yield; they were to start the fighting: That was a fast decision. Only Mordechai and Daniel would remain in the room. A chain of runners was set up and the sectors along the fence divided. The division was not difficult; it was done according to cells and sectors. I found myself in the sector which included the Smolna front.

We parted from Mordechai certain that we would see each other again but we never did. Mordechai surprised me in these last moments. His room was orderly—the beds were made, there was a colorful cloth on the table. From a closet against the wall Mordechai took the arms that had been brought from this sector’s stores. His hair was combed, he wore a gray suit, his collar buttoned, and his boots polished. He sat at the table, listening to the runners’ reports. He listened without responding, did not curse; not once did I hear his favorite “holeira.” He heard each one to the end, and briefly gave his order:

“Don’t shoot at the Germans along Yuroviecka Street. If they try to enter our area, and the war sectors, don’t let them. Shoot.”

“Try to look over the roofs of the houses toward the fence. Impossible? Then creep close to the fence and look through a hole. Do this slowly with­out making a sound.”

Was this Mordechai, the nervous, dynamic, quick-responding Mordechai, so easily enthused? True, his eyes burned, but his movements were deliberate and his answers were direct and clear. Was this the Mordechai whose imagination often ran away with him, whose enthusiasm so often deprived him of his equanimity? This surely was a new Mordechai. This was a commander who knew why he was doing his job.

When I informed him that the members of the staff of the other sector had all decided to go into battle, he replied:

“Right, very right. I was going to suggest that to them, but it was hard. Nu, good luck.”

He no longer looked at us. Mordechai, who, whenever a comrade left on a dangerous mission grew emotional and followed him with ardent glances, Mordechai who was so enthusiastic about people; there was no memory of that Mordechai today. There was only the reality of the liquidation of the remainder of Polish Jewry, of the last ghetto, apparently, and the fact of the approaching battle.

Daniel was quiet as usual. He, too, did not become emotional, and gave his advice deliberately and logically. Mordechai gave orders while looking at Daniel. I saw their glances meeting, and their lips moving in agreement. Daniel was pale and his cheeks were sunken. His face was pleasant even though tuberculosis had wasted it. From Kartuz Bereza, the infamous concentration camp of semifascist Poland, he had come with his tuberculosis to the command table in the ghetto.

This is the last picture, engraved in my memory, of the staff room of the revolt in the Bialystok Ghetto: the small room at 13 Ciepla Street, Mordechai and Daniel at the table covered with a colored cloth, the map of the ghetto spread out before them, the closet open wide, with arms inside.

The two men had only known each other for a few weeks. I stood by the table for a long moment and looked out of the low window. The sun shone through the window. It was hot in the room.

“Didn’t we decide that you would leave the ghetto this morning?” Daniel didn’t raise his eyes from the table. He asked in a whisper, as if seeking not to break the last shared silence.

“I decided not to go. You can’t force me, can you?”

Daniel was silent. I quietly opened the door and left. From behind I could feel their eyes on my back. It seemed to me that it was getting warmer. I unbuttoned my coat and turned toward the position; it was after 9. It would start very soon.

We found a house on Smolna Street, wooden one-story, with an attic, standing at the edge of the Judenrat’s big garden. In front, it faced the fence. The house was empty, belongings were scattered on the unmade beds and on the large family table. There were pillows and feather beds, blankets, and on the table the dishes from yesterday’s meal. The tenants had apparently gone to the transport. Zerah commanded this sector.

Nothing. He caught a glimpse of the railway embankment. No military movement was visible; the embankment hid what was going on behind it. Ten o’clock approached. Suddenly a pillar of fire shot up to the sky, not far from us. That was the signal. We set fire to the haystack, to inform every sector, all positions and sabotage groups scattered through the ghetto. (According to plan, the action was to be concentrated, and sudden.) Immediately afterward we heard explosions from the other side of the ghetto, and columns of fire rose in the distance. We knew that the girls had completed their mission. Where Ruvchik was and what happened at Judenrat we did not know. Fabryehna Street was in flames, and the explosions continued. The canvas factory was burning. Another blast, and the barn was demolished. From the Novogrodska sector shouts of “hurrah” were heard, with distant echoes. “Hurrah,” we all answered. We were breaking out. The fence was in front of us. We shot, and advanced. First there was silence. They weren’t shooting back. Where was the enemy? Where was he hiding? We were at the fence, trying to surmount it.

“Ach, Gott,” we heard a cry right near us. Here they were, hiding along the fence. We heard shooting. They were falling and groaning, not attacking us. They were frightened. “Hu … raaa …” the whole world shook, moved and we were reeling with the power of the guns roaring all along the fence. Suddenly we were under fire. One man lay in his blood. The house went up in flames; the adjoining houses were also burning like matchboxes. The house was no longer a shelter, we had to retreat. We abandoned it and reached the broad parks on Novogrodska Street. In the other sectors, too, our comrades were retreating. Fire was consuming the houses, and we were standing in the open field where the enemy could easily see us. It would be a face-to-face battle.

Now they were shooting from the embankment. They, too, had retreated, firing with heavy weapons. A machine gun began its rat-a-tat of death. Those behind the fence, who had shouted “Ach, Gott!” were using rifles, a sign that they were prepared and were ready for the revolt. Only guards armed with rifles stood along the fence. The machine gun rattled over our heads. We repeatedly attacked, and retreated.

I remember that I shot, fell, arose and ran to the fence, and then retreated with the others. I hit the barbed wire and my feet bled. I was filthy, covered with mud and soot. I shouted “hurrah” with the rest and clung to the ground with the others when the German fire grew heavier. I heard the wounded groaning, and saw a comrade fall near me. His shout was cut off. I can still see Zerah’s coat flapping in the wind; still see Gedalyahu, the air still trembles from his swift movements, his blind running at the head of the attacking unit.

“Hey, chevra, hurrah, forward,” his excited voice still reverberates. Avremele, Yentel, and Sonka and all the young people who ran with us and fell, got up again and though wounded, stormed ahead, Lonchik and Meir and all the rest …

There was sick Leibush; Chaia, the veteran Communist whose hair had turned gray in the struggle; Lilka, swift of movement despite her age, Lilka Malerevich—the last words she said as she stood to my left and ran after me, to advance and to fall, to cling to the ground and again get up and run toward the enemy, still ring in my ears: “Forward, forward, we have nothing to lose,” shouting to me, to the comrades, to the wounded, and perhaps also to the comrade who had fallen to my right.There was a field ahead of us, strewn with bodies. The battle was growing more fierce. The day, too, was getting hotter: The shooting became more intense; a heavy machine gun thundered in the air, silencing the voices of revenge. The garden, Novogrodska and Smolna Streets were strewn with dead bodies. All along the fence they lay. The sun was already high in the sky, the sound of shooting from the ghetto became fainter. There was no ammunition, no heavy machine guns. The gate on Fabryehna Street, closed and unused, was suddenly opened, and a heavy tank crawled towards Ciepla Street. It stopped suddenly; it was apparently hit by a Molotov cocktail.

There were more tanks in front of us.

People from the crowd began to join us. Ordinary people who had not been organized into cells, one woman I recognized. All kinds of derogatory things had been said about her, now she was shouting to the crowd: “Come on, what are you waiting for?” She ran past me, followed by policemen. I recognized them, Gedalyahu’s colleagues, the best of them. They had always obeyed him and he had been helped by them. Factory workers, their faces furrowed with wrinkles, their clothes tattered; not many joined us, only a few dozen, but it was encouraging. Once again we attempted to break through the Germans’ armed chain. Perhaps a way could be opened for the masses lying on their bundles in nearby Yuroviecka Street.

A plane droned overhead. It flew low, made a number of turns and disappeared. It came back, strafing us in the fields and the streets. The Germans at the embankment did not shoot even once at the masses nearby. Was it a trick? Certainly. Two columns of SS drew near, one after the other, carefully, stealthily, one from Ciepla, the other from the corner of Ciepla and Yuroviecka. Two columns, with their automatic weapons. Until now Germans had not been seen in the area of the fighting ghetto. The tanks had not succeeded. Now they sent in SS infantry. We shot at them, but the battle­field was narrowing. Many of them fell, but the column was long; they moved ahead and fired, came closer and kept firing. They came toward me from the direction of Yuroviecka-Smolna, closing the route between the masses and us. They surrounded us with blasts of fire. The SS ordered the people to lie down. We heard the commands coming from Yuroviecka Street.

Liegen! Don’t raise your heads! We will shoot all resisters, be careful.”

They meant to isolate us from the crowds. They were protecting them from the bullets, and were aiming at the reckless rebels.

“Hey, braves, attack once more!”

We were isolated. Our ammunition was gone, there were many victims. The large groups would no longer come after us; we would not be able to draw them to the forests to join the struggle for freedom for the Jew. We had killed Germans, had fought, had become a bridge of bodies, but the masses would not break out. The Germans had used heavy arms for the revolt. The people would not dare break through after us. They were too weak.

The columns came closer and the encirclement was almost complete. Then the order came to try to break through the approaching columns and join the groups on Gorna Street. Our single machine gunner was ordered to cover the retreat. I moved, and reached the house. Behind me I heard shooting. I pressed against the wall and felt a wave of hot air, and then heard a whistle. Plaster fell at my feet. A bullet hit the wall just a few centimeters away from me.

The house was built of stone and brick, a strong building. Its other side faced Yuroviecka Street. The pistol in my hand was no longer of any use; my grenades and ammunition had run out. I had my worn coat on my back and my summer shoes on my feet. Feet and face were dirty with blood and mud, my mouth burned and my heart beat strongly. Behind me were the battlefield, the Germans and the comrades, many of whom apparently would also break through the encirclement. Before the frightened people lying on their bundles on Yuroviecka Street. Now Ciepla, too, was closed off by the second column. There was no longer any passage to Gorna. In the distance, isolated shooting could still be heard from the sides of the battlefield, Smolna and Ciepla. Our comrades whose shooting it was not difficult to distinguish, had evidently not managed to break out of the trap, and were firing their last bullets at the enemy. I tried to steal into Ciepla Street, to get to Gorna but did not succeed. I had lost my group, my comrades, and before me was only the transport. It was already between 3 and 4 in the after­noon. I stood in the crowd searching for comrades; perhaps someone else had also come here instead of getting to Gorna Street. It was hard to search; people stood and sat huddled together. Faint echoes of isolated shooting still reached my ears, but it was clear: The battle was over.

Do not weep over the graves of heroes; do not weep and do not feel pity. It is not pity you are asked to give the world but deeds that will free mankind from the nightmare of oppression and enslavement.

Look. Here is the grave. Here the last of the rebels was buried. They were 71 in number. Here they were shot, and here they fell, proud and with honor. Here, in this rubbish heap, they were buried. Look at the remains of their faces, at their fingers, that have not yet decayed. No, no, don’t cry! Look at the clenched fists; they do not arouse pity. Death with a clenched fist, with your last few bullets in your pocket, is not so tragic. In the pockets of their coats, eaten by the vermin, you will find the last bullets they left for themselves. That was a sign they were not so wretched in their dying.

In 1948, the bodies of the rebels were taken out of the rubbish heap and buried in the graveyard on Zabie Street, the ghetto cemetery. On the 16th of August, 1948, on the fifth anniversary of the revolt, a monument was set up over the grave of the last 71 rebels, the last among the fighters, the last to fall. They held out for a whole week against the automatic fire of the Germans, covering every bit of ground in the ghetto. For a whole week they battled under the ground, and fought on. Today you can visit their grave and see the monument standing proudly. Five years after they fell, their remains were taken out of the grave underneath the garbage heap, the remains of their clothing and bodies. The sight of the torn and vermin-eaten limbs brought to Jewish burial was frightful. But no one wept over their grave. Readers, do not weep either! But do not close your hearts and your ears. Listen to the voices rising from the grave. See and remember, but don’t weep …

I was in the transport, it suddenly occurred to me. Was I going to go with the transport? In all my activity in the underground I had fought against going there like sheep to the slaughter … Every day and night, I told myself and others: “Don’t allow them to take us!” I searched among the crowd. Except for the black, slowly moving mass, I saw nothing on Yuroviecka Street, the bright sun was beating down on the black mass.


Poles and the Holocaust: A Reckoning With History

The tragic reality is that most Poles were neither heroes nor demons but simply watched in silence while Jews were being taken away under their eyes.

On the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the ghettos of the region of southern German-occupied Poland known as Zaglembie, the Zaglembie World Organization and the World Jewish Congress organized a week-long pilgrimage–from July 27 to Aug. 3, 2018–of survivors and descendants of survivors from the area to Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Będzin, Sosnowiec, Zawiercie, and other once heavily Jewish towns. This article is adapted from a lecture delivered by Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, to the participants of the trip in Krakow on July 28, 2018. Parts of the lecture not included in this article can be found in Rosensaft’s Feb. 22, 2018. Poles and the Holocaust in Historical Perspective,”

S’tut vey!
S’tut shrecklekh vey!

It hurts!

It hurts terribly!

When not the foreign enemy,

But they!

Poland’s sons and daughters

Whose country, one day,

Will be ashamed of them.

Laughing, choking with laughter,

Seeing on the street

How our common enemy

Amuses himself with Jews.

Beating and torturing old people

Plundering without restraints,

Cutting, as one cuts bread,

The beards off Jews,

And they,

Who are now, like us,

Left without a homeland,

Who now feel, as do we,

The savage enemy’s hand,

Laugh, are happy and laugh,

At such a moment,

When Poland’s pride and honor

Is being so abased.

When Poland’s white eagle

Wallows on the ground,

Amidst beards.

– Krakow, 1940

This verse of a haunting poem was not written retrospectively in 2018 by someone intent on harming Polish-Jewish relations. And its words’ validity cannot be challenged on the ground that they do not provide specific names and dates to disprove the present-day mythology that most Poles during the years of the Shoah saved Jews, helped Jews, or at the very least were sympathetic to the plight of their Jewish neighbors.

The poem I just read was written in Kraków in February 1940 by Mordecai Gebirtig, one of the greatest Yiddish poets and songwriters of the first half of the 20th century if not of all times.

We all know his poems and songs—including Kinderyorn (Childhood years), Hulyet, hulyet kinderlekh (play, play little children), and the lullaby, Yankele, among many others. The song most associated with him–S’brentIt is burning – has become a classic song at Holocaust commemorations. However, it is important for us to bear in mind that S’brent was written in 1938, before the outbreak of World War II, not in response to Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany, but as a reaction to a March 1936 pogrom in the Polish town of Przytyk.

I begin this article with Gebirtig’s words as a reminder of the context of the Polish-Jewish – or, if one prefers, Jewish-Polish – relationship as it existed in and before 1939, before Jews were deported to and murdered in death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka.

Yes, there were close ties binding Jews and Poles together. Yes, Jews had lived in Poland for centuries, as one can see in the magnificent Polin Museum in Warsaw. But there was also a long tradition of Polish antisemitism, rooted heavily in the Catholic Church’s negative attitude toward Jews that prevailed prior to the Vatican’s 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration that – in its most basic interpretation – repudiated the charge of deicide against the Jewish people, that it was the Jews who had killed Jesus.

In a 1936 pastoral letter, Cardinal August Hlond, then the Primate of Poland, wrote:

It is an actual fact that the Jews fight against the Catholic Church, they are free thinkers, and constitute the vanguard of atheism, Bolshevism and revolution. The Jewish influence upon morals is fatal, and the publishers spread pornographic literature. It is also true that the Jews are committing frauds, practicing usury, and dealing in white slavery. It is true that in the schools, the Jewish youth is having an evil influence, from an ethical and religious point of view, upon the Catholic youth.

Even though he commented almost parenthetically that “not all the Jews are, however, like that,” and called on his flock to refrain from violence against Jews, Hlond advocate an economic boycott of Jewish businesses. Specifically, he wrote in the same pastoral letter that, “One does well to prefer his own kind in commercial dealings and to avoid Jewish stores and Jewish stalls in the markets,” he wrote, “but it is not permissible to demolish Jewish businesses. One should protect oneself against the evil influence of Jewish morals, and particularly boycott the Jewish press and the Jewish demoralizing publications, but it is inadmissible to assault, hit, or injure the Jews.”

In other words, the pre-Shoah state of Polish-Jewish relations were hardly idyllic. There was a quota–a numerus clausus–for Jews at universities, and Jewish students were forced to sit in segregated sections, called Ghetto benches–geto lawkowe.

In his book, No Way Out: The Politics of Polish Jewry 1935-1939, historian Emanuel Melzer described the heavily antisemitic atmosphere that prevailed in Poland just prior to the outbreak of World War II. While liberal groups such as the newly formed Democratic Party condemned anti-Jewish measures, the nationalist Endek (Narodowa Demokracja) movement made no secret of its antisemitic orientation. “Jews must be warned against the belief that the will to get rid of them in Poland has weakened,” declared the National Party’s newspaper, Warszawski Dziennik Narodowy (Warsaw National Daily), on April 6, 1939.

This, incidentally, was nothing new. Back in August of 1934, JTA, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, reported that:

The Endek party carries on an intense and widely spread anti-Semitic propaganda campaign which hints of possible pogroms, both in the press and in the open, at secret meetings and at public gatherings. Never do the leaders of the Endeks allow an opportunity to slip by without inciting the public against the Jews. The spreading of this anti-Semitic propaganda is one of the underlying principles of the party. The war on Jews is one of the Endek’s chief commandments.

Melzer noted that in 1939, heightened anti-Semitic propaganda came from certain Polish business and professional associations as well. The meeting of the Association of Polish Merchants in March 1939 approved the sending of a memorandum to the minister of industry and trade demanding that the business permits of a sizable portion of Jewish-owned enterprises not be renewed… Similarly, the Union of Engineers’ Organization had resolved to include an “Aryan paragraph” in its bylaws, meaning that no Jew, spouse of a Jew, or person of Jewish descent could be a member of the association… In conferences held in the spring of 1939, OZON’s Young Poland League spoke of the need to prepare Polish youth to replace Jews in industry and commerce, and the state Foreign Trade Council withheld import licenses not only from certain Jewish importers but even from a number of Jews who had converted to Christianity.

Lest anyone think that the Zaglembie region of Poland was immune from such poisonous atmospherics, I refer us all to Mary Fulbrook’s book, A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust, in which she describes the prevailing anti-Semitic atmosphere of the pre-war years in Będzin, including frequent beatings of Jewish children by their Polish counterparts. One survivor, Leah Melnik, is quoted as recalling about her childhood in Będzin: “The non-Jews were very anti-Semitic . . . They say ‘Jews to Palestine’. ‘It’s your house but our street.’”

It is against this background that we need to examine what truly happened in Poland during the years of the Holocaust.

As we are all too painfully aware, Polish-Jewish relations generally, and relations between Poland and Israel more narrowly, have been in turmoil for the past six months since the Polish Sejm, the Polish parliament, enacted legislation that would have criminalized accusing Poland qua Poland of perpetrating and or helping to perpetrate the Shoah. I discussed this development and its implication in my Tablet Magazine article of February 22, 2018, “Poles and the Holocaust in Historical Perspective.”

As we also know, the Polish Government has since retreated from its hardline position, and the Sejm has amended the legislation to remove the criminal dimension.

I do not propose to comment today on the law or the controversy surrounding it. Rather, I would like to place the role–or, better, roles–of Poles during the Shoah in proper historical perspective.

Indeed, the debate over the new law has gotten out of hand. Earlier this year, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared hyperbolically that “Poland as a nation, Poland as a state” deserves to be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. This, as we know–or as we should know–is utterly inaccurate, to say the least. And the situation is not helped by others who, adopting the same misguided or deliberately misleading approach, over-emphasize with propagandist zeal the heroic role played by those Poles–a small minority–who rescued or helped Jews. It does not help matter when a highly controversial Polish priest, Tadeusz Rydzyk, whose Catholic radio station Maryja has long been a purveyor of anti-Semitic screeds, has become one of the proponents of a new Polish museum to focus exclusively on Righteous Poles, implying that they were the norm rather than the all too rare exception.

Unfortunately, comments such as the widely-publicized remark by Israeli Member of Knesset and former Finance Minister Yair Lapid that “Poland was complicit in the Holocaust” similarly misses the mark. They are reminiscent of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s reported observation in 1989 that Poles absorb their antisemitism “with their mother’s milk,” and Israeli Minister of Tourism Gideon Patt’s statement at around the same time that Poles “were anti-Semites before the Holocaust and they were anti-Semites after the Holocaust.”

The truth is far more complicated and far more complex than either extreme of the present debate would have it, and it does not lend itself to facile sound bites. While Poland as a national or political entity as such was not–and cannot be held to have been–complicit in the Holocaust, large numbers of Poles physically handed Jews to the Germans and otherwise betrayed them. Princeton historian and sociologist Jan Gross described in his book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabme, Poland, how the inhabitants of a town in the east of Poland rounded up hundreds of Jews in July of 1941, forced them into a barn, and burned them alive.

Even larger numbers of Poles simply watched in silence while Jews were being taken away under their eyes, and then proceeded to take over their Jewish neighbors’ homes and belongings. And after the war, when the few Jewish survivors returned to what had been their homes, they were far too often greeted with hostility and worse. On July 4, 1946, a mob in the Polish city of Kielce killed 42 Jews in a pogrom that Polish Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati would recognize fifty years later in a letter to the World Jewish Congress as an “act of Polish anti-Semitism.”

There is no question that the Poles who risked their lives to help and/or rescue Jews during the Holocaust deserve to be recognized and honored. They are heroes in the truest sense of the term. The reality, however, is that their actions were in stark contrast with the behavior and attitudes of most of their compatriots. We must never lose sight of the tragic reality that the Poles who came to the aid of Jews were the exception – a small minority – and certainly not the rule.

It is a fact that as of December 2017, 6,706 Poles–more than from any other Nazi-occupied country–have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. In addition, there were certainly many other Poles who hid or otherwise helped Jews in the years of the Holocaust. But then again, according to Polish-American historian Anna M. Cienciala writing in The Polish Review in 2001, “In 1939, Poland had an estimated population of almost 35,000,000, of which about 70% or 24,500,000 were ethnic Poles, and about 3,300,000 were Jews. There were also about 4,500,000 Ukrainians, some 1,500,000 Belorussians, about 1,000,000 Germans and a few other ethnic groups.” Other demographic estimates are along the same lines.

The above-mentioned 6,706 Poles constituted about .0021 percent of Poland’s overall population (not including Polish Jewry), and about .0027 percent of the country’s ethnic Polish population.

It is also a fact that many Poles who helped Jews have not been recognized by Yad Vashem because they were never nominated to be listed among the Righteous. Others remain unknown because they were ultimately unsuccessful in their altruistic and humanitarian endeavors. But this does not alter the fundamental reality that the Poles who rescued or otherwise helped Jews made up a tiny proportion of the population as a whole.

As historian Yehuda Bauer pointed out in a recent interview on Israeli radio, “Even if we assume that the real figure is 200,000, out of 21 million Poles, that’s only one percent. What about the other 99 percent?”

I will briefly comment about the bulk of the other 99 percent a little later.

The Poles are on safe historical ground when they view themselves as victims of Nazism. The German occupation of Poland during World War II was particularly savage, with thousands of Poles shot in the aftermath of Poland’s military defeat, and thousands of Polish intellectuals, teachers and priests killed in 1940 as part of a campaign to eradicate the Polish intelligentsia. The Germans also sent hundreds of thousands of Poles to Auschwitz and other concentration and labor camps, and deported at least 1.5 million Poles to Germany as forced laborers. Indeed, non-Jewish Poles constituted the second largest group of victims murdered at Auschwitz – according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 960,000 Jews, 74,000 Poles, and 21,000 Roma perished in that death camp.

It is also a fact that the London-based Government of the Republic of Poland in exile (Rząd Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej na uchodźstwie) provided some of the earliest detailed accounts of the German mass killings of Jews. Based on information received from the Polish government-in-exile, the World Jewish Congress in London reported on June 29, 1942, that more than one million Jews had been massacred since the beginning of World War II, that Jews deported to Poland from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands were being shot at the rate of 1,000 daily, that close to another million were imprisoned in ghettos, and that 10,232 Jews had died in the Warsaw Ghetto from hunger and disease.

In the Swiss capital, Bern, a group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists known as the Bernese Group produced illegal Latin American passports that were sent to Jews in Poland – including in Zaglembie – in the hope that they might provide them with the opportunity to escape. This initiative involved bribing Latin American diplomats and honorary consuls to obtain blank passports, which were then manually forged; working with other Jews in Switzerland with contacts within different ghettos, including a Jew from Będzin, Alfred Schwartzbaum, to compile lists of Jews for whom these passports could be created; and then smuggling the fake passports to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Będzin, and to ghettos in other parts of Poland. Even though many of these documents never reached their intended recipients, some did result in their holders being placed in internment camps, rather than sent to extermination camps. In all, the Bernese Group issued more than a thousand such passports, and succeeded in saving hundreds of Jews from certain death.

Within Poland itself, meanwhile, some members of the underground formed a Council for Aid to Jews, known as Żegota, which provided physical and monetary assistance to Jews living clandestinely among the Polish population. One of the most heroic Żegota activists was a nurse, Irena Sendler, who is credited with helping to smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and providing them with forged identity papers and shelter. These Poles risked their and their families’ lives to help Jews since the punishment for doing so was death.

This is the side of the equation that portrays wartime Poles as today’s Polish authorities want them to be portrayed: victims of the Nazis, and friends and rescuers of Polish Jewry. It is an important aspect of Polish history that must not be ignored or downplayed.

However, there is also a darker, more sinister dimension to Polish history during World War II that many Poles do not want to talk about, but with which Polish Jews who lived through the Holocaust in Poland were all too familiar. The fact is that Jews were regularly betrayed by Poles who demanded to be paid for providing what proved to be precarious shelter. To be sure, many Poles hid Jews for altruistic reasons, but others did so exclusively out of greed and without any moral or humane considerations.

In his book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski relates (at p. 61) the tragic story of Rywka Glückmann and her two sons who were given shelter in Dabrowa Tarnowska, not far from Tarnów, by Michał Kozik from 1942 until 1944 “as long as they paid him. Once the money was gone, Kozik murdered the three of them with an axe.” Jews “hiding across the street . . . heard the howls of the murdered and the next day learned that theGlückmanns were dead.” Grabowski estimates (at p. 172) that as many as 200,000 Jews were killed by Poles.

In April of this year, the Warsaw-based Polish Center for Holocaust Research published a two-volume study edited by Barabara Engelking and Jan Grabowski entitled Night Continues: The Fate of the Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland. The unsettling conclusion of this monumental work is that two-thirds of the Jews who hid in the nine regions in Poland covered by the study did not survive World War II, either because they were killed by Poles, or because Poles handed them over to the Germans who proceeded to kill them

For anyone who wants to know the gruesome details inherent in being a Jew in Poland during World War II, I highly recommend Polish historian Barbara Engelking’s outstanding book, Such a Beautiful Sunny Day: Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945, first published in Polish in 2011, and in English translation by Yad Vashem in 2016.

Engelking describes how “Uszer Szajnberg was captured and betrayed by an acquaintance and a classmate, Bonifacy Gluchowski. Szajnberg was hiding with a group of Jews in the forest and fields near Skarżyny (Płońsk County), their native village. His sister, Chaja Comber, and his cousin Chana Zelizer testified during the investigation about what took place on June 11, 1944:

We were hidden in the Skarżyński fields, in Gajki, in barley, which had grown pretty high by then. […] Uszer Szajnberg came out of the hideout for a moment. He wanted to get some information about what was going on in the world. He came across Szczurowski, who told him that the Red Army would liberate us before long. […] Then Bolesław Zalewski and Julian [Bonifacy] Gluchowski, who were busy hunting down the hiding Jews … noticed my brother, and started hitting him, saying, “You’ve lived long enough; come to the Germans,” [and then] brought him to the sołtys [the village elder]. […] Gluchowski was Uszer’s schoolmate. Uszer begged Gluchowski not to turn him in. […] The sołtys didn’t want to detain my brother and told them, “If you detained him, keep him.” Then my brother tore himself out of their hands and started running away. Zalewski threw his jacket at him, which made him stumble and in this fashion he and Gluchowski managed to capture him, and, holding him by the arm,took him to some German field gendarmes that happened to pass by and handed him over as a Jew. The gendarmes took my brother to the forest in Kałuszyn, where they shot him. […] We watched the whole incident, from our hiding place in the barley.

Engelking then quotes Jankiel Kopiec’s account of how in June, 1943, his classmates attacked eight members of his family, who had found refuge with a peasant, Wincenty Malecki, in the settlement of Piaseczno (Sandomierz County):

They robbed them of everything, even took off the little child’s shoes, and led them out into the forest. […] In the forest they cast lots among themselves as to who would carry out the sentence. Aware that my brother, my cousin and I were alive, no one wanted to commit the murder, fearing revenge. At long last they decided that they would take all the victims to the gendarmerie. Because it was late, they brought them to the nearest police station, so that they might be delivered to the gendarmerie the next day. The village council designated one man as an escort. It was… Józef Osomlak from Łoniewo. En route my brother tried to get away, but Osomlak caught up with him, tore a railing out of the fence and beat him until he lost consciousness. When my brother fainted, Osomlak summoned several peasants, who loaded him onto a cart, tied him up, and in this condition turned him over to the gendarmerie. Later I received news that all of them had been shot to death in the Jewish cemetery.

Engelking goes on to write that “To encourage Poles to denounce Jews, the Germans established a system of rewards. Ignacy Goldstein, who was hiding in a forest near Opatów, noted the following in his testimony:

Almost everyday peasants caught Jews in hiding. The Germans rewarded these ‘services’ in various ways. At first, for each captured Jew, they offered a sack of sugar and a liter of spirits. Later, trackers only got the clothing of the captured victim.

Engelking quotes Abraham Śniadowicz who recalled that peasants from the Ostrołęka area formed “gangs that searched for Jews and betrayed them to the Germans. For each captured Jew a peasant received 3 kg of sugar from the gendarmerie. This new way of ‘earning’ was very popular in the surrounding villages. Peasants ran around like scalded cats, looking for Jews in hiding.”

Other Holocaust survivors similarly recalled that there were Poles who literally hunted Jews for the remuneration they were promised by the Germans. Samuel Pivnick, a survivor from Będzin, recalled in an oral history maintained at the United States Holocaust Museum how Poles would betray and denounce Jews to the Germans in return for half a kilo of sugar or a kilo of marmalade.

To be sure, Engelking also acknowledges those Poles who showed compassion and helped Jews. She describes Wanda Kinrus’ “great surprise” when the sołtys to whom she and her sister were taken by a Polish boy after escaping from the ghetto in Szczebrzeszyn not only did not betray them to the Germans, but fed them and helped then get to Warsaw by train. “Similar behavior,” Engelking continued, “was exhibited by the sołtys of the village of Chotcza Górna (Lipsko County), who knew Brandla Fajn from childhood and rescued her when she was betrayed by children in the village:

“In November,” Brandla Fajn subsequently recalled, “when we were hiding in bulrushes by the river, we were noticed by boys hunting wild ducks; they recognized us and let the village know that Jews were hiding. They came to us. First they wanted to turn us over to the Germans, but later they changed their minds and decide d to kill us themselves. They bludgeoned us with sticks, and when they thought we were dead, they left. […] Later, peasant children once again betrayed us to the patrols in the neighboring village, but the localsołtysrescued us there too. In this fashion, hiding, and incited against all the time, we survived until the liberation.”

And then there were the szmalcowniks, the extortionists and blackmailers who preyed on Jews hiding outside ghetto walls. They added considerably to the terror confronted daily by those Polish Jews who had managed to avoid deportation to the death camps.

It has been suggested that while Jews may have been persecuted and even killed by Poles elsewhere in Poland, things were different in Zaglembie. “Give us names of Poles who betrayed Jews,” I am often told by one particular individual who wants to portray the local residents of my parents’ region as having behaved more decently, more honorably, toward their Jewish neighbors than Poles in other parts of the country. I wish this were the case. Unfortunately, it is not – and the individual who disingenuously asks for the information know it.

To begin with, while survivors knew the names of the identities of the Poles who helped or even saved them, they are unlikely to have known who had betrayed them or their families, or other Jews for that matter. Even if they came face to face with Poles who had denounced them, they may well not have known their names. And many, probably most, of the Jews who were betrayed or blackmailed by Poles were soon murdered.

Also, I am advised by Barbara Engelking that the Polish Center of Holocaust Research has not yet focused on Zaglembie–it is not one of the regions discussed in the Center’s study published earlier this year.

My father was once asked whether he still believed in God after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. His response was that while he did not hold God responsible for the Shoah, he also would not award Him any medals.

It is true, of course, that there were courageous Poles in Zaglembie who risked their and their families lives to help Jews. These admirable individuals include:

Mother Teresa Kierocińska whose convent of Carmelite nuns in Sosnowiec gave shelter to Jewish children and provided food to Jews in hiding.

Andrzej and Marta Skop and Antoni and Józefa Błoński of Będzin who saved the life of a Jewish boy, Tzvi Norich.

Wanda Hornik, also of Będzin, who hid Emma Grunpeter and her daughter Gerda.

Waleria and Jan Jurkiewicz, and their daughter, Olga Kozłowska-Jurkiewicz, of Czeladź, who hid Janina Imerglik and her two-year-old son.

Władysława Pałka of Będzin, who saved the life of eight-year-old Łazarz Krakowski.

Stanisław and Stanisława Grzybowski of Będzin, and his daughter Wanda Grzybowska-Kafarska and her husband Kazimierz Kafarski of the village of Przeciszów, who protected and cared for ten-year-old Itzhak Kleinman.

These individuals, and others like them from Zagliembie, were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, and they deserve every possible measure of gratitude. But–and I cannot emphasize this fundamental fact strongly enough–they constituted a small, very small minority of Zaglembie’s overall population.

At the same time, there exists ample evidence that most Poles in Zaglembie did not have any different attitudes about, and did not behave differently towards, Jews than Poles in other parts of German-occupied Poland.

Historian Alina Skibinska of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, who is the representative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Warsaw, has provided me with the following examples taken from the files of the courts in Katowice and Sosnowiec, and the files of the Prosecutor’s Office of the Regional Court in Sosnowiec:

–Anna Lewińska of Dąbrowa Górnicza was accused, among other things, of informing the German authorities that another resident of the town, Marcjanna Gałecka, had been hiding a Jew. She was condemned to death, but her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and she was released in 1954.

–Noculak Franciszek from Będzin was accused of handing over a Jewish woman to the German police in 1943.

–Bajor Wacław was charged with denouncing Jews to the German police during the German occupation, and of taking part in the murder of Poles and Jews in the town of Brzezina.

–Eugeniusz Pompa and Henryk Mucha were charged with beating a Jew who had been in hiding, and delivering him the gendarmerie station in Żarki.

–Anna Kędra was accused of denouncing two Jews she had hidden in Zawiercie in October 1943, and of showing the German police the hiding place of the 6-year old daughter of one of these two Jews.

–Józef Porst was accused of being a member in the SA in 1940-43 in Olkusz, and taking part in the deportations of Jews, extorting furniture and other valuables from members of the Jewish community, kicking Jews and forcing them to pay him money. He was entenced to 6 months in prison, forfeiture of property, and loss of public rights for belonging to SA. Among the witnesses against him were Tobiasz Zylberszac, Josek, and Chaim Rotner.

–Klara Kowalska and Jan Sapinski were sentenced to death for denouncing Chaja Strauch, Felicja Strauch, Maria Warman, Pola Warman, Janina Birman and Helena Chmielnicki Lejbowiczowa to the German police in Sosnowiec in 1944.

–Antonina Pala was suspected of either handing over to the German authorities or drowning in the river two Jewish children. Antonina Pala testified that she had hidden two children, Renia and Josek Ainfeld, in Sosnowiec since 1943, and that one day, a Jew named Bruno came and took the two children to hide them elsewhere. Witness Eugeniusz Paszkowski testified that the father of the two children sent a letter from Sweden to the witness’ wife after the war, asking if she knew what happened to his children. Antonina Pala said when told about the letter: “Let him kiss my ass.”

–Marcin Jaźwierski was accused by Irena Rejcher of Sosnowiec for denouncing her husband Otto Michał Andrzej Rejcher, a baptized Jew, to the German authorities. According to the report, Jaźwierski supposedly informed the police that Rejchera owned a radio, as a result of which Rejcher was arrested, deported to Auschwitz where he was executed on August 17, 1941. The case was discontinued for lack of suffidient evidence.

–Edward Wroniecki and Stefania Wroniecka were accused of denouncing a Jewish family consisting of a woman and two children who were hiding in Józefów in the home of Siedlecka Natalia in September or October of 1944. Wroniecki, in the presence of Mieczysław Lipka, informed the German police about the Jews’ whereabouts by phone, and they were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. In 1947 Wroniecki was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Wroniecka was acquitted.

Historian Aleksandra Namysło noted the following other examples in a 2006 article:

–Sara Silfen of Sosnowiec recalled that “when the Jews were forced to leave their homes, the Poles began to visit them. They often came with bags to the richer homes, casually opened the doors of the flats, reached the cupboards themselves and took the most expensive porcelain, crystals or bed linen. They left some food for it. They said with cynicism: you do not need it any more. A Polish woman came to our former neighbor, she opened the wardrobe and began to take a new bed linen, hand-embroidered tablecloths. In their place, she put down two sausages for payment. And when the neighbor mentioned that it was a dowry for her daughter, which she had been collecting for years, she replied: “Your daughter does not need it anymore.”

–During the deportations, Majer Taitelbaum of Sosnowiec took refuge with Jozef Doroz, the superintendent of the house in which he had lived before the war. Taitelbaum paid Doroz cash and valuables to hide him. In early 1944, when Taitelbaum was no longer able to pay for his upkeep, Doroz turned him over to the Gestapo. Doroz also went into Taitelbaum’s apartment, and appropriated all the furnishings and Taitelbaum’s entire wardrobe

–Luba Prawer of Sosnowiec recalled the reluctance of her Aryan sister-in-law and the sister-in-law’s sister when she turned to them for help after escaping from the ghetto. Wandering around Sosnowiec and Będzin, unsuccessfully looking for a place to hide, she observed: “The Gestapo had many helpers among the population. Especially juveniles had a fairly developed exploratory instinct and a certain routine in this episode. Catching Jews was a kind of attraction and emotion for them.”

Bella Jakubowicz Tovey recalled in an interview maintained at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum how the Jews of Sosnowiec were ordered to go to a sports stadium on the outskirts of the city. We were walking,” she said, they were walking us, not on the sidewalks but in the middle of the street, and the Poles … Polish people, non-Jews were standing on both sides of the street… There were some decent Poles, but there were many who were not. And many were standing on those sidewalks and jeering and … emjoying the spectacle. And… calling us ‘dirty Jews’ and… some were standing and crying. Not everybody was that nasty, but there were many who were very ….”

In her memoirs, Yesterday: My Story, my mother, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft,  recalled Poles and ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) who behaved altruistically and decently. “Many poles, however,” she added pointedly, “were very happy about what was happening to the Jews.”

In addition, one cannot ignore all those Poles who not only seized the opportunity to take over the homes and property of Jews taken to ghettos or sent to camps, but who refused, often violently, to return such homes and property to the few rightful owners who returned to their former homes at the end or after the war.

I want to be very clear on this point. Every Pole–every non-Jewish inhabitant of any German-occupied country for that matter–who seized Jewish homes or Jewish property for themselves became an accomplice, and accessory, to the persecution, deportation, and in most cases annihilation of their Jewish neighbors by callously profiteering from their plight.

Finally, let’s briefly focus on all those Poles, in Zaglembie and elsewhere, who did not betray or denounce Jews, but who did nothing to help them either. They were the overwhelming majority. I do not believe that we have any right to judge them – we have no way of knowing what we would have done in their place, but that does not make them heroes.

My father was once asked whether he still believed in God after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. His response was that while he did not hold God responsible for the Shoah, he also would not award Him any medals. I suppose my attitude toward Poles – and members of other nationalities for that matter – who watched in silence and did nothing while their Jewish neighbors were being deported is pretty much the same. They should not be blamed for the despicable behaviors of those Poles who voluntarily and willingly helped the Germans perpetrate the Final Solution, but they also do not deserve any credit for the altruism and heroism of those few Poles who were truly righteous.

I have tried to present what must perforce be only a cursory overview of a tragic past that unites Jews and Poles for better and, equally as much, for worse. There are Holocaust survivors who are deeply grateful to the Poles who saved them. Others loathe the Poles who betrayed them. Many espouse both sentiments simultaneously. And they have passed on their feelings and beliefs to their children and grandchildrenThis is the reality. What is most important going forward is that the tragic history of Poland and Polish Jewry during the years of the Holocaust be conveyed without distortions, without political overtones, and with absolute accuracy.


The Nazi Children’s Book You Can Still Buy on Amazon: A Review

A tale of ducks, hens, and sexually voracious crows

In the wake of a 2-week-old report detailing Amazon’s sales of burning-cross onesies and children’s backpacks featuring Pepe the Frog in an SS cap, many neo-Nazi- and KKK-influenced products are no longer for sale on the site. However, you can still buy a backpack featuring Pepe the Frog as a Muslim in a turban, and you can still buy The Fable of the Ducks and the Hens, an anti-Semitic 1959 children’s book written by George Lincoln Rockwell.

Rockwell—whose career as a children’s book author began after he dropped out of college, served in the military, and cycled through careers as an artist, graphic designer, advertising executive, traveling salesman, and founder of a magazine aimed at army wives—found his purpose as the founder of the American Nazi Party. That was when he self-published this not-so-veiled rhyming parable (you know, for kids!) about sinister chickens plotting to take over the world. It is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions. It is also available for free all over the internet, since it seems that neo-Nazis are not fervent defenders of intellectual property. I chose the version written in Comic Sans that spells Rockwell’s name wrong. But all the versions have similar garish, caricaturish illustrations, originally credited to one Robert Edwards, that feel inflected by both old Warner Bros. cartoons and World War II anti-Jewish propaganda imagery. There are several YouTube iterations of the book as well, one uploaded by the subtly monikered “Six Million 4 Truth.”

The plot concerns itself with a happy village of ducks that is suddenly disturbed by a group of hens fleeing an unspecified atrocity.

Oh let us in! these poor birds cried,

Before we do expire!

Tis only by the merest inch

That we escaped the fire!


Their feathers burned, their combs a-droop,

They were the saddest sight.

They’d run a hundred miles or more,

All day and then all night.

The ducks, suckers all, welcome the hens. The hens regain their health, get fat, send for the roosters, and start pretending to be assimilated.

To please their hosts, these chickens tried

To waddle and to quack.

To imitate the duckish ways,

They quickly learned the knack.

Eventually the ducks ask the chickens how they’ll contribute to society. Instead of working hard, like ducks, the chickens opt “to teach and write and entertain.” Soon they’re educating the ducks’ children, inculcating them in hennish values, controlling the arts, and publishing the Duckville Daily Quack.

A group of ducklings starts refusing to swim (while standing in front of a “Refugees Welcome” sign and holding a book called Wisdom for Ducks written by “A. Hen”) because chickens don’t swim. A group of chickens starts demanding admission to the Duckville swimming pool (marked with a sign saying, “Ducks Only,” which just makes sense, after all). Burlesque shows mock the “reactionary ducks.” (Rockwell’s estranged father was a former vaudevillian and friend of Groucho Marx, Fred Allen, and Benny Goodman.) A biased chicken judge rules that the pool cannot be ducks-only. A fair-minded duck tries to write a completely balanced book about how birds should be separate but equal, but the duck printer won’t publish it because the chickens hold his mortgage and own the press. The hens plot to take over the government, secretly backing a spineless duck candidate. “This is what we do,” murmurs one grinning rooster to the others. The puppet duck wins the election. The chickens aim to start a war with Gooseville—which wisely kicked out all its refugee chickens early on—and take over Swanville.

They took a vote amongst the hens,

And every one approved!

Swanville was for hens! They said

Way back, before we moved.

The chickens bring drugs to Duckville (in the edition I read, someone has labeled the existing illustration of a building “all night rave club”).

The hens were selling loco weed

In every nasty den

But ducks who dared to mention this

Were labeled anti-hen.


The hens all preached of “Tolerance”

They invoked the “Golden Rule,”

But they subsidized the indigent

The greedy and the fool.


They pumped the swimming pond all dry

They taught the ducks to crow

While duckish numbers dwindled

The hens began to grow.

The chickens encourage miscegenation by stirring up the crows—leering, frizzy-feathered, black as pitch—to come out of the trees and get married to the ducks. (In real life, Rockwell believed that Jews were behind the Civil Rights movement, secretly plotting to cause race mixing, weaken white people, and create a distraction that would let Jews take over. “They’re just natural born agitators,” he said in a 1966 interview. “They just can’t help coming in and getting everybody all stirred up.”)

But, you ask, how does The Fable of the Ducks and Hens stand up as a work of literature? For a children’s book, it is unfashionably long. Youngsters’ attention is likely to wane. The a-b-c-b rhyme scheme gets wearying, and the meter is sometimes shaky. As befitting “a Parable of Intrigue, Propaganda & Subversion,” the characters are undifferentiated; as in any fable, characterization is shallow. Rockwell openly acknowledges that the book lacks a conclusion:

This epic really has no end because

No matter how you fight ‘em

Those hens will show up every time

And so … ad infinitum.

All this said, there are worse children’s books out there, formalistically speaking. The content is reprehensible, but the book is not the most heinous crime against literature ever committed, however much one might wish to report otherwise.

A note: While The Fable of the Ducks and Hens is a tale of good and evil writ large, Rockwell’s own life was pretty small. His second wife left him after his turn toward Nazism. His White Power indie record label, Hatenanny Records, failed. His party headquarters (a house in Arlington, Virginia) was repossessed by the IRS in 1965. In 1966, Alex Haley interviewed him for Playboy; when Rockwell immediately called him the N-word, Haley replied, “I’ve been called [that] many times, Commander, but this is the first time I’m being paid for it.” (Haley was actually paid twice. After Roots appeared on TV, Marlon Brando called the producers begging for a role in the sequel and was cast as Rockwell, interviewed by James Earl Jones as Haley — Brando won an Emmy.) In 1967, Rockwell was murdered by a former American Nazi Party member who’d been expelled for “Bolshevik leanings.” Narratively speaking, this makes a way better story than The Fable of the Ducks and Hens.


Remembering My Father in Auschwitz

Nothing about the Shoah was logical or made sense. Our task, our mission, today and always, is not to try to understand, but to remember.

On the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the ghettos of the region of southern German-occupied Poland known as Zaglembie, the World Zaglembie Organization and the World Jewish Congress are organizing a week-long pilgrimage of survivors and descendants of survivors from the area to Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Będzin, Sosnowiec, Zawiercie, and other once heavily Jewish towns. The following article is expanded from remarks delivered at Auschwitz on July 29, 2018, by Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, to the participants in the trip.

One of the first things my father taught me to do was to swim. Not just to swim, but also to dive. And it was directly related to the place where we are today.

Seventy-five years ago, on July 29, 1943, my father was in the ghetto of his hometown of Będzin in southern Poland, less than 15 minutes’ drive from the city of Katowice, and some 45 kilometers–around 28 miles–from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Or, more accurately, he was back in the Będzin ghetto. Five weeks earlier, on June 22nd, he had been deported to Auschwitz together with his wife and her daughter. Usually, Jews were transported in windowless cattle cars, but this time the Germans used a passenger car. As the train crossed the Vistula River not far from the camp, my father’s wife and daughter prevailed on him to try to escape. He was an excellent swimmer, and dove out of the train’s window. German soldiers shot at him, and he was hit by three bullets: One grazed his forehead just near his eye, leaving a visible scar; a second entered his arm; and a third was never removed from his leg.

My father recalled losing consciousness, and that the ice-cold water resuscitated him. Somehow, he managed to drag himself out of the river. In the darkness, he saw a dim light emanating from a cottage, a hut really. He knew that knocking on its door was extremely dangerous–the people who lived there might well turn him over to the Gestapo. But he was lucky again. A peasant woman and her son took him in, gave him coffee, bandaged his wound, allowed him to dry his sopping wet clothes, and gave him a cap to hide his wounded head. After the war, my father unsuccessfully tried to find them. He walked through the night back to the ghetto–there was nowhere else for him to go–where he was reunited with his 80-year-old father. Subsequently, he learned that virtually the entire transport, including his wife and her daughter, had been taken directly to the gas chambers upon their arrival at Birkenau. In an oral testimony taken by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Będzin survivor Sigmund Strochlitz recalled my father warning the Jews of the ghetto after his return “that we will all be brought there [to Auschwitz, that is] and to expect the worst.”

Less than six weeks later, during the liquidation of the Będzin ghetto and after his father had died of natural causes in his arms, my father avoided deportation to Auschwitz once more by first hiding in a bunker for several days, and then escaping to the nearby town of Zawiercie. In late August 1943, however, he arrived at Birkenau as part of a transport from Zawiercie.

I knew that shortly thereafter, he spent several days in the notorious Block 11, the so-called Death Block, in Auschwitz 1. On my first visit there in 1995, I saw the page of the Block 11 registry according to which my father, Josef Rosensaft, number 140594, arrived there on Sept. 30, 1943 and left, evidently alive, on Oct. 4. But I never knew the details of how it was that he was not sent from Block 11 to be killed. My father died unexpectedly in 1975 at the age of 64, and this was one aspect of his survival that he never got around to telling me about.

But then, in December of 2013–more than 38 years after my father’s death–a friend of mine in Israel sent me the newly published biography of her cousin, Auschwitz survivor Zeev “Yumek” Londner–the father of our friend Daphna Londner Eldar–who, after Hebraizing his name, had risen to become Colonel (Aluf Mishne) Zeev Liron, one of the highest ranking officers in the Israel Air Force in its formative years. Liron’s father had been one of my father’s close friends in Będzin. I had also known that Liron–Londner–and his brother Moshe (Maniek) had been imprisoned in Block 11 together with my father, both because my father spoke about it and because their names were listed on the registry page alongside his.

As Liron told the story to journalist Moshe Ronen (Reinish) in From the Depths to the Skies (in Hebrew, Tehomot u-shehakim), “Rosensaft did not stop thinking about escaping.” My father told the Londner brothers that he had developed a friendship with a German SS doctor stationed in Katowice who had offered to hide my father and members of his family. Now my father plotted for the three of them to escape from their work detail, hide in a deserted tunnel until the Germans stopped looking for them, and then make their way to the SS doctor’s house in Katowice where they would be able to stay at least for a while.

When their scheme was betrayed to the Germans by a German unterkapo, an assistant to one of the inmates assigned by the camp’s administration to supervise his fellow prisoners, my father and the Londner brothers were taken from Birkenau to Auschwitz where a young German SS officer named Otto Klaus interrogated them.

The punishment for even plotting to escape, Klaus told the three Jews, is death. We are now going to take you to Block 11 and decide whether you will be shot or hanged, he continued. But prisoners are only shot on Mondays, and as today is Thursday, you will spend the next several days in Block 11. The three were put into a small standing cell in the block’s cellar with two other prisoners. Liron recalled that my father quipped with “black humor” that it was a shame they didn’t have a deck of cards to pass the time.

On Monday morning, they heard prisoners being taken from other cells, followed by gunshots. Liron remembered that “Yossele”–my father–bid his friends goodbye, telling them that they might meet again in the next world.  But no one came for them.  After an hour, Yakov (or Jakub) Kozalczyk, the kapo in charge of Block 11, came to their cell and hugged them. “You’re heroes,” he told them. “Nothing will happen to you, not today.” Later the same day, they walked back to Birkenau, quite probably along the same path we will take later this afternoon.

When Liron met my father again two years later in the displaced-persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany, my father told him that following the liberation, he had looked for and found his SS doctor friend from Katowice who cleared up what had been the mystery of the three young Jews’ survival.

The unterkapo who had betrayed my father and the Londner brothers did not know the name of the man who was going to hide them but he gave Otto Klaus, the young SS officer, an address in Katowice that he had apparently overheard. Intent on exposing and arresting the still anonymous traitor, Klaus rode his motorcycle to the address in question and rang the house bell.  When the doctor opened the door, the two stared at one another in disbelief.

More than 25 years earlier, during World War I, the doctor had saved Otto Klaus’ father’s life. The two families had remained friends. Now Klaus had a decision to make, and he made it.  Instead of taking the doctor into custody, Klaus returned to Auschwitz and reported that his investigation had not uncovered any scheme to escape, that the unterkapo had lied, that my father and the Londner brothers were therefore innocent of any crime, and that there was no legal basis for executing them.

And so it is that I can tell my grandchildren that their great-grandfather survived Block 11, which made it possible for their grandfather to be born, because a young German SS officer named Otto Klaus had at least one spark of decency, of humaneness, left within him at Auschwitz in the first days of October 1943.

Back in Birkenau, in mid-October 1943, during Sukkot, my father smuggled a tiny apple into the barrack so that the highly respected rabbi of Zawiercie, the Zawiercier Rov, could recite the Kiddush blessing at the end of a clandestine prayer service. Throughout the prayers, my father recalled, the aged Rov stared at the apple, obviously conflicted. At the end of the clandestine service, he picked up the apple and said, in Yiddish, almost to himself, “Un iber dem zol ikh itzt zogn, ve-akhalta ve-savata u-verakhta et Hashem Elohekha …’” And over this, I should now say, “And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless your God …”  “Kh’vel nisht essen,” I will not eat, he said, “veil ikh vel nisht zat sein,” because I will not be satisfied, “un ikh vill nisht bentchn” and I refuse to bentch, to sanctify God. And with that, the Zawiercier Rov put down the apple and turned away.

The Zawiercier Rov never lost his faith in God. Like the Hasidic master, Levi Itzhak of Berditchev, however, he was profoundly, desperately angry with Him, and this anger caused him to confront God from the innermost depths of his being.

One evening around the same time, my father and a group of Jews from Zawiercie were sitting in their barrack when the Zawiercier Rov suddenly said, again in Yiddish, “Ihr veist—you know—der Rebboine shel-oilem ken zein a ligner,” the Master of the Universe can be a liar. Asked how this could possibly be, the rabbi explained, “If God were to open His window now and look down and see us here, He would immediately look away and say, “Ikh hob dos nisht geton,” I did not do this—and that, the Zawiercier Rov said, would be the lie.

Later that year, my father was transferred from Birkenau to a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Łagisza, near Będzin. Sometime in the winter of 1944, he managed to escape from there and was hidden by a Polish friend. His freedom was short-lived. On his way to try to get forged papers to enable him to get to Hungary, he was recaptured by German soldiers looking for someone else. He was first taken back to Łagisza, where he was severely beaten, and then returned to Auschwitz where he spent months in Block 11 being tortured repeatedly–the Germans wanted to know the name of the Pole who had hidden him, something my father stubbornly refused to do, a stubbornness that I am certain saved his life. For the remainder of the war, through several other camps, my father was forced to wear a uniform with a special red circle—the so-called Fluchtpunktidentifying him as an escapee.

The same kapo, Jakub Kozalczyk, who had hugged my father and the Londner brothers the previous October, once publicly gave my father 250 vicious lashes at the direction and under the supervision of an SS doctor.

One of the inmates of Block 11 in the late spring of 1944 was Jacob Edelstein, who had been the Judenaeltester, the Elder of the Jews, at the Theresienstadt—or Terezin—concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Accused by the Nazis of corrupting lists of inmates for deportation, Edelstein had been dismissed from his position early in 1943, and deported to Auschwitz in December of that year. On June 20, 1944, SS men came to Block 11 and told Edelstein he had been sentenced to death. Edelstein proceeded to shake hands with each of the inmates in his cell, including my father. Told by one of the SS men to hurry up, Edelstein replied, “I am the master of my last moments.” Edelstein’s demonstration of pride and defiance left an indelible impression on my father. “This was the expression of our spirit in those days,” he wrote more than a decade later, “a spirit which no power on earth could break.”

In late September 1944–Sept. 26th, to be exact–Kozalczyk wanted my father to conduct the Yom Kippur service. Emaciated, starved, my father chanted Kol Nidre from memory in the Death Block of Auschwitz, and then led the prayers there that evening and the following day for his fellow prisoners. As a reward, Kozalczyk gave my father and the other inmates of Block 11 an extra bowl of soup to break the fast.

It is surreal to imagine Block 11, where we were earlier today, transformed if only for 24 hours into a sanctuary where Jews condemned to die prayed while the gas chambers of nearby Birkenau functioned in full force. I have always wondered whether God Himself was praying alongside my father throughout that Yom Kippur in 1944.

Let us bear in mind that nothing about Auschwitz, nothing about Birkenau, nothing about the Shoah for that matter, was logical or made sense. Our task, our mission, today and always, is not to try to understand, but to remember.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. He is the editor of the recently published The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016.


The Most Important Holocaust Story Never Told

A new film tells the tale of Emanuel Ringelblum’s ‘Oyneg Shabes’ Archive, a trove of hidden materials that documented life in the Warsaw Ghetto

By Leonard Felson

It’s taken 70-plus years, but what’s arguably the most important Holocaust story never told is being unveiled in a docudrama this weekend at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.  Who Will Write Our History is the story of the men and women who created the Oyneg Shabes Archive, a trove of once-hidden documents, essays, and reportage that chronicled in real time what life and death looked like in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw Ghetto. The star, if you can call him that, is Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish-Jewish historian and community organizer, who led the secret project with the sensitivity of a sacred mission.

The film had an under-the-radar world premiere this spring in Warsaw at Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, during the 75th anniversary of the ghetto’s uprising. A 2007 book, also called Who Will Write Our History? by historian Samuel D. Kassow, on which the film is based, was critically acclaimed, but it wasn’t a popular bestseller. Then, by chance, film director Roberta Grossman read a review in The New Republic, and decided she had to turn it into a movie.

With collaborators, Ringelblum fanned out through the ghetto, recruiting some 60 writers, scholars, teachers, community activists, rabbis, poor artisans, wealthy businessmen, and even children to the project. When their survival looked doomed, they hid the archive in two large aluminum milk cans and up to 20 tin boxes.

Ringelblum used the Yiddish term Oyneg Shabes, literally, “the joy of the Sabbath,” as the code name because his staff’s custom was to meet on Saturdays. Instead of toasting the day of rest with schnapps and herring—they were lucky to have scraps of bread—they would clandestinely discuss plans, formulate questions for major projects, review material, make assignments, and keep track of expenditures and money raised for their endeavor.

Among them was Rachel Auerbach, a journalist, who has a prominent role in the film. Ringelblum had asked her to help set up a soup kitchen and write what she observed. She originally turned him down because like so many from the Jewish intelligentsia, she was planning to flee war-torn Warsaw. But she stayed after Ringelblum told her, “Not everyone is allowed to run.”

Although the archive was uncovered in the rubble of Warsaw after the war, the challenge of bringing the stories to the world has been daunting. One of the three caches was never found. Water seepage destroyed a lot of papers that were written in ink. Of the thousands of photographs stored in the archive, only 70 survived. Because the documents, essays, poems, and journalism were written in either Yiddish, Polish or German, many in hard-to-decipher handwriting, translation came at a snail’s pace. Funding was another hurdle.

Nevertheless, this year also comes completion of the long-awaited publication of the archive in book form, all 36 volumes. Because the Jewish Historical Institute, also known as the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, in Warsaw directs the project, the first edition is in Polish only. An English edition is in the works, several years behind.

Grossman said the docudrama, which used Polish actors and includes as one of the executive producers Steven Spielberg’s sister, Nancy Spielberg, will be released to Jewish film festivals, more than 100 worldwide, though dates have not been announced yet. As screenings are firmed up, the film’s Facebook page will announce release dates. A limited theatrical release in New York, Los Angeles, and other possible cities is also planned. The film also has been delivered to NDR and ARTE, the German and French television networks respectively, Grossman said, where it is scheduled for broadcast next January during Holocaust Remembrance Day.


Fighting for the Americans, Captured by the Germans, Freed by the Soviets

How a Jewish-American soldier in WWII survived in a POW camp—and even managed to celebrate Passover under the Nazis’ noses

By Milton Feldman

I was 19 years old, a Brooklyn kid two semesters into college at Penn State, when I was called up for service in the Army in 1943. For a while, I was lucky; I was sent to school for training as an engineer rather than training for the beach landing of D-Day. But in 1944 that program ended, and in December of that year I was shivering in the snow in western Germany, just across the Belgian border.

On December 16, early in the morning, we heard a bombardment, the first real action we’d seen. Orders came back to the cooks: “Make all the food. Get the men up to feed them and do it fast.” We had a banquet. We had French toast and pancakes and eggs. We were going into battle.

War historians have examined the events that led to the Battle of the Bulge and the miserable days that lay ahead for me and for thousands of my fellow soldiers in the 423rd Regiment, which was part of the 106th Infantry Division. We were unprepared for winter fighting. WWII bombers were mostly effective in clear weather, and low cloud cover had limited our most valuable weapon. And the Allied generals thought the Germans were in retreat, falling back to defend prewar German borders. It didn’t occur to them that the Germans were capable of—or interested in—mounting a major counterattack.

The shelling we heard was that counterattack on a massive scale. To both the north and south of our position, German troops were advancing incredibly quickly—creating the Bulge. We were being surrounded.

Our officers received orders to break out of the trap forming around us. All the vehicles were lined up into a convoy and we were going to fight our way back to St. Vith, a Belgian town we had passed on our way to the front.

My squad’s 57-millimeter antitank gun was the only one in our battalion that was still operational. The convoy’s officers told us, “You are now the rear guard. You’re the last truck in the convoy. As soon as the convoy stops, unhitch your gun from the truck and get it ready to fire to the rear. Stay there for 15 to 20 minutes. If you don’t see the Germans, load up again, get the hell back on the road and catch up to us. OK?”

That’s what we did. We were the last defense between the convoy and any German troops behind us.

It’s astonishing how quickly an army can collapse. In 36 hours, I went from being part of a well-armed, highly mechanized force to a foot soldier to being lost in the woods with three other guys—no other Americans in sight. The attack had cut off our supply and communication lines, so our convoy disintegrated. Trucks ran out of gas. Others got stuck in ice and mud or slid off the road. The road became impassable. We had to leave our truck and gun and start walking.

In the chaos, we all became separated from our divisions and officers. Officers near me tried to organize groups, and I joined one. We had been on the move for an hour or two when we spied a German combat patrol heading right for us. We hid, but four of us at the end of the line had to wait for them to pass and were separated from the rest. We started forward, hoping to catch up, but we lost track of the men ahead. We spent the night hidden under the low-hanging branches of an evergreen tree.

As dawn started to break we could see out through the branches. In the dim light, we could see that the Germans had set up camp right near our hiding place.

Outnumbered and isolated, we broke down our weapons and created a white flag, someone’s handkerchief. We started walking up a hill. Then we started running up. We knew there was a road to St. Vith in this direction but didn’t know how far it was. Maybe we could sneak through. We approached the top of the hill and somebody yelled, “Halt!”

There were four German soldiers. They had rifles. We had a white flag.

From the top of the hill we were able to look down at the road and there was a parade like 42nd Street on Christmas Day: an endless convoy of German vehicles and tanks going in the direction of Saint Vith. We could never have gotten away.

The Germans marched us to a barn. Inside there were other GIs. A German officer came through, looking for American officers. The sergeant I’d been captured with stood up and said something to him. The officer stopped, then motioned for the sergeant to come outside. A little while later the sergeant came in and he had part of a loaf of bread and some kind of sausage. He didn’t share it with anyone. We had already gone four or five days without eating. Here he came back with food. What the hell did he tell the Nazis?

They formed us up and we started marching with hundreds of other American POWs. Mostly we were on country roads. At times, we could look down on a town below us, snow covered, with a church steeple in the middle, as yet untouched by battle. It looked like a Christmas card.

As we passed one farm house, an elderly woman had a basket of apples that she was handing out to the POWs. That one generous German civilian kept me alive.

Finally, we reached the railroad. The train was a line of boxcars, perhaps one they’d used to transport people to the concentration camps. They closed us in the train car and locked it. We still hadn’t eaten, and there was no food. We had no water. At least when we were marching we’d been able to scoop up snow for water. Not now. A steel helmet became the latrine for 80 men. It was terrible.

We arrived at Stalag IV-B on New Year’s Eve, having gone two weeks without food. The Stalag was near an eastern German town called Mühlberg, 300 miles from where we’d first boarded the train. We got there at about midnight and lined up in front of a barracks. It was snowing and again very cold. That New Year’s Eve, we were not celebrating.

When my turn came to enter the building, I saw there were six desks with a line of maybe five men in front of each, waiting to be interrogated. At each desk was an officer in a British uniform. They spoke with English accents. Whether it was from delirium or fear or reasonable suspicion, I was not persuaded by these officers’ uniforms or perfect English. It did not make sense to me that I would be registered at a prison camp by British officers. I was sure they were Germans.

As I got nearer to the desks I could hear the questions being asked of the men in front of me. In our training, we had been told that the only information we should supply was name, rank, and serial number. Now the questions were clear:

Serial number
What was your outfit?
Where were you captured?
Where are you from?
Parents’ names?
… on and on, about 30 questions in all.

When my turn came, I answered the first three questions, then kept answering “Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir,” as we had been trained. My questioner went through the whole list then stopped and said in his English accent, “How long has it been since you’ve eaten, soldier?” This question I answered: “Two weeks, sir.”

“Soldier, I will ask these questions one more time. If you don’t answer, you won’t eat for another month!”

To not answer now would be suicide, so I answered. When it came to religion, lying seemed the safe thing to do. I hadn’t heard anyone else admit to being Jewish. But I didn’t care. In my mind I said, “Fuck you!” I was young, angry, and by any measure stupid. I answered, “Jewish.”

I fully expected to be pulled out of the line by my interrogator, but I wasn’t. I was led out with others and assigned to a barracks.

The next morning we were lined up and counted. The officer in charge barked out a number of orders in English:

“All medical personnel take one step forward.”

“All cooks and bakers take two steps forward.”

“All Jews take three steps forward.”

Again, I was sure that those of us who identified ourselves as Jewish would be marched off to who knows what fate. We knew the Nazis enslaved and murdered Jews, though we did not then know the extent of the slaughter at the death camps. Along with a handful of other Jewish GIs, I stepped forward anyway. We were not rounded up. Some prisoners who had not stepped forward were picked out for work details. The rest of us were dismissed.

Had I been in another prison camp, that moment might have turned out differently. A contingent of Jewish-American GIs and other “troublemakers” were sent from Stalag IX-B to the Berga slave camp, part of the Buchenwald complex. Some were worked to death. More died on a forced march as Allied troops approached.

Over time, I learned how my camp worked, and why Jewish soldiers were not abused there. By this point in the war, the Germans had minimized the number of German guards at POW camps to send more soldiers into battle. Most of the guards were not German, but from the countries Germany had annexed. Allied officers, mostly British, were in charge of a lot of the internal workings at the camp. They did their best to protect Jewish soldiers, keeping us from interacting with German guards or civilians. My interrogator had in fact been British, and the comprehensive information he’d demanded allowed him to report my capture to the War Department, the Red Cross, and, in turn, my parents. My defiant pronouncement of my religion probably helped save my life.

I have also heard that the Germans themselves did not want Jewish prisoners on work details outside the camp, where we would meet German civilians. They did not want civilians to know that there were brave, strong American Jews, willing to fight. It belied their propaganda.

My best friend in the Army, Blue Caldwell, was in my barracks. Blue was from Mississippi, and culturally we could not have been more different. But we’d hit it off while training in Indiana. We got together to try to support each other. We shared our food and tried to do our best to survive. The food was inadequate and it seemed the temperature just kept dropping. The barracks had no heat.

On the 11th day in prison camp, I felt desperately weak and cold. I’d heard the infirmary was heated. If you went on sick call, it would take an hour or two before you were examined and for a while you’d be warm.

At the infirmary, I tried to position myself so as not to be taken early. When my turn came, a South African doctor examined me, dictating to his orderly. Although some of the words he spoke were English, he was primarily speaking Boer. At one point he said, “TBC.” With that, they wrapped me in a blanket and carried me off to the camp hospital on the stretcher. “TBC” was tuberculosis. Now I could admit to myself that I really was sick.

Someone helped me remove my clothes and put on a hospital gown. I got in bed and they put my filthy clothes under my pillow.

I shared the ward with about 15 other men. As I lay there, an ambulatory patient came to my bed, reached under my pillow, and took my clothes. I thought, “This is the end. I’m in a prison camp. I have tuberculosis. Now my clothes have been stolen and I am too weak to do anything about it.”

Several hours later, this same patient returned. He had cleaned my clothes and folded them neatly. He put them under my pillow. This was my introduction to my Dutch friend, Ben ter Beck.

The first several days in the hospital I was too weak to get out of bed. The doctors determined I didn’t have tuberculosis but pneumonia, which was only slightly better. With close quarters, malnourishment, and no heat, many Allied prisoners died of disease in German POW camps. Ben took on the job of being my caregiver. He would almost force me to have my cup of soup and when I could eat no more, I noticed he would take any uneaten bread and eat it himself. Cynical, I was sure that’s why he was taking care of me.

As the days wore on I started to improve and my appetite returned. Now when they brought food, I didn’t eat it, I devoured it. Then I noticed something. When my food came, I’d find an extra slice of bread on my plate. Ben was paying me back.

About two weeks after I entered the hospital, I was well enough to be up and around. But what happened when Ben walked in one afternoon still brings tears to my eyes. Somehow, he had traded wheat germ from our Red Cross packages for the necessary ingredients and baked a cake. The frosting on top spelled out: CHEERS FOR USA.

It was the heaviest cake—and the most delicious one—I have ever eaten.

The first day of Passover in 1945 was March 29. A Jewish soldier, Joe Sedaka, came by my barracks. He said, “Come with me.” We got near a barracks and Joe looked to make sure no guards were watching.

When we went inside, there was a group of Jewish soldiers celebrating Passover. Not a Seder—we didn’t have the food—but a Passover service under the noses of the Nazis. Joe had a lucky charm in his wallet that his grandfather had given him at a Seder before Joe left for the Army: It was a small piece of matzo wrapped up in a cloth. For our prison camp Passover, we were able to bless a real piece of matzo.

Finally, on April 23, a Russian officer rode into camp—I’m not exaggerating—on a white horse. He had weapons coming out of his boots: a submachine gun and a rifle and everything else. He was armed to the teeth. He came into the camp and said, “You’re free.”


In 2018, there aren’t too many of us Jewish-American POWs left. The sniper of time has been steadily picking us off in ways that German shells and bullets tried but failed to do 74 years ago. As my generation dwindles, interest in WWII veterans has been rekindled, and I’m asked about it, thanked, celebrated and congratulated at every turn. I never thought I was a hero, and do not think so now. But to many, even survival is a form of heroism. So is living to 94.

When I tell my story, I sometimes choke up at the memory of being frozen and starved, or when I think about my parents—it’s still that alive for me. I don’t pretend it was easy. But I know that I was lucky in ways large and small. I was lucky to have been sent to school through part of the war, missing many months of battle. I was lucky to meet Blue Caldwell, lucky to have been issued an overcoat, lucky to have avoided the shells and bombs and bullets, lucky to have contracted pneumonia and not tuberculosis. I came back alive and healthy and mentally stable. I came back to lead a happy, prosperous life. I’m lucky to be 94 and able to write about my experiences.

But every day I read the papers and watch the news. I see American citizens who, astonishingly, seem bent on pulling us toward becoming the kind of brutal, prejudiced society we went to war against in 1941. The war led to tremendous social and global changes, from the end of Jim Crow to the creation of modern Europe and Japan and the progress of the women’s movement. By and large, American soldiers set an example for the world: We won without resorting to torture or rape or subjugation, then, with the Marshall Plan, showed that the U.S. valued functioning societies over national punishment. The global admiration for democracy, and for the United States, soared in the decades after the war.

The America I love and risked my life for is one where Blue Caldwell and I could recognize each other as friends and not stereotypes, where we could have each other’s backs through every kind of adversity. It’s one where immigrants like my parents can make a life they could not have hoped for in their native country. It’s a country built on laws and morality, where we recognize right and wrong, that ends don’t always justify means. It’s one for which people from countries all over the world might, like my Dutch friend Ben ter Beck, consider risking their freedom to bake a cake that says, “CHEERS FOR USA!”


Menachem Krigel spent 15 months hiding in a cramped wood store in the home of a Ukrainian peasant who hid him and his mother during World War II. In the weeks after the liberation, as the frontline moved back and forth, they were separated. He has no idea what became of his mother. In his home in Haifa, as he makes coffee in his kitchen, he said recently: “This was for me the moment of trauma. I can never get it out of my mind.”

Orphaned and alone, Krigel was eventually reunited with a cousin and together they traveled to Krakow where they joined a group of survivors intent on making their way to Palestine. They were two of the 100 survivors of the 10,000 Jews who had lived in his Polish hometown of Buczacz, now Buchach in Ukraine.

Krigel became one of the 70,000 Jewish refugees who flooded into Italy after the war. He was cared for in a children’s home in Selvino in the mountains above Bergamo. The home, a former holiday camp that had been built for the children of Italy’s fascist elite, was run by Jewish soldiers from Palestine who had fought in the British army. After the liberation of Milan, the members of the Jewish Brigade and the engineering company Solel Boneh, who had fought in Italy as part of the Allied forces, devoted their energies to helping the survivors rebuild their lives and start a new life in Palestine.

The hub of the operation was a few minutes’ walk from Milan’s magnificent cathedral at via dell’Unione 5. The grand 16th-century Palazzo Erba Odescalchi, a former billet for fascist militias, was turned into a reception center to help the local Jewish community put their lives back together. It would soon become the pulsating heart of the bricha, the Hebrew name for the mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe after the Holocaust, as the address traveled like wildfire along the bricha bush telegraph. Over 35,000 survivors passed through its doors.

Primo Levi, the young chemist who had been in Auschwitz, was a frequent visitor to the repurposed palazzo, and he described it in his novel, If Not Now, When?: “There were men, women, and children encamped in the corridors, families that had built themselves shelters with sheets of plywood or strung-up blankets. … The air was torrid, with odors of latrine and kitchen.”

The imposing Palazzo Erba Odescalchi has four wings surrounding a central courtyard with an arched loggia. The building is marked with an information board that describes in detail the palace’s architecture. Of its place in Jewish history, the text mentions only it was the temporary home of the community’s synagogue until 1951. Few people remember what happened here.

The survivors who arrived in Italy had no intention of staying and the vast majority wanted to start a new life in Palestine. Their hopes rested on Yehuda Arazi, a secret Haganah agent who had been sent by the Jewish Agency to help bring the survivors to Palestine. His headquarters was a secret camp outside the city of Magenta, west of Milan.

The British, who at this point controlled Palestine, had imposed strict immigration controls. The only way to get the thousands of desperate survivors out of Italy was to put them on illegal immigrant ships and try to run the British blockade. This illegal operation was known as Aliyah Bet. Krigel was to sail on one of these ships, the Josiah Wedgwood, and jokes that this was how as a skinny teenager he became “an enemy of the British empire and took on the British navy!”


Elisabetta Bozzi, an enthusiastic activist for the Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia, the national partisan’s association that campaigns to highlight their role in WWII and the founding of the republic 72 years ago this week, only recently discovered the story of the Arazi house. When I visited with her, she stopped her car outside a run-down piece of land surrounded by a barbed wire fence within which sat a large turreted villa. Today, even though the house is still known as the La Casetta di Ebrei, the Little Jewish House, most of the locals have no idea why.

For three years this building was camp A, the nerve center of Arazi’s operation, where everything that was needed to kit out the 34 ships that sailed from Italy was prepared. “This place was the most top secret place in the Aliyah Bet,” she said, as the breeze rustled the leaves on the trees. From 1945 to 1948, this scrubby deserted garden was covered in military tents and teeming with people.

The story of how thousands of Holocaust survivors were both cared for and then spirited out of Italy on illegal immigrant ships was largely forgotten when it became inconvenient for the pro-Palestinian left in Italy to remember the help that they had given Aliyah Bet to ship people and arms to Palestine. The story of the weapons that were hidden in the fields around the villa is not something the left are yet ready to discuss, but the story of the Jewish refugees and the help they were given is suddenly politically useful. It is a stick with which the left can beat the right, who campaign against the illegal migrants who have flooded into the country in recent years.

The campaign to remind people of the forgotten story of 1945-48 has centered on the village of Selvino, where over 800 of the most vulnerable survivors were cared for. The children had survived the camps and had lived feral in the forests. Today, a small exhibition is the first step in what activists hope will be a larger project to restore the house where the children were cared for and to turn it into a museum of the Aliyah Bet, together with a conference center. To highlight the campaign, Giovanni Bloisi, a wiry man in his early 60s, last year completed an epic 1,466-mile bike ride from his home in Varano Borghi, hard on the Italian side of the border with Switzerland, to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

A lifelong left-wing activist, Bloisi, who is not Jewish, was inspired to make this extraordinary trip when he met survivors Avraham Aviel and his late wife, Ayala Lieberman, when they returned to the now-ruined orphanage in Selvino for the first time in 2015. Aviel had survived by hiding in the forests of what is now northern Belarus after his family had all been murdered.

Bloisi said, “It is vital in this difficult moment in Europe, with nationalism and anti-Semitism on the rise, that we remember what happened.” Referring to the orphans from the Selvino home, he said: “These kids had seen unimaginable horrors but were welcomed in Italy, cared for, and brought back to life.”

Music played a crucial part in this rehabilitation. Krigel recalled he not only sang in a choir but was taken to see the opera at La Scala in Milan. All the children had their photographs taken and given to them, and for many it was the only memento that they brought with them from Europe to Palestine.

One of those who cared for the children was Eugenia Cohen, a young Milanese Jew who during WWII was saved by the Madinina family in Pandino, a small town on the Lombardy plains, after her family was arrested and sent to Bergen-Belsen. The Madinina family never spoke about how they had hidden Cohen; the story was discovered by the local history society. The mayor of Pandino, Maria Luise Polig, recently announced that the city, which is famous for its cheese, will commemorate Cohen’s story in a special exhibition to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2019.

Cohen played a key part in rehabilitating the children of Selvino. At first many were frightened to sleep in beds with sheets and hid bread in their pockets, fearful of where their next meal would come from. The children spoke Yiddish, Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian. Although Cohen could only speak Italian, she recalled in an interview shortly before her death last year that she “spoke to them in kisses, in hugs, and in love.” The children looked upon her as a mother.

Cohen fell in love with one of the Jewish soldiers, Reuven Donath. Their son Nir Donath, who was in Pandino when I was there, said that although his mother had never been a Zionist, like most Italian Jews at the time, she changed her name to Noga, which means Venus in Hebrew. “When my father was discharged from the army he was allowed to take his wife with him home to Palestine,” he said. “She believed it was fate, as when she was 16, a clairvoyant had told her that she would meet a Jew from far away across the sea with whom she would fall in love. It was written in the stars.”

Mayor Polig, a member of the left-wing party Partito Democratico, thinks that the story has an important educational role. “If we do not record stories like this we lose everything as the generations pass,” she said. Polig, who trained as a teacher, believes “What we can learn from real people and their stories is irreplaceable and makes the past easier to understand.” She added that Pandino is currently home to six African refugees.


Roberto Saviano, Author of ‘Gomorrah,’ Takes on Internet Nazis

Tired of internet conspiracy theories and vile anti-Semitism, the journalist turns his attention from Italy’s mafia to its white supremacists

Later this month, Roberto Saviano, the renowned Italian journalist, will testify at the first hearing of a trial against 39 Italian neo-Nazis who were accused, among other things, of participating in an online group that incited racial discrimination and violence. For years, between 2009 and 2012, the group held discussions that included white supremacist and anti-Semitic rhetoric on the American hate site Stormfront.

In one of the threads, members of the site posted lists of alleged influential Jews: entrepreneurs, artists, and journalists. Among the people listed, were Carlo De Benedetti, former president of the publishing group L’Espresso, TV host Gad Lerner, and Saviano himself, whose maternal grandparents had Jewish origins, although he identifies as atheist.

An investigation carried out by the Italian police revealed chilling conversations among the members of Stormfront Italy. “I still believe that the great Führer had found the right solution for those damn rats,” wrote Filippo Galbesi, one of the users, in one of the threads. Another member, Alessandro Pedroni, stated: “To build—this time FOR REAL—homicidal gas chambers, applying for real what they pretend happened to them, I believe that would be the REAL FINAL SOLUTION.” All members took part in the discussions under nicknames, but the police discovered and published their names.

Roberto Saviano is no stranger to hatred, online hatred included. After publishing in 2006 his debut novel, Gomorrah, in which he exposed the operations of a cartel of the Neapolitan mafia, the death threats became so serious and frequent that he was put under police protection. As of today, the book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and was translated into over 50 languages. The hatred toward him remains—from the mafia, of course, but also from the people who bitterly accuse him of capitalizing on his anti-mafia fight to enrich himself.

But what he read in the Italian threads of Stormfront—which was later shut down in Italy—and the thousands of hate emails that followed, calling him a Jew and a Mason, particularly upset him.

“They began creating these lists [of Jews], claiming there was a secret connection between them in order to manipulate public opinion,” Saviano said in an interview at Tablet magazine’s office in New York. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists often claim the existence of a Jewish lobby that controls politics, the media, and the economy. “These lists were very dangerous, as they were successful, getting thousands of clicks.”

These Neo-Nazis could have written a book, Saviano said, and nobody would have paid attention; but these documents being so easily accessible, just one click away, made them so much more widespread.

The reports on the lists, published by the Italian news media in 2011, captured the attention of the police in regards to the site.

A few months later, a member of the forum, Ivan Lomasto, who then was 19 years old, created a thread titled “List of Jewish Communities in Italy, Shops, Restaurants, Schools.”

In 2012, the members returned to focus on Saviano in a new thread regarding his positions on immigration, which he had recently expressed on a popular talk show, Che tempo che fa. A few days later, police raided the homes of several members, and arrested four of the Stormfront Italy activists.

About a year later, Saviano reported the group to the police. Other individuals who had been insulted or threatened in the pages of Stormfront, including journalist Marco Pasqua and former minister Andrea Riccardi, had previously filed police reports, as well.

“This group of people were building a network through which they picked their targets and coordinated [cyber-]attacks,” said Saviano, who splits his time between Italy and the United States and will travel to Rome to testify in court on May 28. His goal, he said, is to create a precedent in the Italian legal system that will help regulate hate speech on the internet.

The trial may last several years. In the meantime, Saviano has been busy with many other projects. The TV series he wrote inspired by his own book, Gomorrah, released in the United States by SundanceTV and now on Netflix, has been particularly successful. During our interview, he revealed that he’s written a new series, entitled Kosher Nostra, on the Israeli mafia in Tel Aviv and New York. “They mainly did pills,” he said, “in the 1990s they were the kings of ecstasy.”

Palomar, an Italian production company, has bought the rights to the subject. Saviano is currently discussing the project with other people in the United States, such as Thomas Benski, one of the producers of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Nadav Schirman, who produced the documentary The Green Prince.

Above everything else, Saviano wants to fight racist conspiracy theories. He said that anti-Semitism is returning to Italy as a form of “translation” of conspiracy theories.

“Try to look up Soros [on Google], you’ll find thousands of pages about him.” According to the theories, Jewish business magnate George Soros, who has donated billions of dollars to several philanthropic causes, wants to import millions of immigrants into Europe to destroy the old continent. “This stems from the fact that Soros is Jewish and that he speculated against the lira. These two elements are used to attack all of the Jews in Italy and consider them Soros’s allies.”

Last summer, Saviano published an article defending the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders for saving migrants in the Mediterranean. He was criticized for it, with the claim that he was defending the NGO because he is Jewish and he therefore sides with Soros’s alleged plan. Another reason for the online attacks was his participation in a debate on Israel in 2010, despite his openly critical stance on many of Netanyahu’s policies. “In Italy,” Saviano explained, “you cannot have a critical and interlocutory opinion on Israel; either you ask for its immediate dissolution, or you are considered to be part of the conspiracy.”

Stormfront was founded in 1995 by a former director of the Ku Klux Klan. It is considered to be one of the most popular online forums for white supremacists and other racial extremists, counting hundreds of thousands registered members.

Just like their American colleagues, Italian members of Stormfront, before the site was obscured by local authorities, were obsessed with white supremacy, the alleged existence of a Jewish lobby, and Holocaust denial.

“They use a word, a neologism … olomiracolata (Holomiraculous),” continued Saviano. This is the way they contemptuously call Holocaust survivors who “profit and get famous because of their survival. If you profit from your books or your talks on your [experience in the Holocaust], you are an Holomiraculous.”

Saviano gazed back at the papers of the impending trial.

“I’m tired of being a victim of this systematic obscenity,” he said. “The internet has no rules.” You may be able to delete a racial slur from an online thread. “But,” he concluded, “you cannot delete the evil you’ve done.”