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Ernest Erber

A Heroic Struggle for Freedom

In Commemoration of
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

(28 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 17, 28 April 1947, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The armed resistance of the Jewish workers in the Warsaw Ghetto, beginning on April 18, 1943, received little publicity in the world press and even less has been done since then to lift the veil of obscurity that shrouds this grim but epic struggle.

The slight information about the Ghetto battle that reached the outside world, slight as compared with what was known of the struggles of the resistance movements in other countries, was due in part to the fact that the Ghetto fighters were trebly sealed-off from contact with the non-German countries. All resistance movements operated behind the German lines. An additional barrier was imposed, however, upon the movements of Eastern Europe, such as that in Poland, since the vast area of German territory that lay between them and Allied or neutral territory made impossible the kind of courier service that linked the French underground with London.

But in addition to the double barrier faced by the Polish underground, the Jewish resistance was isolated behind the walls of stone and steel which surrounded the Ghetto. Even the radio, used by all other resistance movements, was not available to the Ghetto fighters. The Ghetto did not provide the space necessary for continued use of a secret radio station which avoids detection by constantly changing its location.

Nor were there to be dozens of memoirs and eye-witness accounts published after the war by participants as is the case in other resistance movements. The total number of Polish Jews who survived is but a fragment of their pre-war number. But the number of survivors of the Ghetto battle are hardly even a handful. The great fortune that a politically experienced observer should be among them is one of the lucky accidents of history that makes possible what is known of the battle.

Conspiracy of Silence Hides Ghetto Story

But over and above all these objective factors which have contrived to keep the story of the Ghetto battle from wide knowledge, is an important political factor. None of the powers that control world information channels desire to identify themselves with the traditions of the Ghetto fighters. Anglo-American news services, both during then period of war propaganda and since, have found it exceedingly awkward to utilize the Ghetto battle for their own purposes.

They much preferred the figure of the French militarist de Gaulle to the Socialist intellectuals and workers like Abrasha Blum, Jurek Blones, Mejlach Perelman, Dawid Hochberg, Tobcia Dawidowicz or Marek Edelman, leaders of the Ghetto resistance. But even more, they preferred to publicize the Cross of Lorraine carried by the French resistance to the red flag of internationalism borne by the Ghetto fighters. To confront the Swastika with the symbol of international labor solidarity was not the kind of anti-Nazi resistance which the Office of War Information was interested in playing up.

Nor could the Stalinist propaganda machine find grist for its mill in the Ghetto epic. The record was too plain to deny the fact that the Ghetto resistance was led by the Jewish Socialist Bund, the leaders of which, Ehrlich and Alter, had received a GPU bullet through the head in a Russian prison just as the Ghetto fighters who fell into German hands received a Gestapo bullet.

Neither Anglo-American “democracy” nor Stalinist “socialism” wants to be identified with the traditions of the Ghetto uprising. The memory of these valiant warriors is entrusted to the international revolutionary movement. Only it will keep it alive. Only it will find in it a source of inspiration.

May Day in the Ghetto

On May Day the Command decided to carry out a “holiday” action. Several battle groups were sent out to “hunt down” the greatest number of Germans possible. In the evening, a May Day roll-call was held. The partisans were briefly addressed by á few people and the Internationale was sung. The entire world, we knew, was celebrating May Day on that day and everywhere forceful, meaningful words were being spoken. But never yet had the Internationale been sung in conditions so different, so tragic, in a place where an entire nation, had been and was still, perishing. The words and the song echoed from the charred ruins and were, at that particular time, an indication that Socialist youth was still fighting in the Ghetto, and that even in the face of death they were not abandoning their ideals.


On May 8th detachments of Germans and Ukrainians surrounded the Headquarters of the Z.O.B. Command. The fighting lasted two hours, and when the Germans convinced themselves that they would be unable to take the bunker by storm, they tossed in a gas-bomb. Whoever survived the German bullets, whoever was not gassed, committed suicide, for it was quite clear that from here there was no way out, and nobody even considered being taken alive by the Germans. Jurek Wilner called upon all partisans to commit suicide together. Lutek Rotblat shot his mother, his sister, then himself. Ruth fired at herself seven times.

Thus 80 per cent of the remaining partisans perished, among them the Z.O.B. Commander, Mordchaj Anilewicz ...

All night we walked through the sewers, crawling through numerous entanglements built by the Germans for just such an emergency. The entrance traps were buried under heaps of rubble, the thorough-ways booby-trapped with hand grenades exploding at a touch. Every once in a while the Germans would let gas into the mains. In similar conditions, in a sewer 28 inches high, where it was impossible to stand up straight and where the water reached our lips, we waited 48 hours for the time to get out. Every minute someone else lost consciousness.

Thirst was the worst handicap. Some even drank the thick, slimy sewer water. Every second seemed like months.

On May 10th, at 10 a.m., two trucks halted at the trap door on the Prosta Street-Twarda Street intersection. In broad daylight, with almost no cover whatsoever (the promised Home Army cover failed and only three of our liaison men and Comrade Kraczek – a People’s Army representative specially detailed for this assignment – patrolled the street], the trap door opened and one after another, with the stunned crowd looking on, armed Jews appeared from the depths of the dark hole (at this time the sight of any Jew was already a sensational occurrence). Not all were able to get out. Violently, heavily the trap door snapped shut, the trucks took off at full speed.

Two battle groups remained in the Ghetto. We were in contact with them until the middle of June. From then on every trace of them disappeared.

Those who had gone over to the “Aryan side” continued the partisan fight in the woods. The majority perished eventually. The small group that was still alive at the time took an active part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising as the “Z.O.B. Group.” At present the following of our comrades are still among the living: Chajka Belchatowska, B. Szpigel, Chana Krysztal, Masza Glejtman, and Marek Edelman.

A Well-Organized Military Campaign

The Ghetto battle was far from a blind fight of hunted unorganized individuals who were interested solely in saving their lives. This notion which has received wide currency is a most pernicious slander of the memory of the Ghetto martyrs, even though it is born out of ignorance of the facts rather than malice. The uprising was the work of a well organized political and military resistance led by the “Bund” and the Hashomer Hatzair, left wing Socialist Zionist movement. The political idealists who organized the movement were perhaps the only people in the Ghetto with the connections and means by which they could have fled to save their lives. But it was precisely they who remained to the bitter end and shed their last drop of blood on the blazing rubble heaps of what had once been their homes.

The armed resistance would not have been possible had it not been carried out as part of the general Polish working class resistance to the Nazis. The Ghetto military resistance organization (ZOB) was armed, from the receipt of its first “arsenal” of ten pistols to more effective weapons later, by. the Polish underground led by the Polish Socialist Party.

“Arms were smuggled into the Ghetto in precisely the same manner as other contraband. Bribed Polish policemen closed their eyes to heavy parcels thrown over the Ghetto walls at designated spots. ZOB liaison men immediately disposed of the packages. The Jewish policemen guarding the Ghetto walls had no voice in the matter. Our most active liaison men with the ‘Aryan side’ were Zygmunt Frydrych (who arranged the first transport of weapons), Michal Klepfisz, Celemenski, Fajgéle Peltel (Wladka), and many others. Michal Klepfisz, in cooperation with the PS (Polish Socialists) and WRN (Polish national resistance army) groups, made the necessary arrangements for a large-scale purchase of explosives and incendiaries (e.g., 2,000 liters of gasoline) and later, after transporting the shipment to the Ghetto, set up a factory for the production of Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. The production process was primitive and simple, but the large output of the shop greatly increased the firing-power of our detachments. By now every partisan was equipped, on the average with one pistol (and 10–15 rounds for it), 4–5 hand grenades, 4–5 Molotov cocktails, 2–3 rifles were assigned to each ‘area.’ There was just one machine pistol in the entire Ghetto.”

Deportation to the Death Camps

The gendarmes, Ukrainians and Jewish Police cooperate nicely.

The roles are meticulously and precisely divided. The gendarmes surround the streets; the Ukrainians, in front of the gendarmes, encircle the houses closely; the Jewish police walk into the courtyards and summons all the inhabitants. “All Jews must come down. Thirty kilograms of baggage allowed. Those remaining inside shall be shot, ...” And once again, the same summons. People run from all staircases. Nervously, on the run, they clothe themselves in whatever is handy. Some descend as they are, sometimes straight from bed, others are carrying everything they can possibly take along, knapsacks, packages, pots and pans. People cast frightened glances at one another, the worst has happened. Trembling, they form groups in front of the house. They are not allowed to talk but they still try to gain the. policemen’s pity. From nearby houses similar groups of trembling, completely exasperated people arrive and form into one long column. A gendarme beckons with his rifle to a casual passerby who, having been warned too late, was unable to escape the doomed street. A Jewish policeman pulls him by his sleeve or by his neck into the column in front of the house. If the policeman is half-way decent, he hides a small piece of paper with the scribbled address of the victim’s family – to let them know ... Now the deserted houses, the apartment entrances ajar according to regulations, are given a quick once-over by the Ukrainians. They open closed apartments with a single kick of their heavy boots, with a single blow of a rifle butt. Two, three shots signify the death of those few who did not heed the call and remained in their homes. The “blockade” is finished. On somebody’s table an unfinished cup of tea gets cold, flies finish somebody’s piece of bread ...

It is a long way to the “Umschlag.” The Deportation Point, from which the cars leave, is situated on the very edge of the Ghetto, on Stawki Street. The tall walls surrounding it and closely guarded by gendarmes are broken at only one narrow place. Through this entrance the groups of helpless powerless people are brought in. Every one holds some papers, working certificates, identification cards. The gendarme at the entrance looks them over briefly. “Rechts” – means life; “links” – means death. Although everyone knows in advance the futility of all arguments, he still tries to show his particular helpfulness to German industry, to his particular German master, and thus hopes to receive the magic little order, “rechts.” The gendarme does not even listen. Sometimes he orders the passing people to show him their hands – he chooses all small ones: “rechts”; sometimes he separates blondes: “links”; in the morning he favors short people; in the evening he takes a liking to tall ones. “Links,” “links,” “links.”

The human torrent grows, deepens, floods the square, floods three large three-story buildings, former schools. More people are assembled here than are necessary to fill the next four days’ quota, they are just being brought in as “reserves.” People wait four–five days before they are loaded into the railroad cars. People fill every inch of free space, crowd the buildings, bivouac in empty rooms, hallways, on the stairs. Dirty, slimy mud floods the floors. One’s foot sinks in human excrements at every step. The odor of sweat and urine sticks in one’s throat. There are no panes in the windows, and the nights are cold. Some are dressed only in night shirts or house-coats.

On the second day hunger begins to twist the stomach in painful spasms, cracked lips long for a drop of water. The times when people were given three loaves of bread are long since gone. Sweating, feverish children lie helplessly in their mothers’ arms. People seem to shrink, become smaller, greyer.

Action Carried Through by Proletarian Core

It is not only legitimate to speak of the Ghetto fighters as Jewish workers because the active political leadership came from the labor and socialist organizations, but the remaining population of the Ghetto at the time of the uprising was almost entirely proletarian. The deportations to the death camps had systematically reduced the population of the Ghetto from 300,000 to some 30,000 at the time of the uprising.

Since the Nazis proceeded with cold-blooded calculations to squeeze the last sources of labor from the doomed Jews, they carried out a system of planned extermination of the least productive first. The result was that the 30,000 surviving inhabitants in the spring of 1943 were mostly skilled workers employed in making uniforms, brushes, finished wood products, etc., for use by the German army. It was this solid proletarian core of the population that conducted the last great action.

It is an error to believe that every desperate man chooses to die fighting. The hundreds of thousands of Jews transported to the gas chambers were killed off without serious resistance. Once the chance of personal survival is gone, the average person caves in morally and physically and awaits the end, either in a stupor or in hysteria. Only those with a sense of history, with an understanding of the political meaning of resistance to the end, that is to say, the political idealists, choose to fight, not in blind desperation, but to die with a purpose. The heroes of the Ghetto fell with arms in hand because all their Socialist convictions had prepared them for that course of action. Their struggle was not a mere last act of vengeance against the hated enemy. It was a blow for freedom – the Socialist freedom to which they had dedicated their lives.

Electrifying Effect on Polish Resistance

Their struggle had an immediate electrifying effect upon the Polish resistance movement as a whole. The rubble heaps of the Ghetto were a silent testimony to the Poles of how fighters for freedom die. But they were more than that. They were a daily reminder that the German war machine was not invincible. For until it met the Ghetto resistance, the great strength of the Gestapo and the SS troops lay in the legend of their invincibility, a legend that paralyzed their victims even before the battle began.

The Ghetto fighters exploded this legend. The despised Jewish proletarian, armed with a pistol and a crude hand grenade, proved more than a match for the highly vaunted SS troops. The latter could prevail only with the use of bombing planes, tanks, flame throwers and a concentration of artillery that exceeded that used in the seige of Warsaw in 1939. Even this array of armament did not suffice and the Germans were forced to burn the entire Ghetto to end the resistance. The battle of the Ghetto was a catastrophic moral defeat for the Nazis, a defeat from which they never recovered in Poland.

The Polish underground drew inspiration and absorbed valuable practical lessons from the Ghetto action. It correctly withheld military action during the Ghetto battle for its own preparations were only in the initial stage. The Ghetto battle inspired thousands to activity in the Polish resistance and blazed the path for the Warsaw insurrection of 1944, so cynically betrayed by Stalin.

The memory of the Ghetto fighters is “enrolled in the great book of revolutionary heroes, along with the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolutions, the Austrian Schutzbúnd, the Spanish milicianos. They are part of the great tradition of the fight for Socialist freedom.

The Ghetto Fights Back

Finally, the Germans decided to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto completely, regardless of cost. On April 19, 1943, at 2 a.m., the first messages concerning the Germans’ approach arrived from our outermost observation posts. These reports made it clear that German gendarmes, aided by Polish “navy blue” policemen, were encircling the outer Ghetto walls at 30-yard intervals. An emergency alarm to all our battle groups was immediately ordered, and at 2:15, i.e., 15 minutes later, all the groups were already at their battle stations. We also informed the entire population of the imminent danger, and most of the Ghetto inhabitants moved instantly to previously prepared shelters and hide-outs in the cellars and attics of buildings. A deathly silence enveloped the Ghetto. The Z.O.B. was on the alert ...

But no, they did not scare us and we were not taken by surprise. We were only awaiting an opportune moment. Such a moment presently arrived. The Germans chose the intersection at Mila and Zamenhofa Streets for their bivouac area, and battle groups barricaded at the four corners of the street opened concentric fire on them. Strange projectiles began exploding everywhere (the hand grenades of our own make), the lone machine pistol sent shots through the air now and then (ammunition had to be conserved carefully), rifles started firing a bit further away. Such was the beginning.

The Germans attempted a retreat, but their path was cut, German dead soon littered the street. The remainder tried to find cover in the neighboring stores and house entrances, but this shelter proved Insufficient. The “glorious” SS, therefore, called tanks into action under the cover of which the remaining men of two companies were to commence a “victorious” retreat. But even the tanks seemed to be affected by the Germans’ bad luck. The first was burned out by one of our incendiary bottles, the rest did not approach our positions. The fate of the Germans caught in the Mila Street-Zamenhofa Street trap was settled. Not a single German left this area alive. The following battle groups took part in the fighting here: Gruzalc’s (“Bund”); Merdek’s (“Hashomer”); Hochberg’s (“Bund”); Berek’s (“Dror”); Pawel’s (“P.P.R.”).

Simultaneously, fights were going on at the intersection of Nalewki and Gesia Streets. Two battle groups kept the Germans from entering the Ghetto area at this point. The fighting lasted more than seven hours. The Germans found some mattresses and used them as cover, but the partisans’ well-aimednfire forced them to several successive withdrawals. German blood flooded the street. German ambulances continuously transported their wounded to the, small square near the Community buildings. Here the wounded lay in rows on the sidewalk awaiting their turn to be admitted to the hospital. At the corner of Gesia Street a German air liaison observation post signalled the partisans’ positions and the required bombing targets to the planes. But from the air as well as on the ground the partisans appeared to be invincible. The Gesia Street-Nalewki Street battle ended in the complete withdrawal of the Germans.

At the same time heavy fighting raged at Muranowski-Square. Here the Germans attacked from all directions. The cornered partisans defended themselves bitterly and succeeded, by truly superhuman efforts, in repulsing the attacks. Two German machine guns as well as a quantity of other weapons were captured. A German tank was burned, the second tank of the day.

At 2 p.m., not a single live German remained in the Ghetto area. It was the Z.O.B.’s first complete victory over the Germans. The remaining hours of the day passed in “complete quiet,” i.e., with the exception of artillery fire (the guns were in positions at Krasinskich Square) and several bombings from the air ...


All quotations on the Warsaw Ghetto used on this page are taken from the pamphlet The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelman. The latter was a leader of the underground Jewish Socialist Bund in the Ghetto and a leader of one of the battle groups. He succeeded in escaping from the Ghetto with a remaining handful of partisans via the sewers of the city and, in cooperation with the Polish underground, reached the forest hide-outs of the guerrillas.

The pamphlet was published in Warsaw in 1945 by the Central Committee of the “Bund” and was translated and issued in this country by the American Representation of the General Jewish Workers’ Union of Poland (Bund). It is available through the latter organization. Address: Forward Building, East Broadway, New York City.

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