Editor’s Note: April 24 is Yom HaShoah. The following is based on a speech Cantor Schwarzberg gave at a number of Holocaust memorial events.
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 Germans attacked Poland. The Polish army was easily crushed. 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 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.
* * * * *
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 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 dared not 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. Gone were my parents, my sisters, my brother – my entire family. Later I would learn that just a couple of days earlier, a special force 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. They were put into cattle cars and never heard from again. My family was among them.
* * * * *
I stayed with some other boys who’d also 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, in order to buy guns and smuggle them into the ghetto.
Some of our expeditions were successful, some not. The Polish gun dealers often pocketed the money without delivering the goods. Instead they would send the Gestapo to make an arrest. We had many close calls, but we knew from the start we were taking chances.
The deportations intensified in January 1943. SS troops entered the ghetto and called through loudspeakers for all Jews to come out, orderly and calmly, for resettlement. We were not to worry, they said. No harm would come to us, and we would work and live in much better conditions.
By that time we already knew these were lies, that the transports were going straight to the extermination center in Treblinka. Large numbers of Jews refused to come out of their homes. In desperation, people tried hiding in the most unbelievable places. Many, unfortunately, were discovered in the house-to-house searches. Those found hiding were savagely beaten as they were led away. The cries we heard that day can never be forgotten.
Our leaders were constantly sending messages and cables to England, the United States, and other countries pleading for help. But help was not forthcoming. The nations of the world had decided to close their eyes and their ears. And, of course, their gates.
We were fewer and fewer in number, and our hopes for assistance or miracles were fading. The idea of armed resistance was gaining popularity. Our families were gone, we had nothing to lose, preparations were underway. Soon it seemed that everyone was contributing to our efforts.
* * * * *
On April 19, erev Pesach, SS troops surrounded the ghetto. The trains to take us to the crematoria were waiting at the railroad station. This time the call for Jews to come out was ignored.
Most of the women, the children, and the elderly remained in their hiding places, but we Jewish fighters were watching from the rooftops. The SS soldiers began approaching the houses to force the Jews out at gunpoint. When they came close enough, we hurled our grenades and Molotov cocktails at them.
Many of the soldiers were killed or injured, and the Germans retreated in total bewilderment. Jews were expected to march meekly to their deaths. Certainly they were not supposed to fight back – and with such ferocity yet.
The SS returned with a tank. We burned it. Our positions atop the roofs gave us an advantage. It was difficult for the Germans to get at us with their small weapons and not be exposed to our grenades and Molotov cocktails.
On the other hand, we had to use our weapons cautiously, without any waste. Our supplies were meager but we used them efficiently and effectively. Hard to believe, but the “invincible” Germans had to call in regular army reinforcements to crush the ghetto uprising.
We fought on. The weapons and uniforms we took off the bodies of German soldiers came in very handy. Humiliated, the Germans replaced their commanding general with the tough, battle-hardened General Jurgen Stroop.
Stroop promised to give Hitler the annihilation of Warsaw’s Jews as a birthday present. He brought in heavy guns, tanks, and flame-throwers. With what little we had, we knew we could not resist the superior German firepower much longer.
I was sent over to the Aryan side to try to get some supplies and deliver messages, and was still there when the Germans began burning the ghetto. The Poles gathered around and brought their children to see the destruction of the Jews inside.
Their mood was festive, as though they were on a picnic or watching a parade.
While the Poles watched and made merry, the Germans threw firebombs at the houses they’d sprayed with gasoline. The ghetto was exploding in flames. The few who survived the inferno were killed or caught while trying to escape through underground passages and city sewers.
There was no longer any place to which I could return. I hoped to somehow find a place on the Aryan side. I arranged to meet with a non-Jewish friend who offered to help me. But – no doubt realizing he would be executed on the spot if he were caught – he never showed up.
Instead I was apprehended by the Gestapo, beaten severely, and shipped off, first to Maidanek and then to a labor camp in Skarzysko. After one year in Skarzysko I was moved to Buchenwald; it was there that I was liberated by the Americans.
* * * * *
After the war I served as a cantor in several European countries before emigrating to the United States. I made a new life here, marrying a fellow survivor and building a family and a business.
Somehow, through much suffering and with my faith in Hashem intact, I had survived. I survived the ghetto and the camps. I survived the Germans. I survived the Poles. I survived the Lithuanians and the Latvians and the Ukrainians.
I survived them all.
And then, three years after my liberation from Buchenwald, I was privileged to witness the rebirth, after two thousand years, of an independent Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. I was filled with joy and recited the Shehecheyanu prayer: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”
I have never seen saw any conflict between love of Judaism and love of the state of Israel, and have little patience with Orthodox Jews who do. I know all too well what happens to defenseless Jews.
The historical circumstances of the rise of a sovereign Jewish country, coming as it did in the immediate wake of the Holocaust – the unspeakable culmination of endless persecutions, restrictions, expulsions, massacres, and pogroms – was as clear an indication as could be that there is a God in charge of the world, a God who directs our destiny and, as promised millennia ago, orchestrated the stunning miracle of Israel’s resurrection from the ash heap of history.
To those like me who had seen firsthand the bottomless contempt that our abject helplessness aroused in those who hated us – the arrogant sneers of “Where’s your God now, Jew?” – the new reality of Jewish soldiers soundly defeating our enemies and proudly raising the Star of David was a healing balm unlike any other to both heart and soul.
And then, just 22 years after I was freed from Buchenwald as a living skeleton, an orphan with no one and no place to call my own, I followed the news day and night as Jewish boys – most of them no older than I had been in Buchenwald – liberated our holiest sites after decimating the armies of those who just days before had been vowing to destroy Israel.
I watched the awestruck expressions of the young soldiers at the Kotel as they listened to the sounds of the shofar. I couldn’t help but recall the faces of the Jewish boys I’d known in Poland who never could have imagined such a scene and never lived to see it.
In July 1976, when Israel mounted the Entebbe rescue that shocked the world, I was beside myself with gratitude to Hashem.
“Not in my wildest dreams,” I told my family, “when the Germans, the Poles, the Ukrainians, and all the others were spitting and cursing at us, torturing and killing us, could I have envisioned that one day I would see Jewish soldiers and Jewish pilots flying 2,500 miles to rescue Jewish citizens of a Jewish state.”
I often think about how things would have been so different had there been an Israel in the 1930s and 1940s – a country my father and mother and siblings and uncles and aunts and cousins and the rest of the six million could have escaped to and where they would have been welcomed with open arms.
Just the thought of it should be enough to bring tears to even the most hardened and cynical among us. But as believing Jews, we must – while never forgetting the horrors of the past – always focus on our numerous blessings as we look toward our ultimate redemption.
“Weeping,” we read in Tehillim 30, “may endure for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”