Vladka Meed Part 4: Uprising
A Nazi column under the command of SS Senior Colonel Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg marched into the Warsaw Ghetto early on the morning of Monday, April 19, 1943. Inside, the column found itself looking out on nothing but empty streets. And then, out of nowhere, grenades began to rain down from above and explode within the Nazis’ unsuspecting ranks.
Earlier that morning, ZOB sentries watched from their attic posts as the Nazis prepared to march into the ghetto, and sent word to Command via courier. Upon receiving the report, Mordecai Anielewicz ordered the fighting squads to their attic posts, as couriers crisscrossed the ghetto, alerting the civilians. The civilians descended into their bunkers as the 750
fighters—500 from the ZOB and 250 from the ZZW, now collaborating with the ZOB—ascended to their attic posts. Each was armed with a revolver, 10-15 rounds of ammunition, and 5 homemade grenades.
Map courtesy of Yad Vashem.
As the grenades exploded around them and bullets rained down, von Sammern ordered his troops to retreat.
Earlier that year, Himmler had sent SS General Jurgen Stroop to Warsaw as reinforcement for von Sammern. After the retreat, von Sammern paid Stroop a frantic visit. All was lost, he said; the Jews had guns, his troops were in retreat, and their forces had already suffered casualties. Stroop called Himmler, who was enraged; Von Sammern had led the failed January roundup, and had made no mention of the presence of an armed Jewish resistance in his reports.2 Himmler dismissed von Sammern on the spot and ordered that all troops be withdrawn from the ghetto. They were to reenter the ghetto, Himmler continued, within two hours under the command of General Stroop.
Outside the ghetto, extra guards were in place surrounding the ghetto wall, making it all but impenetrable. The streets running alongside the ghetto were blocked and patrolled by German police. Ambulances transporting injured Nazis rushed in and out. And Vladka felt the earth shudder beneath her feet as deafening blasts emitted from the ghetto.
Three captured resistance fighters. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Uprising had begun, and Vladka was trapped on the Aryan side.
They—including Vladka’s future husband, Benjamin Miedzyrzecki—gathered in one of the Coordinating Committee’s member’s, Samsonowicz’s, apartment to form a plan. They wanted to, somehow, break through the German lines and get into the ghetto. Mikolai reached out to his contacts in the Polish underground for help breaking in. Later that night, Abrasha Blum
placed a call to Mikolai. “All the groups of the Fighting Organization are participating in the struggle,” he said. “It’s all very well disciplined and organized…For the time being there have been only a few casualties among our fighters. There are more casualties among the Germans,” Abrasha told him.
Abrasha called back two days later. “Michal Klepfisz is dead,” he told them. “He fell in the fighting. We are short of ammunition. We need arms.” And the line went silent.
On April 20, Stroop, unfortunately making a quick study of the ZOB defense strategy, ordered his troops to burn every home in the ghetto. As the Nazis burned their way through the outskirts of the ghetto, they slowly became aware of the bunkers. Now, instead of just burning houses, they had to burn every building in the ghetto in order uncover the bunkers. In turn, the ZOB had to alter its strategy: the ghetto fighters were now fighting to defend both the ghetto, and those hidden in the bunkers.
A bunker interior. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Indeed, by this point in the Uprising, the bunkers functioned as both hiding places for the civilians, and as fortresses for the fighters. By the fourth day, conditions in the bunkers were not good. As the ghetto burned, those in the bunkers suffered from the terrible heat. The air was so bad that it was almost impossible to light a candle. They were cut off from their water and electrical connections, their food supplies were destroyed in the heat, and chemical fumes from the foundations of the buildings made breathing all the more difficult.
Ghetto fighters, forced out of their bunker. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Outside, Vladka and her colleagues made no progress. The Polish underground was useless, and they still had no way to break in. “Our thoughts were constantly with the fighters in the ghetto. All our plans seemed to have come to naught…Restless and depressed, we idled about the Polish streets, trying to establish contact with the ghetto.”
Adding to their stress was the Polish response. The Poles happily watched the resistance, impressed by the effort, going so far as to refer to the Uprising as “Ghettograd,” after the prolonged siege of Leningrad. They were so impressed that they had trouble believing that the “miserable Jews” had been able to organize a resistance without outside support. “They must have some of our officers over there,” the Poles insisted. “Our men must have organized the resistance.” Some Poles expressed sympathy for the Jews alongside their amazement: “although the victims were Jews, there are after all human beings.”3 However, none of these outpourings of near-admiration motivated the Gentiles to extend any form of
practical assistance to the ghetto.
On the fifth day of the Uprising, Stroop ordered his troops to focus on finding and destroying the bunkers. If they could not reach a bunker, they were to detonate the bunker and burn the house attached to it.
Jews captured in the Uprising led past burning houses to the deportation point. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Hundreds died in the flames and heat. When Nazis found and entered a bunker, its inhabitants refused to leave. They answered the Nazis with bullets, and the homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails; not surrender.
On the sixth day, Vladka managed to get close to the ghetto. She paid a visit to the Dubiels, whose house lay just outside the ghetto wall. The ghetto was fully visible from their window. Vladka hoped to find a way to make contact with the ghetto from their house, even though the Dubiels assured her that that was impossible.
From their window, Vladka looked into the ghetto. She saw a woman trying to escape from a burning house. The Nazis shot her dead as she tried to jump from her second-floor balcony. On the third floor, two ZOB fighters emerged. They fired a few rounds at the Nazis, and then retreated.
A burning section of the Ghetto. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Vladka remained at the window the rest of the day and through the night in a state of shock. “Dawn came quiet and ghastly,” she wrote, “revealing the burned-out shells of buildings, the charred, bloodstained bodies of the victims…one of those bodies began to move, slowly…crawling on its belly until it disappeared into the smoking ruins. Others…began to show signs of life. But the enemy was…on the alert. There was a spatter of machine-gun fire—and all was lifeless again.”
Forty-eight years later, in 1991, Vladka recounted what she experienced that night to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“While being there at night, I saw the flames of the ghetto. And I saw also certain pictures which were seared in my mind. Some Jews running from one place to the other and also seeing some Jews jumping from buildings, but I was observing this from a window and I couldn’t do anything. And then flames burst into the ghetto. The Germans couldn’t take over the streets, they start putting block after block on fire. They start burning the…buildings, and this was the uprising which we…the small group on the Aryan side, we tried to get through. We tried to communicate. We decided even to go into…the ghetto to be with them but it was, everything was in vain. We didn’t have any communication. We saw only tanks coming in, tanks going out…”
On the eighth day, the Germans began to use poison gas. They released it into the water mains and sewer canals where civilians and ZOB fighters—flushed out of the houses and bunkers—were hiding. On April 28, the fighters retreated deeper in the ghetto, into the houses the Nazis had not yet burned and the undiscovered bunkers. The Nazis followed, burning deeper into the ghetto, leveling each and every building. They used flamethrowers, tear gas, and hand grenades to forces fighters out of hiding, and released poison gas into the tunnels by night.
Outside the ghetto, the underground issued an appeal in the name of the ghetto. Vladka brought the manuscript to a store which served as their “drop,” and later picked up the printed copies.
The ZOB appeal. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Written in Polish and signed by the ZOB, the appeal stressed the heroism of the fighters and the ferocity of the struggle. “We will avenge the crimes of Dachau, Treblinka and Auschwitz,” the appeal proclaimed. “The struggle for your freedom and ours continues.” But again, it came to nothing.
On May 1 Stroop determined that it was impossible to subdue the bunkers. On May 6 the Nazis returned to houses they had already burned, and searched the ruins for Jews. As of May 11, there were still actively fighting Jews hidden in the sewers, and the ruins of the ghetto. On May 18, hundreds of Jews were still hidden in the bunkers, the burned buildings, the tunnels, and the sewers. Stroop continued to report skirmishes and heavy fighting through May 30. On June 2 he reported that “it seemed as if the situation in the ghetto had become worse.” His troops bombed the sewer canals and blocked the exits. Only approximately 70 ZOB fighters escaped through the sewers without being trapped or murdered.4
Armed Jews were still active in the ruins of the Ghetto as late as October, 1943.
In all, 750 Jewish fighters defied approximately 2,054 German soldiers and 36 officers with armored vehicles, tanks, canons, flamethrowers, armored cars, canons and machine guns.
Clandestine photograph the ruins of the ghetto, taken late, 1943. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
“We on the ‘Aryan side’ were bursting with admiration for them,” Vladka wrote, ”but, we were consumed also by a sense of guilt at being outside the Ghetto, in relative safety, while they were fighting and dying. We should have been there with them, amid the roaring fires and the crashing walls.”
1 INTERCHANGING MIND CONTROL/COME LET THE/REVOLUTION TAKE ITS TOLL/IF YOU COULD/FLICK A SWITCH AND OPEN YOUR THIRD EYE/YOU’D SEE THAT/WE SHOULD NEVER BE AFRAID TO DIE/SO COME ON
2 His preparations for the April, 1943 roundups, however, suggest that he was very much ready for an armed confrontation, as he assembled a larger concentration of police and army troops than had been used in the deportations of summer 1942.
3 And the Germans were embarrassed. A few days into the Uprising, Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that: “…a really grotesque situation has arisen in Warsaw…notably hard battles between our police…parts of the army, and the rebelling Jews….the Jews had managed to fortify the ghetto in order to defend it…it has even reached the point where the Jewish senior command issues daily military bulletins… this emphasizes only too well what one can expect from these Jews when they have weapons in their hands. Unfortunately they also have good German weapons and particularly machine guns. Only God knows how they obtained them.”
4 If this image of some young desperate ghetto fighters trying to escape from the burning ghetto through sewers tunnels doesn’t immediately make you want to stage a production of Les Mis against the backdrop of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, then you have no soul and I have nothing to say to you. Cossette is a secret Jew and Val Jean is the only one who knows because he’s been raising her as a Catholic since Fantine died [“Come to Me’]. But the Thenardiers are “Aryan” underworld figures and they want to cash in on it [“Plumet Attack”]. Eponine is a Socialist allied with the Bund, and she crossed the ghetto wall to warn Marius—who was a Bund operative on the Aryan side for a time which is how he and Cossette met —about the approaching Nazis, but she’s shot while crossing the wall [“A Little Fall of Rain”]. Later, Val Jean breaks into the ghetto and rescues an unconscious Marius from a sewer tunnel as the Nazis release the poison gas and carries him through the sewers to the Aryan side as Thenardier is robbing corpses of ghetto fighters [“Bring Him Home/”Dog
Eats Dog”]. And while the Uprising is happening, some Gentiles are all like [“Turning”]. Also, Javert is a Polish policeman and he throws himself into a fire in the ghetto [“Javert’s Suicide”]. I’m still figuring out the rest of Act 1.