...and its Uprisings

I just got back from a short trip to Poland. For the second time. Two years ago I had my first encounter with the country and was amazed by its unprotected beauty while being catapulted back into the early 20th century. But, just like that time, last week my main reason was the country's history. The history that brought out the worst, but on some occasions also the best out of people: the Uprisings. Two events we not only need to know about, but need to try everything within our power never to forget..especially in these days of Eastern European turbulence.

When it comes to history, I am a strong believer in keeping it alive as much as possible. And I am not talking about when what government in Belgium was formed and was led by who or even how long the formation of Belgium's government took last time. Although the whole world by now knows that that took 589 days, it is not the history I wish to teach or inform you about.

I have always been intrigued by former Eastern European cities, or Warschau-Pact countries. It can be the greyness and pure cold concrete combined with the history that still attracts me for some reason. When in Warsaw, I was, again, struck by this virus of mine. As I always feel the urge to know, or at least have read, about a place before I visit it, Warsaw was spot-on. This time however I wanted to go out and dig into one particular part of its history: 1943 - 1944, the Uprisings.

Ghetto Uprising Monument

During the Second World War, Poland lies between two insanely raging powers, Russia and Germany, and will function as a buffer, toy, pocket change and playground for both. Among the many atrocities committed on Polish grounds, I can pick either to write about. However Warsaw during this War, and in particular its two Uprising deserve all the attention in my point of view.

But first of all we have to make a clear distinction between the two. You had the Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, which has its 70th anniversary this year. They might look the same in writing or even in goals set, but they should not be mixed up. The Ghetto Fighters did simply not have to luxury to just not fight as the Warsaw Uprising insurgents in some way did. The latter chose, as Polish citizens, not to be crushed by or be part of the German or Russian army. The Ghetto Fighters simply chose not to be gassed in Treblinka.

But both Uprisings were struggles and statements of people who would not just been fooled around with. In both cases they knew what would happen to them when caught, but they also knew what would happen to them when they would just do nothing. So the inevitable happened. They rather died fighting, than die on their knees!

Warsaw had the largest of all ghettos under the Nazi rule. Just like other ghettos, the objective was to separate the Jews and others from the rest of the population. At the height in 1940, when it was built, about 355.000 jews lived in the ghetto. In 1942 the Germans started to liquidate the Ghetto and shipped around 300.000 to Treblinka to be gassed. The remaining part of the Ghetto inhabitants learned in January 1943 that the Germans started rounding them up as well to face a similar end in Treblinka. That was their cue for action!

During the Passover Seder (pronounce Seyder) holiday customs include telling and discussing the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. It was on the first night of the Seder in 1943 that the Germans began the process of attempting to liquidate the Jewish community within the Warsaw Ghetto. By the time of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, only 35,000 Jews were permitted to remain within the ghetto by the Nazis, while an additional 20,000 Jews were in hiding.

Warsaw Ghetto footbridge

A group of mostly young people formed an organization called the Z.O.B. (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, which means Jewish Fighting Organization). The Z.O.B., led by 23-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz, issued a proclamation calling for the Jewish people to resist going to the railroad cars from the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw. It would become the first time during the war that resistance fighters in an area under German control had staged an uprising. It would eventually end in the complete destruction of the ghetto. The Germans planned to clear the ghetto of 55,000 Jews in three days. The Jews hoped to hold out as long as possible. From April 19th, when the Germans marched into the ghetto until the death of Anielewicz on May 8th their hideouts were almost all captured or demolished. By May 15th, the shooting had become so intermittent that it was clear the ghetto fighters had been defeated. As a sign of the German victory, the Nazi commander Jurgen Stroop blew up the great Tlomacki Synagogue.

All in all, several thousand Jews had been buried in the debris, and more than 50,000 had been captured. About 30,000 of them were either immediately shot or transported to death camps. In a short letter to a friend shortly before his death, commander Anielewicz

Their commander Anielewicz articulated what this was in a letter to a friend shortly before his death. My life's dream has been realized, he said. I have lived to see Jewish defense in the ghetto rally its greatness and glory. I might sound corny or even not in place for a 37-year old with no ties whatsoever with Jewish life or even Polish relatives. In the words of a surviving member of the underground, I want to keep alive the remnants who have survived...so there will be some reserve for the future and witnesses to this crime. By the end of 1943 there was only little Jewish life left in Poland.

Warsaw Uprising Monument

Words got out that the Allied forces would start an offensive to free nazi-occupied Europe. Russia from the East and USA, UK from the West. Polish resistance groups (the Armia Krajowa) were already formed since September 1939 and had already staged many counter-attacks, saved many Jewish life and were ready for their greatest moment, the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II. Their main objective was to not be overrun by Russia and relieve their city from German occupation.

The Uprising began on 1 August 1944. Initially, the underground established control over most of central Warsaw, but the Soviets ignored Polish attempts to establish radio contact and did not advance to help them fighting the Germans. Now, we know that Stalin waited until resistance, Warsaw and the whole of Poland was crushed by the Germans and then simply take over. We can now honestly say that the Red Army just stood by on the other side of the Vistula watching the beautiful city of Warsaw being destroyed. The Soviets and the Poles had a common enemy—Nazi Germany—but other than that, they were working towards different post-war goals; the Polish Home Army desired a pro-Western, democratic-capitalist Poland, but the Stalin intended to establish a communist, pro-Soviet regime. Historian Arthur Koestler called this Soviet attitude one of the major infamies of this war which will rank for the future historian on the same ethical level with Lidice (detroying a small Czech town and all its inhabitants as punishment after the assassination attempt and eventual death of Reinhard Heydrich).

Although the exact number of casualties remains unknown, it is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions. Following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically leveled another 35% of the city block by block. Together with earlier damage suffered from the invasion of 1939 and the Ghetto Uprising, over 85% of Warsaw was destroyed by January 1945.

As I mentioned before Warsaw has its 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising this year. During my visit to Warsaw, I tried to visit all the remains of the Warsaw ghetto to get an idea of its vast size but also visited the grave of Adam Czerniakow, head of the Ghetto Judenrat who committed suicide after realizing all was over for the Jews in the Ghetto. A visit to the Warsaw Uprising Museum will give you all the details of their times of heroism. Probably the best history museum I have ever visited! But also the former prison of Pawiak is a must to get an idea of the atrocities committed by the Germans during their occupation of Poland.

Marek Edelman

Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising who survived and then took part in the Warsaw Uprising has experienced both mayor acts of heroism. Every year on 19 April until his death in 2009, Marek visited the memorials of both Uprisings and placed a daffodil in remembrance of the fallen heroes. Last year at the anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising the Daffodil Campaign was launched. By handing out paper daffodils people can wear on their clothes, this is a beautiful way to show we still care and remember.

Join in the Daffodils campaign online by using the Facebook application.

Thus endeth the lesson!