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2017-07-31

Jews in the Warsaw Uprising

August 1, 2017 marks the 73rd anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. At 5:00 pm, sirens will be heard on the streets of the capital and the inhabitants will stop for a minute. For some, it will be also a moment of reflection on the fate of the Warsaw Jews.

In the summer of 1944, there were probably several thousand Jews in Warsaw. Most of them were hiding, or lived under false identity on the so-called Aryan side of town. Several hundred were imprisoned by Germans in Gęsiówka concentration camp and in Pawiak jail.

After the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, the hiding Jews were gradually leaving their shelters. Some came out overwhelmed by general euphoria and with the intention of taking part in combat; others, in fear of unforeseeable turn of events, were leaving the decision on taking part in the battle for later.

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Stanisław Aronson, photo by Krzysztof Bielawski / POLIN      

 

The uprising brought also the liberation of many Jews from the German yoke. On August 1, shortly after "W" hour (codename for the date and time that began the Warsaw Uprising), Kedyw's (Kierownictwo Dywersji – Directorate of Diversion) unit commanded by Lieutenant Stanisław J. Sosabowski alias ‘Stasinek’ liberated about 50 Jews employed at Umschlagplatz. Poles of Jewish origin – Stanisław Aronson and Stanisław Likiernik – took part in this action. The latter became the inspiration for Stanisław Skiernik alias ‘Columbus’, one of the heroes of Roman Bratny’s book Kolumbowie. Rocznik 20 (Columbuses. Born in the 1920s).  Most of those set free expressed their desire to fight in insurgent ranks. One of them was Chaim Goldstein, formerly a member of the French resistance movement and the prisoner of KL Auschwitz.

On August 5, 1944, soldiers of the Home Army (AK) from the Scouts Battalion "Zośka" captured Gęsiówka and freed 348 prisoners detained there. Some of the liberated – among others, Henryk Lederman alias ‘Heniek’ and Dawid Goldman alias ‘Gutek’ – joined the insurgents and took up the fight against the occupier.

The survivors of the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) appealed for the participation of Jews in the Warsaw Uprising. On August 3, 1944, Icchak ‘Antek’ Cukierman wrote in his proclamation: ‘We stand today together with the whole Polish nation in the fight for freedom [...]. We call upon all [...] ŻOB militants and all the Jewish youth capable to fight, to continue the resistance and the battle, from which no one can stand away. I call upon you to join the ranks of the insurgents.’

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The grave of Hanka Spindler at the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa Street in Warsaw, photo by Krzysztof Bielawski / POLIN   

In spite of appearances, it was not always easy to do that. In AK, the largest fighting organization, there were cases of refusal to accept Jewish volunteers. This was due in part to the lack of arms, but also to the fear of Jews’ leaning towards leftist organizations and potential spying on behalf of the USSR. This was done to Mark Edelman, Icchak Cukierman, and Zivia Lubetkin, who ultimately joined to the People's Army (AL). Apart from such situations, many Jews or people with Jewish roots were fighting in the AK.

The Jews were part of various auxiliary formations: they built barricades, they provided food, served as paramedics. In the insurgent hospitals, they worked as doctors, among others, Adina Blady-Szwajger, Michał Lejpuner, Szmul Gilgun, Stefan Rotmil, Idel Singer, Edward Zwilling. First Lieutenant Dr Roman Born-Bornstein – initially second in command of the ‘Chrobry II’ grouping – on August 25, 1944, became the head of the sanitary service of the Fourth Section of AK Midtown District. Emilia Rozencwajg alias ‘Marylka’ – renown for freeing Emanuel Ringelblum from the camp in Trawniki – was the commander of the liaisons and paramedics in the Home Army’s ‘Łukasiński’ Battalion. The function of a liaison and a nurse in the unit of Antoni Chruściel alias ‘Monter’ was performed by 18-year-old Alicja Zipper alias ‘Alina’, who, for her merits during the uprising, was promoted to the rank of an officer. We cannot fail to mention teenage boys who were passing dispatches at the great danger to their lives: Zalman Hochman alias ‘Miki Bandyta’, his brother Perec Hochman alias ‘Cwaniak’, Henryk Arnold alias ‘Ryś’ or Jehuda Nira. The liaison from the ‘Gustaw’ platoon, Stanisław Pinkus alias ‘Panienka’, tragically perished on Kiliński Street, as a result of tank-trap explosion. Almost all of the above-mentioned boys were 14 years old at the time of the uprising.

Nehemiah Szulklaper, Alexander and Zrubawel Werba, Efraim Krasucki fought in the Old Town; in the midtown – a 14-year-old Hungarian Jew Erwin Junarz. Among the soldiers attacking the Court building on Leszno Street was Kazik Ratajzer (Symcha Rotem). Several Jewish soldiers participated in the assault on the PASTA building. ‘Paweł’, a native of Hungary, was a valued shooter, skilled operator of an antitank grenade launcher.

A Treblinka II escapee – Samuel Willenberg – was also fighting in the Home Army. Henryk Lederman and Jewish soldiers with their monikers ‘Bystry’ and ‘Gutek’ were the guides in the underground channels (sewers). The manhole to the canal at the corner of Nowy Świat Street and Warecka Street was defended by Natan Morgenstern.

Members of the Jewish Combat Organisation formed an independent platoon, operating within the Third Battalion of the People’s Army (AL), which included the already mentioned group of Marek Edelman and Icchak Cukierman, comprising, among others: Zivia Lubetkin, Kazik Ratajzer (Symcha Rotem), Sara Biderman, Irena Geldblum, Tuwia Borzykowski, Julian Fiszgrund and Józef Sak. In August 1944, the unit defended its position in the area of Mostowa and Rybaki Streets, also took part in several-day fights for the takeover of strategic location, the so-called Red House at Bugaj Street. After more than three weeks, the platoon, together with other units, was forced to evacuate through the canals to Żoliborz district, where it continued its combat.

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Samuel Willenberg during the commemoration of an anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, photo by Krzysztof Bielawski / POLIN      

 

People’s Army (AL) HQ staff included three pre-war Jewish communist activists: lieutenant Anastazy Matywiecki alias ‘Nastek’, captain Edward Lanota alias ‘Edward’ and captain Stanisław Kurland alias ‘Korab’. They died on August 26, 1944, during a bombardment of a tenement house in the Old Town at 16 Freta Street. In 1945, their bodies were exhumed and laid in the grave at Hoover Square. In 2009, during the revitalization of Krakowskie Przedmieście, the tomb was moved to the Powązki Military Cemetery.

Among other AL soldiers of Jewish origin, one should mention Edwin Rozłubirski, a member of the People's Guard since 1942, after the war promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. After the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, Rozłubirski initially fought in the ranks of the AK ‘Zaremba’ battalion, then became commander of the ‘Czwartacy’ AL battalion, fighting in the Old Town and in the Midtown. Jan Szelubski alias ‘Leszek’ also served in AL, as a commander of a unit fighting at Czacki Street and later in a fierce battle in the area of Frascatti-Nullo Streets. On September 24, 1944, General Tadeusz Komorowski ‘Bór’, on behalf of the President of the Republic of Poland, honoured Jan Szelubski with the War Order of Virtuti Militari.

When writing about the Jews in the Warsaw Uprising, we cannot ignore the fate of the civilian population. Those who were hiding faced the choice of going out into the street or to keep staying in their shelters. Frequently the choice was made for them by the rapidly changing situation. The outbreak of fighting often resulted in being cut off from their protectors who provided food. That was what happened to the pianist Władysław Szpilman. Others fled from the fire and explosions, and from ransacking German troops and RONA. Leaving the hideout and joining the public also did not provide security. People deprived of a roof over their heads were quickly joining other Varsovians who were seeking shelter from air raids and fire in the cellars. While the Poles were able to count on various help from members of their families and acquaintances, the few Warsaw Jews who survived till 1944 were isolated. Moreover, after the initial stage of general enthusiasm, as the food supply situation was drastically deteriorating with each passing day, finally coming to hunger, the lofty sentiment among the population began to give way to fear and uncertainty of tomorrow. This was conducive to the emergence of anti-Semitic tendencies. Some of the Jews who left their hiding places joined the armed units and auxiliary formation. Many died under bombs or were executed. It is known that already on August 6, 1944, in the farm tools warehouse of Kirchmayer and Marczewski factory at 79/81Wolska Street, Germans probably murdered about 2,000 people, including some 50 Jews – also from Greece, Romania and Hungary – liberated the day earlier from Gęsiówka.

After the fall of the Warsaw Uprising, the Jews captured by Germans – both soldiers and civilians – were often shot on the spot. Some managed to get out of the capital and were once again forced to go into hiding. A number of them, using fake documents, went to the transition camp in Pruszków (Dulag 121). Others decided to stay in the city and hide in abandoned houses. Many of these "Warsaw Robinsons" had perished before the liberation of Warsaw.

At the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw at Okopowa Street, there are several tombstones of soldiers who took part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Among the buried are Blima Mykanowska, Halina Kahan, Franciszek Grynbaum, Bolesław Kejlin, Leonard Kimnam, Jakub Żyto and Bolesław Szenfeld. Jewish names can also be found in the insurgent quarters at the Military Cemetery in Warsaw and on the Wall of Remembrance at the Warsaw Rising Museum. However, the list of Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Uprising is definitely longer. According to various estimates, from several hundred up to 3,000 Jews were fighting in insurgent units. We will never know the exact number.

Krzysztof Bielawski


Source: Engelking B., Libionka D., Żydzi w powstańczej Warszawie (Jews in the Warsaw Uprising), Warszawa 2009.

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