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Labor Action, 4 April 1949



The Betrayal of Warsaw – A Lesson for Our Times

The Warsaw Ghetto: 63 Heroic Days


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 14, 4 April 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


There will be no memorial meetings held in Warsaw this April to commemorate the desperate uprisings of the Jewish Ghetto that took place on April 19, 1943. The 50,000 Jewish workers still living at that time represented just ten per cent of those who had been crushed together by the Nazis into the walled-in ghetto section of Warsaw in October 1940. The rest had been hunted down in batches in the continual manhunt of the SS (Hitler’s stormtroops), to be exterminated in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

The hopeless armed struggle of this remnant of Jewry was not merely an act of desperation to sell their lives dearly rather than be exterminated quietly and without resistance. It was that too. But above all it was intended as an appeal for help to the Polish workers outside. Then, too, it was meant to reach the outside world as a final cry from the depths of a barbaric hell such as the world had never imagined, a cry for aid in extremity. It was meant to arouse the conscience of a wartorn world against permitting the final atrocious strangulation of an utterly helpless people.

This appeal went totally unheeded. “Civilization” watched with incredible indifference while the Germans used long-range artillery, tanks, flame-throwers, poison gas to wipe out the ghetto fighters. The ruins were set afire until the entire enclosure was reduced to one great mass of rubble reaching three stories high. The majority of the Jewish fighters were buried in these ruins.

The leaders of the Bund made a direct appeal to the underground organization of the Polish workers for help, if not with arms in hand then at least by means of a protest strike. The Poles refused. They were divided by anti-Semitism. Many sympathized with the Jews, but others said outright: “Thank heavens the Germans are doing this for us.” Nor was this attitude confined to the upper class. The backwardness of layers of the Polish workers, as of many others, could be measured by the degree of anti-Semitism.

Representatives of the Jewish Bund had been smuggled out of the ghetto to seek help abroad. Artur Ziegelboim was in London during the uprising appealing to the Polish government-in-exile and to the Churchill government. He rendered the balance of his mission, its total and unfeeling failure, by committing suicide and indicting the “civilized” world for its lack of any humanity in his heartbroken letter. That letter speaks far more eloquently than all the mouthings against genocide at the UN meetings by the diplomats on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Stalin Completes Hitler’s Job

The Poles themselves were to experience the bitterness, not merely of indifference but of outright betrayal only little more than a year later. All of Warsaw, including the last Jewish remnants, rose up as one man on August 1, 1944, against the Nazi oppressor. The Polish National Council had no doubt that this uprising, called for incessantly by the Russian radio, would be aided by the advance of the Red Army, whose artillery could be heard not far off.

The uprising lasted for 63 frightful days during which the Red Army remained completely inactive on this front. The Russians would not even permit the English planes sent with a little help to land on Russian airfields! Warsaw was reduced to rubble just as had been the ghetto. The Nazis were permitted to wipe out the Armia Kryova (army of the Polish underground) and its leaders so as to save this labor for the Russians. The NKVD finished what little was left when the Red Army finally marched into the ruins in January 1945.

No, the Poles will not commemorate the Warsaw ghetto uprising, nor will the Russians press them to do so. The handful of Jews left in all Poland will not care to do so either, particularly with any fake Stalinist coloration given an “official” celebration. But those everywhere who take to heart the resistance of the oppressed to the oppressors will once again marvel at the incredible feat of arms of the Jewish workers of the ghetto.

A Miracle Of Achievement

All the vaunted efficiency of the Gestapo, all the barbarities of the terror unleashed by them in an abandon of sadistic cruelty, could not prevent the leaders of the Jewish working class from organizing underground, from making contact with the organized Polish workers, from smuggling in and caching arms in the ghetto bunkers. It is to the eternal credit of the Jewish Bund that its leaders accomplished this seemingly impossible task.

Foremost in the ranks of this leadership stands a figure who became legendary: that of Bernard Goldstein, organizer of the Bund militia. His book, The Stars Bear Witness, is about to appear in English. It should be read by all who would understand how miracles of organization can be achieved against overwhelming odds. Here one can find the inner meaning of leadership, a leadership of understanding, of complete selflessness and self-sacrifice, of ability to go on living and to organize resistance even in the midst of an existence that no nightmare could conjure up.

“Comrade Bernard” had behind him the experience of a generation of fighting first against czarism, then against Polish landlordism. He helped organize the most oppressed of the workers in militant trade unions. He organized the first Polish workers’ militia to defend the trade unions from attack, and also to fight the pogromists. It is no accident that he was one of the leaders to organize the protest strike against the infamous ritual murder trial of Mendel Beylis in 1913.

No, it is no accident that a socialist trade union organizer, close to the people, completely steeped in their folkways, should lead the desperate armed struggle of the Jews against the Nazis and hold an entire army at bay. This man alone could secure the willing aid of the Polish workers; only he had their confidence. His exploits, known not directly from his book (he is too modest to recount them all) but from eyewitness accounts, make him the Chapeyev of the ghetto.

An epic quality marks the story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Humanity somehow survived, not merely in the sense of existence but in all its cultural meaning, in all its humaneness. How can one think of humor under the sadistic German hunters in this ghetto-jungle? Yet there is the story of the Jewish pickpocket who, to amuse the inhabitants of his hideaway bunker, all trembling for their lives, demonstrates his skill for the others. And Warsaw, one may add, was famous for this skill! Hanna Krishtal survives with her child and is now here in New York solely because of the care of Bernard in the very midst of the fighting, during which she gave birth. Somehow he found time even for this. It was only later that he confided to Hanna how he was torn inwardly by his resolution to do away with the child in order to permit Hanna herself to escape from the ghetto alive!

Bernard Goldstein is still living but he has no life. The life he knew in Poland and in Warsaw is gone forever. It remains only as part of the archives in Perez, in Sholom Aleichem, in the story of the ghetto uprising.

Profound Symbol Of Our Times

The last touch of irony is added by Bernard’s arrest by the NKVD, dread arm of the Russian “liberators.” They released him but kept him under observation in the hope that he would betray his organization. The Stalinists fear nothing so much as honest and experienced revolutionists, particular

ly those with such vast experience of organizing in the underground as was possessed by Comrade Bernard. He had to flee from these new oppressors, not so much to save his own life as to avoid betraying those who might want to make contact with him.

Warsaw stands as a profound symbol of our times. Crushed on the one side by the forces of capitalist reaction in the shape of Nazism and on the other by the Russian counter-revolution under Stalinism, this betrayed city mirrors modern civilization in decay. It is in this sense a vantage point from which to view the chances for survival of civilized humanity. The indifference of the world to the fate of the Jews during the war and after bodes ill for society. The utter breakdown of all human decency in the ghetto is no mere passing phenomenon. It is rather a token of the awful speed at which decay can spread and barbarism can replace modern civilization. Warsaw at the same time is an added and striking proof that Stalinism, far from arresting social decay, is itself the epitome of that decay.

It is impossible to study the terrible fate of Warsaw’s ghetto and again of the rest of Warsaw, without a clenching of the fists and a surge of anger and hatred against the forces that introduce such hideous vileness into life. Warsaw stands as a stark lesson of the inhumanity that flowers evilly from anti-Semitism and racial doctrines. This lesson must sink deeply into the consciousness of every working class fighter against exploitation and oppression. Society is doomed to go under if it is not thoroughly cleansed of the disease that made and continues to make .such brutal sadism possible.

That disease can be traced to its roots in class exploitation. Every ruling class is willing to sacrifice millions of its own people for the sake of maintaining its powers and privileges. Why not, then, people of other “races” against whom it is so much easier to kindle the fires of prejudice.

Warsaw stands as a stain on civilization. It must never be forgotten. It can and must be avenged! The recurrence of such brutality can be prevented only by a deep-going change in society, the change from capitalism which engenders hatreds, to socialism, which engenders brotherhood and humanity, the Russian experience of counter-revolution notwithstanding.

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