by Cantor Zechariah Schwarzberg
Warsaw Ghetto: a name, a phrase, familiar to most people today only
as a matter of history. Important history, yes, but dry and
impersonal just the same. Because even the most vivid of
photographs and the most descriptive of texts, whether found on
the pages of books or the walls of museams, cannot begin to describe
the abject terror and suffering experienced by those who were there.
I was there. I lived with my parents, sisters and
brother in Warsaw. On September 1, 1939, the German
army attacked Poland. The Polish army was
crushed in just three weeks. To us, the defeat of the
Poles meant an end to the nightmare of daily bombings –
but the beginning of the horrors of German occupation.
The shortage of food was felt immediately. We had to
stand in long lines to buy bread. Frequently, the
Germans would order the Jews out of the waiting line.
Some brave souls, determined to bring bread to their families,
would try to stay in the line, but always there were Poles on hand
who eagerly pointed out the Jews to the Germans.
Meanwhile, the Germans were taking men away to hard labor without
the slightest regard for their physical condition. While they
worked, the men would be beaten and kicked – some to death.
Those lucky enough to return were hard to recognize. And it continued
day after day: Jews taken away, many of the more prominent
ones never to be seen again.
We were hungary, scared, degraded, sick and miserable. For the
Germans, however, this was not enough. We were ordered to leave our
homes and to move to an area designated for the ghetto. The area
much too small to hold the Jewish population of Warsaw alone
, yet every day new transports arrived from other cities.
But as bleak and as hopeless as our situation may have seemed,
it was actually paradise compared with what was yet to come.
Deatch On a Daily Basis
When we moved into the ghetto, we had to leave behind many of our
possessions without receiving any compensation. The prices for food w
were sky high. With the sealing of the ghetto, people were cut off
from their sources of income, stripped of valuables and other personal
belongings that could have been exchanged for food or
life saving medicine.
People were literally dying in the
streets. It took days for the bodies to be collected
and buried. Young children, who in another time and place
would have had nothing more serious to contemplate than their
schoolwork, grew all too familiar with death as a daily occurance.
Walking around the ghetto, they learned to ignore the corpses strewn
in their path.
And then came the new phase in out mistreatment: The SS began
taking people out of the ghetto and shipping them in cattle
cars to the labor camps. As the population shrank
and the ghetto became steadily smaller, we were
forced to move. Not once, but again and again.
Still we did not dare fight back. Many of us
feared the Germans would torture and kill family
members in retaliation. Others simply hoped the Allies
would finish off the Germans before the Germans finished off the Jews.
A teenager at the time, I managed to get false papers and attempted to pass
as an Aryan in order to safely leave the ghetto to look for food.
But it wasn’t easy fooling the Poles, many of whom
prided themselves on their ability to detect a Jew. For
rewards as small as 1 kilo (2.2lbs) of sugar, Poles delivered
to the Gestapo those whom they recognized
One day, after a narrow escape, I returned to the ghetto and found only
empty rooms. My parents, my sisters, my brother – my
entire family – were all gone. Later I would learn that just
a couple of days earlier, the special force known as the “group
for the extermination of the Jews,” made up of Latvian and
Lithuanian SS together with the German SS, had entered
the ghetto with guns raised and taken away more
than 10,000 people. They returned at night for another 20,000.
All told, the Germans and their collaborators had removed more
than 30,000 Jews from the ghetto in less than 24 hours. All
of them put in cattle cars, none of them heard from again. My
family was amount them.
A Time For Action
I stayed with some other boys who, like myself, had lost their
families. A man who had been a Jewish officer in the Polish army joined
our group. He thought the time had come to do something.
Since neither he nor I looked Jewish, he suggested we
sneak out to the Aryan side, wehre he had some contacts, buy
guns and smuggle them into the ghetto.
Some of our expeditions were successful, some not. The
Polish gun dealers often would pocket the money but not deliver
the goods. Instead they would send the Gestapo to make an arrest.
We had many close calls, but we knew from the start we were
The deportations intensified in January of 1943. SS troops
entered the ghetto and called through
loudspeakers for all Jews still in the ghetto to come out,
orderly and calmly, for resettlement. We were not to worry,
they said. No harm would come to us, and we would workd and live
in a much better conditions.
By that time we already knew there were lies,
that the transports were going straight to the extermination
center in Treblinka. Large numbers of Jews refused to come
out of their homes. In desperation, people tried hiding
in the most unbelievable places. Many, unfortunately, were discovered
in the house to house searches. Those found hiding were savagely
beaten as they were led away. The cries we heard tha day can
never be forgotten.
Our leaders were constantly sending messages and cables to
England, the United States and other coutries pleading for help.
But help was not forthcoming. The nations of the world had
decided to close their eyes and their eyes. And, of course,
We were fewer and fewer in number, and our
hopes for assistance or miracles were fading. The
idea of armed resistance was gaining popularity. Our families
were gone, we had nothing to lose, preparation were underway.
Soon it seemed that everyone was contributing to our efforts.
On April 19, Erev Pesach, SS troops surrounded the ghetto.
The trains to take us to the crematoriums were waiting at
the railroad station. The call for Jews to come out was ignored.
Most of the women, the children and the elderly remained
in their hiding places, but we Jewish fighters where watching
from the rooftops. The SS soldiers began approaching the houses
to force the Jews out at gunpoint. When they came close enough,
the fighters hurled their grenades and Molotov cocktails at them.
Many of the soldiers were killed or injured, and the
Germans retreated in total bewilderment. Jews were expected to march
meekly to their deaths. Certainly they were not supposed to fight
back, and with such ferocity yet.
The SS returned with a tank. We burned it. Our
positions atop the roofs gave us an advantage. Is was difficult
for the Germans to get at us with their small weapons and
not be exposed to our grenades and Molotov cocktails.
On the other, we had to use our weapons cautiously, without any waste.
Our supplies were few, but we used them efficiently and effectively.
Hard to belive, but the “invincible” Germans had to call in regular
army reinforcements to crush the ghetto up rising.
We fought on. The weapons and uniforms we tood off the bodies
of German soldiers came in very handy. Humiliated, the
Germans replaced their commanding general with the tough
battle hardened General Jurgen Stroop.
Stroop promised to give Hitler the annihilation of Warsaw’s
Jews as a birthday present. He brought in heavy guns, tanks
and flamethrowers. With what little we had, we knew we could not
resist the superior German firepower much longer.
The Ghetto Destroyed
I was sent over to the Aryan side to try to get some supplies
and deliver messages, and was still there when the Germans began
burning the ghetto. The Poles gathered around the ghetto
and brought children to see the destruction of the Jews inside.
Their mood was festive, as though they were on picnic of watching
While the Poles watched and made merry, the Germans threw fire
bombs at the houses they’d sprayed with gasoline. The ghetto
was exploding in flames. The few who survived the inferno were
killed or caught while trying to escape through underground
passages an city sewers.
There was no longer any place for me to go back too. I hoped
to somehow find a place on the Aryan side. I arranged to meet with a Gentile
friend who offered to help me, but he never showed up.
Instead I was caught by the Gestapo, beaten severely and
shipped off, first to Maidanek and then to a labor camp in Skarzysko.
After one year in Skarzysho I was moved to Buchenwald.
Somehow, through much suffering and with my faith in Hashem inteact,
I survived. I survived the ghetto and the camps. I survived the
Germans and the Poles, the Lithuanians and the Latvians and the Ukrainians. I survived.
Cantor Schwarzberg passed away last year at age 75