Humanity and Hope

Henry Maitles remembers the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

This picture, showing Bundist survivors of the Holocaust on the May Day 1945 demo in the ruins of Warsaw, is both poignant and uplifting. The Bund was the largest grouping of Jewish socialists in the lands of the Russian Empire from 1900 until the Holocaust. It was targeted both physically and memorially by the Nazis and their collaborators. In the great emigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ideas of the Bund were evident from Govanhill in Glasgow to East London to New York. It is estimated that some 10 percent of the International Brigaders in Spain were Jewish, including 50 percent of the Abraham Lincoln US detachment.

Eighty years ago, in April-May 1943 one of the most inspiring moments of World War Two was taking place. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising had no hope of success, but had at its core a moral and ethical mission, and a lesson to us that humans can fight back against oppression, even if they have virtually no chance of success. As the Jewish Fighting Organisation (in Polish, Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa or ŻOB) announced to the world: ‘All of us will probably perish in the fight… It is a fight for our human dignity and honour, as well as yours’.

In November 1940, the Nazi occupation in Poland moved to the ghetto stage of its persecution of Jews, and the Warsaw Ghetto was created and walled in. At its height there were nearly 300,000 Jews, one-third of Warsaw’s population, forced into 2.5 percent of its area. The massive overcrowding and drastic shortage of food (at one stage estimated at 180 calories per day), and lack of sanitation and medicines, meant that there was a large death rate from disease and malnutrition. Nonetheless, the Jews were not dying fast enough and Nazis began clearing the residents to Auschwitz and Treblinka from 1942 onwards; by early 1943, there were only some 60,000 left in the ghetto. A mixture of disbelief about the death camps and misleading information from the Warsaw Jewish Council, as well as the starvation that hung over the ghetto, meant that the promise of bread led to more Jews turning up at Warsaw railway station for transportation on some days than the Germans could deal with.

When the Nazis surrounded the ghetto in spring 1943 for the final round-up of the last 20,000 Jews who had refused transport for ‘resettlement’, ŻOB resisted by force. ŻOB was a mix of Zionist and socialist organisations (the largest being the Bund), with big differences in politics, their point of unity being that all Jews, regardless of their political outlook, faced ending up in the camps. The first victims of the uprising were the Jewish police and Judenrat (the Nazi appointed Jewish Council) who, ŻOB argued, collaborated with the Nazis to facilitate the round-ups of Jews for transportation. ŻOB was completely outnumbered and outgunned as they had only a few rifles and pistols (smuggled into the ghetto), a few grenades, and homemade bombs and Molotov cocktails. The German army, with thousands of troops, machine guns, tanks and some air support, was startled on that first day, and withdrew, with dozens of casualties and a damaged tank. It was the start of something of great meaning for all observers. In May 1943, Goebbels (the Nazi propaganda chief) fumed in his diary about Jews fighting back, and with captured German weapons. What makes it even more important was that Nazi theory held that Jews – men and women fighters – couldn’t fight back like this, that they were incapable of any, let alone armed, resistance, because they were subhuman. Moreover, it tied down thousands of German troops, meaning that they could neither be deployed in the war nor used to hunt Jews. By the middle of May, the Nazis decided that they couldn’t defeat the uprising without greater loss of life and decided to burn the ghetto to the ground. Some survivors fled through the sewers; most were captured and killed.

It is perhaps the last great moment of the Bund and the hold of revolutionary ideas in Central and Eastern European Jewish communities. The ghetto fighters left us a universal message of humanism and hope in the face of barbarism. The Manifesto to the Poles stands out as one of the greatest socialist appeals in the 20th Century:

‘we, the slaves of the Ghetto convey heartfelt greetings to you… All of us will probably perish in the fight but we shall never surrender… it is a fight for our freedom, as well as yours! We shall avenge the gory deeds of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Majdanek’.

It was an inspiration understood by some of the leaders of the Polish resistance, one of whom commented that ‘the blood of the ghetto fighters was not shed in vain… It gave birth to an intensified struggle against the fascist invader’. A message to remember as we confront racism and fascism wherever and whenever it raises its head. These words must always be transformed into action. As racism and fascism and right wing populism continue their growth across the world, the task of the left is to build the largest possible united front of all ethnicities, trade unions and left and progressive political organisations against them.

Henry Maitles is emeritus professor of education at the University of the West of Scotland.