In 1973, the thirtieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising inspired Rabbi David Geffen, then the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom, to write this article for the Jewish Voice. Now, forty-five years later and seventy-five years after the events in the spring of 1943, we should again remember their heroic resistance.
Passover 5733 — Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 30th Anniversary
BY RABBI DAVID B. GEFFEN, President, Rabbinical Assembly of Delaware
A hush falls upon the Seder table richly laden with the symbols of an ancient quest for freedom. The head of the household begins anew the story of the heroic and tragic fight for freedom in our time.
“On this night of the Seder we remember with reverence and love the six millions of our people of the European exile who perished at the hands of a tyrant more wicked than the Pharoah who enslaved our fathers in Egypt.
Come, said he to his minions, let us cut them off from being a people that the name of Israel may be remembered no more. And they slew the blameless and pure, men and women and little ones, with vapors of poison and with fire. But we abstain from dwelling on the deeds of the evil ones lest we defame the image of God in which man was created.
Now the remnants of our people who were left in the ghettos and camps of annihilation rose up against the wicked ones for the sanctification of the Name. On the first day of Passover the remnants in the Ghetto of Warsaw rose up against the adversary, even as in the days of Judah the Maccabee. They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided, and they brought redemption to the name of Israel through all the world.
And from the depths of their affliction the martyrs lifted their voices in a song of faith in the coming of the Messiah, when justice and brotherhood will reign among men.”
WARSAW WAS HOME for 330,000 Jews in 1939. They studied, worked and lived peacefully until October of the following year when the great madness, Hitler’s “New Order,” began in Poland. Jews were herded into a ghetto separated from the Christians with walls and barbed wire. This was a harbinger of the human holocaust which followed.
Until July of 1942, slow starvation and the denial of medical help were the means employed by the Germans to exterminate the Jews. These methods, however, were apparently too slow, for the Germans now began mass deportations to concentration camps and gas chambers under the guise of using Jews in labor camps.
Jews from various parts of Europe were collected and sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. From this central location they were transported to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdenek, and the like. At the end of October, 1942 only 50,000 Jews were left in Warsaw.
Up to this point it was difficult for most people to believe that the Germans were using Jews for any purpose other than for forced labor. Gradually rumors of atrocities committed and gas chambers began to fly through the ghetto. The news became a clarion call to the young Jews to organize for survival. Young Jewish leaders arose and formed the Organization of Jewish Fighters. Young leaders they were, indeed, for the Germans had already slaughtered the top leadership of the Jewish Communal Council, thinking by doing this, that the Jews would easily be crushed.
THEY HAD NOT reckoned however, with the caliber of people like Mordechai Anielewicz, Mira Fuchrer, Michał Klepfisz, Aron Liebeskind, Yitzhak Goldstein, Tosia Altman, Eliezer Geller, Shlomo Alterman, Rubin Rosenberg, Rifkah Glanz, Lejb Rotblat, and others who led the active heroic resistance in many places.
Following the mass deportations of October, 1942 during which Michał Klepfisz, an engineer, had managed to escape from a train bound for the gas chamber in Treblinka, a period of relative quiet ensued lasting three months. In January, 1943 when the Germans again began to deport and exterminate, they were met with organized armed resistance under the leadership of Mordechai Anielewicz.
Mordechai Anielewicz, born in Warsaw of a poor family of workers was then only 24 years old. By 1943 he had already undertaken various missions in behalf of Jewish youth and the Jewish Underground Movement.
During this January revolt the Jews suffered very heavy losses, but they were now determined that if they were to die they would die in dignity, fighting, believing that the great madness let loose’ in the world, could not triumph.
Another period of foreboding quiet followed. It was broken in the middle of the first Seder night, April 19, 1943. SS Troops, Ukrainians, Polish Blue Police, Lithuanian uniformed auxiliaries invaded the ghetto in order to perform complete murder, a ritual of extermination.
UNDER MORDECHAI’S leadership the Jews were prepared with limited weapons for the barbarians. They fought with a fierceness and perseverance which made even Germans and Poles wonder. The losses to the Jews, however, were tremendous.
On the second day of the uprising Michał Klepfisz, the engineer, 30 years old, son of a Hassidic rabbi, having escaped certain death in Treblinka, fell in action as commander of a sector, one of the bravest fighters in the Warsaw revolt.
Yitzchak Goldstein, 27 years old, who had acquired his military training in the Polish army now used it skillfully for Jewish resistance. He too was killed in action defending a bunker in the ghetto.
Tosia Altman, then 25 years of age, had been born into a wealthy family of Wloclawek. During the uprising she was one of 14, who after being wounded in a severe fight, were carried through underground tunnels and sewers to the Aryan part of Warsaw. Polish police turned her over to the German Gestapo. In the hospital she was denied any help, even water, and died of exhaustion due to her wounds.
Rubin Rosenberg, 22, was born in Suchwole, near Bialystok of a very rich Hassidic family. Editor of a bulletin which circulated among the entire Jewish Underground Movement in Poland during the war, he fell armed with two revolvers during an attack -upon the Germans while trying to break through the ghetto wall.
Mordechai Anielewicz courageously together with four of his comrades among them the girl, Mira Fuchrer, fell in action in May, 1943, defending the office of general staff. The Germans had blocked all the exits from the bunker and started throwing hand grenades into the headquarters. Eighty fighters died with them, some committing suicide in order not to fall into the hands of the enemy.
THE ONLY SON of an assimilationist family, Lejb Rotblat, 24, born in Warsaw, had attended a Christian school, but later joined the Zionist group Akiba. During the uprising he had brought his mother, whom he adored, to the bunker he was defending. When it was seized by the Germans after a hard fight, he shot his mother to prevent her torture by the Germans and then shot himself.
Some heroes survived the uprising only to be subsequently killed performing dangerous missions resisting the German butchery.
Eliezer Geller, born in Opoczno in 1919 was one of the dreamers of Zion. In January, 1943 he wrote in one of his letters: “I am continuing my love-game with death and I think I shall marry it.” He undertook extremely dangerous missions under the Aryan name of Eugenjusz Kowalski. His last was a special mission to Bergen Belsen, the death factory from which he never returned.
Aharon Liebeskind, born in Cracow in 1912, was a master saboteur. He executed nearly 30 sabotage actions against the Germans including a daring attack upon German officers in the center of Cracow.
Shlomo Alterman fought courageously during the whole revolt and managed to escape through the sewers to the Aryan part of Warsaw. He died during the summer fighting together with a partisan group in the woods near the city of Lozma.
Rifkah Glanz was preparing:” herself for Navy service in Eretz Yisrael when she was seized by the Germans in the Polish port of Gdynia. She escaped afterwards to Lodz and let the armed Jewish Underground resistance in Czestochowa. At the end of the Warsaw revolt, Rifkah courageously smuggled herself into the ruins of the Ghetto in order to get arms for resistance in to her places. On June 26, 1943, 28 year old Rifkah and the 40 fighters whom she led were killed trying to force their way out of the Warsaw ghetto through the German blockade.
The pharoah in our time destroyed six million lives, but the spirit with which they clung to life cannot die. Indeed in our own community there should be a public memorial to them which would testify eternally to what they did against the greatest tyrant in history. Let their actions and the song they sang be an inspiration to us on Passover 5733.
“Tell me not the light of hope has passed you by
Tell me not the sun has vanished from the sky
I can hear the footsteps beating like a drum.
And the day we all are striving for will come.
When the enemy has been destroyed at last,
Then tomorrow’s sun will light our bitter past;
Though this day of blood may seem to us so long;
Future years will hear the echo of our song.”
Chag sameach vepesach Kasher – May each of you be blessed with a meaningful Passover. ”
About the Author:
Rabbi David Geffen served as the rabbi of the Beth Shalom Congregation in Wilmington Delaware from 1970 to 1977, during which time he also established the Jewish Historical Society of Delaware in 1974 and authored six books under its auspices.
Geffen emigrated to Israel in 1977 with his family. He writes for The Jerusalem Post, having published more than 350 articles and book reviews and another 75 in the World Zionist Press Service.
He also authored the American Heritage Haggadah in 1992 which in the context of the Passover Seder service described the history of Jews in the United States of America.
Geffen returned to the US in 1993 to serve as rabbi of the Temple Israel congregation in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a position he held until 2003.
For more information, please visit these resources:
Ronen, Avihu. “Poland: Women Leaders in the Jewish Underground During the Holocaust.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. (Viewed on February 26, 2018) .
Webb, Chris “Mordechai Anielewicz” Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. 2008 HolocaustResearchProject.org (Viewed on February 26, 2018).
Kutzik, Jordan. “Remembering Archivist and Warsaw Ghetto Survivor Rose Klepfisz.” April 15, 2016 Yivo Institute for Jewish Research Yiddish Forverts (Viewed on February 26, 2018).