Warsaw Ghetto: a name, a phrase, familiar to most people today only as a matter of history. Important history, yes, but dry and impersonal just the same. Because even the most vivid of photographs and the most descriptive of texts, whether found on the pages of books or the walls of museums, cannot begin to describe the abject terror and suffering experienced by those who were there.
I was there. I lived with my parents, sisters and brother in Warsaw. On September 1, 1939, the German army attacked Poland. The Polish army was crushed in just three weeks. To us, the defeat of the Poles meant an end to the nightmare of daily bombings – but the beginning of the horrors of German occupation.
The shortage of food was felt immediately. We had to stand in long lines to buy bread. Frequently, the Germans would order the Jews out of the waiting line. Some brave souls, determined to bring bread to their families, would try to stay in the line, but always there were Poles on hand who eagerly pointed out the Jews to the Germans.
Meanwhile, the Germans were taking men away to hard labor without the slightest regard for their physical condition. While they worked, the men would be beaten and kicked – some to death. Those lucky enough to return were hard to recognize. And it continued day after day: Jews taken away, many of the more prominent ones never to be seen again.
We were hungry, scared, degraded, sick and miserable. For the Germans, however, this was not enough. We were ordered to leave our homes and move to an area designated for the ghetto. The area was much too small to hold the Jewish population of Warsaw alone, yet every day new transports arrived from other cities.
But as bleak and as hopeless as our situation may have seemed, it was paradise compared with what was yet to come.
Death In The Streets
When we moved into the ghetto, we had to leave behind many of our possessions without receiving any compensation. The prices for food were sky high. With the sealing of the ghetto, people were cut off from their sources of income, stripped of valuables and other personal belongings that could have been exchanged for food or life-saving medicine.
People were literally dying in the streets. It took days for the bodies to be collected and buried. Young children, who in another time and place would have had nothing more serious to contemplate than their schoolwork, grew all too familiar with death as a daily occurrence. Walking around the ghetto, they learned to ignore the corpses strewn in their path.
And then came a new phase in our mistreatment: The SS began taking people out of the ghetto and shipping them in cattle cars to the labor camps. As the population shrank and the ghetto became steadily smaller, we were forced to move. Not once, but again and again.
Still we did not dare fight back. Many of us feared the Germans would torture and kill family members in retaliation. Others simply hoped the Allies would finish off the Germans before the Germans finished off the Jews.
A teenager at the time, I managed to get false papers and attempted to pass as an Aryan in order to safely leave the ghetto to look for food. But it wasn’t easy fooling the Poles, many of whom prided themselves on their ability to detect a Jew. For rewards as small as 1 kilo (2.2 lbs) of sugar, Poles delivered to the Gestapo those whom they recognized as Jews.
One day, after a narrow escape, I returned to the ghetto and found only empty rooms. My parents, my sisters, my brother – my entire family – were all gone. Later I would learn that just a couple of days earlier, the special force known as the “group for the extermination of the Jews,” made up of Latvian and Lithuanian SS together with the German SS, had entered the ghetto with guns raised and taken away more than 10,000 people. They returned at night for another 20,000.
All told, the Germans and their collaborators had removed more than 30,000 Jews from the ghetto in less than 24 hours. All of them put in cattle cars, none of them heard from again. My family was among them.
I stayed with some other boys who, like myself, had lost their families. A man who had been a Jewish officer in the Polish army joined our group. He thought the time had come to do something. Since neither he nor I looked Jewish, he suggested we sneak out to the Aryan side, where he had some contacts, buy guns and smuggle them into the ghetto.