Warsaw, April 1943 “hopeless days of revolt”

Photo: Jews removed from one of the bunkers, May 1943, from Jurgen Stroop’s photo collection, photo copy at Yad Vashem

700 words / 3 ½ minute read

The Germans had chosen yet another date in the “Goebbels calendar”, Passover 1943, for the destruction of what was left of the Warsaw ghetto.  Driven out of the ghetto in ignominy in January, they were determined not to fail in April.  The Jews were equally determined not to to be destroyed without a struggle.  …

The Germans entered the Warsaw ghetto on the morning of April 19.  Man for man, gun for gun, their forces were formidable:  2,100 German soldiers, including SS troops, against 1,200 Jewish fighters; 13 heavy machine guns, against which the Jews had no equivalent armament; 69 hand-held machine guns, against which the Jews had none; a total of 135 submachine guns, against which the Jews had 2; several howitzers and other artillery pieces, of which the Jews had none; a total of 1,358 rifles, as against only 17 rifles among the Jews.  The Jews had acquired some pistols, about five hundred.  But pistols were of little or no use in street fighting.  The main Jewish weapons were several thousand grenades and incendiary bottles.

According to the German Commander, SS General Jurgen Stroop … in every instance that day, it was the Jewish fighters who had opened fire, catching the Germans by surprise.  It was also apparent that the Germans had met not only with the organized resistance of several hundred Jewish fighters, but with the resistance of tens of thousands of Jew in hiding in the cellars, bunkers and sewers of the ghetto.  …

The first evening of the ghetto uprising was also the Seder night, the first night of Passover, the Jewish “festival of liberty”.  …

 In Vilna, the poet Shmerl Kaczerginski was among a group of Jews listening, on the morning of April 19, to a clandestine radio.  “Hello, hello!” they heard over the air waves.  “The survivors in the Warsaw ghetto have begun an armed resistance against the murderers of the Jewish people.  The ghetto is aflame!”

 “We knew of no other particulars yet,” Kaczerginsky later recalled, but “ we suddenly saw clearly the flames of the Warsaw ghetto and Jews fighting with arms for their dignity and self-respect.”

Despite being outnumbered and outarmed, the Jewish fighters continued to engage the German forces.  On April 23 Mordecai Anielewicz wrote to Yitzhak Zuckerman, who was seeking help for the uprising on the “Aryan” side:  “You should know that the pistol is of no use.  We hardly made use of it.  What we need is grenades, rifles, machine guns and explosives.”  Anielewicz wrote also of the “victory” that only a single man from his fighting units was missing.  His letter ended:  “Keep well.  Perhaps we’ll still see each other.  What’s most important; the dream of my life has become a reality.  I lived to see Jewish defence in the ghetto in all its greatness and splendour.”

On May 16 Jurgen Stroop reported to his superiors that the Warsaw ghetto is “no longer in existence.”  The “large-scale action” had ended at 8.15 that evening “by blowing up the Warsaw synagogue”.  Systematically, street by street, the buildings of the ghetto were now destroyed.

On 1 May 1943, while the battle still raged in the Warsaw ghetto, a group of Jewish writers and poets had gathered in the Vilna ghetto for an evening on the theme, “Spring in Yiddish literature”.  Every speaker, every poem, was permeated with the spirit of the fighting in the Warsaw ghetto.  At the meeting, the poet Shmerl Kaczerginski saw his fellow poet, the twenty-three-year-old Hirsh Glik.  “Well, what’s new with you, Hirsh?” he asked.  “I wrote a new poem,” Glik replied.  “Want to hear it?”

 Glik brought the poem to Kaczerginski’s room on the morning of May 2.

The song which Hirsh Glik sang to his friend in Vilna on that May morning was to spread like wildfire in the ghettos and camps, and among Jewish partisans, becoming the song of hope, and battle hymn of oppressed Jewry.  Itself inspired by the struggle in the Warsaw ghetto, the song was to inspire tens of thousands of Jews to fight if they could, and if they could not fight, to survive:

Never say you have reached the very end ….

Hirsh Glik’s song, in Yiddish Zog Nit Keyn Mol …, “Never say you have reached …” became known as the Song of the Partisans.  Glik, born in Vilna  in 1922, was deported and killed with Jewish partisans in Estonia in 1944.

In 1951, the date on the Hebrew calendar, 27 of Nisan, was chosen as the day to commemorate those killed in the Holocaust, Yom HaShoah.  In Israel sirens blare across the country for two minutes and everyone stops in their tracks to remember.

Read: The Holocaust

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