By Dr. Havi Dreifuss
Seventy years have elapsed since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising broke out, on Passover eve, the 19th of April 1943. It was the first urban uprising in occupied Europe, and the largest act of resistance carried out by Jews during the Holocaust. Echoes of the uprising were heard already during the Second World War, both within occupied Poland and abroad. In time, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising came to be one of the most well known events in the history of the Holocaust. For both Jews and non-Jews this event has become the symbol of the desperate heroism and resolute struggle of the Jewish spirit.
For these reasons, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising has been at the forefront of public memory and scholarly research on the Holocaust, ever since it was brutally suppressed in the spring of 1943. In the years that followed, scores of academic studies, personal memoirs, and collections of primary sources have been published on the subject. Many facets of the resistance organizations which took part in the uprising have been studied in depth. Numerous studies have focused on the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB – Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa), commanded by Mordechai Anielewicz, while other important studies have dealt with the Jewish Military Union (ZZW – Żydowski Związek Wojskowy), commanded by Paweł Frenkiel and Leon Rodal. Yet despite these works, it seems that academic research and public discourse have almost entirely ignored the fate of the tens of thousands of Jews who were still living in the ghetto when the fighting broke out. Though members of the youth movements – both Zionist and non-Zionists – took the lead in the uprising, the weight of the offensive had to be borne by the thousands of Jewish residents who were still living in the ghetto at that time. These Jews refused to evacuate the ghetto even after it had been turned into a burning firetrap.
An in-depth study of the extant research on the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust reveals additional lacunae related to the uprising, its history and its sources. For example, the daily life of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto has been the subject of much scholarly interest, both in and of itself, and as a prism through which to examine certain social and cultural issues. Yet most studies of the ghetto society – both of the society as a group, and of the individuals who comprised it – have taken the summer of 1942 as their terminal point; this was the date when most of the ghetto residents were deported to Treblinka and murdered. The historical research is therefore lacking in studies of the fate of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews during the last months of the ghetto's existence. In order to retrace the experiences of the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto Jewry during the uprising we have to focus precisely on this period, and on the lives of those Jews who remained alive in the ghetto – albeit temporarily – after the mass deportations had been carried out.
The theme of Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day 2013 is "Definance and Rebellion During the Holocaust – 70 Years Since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising." We have chosen to illuminate a number of central aspects of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, some of them well known, others much less so. Among other things, we will seek to examine the following questions: How did the remnants of the ghetto Jews lead their daily lives in the wake of the Great Deportation? What were the turning points encountered, during the last months of the ghetto's existence, by the resistance movements and the ghetto society at large? What took place in the ghetto in January 1943? What part did the unaffiliated Jewish population, those residents who were not officially part of the resistance organizations, play in the uprising, and how did the decision to go into hiding in underground bunkers affect the armed struggle against the Germans? How was the fighting conducted during the uprising, and what happened when the ghetto's remains were finally destroyed, after the uprising had been officially suppressed?
Our ability to answer these questions, and many others, is primarily based upon the many sources that we have at our disposal, including contemporaneous diaries and memoirs and official German reports; so too, later testimonies, both written and oral including the video testimonies of Jews who took part in the uprising.
This exhibition brings together excerpts from many hours of video testimony given by the survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and former combatants in the uprising. Some of the Jews of the ghetto succeeded in escaping the ghetto after the battle that raged there and survived in hiding on the Aryan side, under an assumed identity or in the forests. Others hid deep inside the bunkers in the ghetto, but were ultimately discovered by the Germans and deported to concentration and death camps. There were also the few who managed to survive among the ruins of the ghetto until the liberation. The majority of the Jews who took part in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising were murdered, whether during the brutal suppression of the uprising, while attempting to escape the burning ghetto, in the camps or on the Aryan side. Few survived the inferno; some of their testimonies are presented here.
This unique oral documentation enables us to shed new light on the fate of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the uprising thereby enhancing our understanding of one of the central chapters in Holocaust history.