News | In Defence of Humanity

19 April 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

At the time, at least 60,000 people still resided in the ghetto, which had been cut off from the rest of the city since 16 November 1940 and housed up to 460,000 people at various points.

No one knew what fate awaited them in the violently sealed-off metropolis inside German-occupied Warsaw. The so-called “Grossaktion Warschau” began on 22 July 1942, a plan to deport over 300,000 Jews to the Treblinka concentration camp by 21 September 1942 in order to summarily gas them. After the transports were ended, up to 35,000 “legal” residents remained behind in the ghetto, registered as labourers in the ghetto’s various workshops. Those remaining who lacked a work permit were forced to hide or be hidden. It was during this time that a firm determination arose to fight back against the Germans the next time they sought to resume the transports to Treblinka. This first occurred on 18 January 1943, when armed Jewish resistance stopped the Germans’ plans. The final liquidation of the ghetto was delayed, and the occupiers would only re-enter the ghetto three months later in order to do away with it once and for all. The occupiers took several weeks to break the armed resistance. The Great Synagogue was blown up on 16 May 1943 as a final symbol of the German victory over Jewish Warsaw. The heroic fight put up by the resistance, led by a group of young men and women under the leadership of Left-Zionist Mordechai Aneilewicz, may have been of little military significance, but belongs to the most important uprisings in world history as a principled defence of humanity.

In memory of the uprising and the human beings persecuted in the Warsaw Ghetto, we document here excerpts from two diaries written by inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Historian Emanuel Ringelblum led the underground archive in the Warsaw Ghetto, while author and Hebrew teacher Abraham Lewin was one of his colleagues. What remains of Emanuel Ringelblum’s diary is housed in the Jewish Historical Institute, which also bears his name. Ringelblum and Lewin maintained their own personal journals during their time in the ghetto – the anecdotes and observations they recorded survived the war and testify to the last days and weeks of the two authors’ lives. Ringelblum was able to escape the ghetto in early 1943 and go into hiding together with his wife and son and 30 others in Warsaw. After being discovered on 7 March 1944, all of them were executed in the rubble of the former ghetto. Abraham Lewin’s last diary entry is dated 17 January 1943. Nothing is known of his fate thereafter.

The following excerpts were translated from their respective Polish editions.

Abraham Lewin

21 May 1942

[…] Quite a few German Jews have appeared in the Ghetto in the last days. They can be recognized by the yellow Star of David with “Jude” inscribed on it. They go to work and back in closed rows, but walk by themselves on the streets. So far, no contact has been established between them and us. Unfortunately, the wall of centuries of prejudice and linguistic division stands between us. A Jew from Hanover finds it difficult to converse with a Jew from Piascezno or Grójec, and the same is true the other way around. They simply cannot understand each other. Over time, we hope, some rapprochement will occur. They will mix in with us and assimilate. This has happened more than once in history, those expelled from Spain in Germany and France, or more recently the Yemenites and the German Jews in Eretz Yisrael. Here, I would like to draw attention to the outward appearance of the German Jews, to the anthropological side of the matter. I look into their faces and am surprised by the great similarity between us; we are as alike as two drops of water. If the yellow star was not affixed to their breast, we would not at all notice that a German Jew of many generations stood before us. That means that the centuries-long climatic (in a certain sense), linguistic and cultural differences proved unable to wash out and obscure our common heritage and anthropological form. In light of this observation, one can conclude that the conception of a Western European and an Eastern European Jew is superficial and inaccurate. In fact, we are made from the same clay. We are like two brothers, one of which destiny took far away to America, while the other remained in his Polish or Lithuanian shtetl. When they see each other again 15 or 20 years later, they feel the unfamiliarity and become shy. Over time, the feeling of brotherhood will overcome the unfamiliarity which has arisen through time and cultural difference […] 

(In April 1942 roughly 4,000 Jews from various corners of the German Empire and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were transported to the Warsaw Ghetto. They were first housed in a quarantine station and in the building of the Jewish Library, which today houses the Jewish Historical Institute.)


28 August 1942

Today we had a lengthy conversation with Dawid Nowodworski, who returned from T[reblinka]. He reported to us very precisely all the suffering he faced, from the moment he was caught until his escape from this place of horror and his return to Warsaw. His words confirm once again what we already knew, and it is beyond any doubt that the people from all the transports are to be killed and that none can escape. That includes those who were caught as well as those who went voluntarily. That is the naked truth. Dreadful. And to think that in the last weeks at least 300,000 Jews from Warsaw, Radom, Siedlce and many, many other cities were killed. On the basis of his report we compiled an eye-witness testimony so harrowing and terrifying that it can hardly be described with human language. That is probably the greatest crime ever committed in the history of humanity. […]

(Emanuel Ringelblum also participated in the conversation with Dawid Nowodworski).


Emanuel Ringelblum

5 December 1942

Why were ten percent of Warsaw’s Jews left behind? Quite a few try to answer the question, as the answer will determine how long they let us stay in the ghetto, how long they will let us live and if they will let us live at all, when they will do away with us. Many who are knowledgable of the matter believe that ten percent of the Jews in Warsaw were left over not for economic but rather purely political reasons. For what do they care what the Jews produce for the Wehrmacht! Germany, which has taken over all of Europe, can quickly fill the gap caused by the expulsion of the Jews. Had the Germans been thinking economically, then they would not have sent thousands of first-class craftsmen to the collection point without batting an eyelash (the SS is now desperately looking for Jewish craftsmen, particularly carpenters and painters, and on good terms no less). The same is true in the provinces, where many towns are already “cleansed of Jews”, although the Jewish population there was deployed in the labour process for the Wehrmacht, such as in Zamość.

It became evident that no economic criteria mattered as far as the Jews were concerned, but rather political and propagandistic. If that is the case, then I will pose the question more sharply: why were the rest of the Jews left behind? The answer is of a political nature. Had they eliminated all of the Jews in Warsaw and the General Governorate, they would no longer have the Jew argument. That would make it more difficult to blame the Jews for all the difficulties and failures. The Jew must remain in the spirit of the old saying, “May God ensure that all of your teeth fall out except for the last one, so that you never forget what toothaches are.”

There is another factor pushing the Germans to leave the remaining Jews in Warsaw. And that is: the international community. Nowhere do they admit to having murdered millions of Jews. When 40,000 Jews were eliminated in Lublin, a report appeared in the Warschauer Zeitung reporting how well the Jews of Lublin were doing, how smugglers and speculators had been successfully reformed to productive elements who now lived simply in Majdan.

The same in Warsaw. They do not want to admit to the international public to killing all of Warsaw’s Jews, so they left a remainder of Jews behind – not only for the toothache, but for the rest of the world – which they will eliminate, however, before the clock strikes twelve. Hitler is deploying all means to fulfill his promise of “liberating” Europe from the Jews. Only a miracle can save us from total annihilation, only an urgent and lightning-fast defeat could redeem us.

A black pessimism has taken hold of the Jewish population. Morituri – that is the fitting label for the Jews of Warsaw. The majority of people are prepared to resist. I believe they will no longer go to the slaughtering block like innocent sheep. They demand that the enemy pay a heavy price for their spent lives. They will launch themselves onto them with knives, chopping blocks, and acid. They will not allow any more road blockades. They will not allow themselves to be caught on the street, for they know that every work camp now means death, and they want to die at home and not somewhere far away. It will come to resistance – that is, of course, if it is organized beforehand and as long as the enemy does not conduct a blitz as was the case in Krakow. There, 5,500 Jews were caught and locked into wagons in only seven hours in one night in late October.

The well-known psychological law has been reaffirmed that a slave whose back has been broken cannot mount further resistance. But it appears that after the terrible blows dealt to them, the Jews have begun to stand themselves up, to shake off the experiences and have now determined: walking to the slaughtering block did not make the tragedy less; on the contrary, it became even greater. Everyone with whom one speaks agrees: we should not have allowed the deportations to occur.  We should have taken to the streets, burnt everything down, blown up the walls and fought through to the other side. The Germans would have taken revenge. That would have cost us tens of thousands of victims, but not 300,000. Now we feel ashamed before ourselves and the whole world, because our obedience accomplished absolutely nothing. That cannot be repeated again, now we must mount resistance, without exception everyone must stand up to the enemy. […]

(From 17 March to 11 April 1942 over 30,000 people were taken from the Lublin ghetto to Bełżec. Roughly 4,000 people were taken to the newly created ghetto in the Lublin suburb of Majdan Tatarski to work. Another 3,000 people without the relevant proof of employment also located there were sent to their deaths in multiple transports between April and October 1942. The ghetto in Majdan Tatarski was dissolved on 9 November 1942, most of the people residing in Majdanek died there.

From 27 to 29 October 1942, 11,000 people were transported from the ghetto in Krakow to a transition camp, from which the majority were transported to Bełżec.)