The Warsaw ghetto and the meaning of resistance

Submitted by Matthew on 1 May, 2013 - 8:53

Warsaw wrote two brilliant chapters in its history during the war, and also entered a dark blot on its pages.

The first was the uprising, against the Nazi occupation, of the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, starting on 19 April 1943 and lasting about six weeks. This struggle of the Jews, and especially of the Jewish workers, against overwhelming odds is one of the most glorious episodes in the book of struggles of oppressed peoples and labour for freedom.

The second event took place a year and a half later in October 1944. This, often referred to as the Warsaw Insurrection, was the work of the Polish underground against the Nazi overlords. Despite heroic efforts, both attempts at freedom failed but they remain a source of inspiration and encouragement in demonstrating to mankind the extent to which men are capable of heroic sacrifice in the fight for liberty.

The blot that hangs over Warsaw is the fact that there was little or no support from the Polish underground to the Jews of the ghetto.

When the Nazis occupied Poland, they, pushed the Jews into ghettos and isolated them from the rest of the population. Beginning in the spring of 1942 there were deportation to concentration camps, where the Jews — men, women and children —were exterminated in gas chambers and crematoriums. The Nazis told the deportees that they were being shipped to work in war factories. It took some time before any inkling of the truth — which was so horrible and inhuman that even the victims found it hard to believe — was discovered.

In the fall of 1942 there was talk of resistance against the Nazis. The conservative elements among the Jews opposed "rash" action, fearing that it would provoke complete extermination. They still hoped that there was a little truth in the Nazis' pretext about war work. The Polish government-in-exile and the Allied powers refused to give arms to the Jews on the grounds that resistance was futile. By now, only 40,000 Jews remained out of a previous population of 400,000.

In the winter of 1942 there was some sporadic underground resistance. The Nazis held off complete liquidation of the ghetto for a few months. In April they resumed the campaign to exterminate the Jews. The time was effectively used by the Jews to collect and manufacture arms and to form a fighting organisation. On the Passover of 1943 — 19 April — they launched their revolt against the Nazis and drove them from the ghetto.

The underground forces of the Polish government-in-exile gave them no aid whatsoever. Despite the pleas and demands of the Jewish representatives in the government, they did not even issue a proclamation in support of the uprising until late in May, fearing to antagonise anti-semitic elements among the Poles.

The Polish labour movement, the PPS (there was no Stalinist underground to speak of), was generous with its moral support and resolutions, but extremely niggardly with material aid. There is dispute over whether the Jews received any aid from them. The evidence, I believe, shows that a few crumbs of aid were received but these amounted to almost nothing.

The leaders of the Bund (Jewish socialist group) made a direct appeal for help to the underground organisations of the Polish workers, if not help with arms then at least through a strike. The latter refused; they were divided by anti-semitism. Many sympathised with the Jews but the general attitude among the non-Jewish population was one of unconcern for the fate of the Jews.

The record and action of the great powers of the Allied bloc — both the "humanitarian" democrats of the West and Stalin's totalitarian state — belong to the most infamous chapters in the history of mankind. None of them lifted a finger to prevent the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. During the uprising there was no attempt to divert the Nazis, no arms were given, no bombings were ordered. Not even their voices were lifted in support.

While Russia was nearer and therefore perhaps bears a greater share of the responsibility, since it was physically possible for it to have helped more, all the partners must take the guilt. There was not even a demand that the Nazis treat the- fighters of the ghetto as prisoners of war.

(Later on in 1944 in the second revolt, the Warsaw insurrection of the Polish underground, in which the few surviving Jews participated, the valiant fighters met apathy from the West and betrayal from the East. The Moscow regime, after having called for a revolt, deliberately halted its army before Warsaw and allowed Hitler to destroy the Polish labour movement. The Stalinists thus spared themselves the need of doing the dirty job themselves, since no more than Hitler could they tolerate an independent workers' movement not under their control.)

The ghetto battle of 1943 was far from being a blind fight by hunted unorganised individuals who were interested solely in saving their lives.

The uprising was well organised and was the accomplishment primarily of Jewish workers. While the Bund was the prime force in its organization, the Hashomer Hatzair, a left-wing socialist-Zionist movement, also played an important role. A central fighting organisation was formed. The Germans were forced to retreat and, in the first weeks, lost about 2,000 men. They had to set up a virtual general staff to fight the intrepid, untrained Jewish fighters, who had only the most elementary weapons.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising belongs not only to the Jewish people but is also part of the heritage of the working class. The bourgeois elements hesitated. The Agudas Israel, an orthodox-Jewish force, did not participate, while the Revisionists (rightist Zionist group) had a small independent vengeance organisation which fought a few days.

The Ghetto Uprising would not have taken place without the background of years of socialist agitation and organisation which lay behind the Jewish workers.

It is not true that every desperate man chooses to die fighting. Once the chance of personal survival is gone, the average person caves in, in despair, and awaits the end. Only those with an understanding of the political meaning of resistance, those with a sense of history, those with a larger view than the immediate threat, choose to die not in blind desperation but with a purpose.

Their whole socialist past had prepared the fighters not merely for a last act of vengeance against the hated enemy but for a blow for freedom and against anti-semitism. The documents of these martyrs are filled with the one hope, that their act would arouse the world.

The Nazis had left to the last on their list those who were working in factories. The ghetto in its last days was therefore preponderantly proletarian.

Until they had met the ghetto resistance, the strength of the SS troops lay in their myth of invincibility. The ghetto fighters exploded this legend. The despised Jewish workers, armed with pistols and crude home-made grenades, proved more than a match for the SS.

The Nazis were able to win only by using planes, flame-throwers, tanks and higher concentration of artillery than was used in the siege of Warsaw in 1939. 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 really recovered in Poland. The Polish underground learned a great deal from the ghetto fighting, which blazed the path to the 1944 insurrection which was so cynically betrayed by the Kremlin.

Warsaw stands as a profound symbol of our times. Crushed on the one hand by the forces of fascist capitalism and on the other side by counter-revolutionary Stalinism, with the quiet acquiescence of the capitalist democracies, this betrayed city mirrors the forces of modern civilisation and it fight for survival.

The indifference of the world to the fate of the Jews during the war and the utter breakdown of all human decency in the battle of the ghetto is no mere passing phenomenon. It was an indication of how fast decay can spread, and at what an awful speed barbarism can replace the habits of “Western civilisation.” At the same time Warsaw is added proof that Stalinism, far from being a barrier to social decay, is itself the epitome of barbarism. Warsaw stands as a star lesson of the.inhumanity that grows out of the seeds of anti-semitism and racial doctrines. This lesson must sink deeply into the consciousness of everyone.

Warsaw stands as an object lesson to those of the oppressed peoples, and also those in the labour and socialist movements, who look to one or another of the great powers of the world for salvation and aid. Their indifference to, and betrayal of, the Warsaw struggle should be enough to warn that this is reliance on a broken reed.

The memory of the ghetto fighters is enrolled in the great book of revolutionary heroes along with the martyrs of the Paris Commune of 1871, of the Spartacus League of 1918 in Germany, of the Austrian Schutzbund of the 1934 civil war, and of the Spanish militiamen of the fight against Franco. They are part of the great tradition of the fight for socialist freedom.

Labor Action, 20 April 1953

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