“The Yids Are Burning!” Poles’ Reaction to the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto
As part of the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews announced a year-long program “Thou Shalt Not Be Indifferent”. A temporary exhibition, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising campaign in six cities, workshops, outdoor artistic activities, academic conferences and numerous educational workshops are merely a fraction of events we have planned for the year 2023. On the Polish Righteous portal, we have planned to publish new studies on the attitudes of Poles towards the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In this article by prof. Barbara Engelking, you read about the reactions of witnesses to the tragedy of the ghetto in 1943. The study comes from the guidebook of the POLIN Museum’s temporary exhibition: “Around Us a Sea of Fire. The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising”.
Table of contents:
- Reactions to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April–May 1943): Poles and Germans, Official and Underground Press
- Uprising as a Spectacle. Reactions of Witnesses to the Tragedy of the Ghetto on the Streets of Occupied Warsaw
- Compassion and Solidarity, Indifference and Hostility. Attitudes of Poles to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
- The City Grew Indifferent, and yet We Continued to Run to the Wall. Reactions of Jews Hiding on the “Aryan Side”
„The wind from the burning ghetto brings to Żoliborz not only clouds of black smoke, but also half-burnt pages from Hebrew prayer books and charred pieces of material – remnants of the clothing worn by those who had perished in the flames. The stench of burning is spreading across the adjacent quarters of the city. After a few weeks, the whole of Warsaw is saturated with dust and soot. At night, the burning ghetto – akin to a huge bloodshot eye – gazes towards the city and awaits rescue, in vain. The burning ghetto is bleeding day and night. Day and night people are dying in the flames,” wrote Szymon Gliksman.
How did Warsaw react to the Uprising in the ghetto? How was it commented on? What was the “official narrative” of the German authorities, Polish government in London, and underground organisations active across the country? Above all, what was the reaction of the eye witnesses-passers-by in the streets of Warsaw to the fighting taking place behind the ghetto wall?
Reactions to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April–May 1943): Poles and Germans, Official and Underground Press
The German authorities remained quiet about the Jewish revolt in Warsaw. In April and May 1943, Nowy Kurier Warszawski, a ‘fish wrapper’ daily published at the time, wrote endlessly about discovering mass graves in Katyń, the Soviet crime, establishing an international commission, first identified bodies. In the “Warsaw Chronicle” column which appeared in every issue of Nowy Kurier, we can find reports on compulsory vaccination against typhoid fever (No. 93, 19 April), the last days of the anti-typhoid exhibition or free pre-Christmas baths for the poor (No. 95, 21 April). On Good Friday, when smoke from the ghetto billowed over the city, the newspaper featured a column dedicated to the fact that Warsaw residents traditionally “go to the graves”. It ended with the words: “blue sky is towering over Warsaw, and in front of the church they are selling traditional Easter lambs” (No. 97, 23 April).
On Tuesday after Easter, the “Warsaw Chronicle” informed that “the Varsovians spent the Easter holiday in a peaceful and pious manner,” and
“the days of Easter passed this year in Warsaw in the atmosphere of awakening spring... The parks, whose trees and lawns turned green for the first time this year, were full of passers-by and residents out on a stroll taking advantage of magnificent sunny weather... Resurrection attracted... crowds of people. All the churches were filled to the brim with the believers... The evening was perfectly clear. For the first time this season, crowds of youth filled the people’s playgrounds. Melodies could be heard at over a dozen spots across the city through megaphones attached to the merry-go-rounds.” (No. 99, 27 April).
In no way did Nowy Kurier refer to the events taking place in Warsaw, completely ignoring the reality. In the daily editions of the “Chronicle” one can find information on theatre repertoire, concerts, reorganisation of the millery, new methods in the development of fishing (No. 104, 3 May) or the opening of a horse racing season. Following the Soviet air raid over the city (the night of 12/13 May) the newspaper reported on identification of bodies; on 17 May – the day after the great synagogue on Tłomackie St. had been blown up – it was reported that “Warsaw is bleeding. The red wings of a predatory vulture have yet again appeared over sleeping Warsaw” (No. 116, 17 May). The silence of the Germans was noted, among others, by Ludwik Landau, who wrote in his Chronicle on 29 April: “Two matters absorbing popular attention are the conflict with the Soviets and the struggle in the ghetto. One of these matters – the latter – is completely ignored in the official press.”
On 14 May, a proclamation by Governor Fischer appeared on posters all over the city – it
“testified to the activities of the communists in Warsaw, pointed to the ghetto as their nest, justified (for the first time revealed in official print!) the destruction of the ghetto which was to be carried out further, appealed to a sense of necessity of defending one’s lives and property as well as that of fellow citizens, and called for informing on Jews and on communists without any moral scruples.”
Polish authorities in London reacted with delay to the information on the Uprising. Although the first dispatches about the beginning of the revolt reached London as early as 20 April (and by 3 May there were a total of five sent from both the civilian and military underground authorities in Warsaw), it was not until 1 May that the government’s Dziennik Polski published material (on the fourth page) about it. In a brief note it was reported that “according to the information received from Warsaw, a brutal and cruel liquidation action, which has been going on for 10 days, is being met with permanent resistance on the part of the Jewish population.” Polish authorities in London at the time were preoccupied – understandably – with the revelation of the Katyń crime and the resulting problems in Polish-Soviet relations. And yet, the Świt (Dawn) radio station from Bletchley Park, imitating a radio station broadcasting from occupied Poland, informed – based on the reports from homeland – about the outbreak of the Ghetto Uprising from its very beginning.
The underground press frequently reported on the Uprising, but its approach and assessment was ideologically driven. Some organs of the conspiratorial press expressed appreciation for the heroism of the Jews. In the text titled “The last act of a great tragedy,” Biuletyn Informacyjny, organ of the f Headquarters, wrote in a solemn tone:
“The hitherto passive death of the Jewish masses did not give rise to new values – it was utterly useless; meanwhile, death with arms in hand can add a new value into the life of the Jewish people, turning the ordeal of the Jews in Poland into the splendour of an armed struggle for the right to live. This is how the community of Varsovians understood the resistance of the ghetto, listening with appreciation to the defenders’ cannonades and increasingly concerned by the glow and smoke from the fast-spreading fire. The citizens of the Polish State fighting on the other side of the ghetto wall suddenly grew closer to the society of the capital, easier to relate to than the passive victims dragged to their deaths without putting on a fight... Offering aid to the Jews fleeing from the burning ghetto is our moral Christian obligation...”
In the issue from May 1943, the leftist Żołnierz Rewolucjonista (Revolutionary Soldier), organ of the Socialist Combat Organisation, published an article titled “Heroism of the ghetto fighters.” It read:
“At the time of this essay going to press, three weeks have passed of the defence of the Warsaw Ghetto. The heroic desperation of the Jewish workers putting up a fight in the workshops and houses, and below the ground of the ghetto led to severe embarrassment of the German police and heavy losses among the attacking SS men, Lithuanians and Ukrainians, and turned into a regular defence of the Jewish quarter of Warsaw... Red-and-white and blue-and-white (Jewish national) flags fluttered in the streets of the ghetto.”
The stance of the Right was reflected in an article published in the National Armed Forces (NSZ) internal organ, the weekly Polska Informacja Prasowa (Polish Press Information; it was later reprinted in other periodicals of this political orientation), entitled “Ghetto resistance in the right light.” According to its author
“Only a margin of the remaining tens of thousands of Jews in Warsaw, about 10 per cent, engaged in combat, clearly under the impulse of the Commune... The resistance and supply of arms for several thousand Jews was organised and carried out by the Bund and the Communists. These very elements had been extremely hostile towards the Poles throughout the occupation and had braced themselves within communist organisations for a bloody crackdown on the Poles at a time of breakthrough. In the Communists’ plans, the ghetto was to serve as a crucial factor in a premature uprising which the PPR sought to provoke.”
In Prawda Młodych, organ of the Front for the Rebirth of Poland, Zofia Kossak penned an essay titled “Around the burning ghetto...” in which she recounted the outbreak of the Uprising with amazement and admiration, but – as Jacek Leociak points out – “managed to present an entire catalogue of Jewish stereotypes in one single paragraph: from the proverbial Jewish cowardice and aversion to armed combat, pride, shrewdness, deceitfulness, lack of dignity, to a worldwide Jewish con-spiracy.” And yet, despite the repugnant Jewish traits, Catholics should
“help the persecuted Jews, without caring whether they reciprocate for that help now or will reciprocate in the future. This help must not be limited to material support alone. Spiritual help must follow. Praying for those who have perished, making them aware that they can turn their torment into a great sacrificial offering which will propel their rebirth, removing from the once chosen nation the curse that weighs down on them.”
Aleksandra Sołowiejczyk-Guter, who remained in hiding in Warsaw, noted in her diary that
“a number of articles devoted to the Ghetto Uprising appeared in the Polish underground press (both government and left-wing). The article published in Biuletyn Informacyjny in particular was very beautiful.” She went on to add that “emotion and sympathy, however, were only manifested on paper. Members of the Polish Underground followed the Jewish struggle with sympathy and curiosity, and drew from it military lessons that could prove useful to them. The Ghetto Uprising was, so to speak, a substitute for great manoeuvres for them. Nothing could be done anyway, for ‘everything was doomed to begin with’. Alas, there were some Poles who, having hitherto resented the Jews for allowing themselves to be led like lambs to slaughter, now resented them for defending themselves, because... the Uprising led to a total destruction of an entire district of Warsaw, because many Poles perished in it (who had sneaked into the ghetto to trade and did not manage to escape in time) and, finally, because a load of valuable goods and materials was destroyed, which would – most likely – otherwise have fallen into the Polish hands, like other things sold for nothing in exchange for food.”
Referring to the ambience in the streets of Warsaw at the time, the author concluded bitterly:
“The vast majority responded to the fighting in the ghetto – the struggle that Polish citizens were waging against a common perpetrator, to the incomprehensible tragedy that was unfolding before their eyes, on the doorstep of their homes – as if they were responding to a struggle of a faraway, unknown tribe on another hemisphere.”
Uprising as a Spectacle. Reactions of Witnesses to the Tragedy of the Ghetto on the Streets of Occupied Warsaw
Fighting in the ghetto, fires, houses being demolished, people jumping out of windows – all these scenes turned into a spectacle which attracted crowds. “Henchmen kindled the pyre/close-pressed by the mob,” Czesław Miłosz wrote in his poem “Campo di Fiori.” A spectacle is an element of culture and public executions had been a European tradition since the Antiquity. They provided sensation and excitement, and at the same time they brought a relief of sorts – “it’s not us!”. They offered a sense of distance and safety in the face of a very real and close death, but nonetheless a death of somebody else. Death presented as a spectacle can be somewhat tamed; it also contains an element of experiencing the joy of life as a contrast to this life’s potential violent end. Even death that is full of suffering and pain remains beyond the reality of a spectator, it does not enter his world. Public death has always attracted interest – it was a cultural spectacle, a thrilling social experience.
In a short story titled “Wielkanoc” (Easter), Adolf Rudnicki referred to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as a “Warsaw Paschal Spectacle”:
“In this infamous spring of 1943, Christian Easter fell in late April... Throughout the Good Week, there were never-ending parades towards the ghetto wall. They didn’t stop during the holiday. As soon as the words resounded: ‘The Mass has ended. Go in peace, Hallelujah’ the crowd floated out of crammed churches – their souls still warm, humming with springtime, first flowers in hand – and ran towards the wall to watch the spectacle – the Warsaw Paschal Spectacle... It was indeed an extraordinary spectacle. Inhabitants of the neighbouring houses saw – there, behind the wall – half-crazed people jumping out of the cellars and, akin to lizards, crawling from floor to floor, higher and higher. The fire was creeping up behind them, the bullets were chasing them, and yet they continued to search – helpless and hopeless – for a fireproof nook invisible to the gendarme’s eye. When the flame began to lick their feet, the husband would pass the baby to his wife, all three would give each other one final kiss, then they’d jump – first the woman with the baby, and the man would follow right behind her.”
Many accounts and testimonies referred to the aspect of curiosity with which the people of Warsaw watched the burning ghetto. On 25 April, Ludwik Landau noted:
“People in celebratory mood, with lots of time on their hands were arriving in droves to see a unique spectacle – the ghetto ablaze. If yesterday evening the glow faded a little, during the day thick clouds of smoke began to rise again over the ghetto – it seems that, at this moment, the entire ghetto is burning... The fire has assumed fantastic proportions and the last inhabitants of the ghetto, whom the Germans sentenced to death, are probably dying there right now in the flames and smoke.”
Henryk Rudnicki, who was hiding on the “Aryan” side, noted:
“I headed for the city centre... to look at the burning ghetto. The first thing to catch my attention were the merry-go-rounds, jammed with people. Yes, the carousels were spinning round in the thick clouds of smoke from the tenement houses burning next to them. Few metres away people are being burnt alive, but the show must go on. Fun and death, death and fun... The crowds, bubbling with excitement, rushed from all corners of the city to watch the burning quarter.”
Poles also recall that the burning ghetto aroused the curiosity of the city residents; many came to the ghetto wall to watch. When the Uprising broke out, Władysław Wojewódzki went with some friends “to Krasiński Sq. and we watched the Germans attack, what it looked like at first, on the first day.” In Krasiński Sq. – as Wiesław Szurek recalls – “people were not at their best behaviour. They would just stand there, gaping, watching intently, commenting from time to time, laughing even when a bullet hit its target. It was deplorable.” Jerzy Piechalak also recalls the attitudes of the people who came to watch. He himself went there
“with a friend to see what it looked like. This one house was on fire. For a brief moment, I saw a man on the balcony on the third or fourth floor. He was partially burnt already. He went out, looked down and jumped. I saw that with my own eyes. Meanwhile, the mood among the onlookers was rather cheerful.”
Antoni Polikarp Ziemak was also in Krasiński Sq. and he, too, watched “Jews jumping out of balconies of the buildings on fire.” Tadeusz Karczewski, yet another guest to Krasiński Sq., recounted:
“When the Uprising broke out, there were merry-go-rounds there, a tiny amusement park of sorts. There was shooting on the other side of the wall. That was shocking, too. Here the carousel with a music box, the horses twirling around, children playing, and on the other side of the wall – shooting. We realised the Jews began to put up resistance. They stood no chance.”
Zdzisław Wyszomirski recalls visiting a friend who lived in Krasiński Sq.:
“I went to his place, and he says to me: ‘Come, I’ll show you something.’ The ghetto border was right there. That’s how I saw the ghetto burning and so on, the flames. We really felt for the Jews, but there was nothing we could possibly do.”
On the other side of the square, Simcha Binem Motyl sat in a shelter on Świętojerska St. inside the ghetto, and watched the spectators:
“Through the glass facing the Krasiński Garden one could see the roofs of the houses on the other side of the Garden. People were sitting on these roofs – Poles who were curious to see what was happening on our side. They were watching us as if they were Romans at the time of Nero watching ‘human torches’ of Christians being burnt alive. I saw these people on the roofs of ‘Aryan’ houses, relatively free and safe, and all I wanted was to know what they were thinking, to be able to see what was reverberating in their souls.”
Compassion and Solidarity, Indifference and Hostility. Attitudes of Poles to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
What was reverberating in their souls? Some felt genuine, sincere compassion and showed it to their Jewish friends. Bluma Altmed recalls that the Polish woman with whom she was staying “seemed to be suffering with me: ‘Oh Jesus, they’ve been burning people alive, how is that possible?’ She screamed: ‘Why the world does not avenge that? How can they stand listening to the calling of their brethren’s blood? It is calling to them, seeking vengeance. Vengeance!’ I screamed, too, sitting in a hideout.”
Perla Zoberman, who – under the name of Paulina Megierska – lived at 99 Leszno St. at Irena Kowalczyk’s apartment, expressed the highest praise for her:
“She was a wonderful person! There are no people like her! Whenever there was an action aimed against the Jews, she would loudly express her indignation. When she heard about informing on a Jew in hiding, she suffered and cursed the mean of people of this world.”
In personal contacts with the Poles they knew, Jews often encountered gestures of solidarity. It seems that those Poles who had direct contacts with Jews were more inclined to demonstrate empathy. Or perhaps it was the other way round – people more inclined to compassion and empathy maintained contacts with Jews, treated them with respect, many had already been engaged in helping them and, in the face of the burning ghetto, gave expression to their feelings. Jan Rybak, whose family hid Jews, recalls: “I saw the smoke hovering over the ghetto. We went to see it with my parents, it [was] the first or second day of Easter, we stood there for a while. My father said: ‘Say a prayer, people are dying’.” Aleksander Wiechowski’s grandfather reacted in a similar way, taking the boy
“to the sixth floor of our building at 26 Chmielna St., from which there was a perfect view... and [through] the attic window he showed a sight which stayed with me and will stay with me forever,” Aleksander recalls. “That horrific raging fire, the flames, the smell... I remember those flames to this day and I remember the words of my grandfather, who said to me there and then: ‘Oleś, do not ever forget this... people are dying there, people are being burnt alive’.”
Without a doubt, the residents of Warsaw – similary to the aforementioned press – differed in their opinions on the Uprising in the ghetto and attitudes towards the Jews. Janusz Albert Krzyżanowski recalls that
“the overwhelming majority surely felt compassion towards these people, even if the Jewish nation had its pluses as well as its minuses... Some families, individuals were very close, there were even Polish-Jewish marriages. There were all sorts of stories. In most cases, there was compassion, but... one could observe antisemitism, too.”
In his diary, Adam Kamienny, a fugitive from Kałuszyn who at the time worked as a Pole at a barber studio in Warsaw, recalls different opinions among Poles towards the fighting in the ghetto:
“The entire city expressed its admiration towards the heroic attitude of the ghetto fighters, and yet, at the same time, there were news of people informing on individual escapees from the ghetto, as well as on whole groups, often totalling 100 people or more. Every day at work I listened to all sorts of stories – gruelling, blood-curdling stories of the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans and their Ukrainian, Latvian and Polish mercenaries... People expressed their outrage and condemnation of such behaviour, but I also heard voices of approval – it serves them right, they deserve it, we should have done the same with them long time ago. Others still, more moderate, did not approve of such barbarian methods, but expressed their content at the fact that the problem was finally being solved.”
According to many witness accounts, “more moderate” voices dominated in the streets – opinions of people unaware or unbothered by the fact that others may hear them, also Jews. While compassion and understanding were expressed mainly in private, in the public space resentment prevailed – to which there was general consent. The street’s impersonality may also have been a factor in favour of widespread antisemitic comments. The sense of anonymity loosens psychological barriers as well as social and moral norms; it is also accompanied by a sense of deindividuation and “disinhibition,” i.e. loss of self-control, public responsibility, non-compliance with social conventions and norms. However, one may wonder what the “social norm” was like at the time and whether, incidentally, hostility towards Jews was not entirely in line with it.
The atmosphere in the Warsaw street during the Nazi occupation was not favourable towards the Jews. Such social mood was triggered by religious stereotypes, pre-war antisemitism, the occupying force’s policy, fear of providing aid and risking repressions, and perhaps a camouflaged dislike of Jews.
Before the war, “while rejecting biological racism, ‘psychological racism’ was propagated... and it was on this basis that the Jews were accused of conspiracy to rule the world, of hostility towards Christianity and to the Polish nation and state, of dishonesty towards dissenters, of fanaticism and backwardness, and at the same time of subversion, free-thinking and destructive influence on the morality of the surroundings. In more circumspect terms, the ineffaceable alienation of the Jewish psyche and morality was affirmed.”
The strength and significance of antisemitism in Poland as a source of acquiescence or even acceptance of the Germans’ policy towards the Jews and its demoralising influence on society was diagnosed by Jan Karski. Already in the winter of 1940, in a report to the Polish government in exile (back then in Angers), the courier wrote:
“German ‘solution to the Jewish question’ – and I must stress that I feel fully responsible for what I am saying – is a serious and rather dangerous tool in the hands of the Germans for the ‘moral pacification’ of the broad layers of Polish society... The nation hates its mortal enemy – and yet this issue seems to offer a narrow footbridge, so to speak, where the Germans and a large section of Polish society meet in unison.”
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was happening in such circumstances precisely – the atmosphere of public resentment, lack of goodwill and compassion on one hand, and crowds observing the spectacle on the other.
The street commented on the events, and these comments have been recorded in diaries, witness accounts, memoirs, in literature and in documents. “In the quarter, the springtime smelt of blossoms at the cemetery mixed with the stench of a city being burnt alive,” wrote Ludwik Hering in his short story titled “Meta” (The Finishing Line).
“Powązkowska Avenue was black with people rushing to attend the holy mass. From time to time someone would stop, gazing with terror towards the hell taking place behind the wall.
– Divine punishment, divine punishment...
– It was on a holiday like today that they murdered our Lord Jesus.
– The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly fine.
They piously made the sign of a cross.”
Aleksandra Sołowiejczyk-Guter did not go out in the street. Unaware of what had happened on the first day of the Uprising, she opened the window in order to “eavesdrop snippets of conversations from the courtyard which would help her understand the situation. ‘Did you hear, allegedly the Jews in the ghetto started shooting!’. ‘Yes, they say they have put up resistance, who would have thought? They were caught and sent to
Treblinka, and now they are defending themselves.’ ‘You know, I do feel sorry for them. They are people just like us.’ ‘Sure, I feel for them, too. But, dear, had they stayed here, they would’ve sent us all to Madagascar in the end...’.” “These are people, too, after all, so one feels for them,” says ‘the cemetery lady’ from Zofia Nałkowska’s novella. “But they hate us more than they hate the Germans.” The psychoanalyst finds sadism in such statements – it “camouflages joy or satisfaction because ‘they deserved it’ and ‘good for them’, as well as perverse pleasure connected to “deriving joy from somebody else’s suffering [which] doesn’t allow for any other feelings, such as guilt, responsibility, fear or sadness.”
Bluma Altmed recalls a conversation she had heard on 24 April on Dzika St.:
“I hope they finish off the Yids quickly, cause otherwise our wall will crack and our house will collapse from these explosions. Yids are tilting at windmills – they want to win with the Germans! People go beserk from all this noise. Easter has come, and I feel almost deranged – can’t do anything. I have a constant headache because I can’t sleep in such conditions. All night long, I hear machine guns. One cannonade after another. Fire glow enters the flat through the curtains. The explosions and shootings never end. What are those Yids thinking, anyway? They have to die, one way or the other. The least they could do is to give up. I’ll be honest with you (one fishwife to another) – I am sorry for each building that is being demolished.”
Szymon Gliksman recalls a visit at Ms Stasińska’s apartment in Żoliborz, where he lived as an “Aryan” – an “unquestionably honest and decent woman came over, a neighbour named Zalewska... and said: ‘Look, Ms Zosia, the Germans are burning down such a huge quarter of the city, and all because of those lousy Jews’.”
Emanuel Ringelblum noted many comments from the streets in his Stosunki polsko-żydowskie (Polish-Jewish Relations) written in hiding on the “Aryan” side:
“Pious elderly lady: ‘Jews tortured Christ to death during the Good Week. Now, for the Good Week, Warsaw Jews are being tortured to death by the Germans.’ 70-year old priest: ‘It’s a good thing this has happened. Jews were a huge military power in the ghetto. If they hadn’t turned against the Germans, they would have turned against us.’ A conversation on a tram: ‘Little Yids are burning alive, but Big Yids are in power in America and they will rule us once the war has ended.’ Petit bourgeois housewife: ‘It’s scary what is happening in the ghetto, it’s simply terrible. But perhaps it’s for the good after all? Jews have been sucking our blood, they used to say: the streets are yours, the tenement buildings are ours. They used to say: you would like to have Poland with no Jews, you have Jews without Poland.’ Two merchants from Grzybowski Sq.: one feels sorry that Poland suffered great losses because of the fires in the ghetto, as lots of state property went up in flames. The other one responds: ‘Don’t be sorry, the ghetto was a stinking quarter and it’s a good thing that it is no more. We will reconstruct it – much more beautiful, cleaner, but without the Jews.’... A National Radical Camp member formulated his credo regarding the April operation very briefly: ‘You burn Jews, and it’s still not enough for them.’ Another cannibalist formulated it even more briefly: ‘Bedbugs are burning.’”
The wording used by this “cannibalist” is repeated like a refrain in varied forms in dozens of accounts. For example, Wanda Kinrus (a housewife who was not aware that she was Jewish) was forced to watch the ghetto burning from a roof. The neighbours gathered there to view the spectacle commented: “What a shame that these parasites weren’t burnt alive fifty years ago!”. Benjamin Mandelkern, who escaped from a train to Treblinka and lived with his wife in Służewiec, was in a similar situation. During the Uprising, he stood together with other inhabitants of the building looking at the flames over the ghetto. “One man laughed out loud and said: ‘Slimebags are burning. The Germans are doing a good job.’”
Tadeusz Marchaj recalls that when he was watching the burning ghetto, his friend said with repulsion: “They’re burning like rats.” “I was walking to visit my friends in Żoliborz. I heard passers-by saying: ‘The Yids are frying, they’re ruining our holiday, we must walk on foot because of them.’ I wept as I walked on,” recalls Helena Merenholc, who was hiding on the “Aryan” side. Chil Ceylon remembers that during the Ghetto Uprising he sensed “a satisfaction of sorts” around him. “People used to say: ‘Worms are burning!’.” Ides Perkal felt horrible when she heard people say in the street: “The Yids are burning,” and so did Beniamin Międzyrzecki. Luba Bat came from Vilna to Warsaw during the Ghetto Uprising. Upon hearing the sound of explosions, she asked a woman working in the garden if there was a fire. “A fire?” the woman responded: “The Yids are burning.” Estera Bieżuner heard a conversation between two elegantly clad gentlemen at the corner of Świętojerska and Nowiniarska St. “One said: ‘Commiting such a murder on people is a sin against the Christian ethics,’ to which the other man responded: ‘But these are not people, these are worms.’”
The owner of a house in Żoliborz who hid Felicja and Roma Asz – fully aware they were Jewish – came to their room saying that the Jews in the ghetto “were burning like vermin.” Alina Winawer recalls Easter breakfast she was invited to – together with her brother-in-law – by her Polish acquaintances.
“We sat at a table eating breakfast, sharing an egg. Behind the window one could see the smoke. Someone said: ‘The ghetto is on fire,’ to which the host, fully aware of who we were, responded: ‘I’m so glad that the Jewish vermin is burning.’ I was astonished that she said that in our presence.”
The City Grew Indifferent, and yet We Continued to Run to the Wall. Reactions of Jews Hiding on the “Aryan Side”
For the Jews hiding on the “Aryan” side, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was a harrowing experience whose impact stood in stark contrast with the indifference or animosity of their surroundings. They had to conceal their feelings or even – as an element of the essential camouflage – applaud the comments they heard. Bronisława Goldsztein, as an Aryan working in a lab at the Warsaw University, recalls:
“Despite the pain I felt in reaction to the Ghetto Uprising, I had to listen indifferently to the things my colleagues said about the Uprising. For example, one said upon arriving in the lab: ‘I saw a Kike woman throw a child into the fire, I do hope there’ll be no Yids left after that.’ And another one:
‘Finally, the end for the Jews has arrived. Shame so late.’ Only a handful would say: ‘Stop talking already, I can’t bear listening to this, these are people after all.’ I had to listen to all that and not to betray my true identity.”
Many Jewish inhabitants of the city used to come to the ghetto wall, just like the other gaping onlookers, but their motivations and emotions were altogether different. Adolf Rudnicki, one of more than a dozen thousand Jews in hiding in Warsaw, wrote:
“The city froze, the city grew indifferent, and yet we continued to run to the wall, oblivious of the dangers, listening intently to the apocalypse. Our eyes – wide open like the eyes of someone in agony – begged the heavens for the rain of fire which doesn’t differentiate so morbidly. We felt our insides like fists. We could spot our lot from amongst the crowd – their eyes animated by a sudden proximate flame, passing without a word we cried out, pointing out our and their fate to one another.”
Many Jews who remained in hiding in Warsaw wanted to see with their own eyes what was happening inside the ghetto, to be closer to their relatives and friends who were dying there. Among those who went to the ghetto wall was Alina Blady-Szwajger. “I dressed up nicely,” she recalls.
“I put on my best suit, I combed my hair, powdered my nose, put a lipstick on... I bought a bouquet of kingcups from a street flower vendor. A big bouquet. I held the flowers with both arms and I was able to drown my face in them. As if it was all about joy and springtime. The Good Week. Monday... There was a merry-go-round at the square close by; it had been there for several days already, open for business. Children sat in the merry-go-round, which went round and round to the sound of music. Or perhaps I imagined that? Children were laughing and the people passing by were smiling at them. And there, on the other side the wall, there was a sound of shooting. There was shooting, and the children were laughing. And I stood with the kingcups and smiled. Like all the others.”
Alina Margolis also “rushed to the wall” where there were “many people, all dressed up, spring style... Bang –single shots and salvos. I froze, my heart and temples were pounding... My nearest and dearest – mother, brother, Inka – they were all on this side, but all the others... Our neighbours from the fourth floor on Gęsia St., my friends from school, my tenement building, my street, those from the shelters, those with revolvers and rifles.”
Maria Miller also went to the wall – she wasn’t careful enough and began to cry. She was quickly spotted by the shmaltzovniks who took all the money she had on her. Henryk Abrahamer lived as an Aryan with his wife and sister in law in the Praga district. They couldn’t show their true feelings, so they cried at night. One day, Henryk went to the ghetto wall to say kaddish there.
Not everybody was able to – even if they wanted to – head towards the border of the burning Jewish quarter. Many Jews never left the apartments, for the reasons of safety. Aleksandra Sołowiejczyk-Guter noted: “In our heads, we’re always there, on the other side of the wall, in our homeland of sorts. It is bad, it is horrid even, but it is ours.”
Those hiding on the “Aryan” side waited desperately for any bits of information – many had relatives or friends in the burning ghetto. Fruma Bregman wrote that her despair “was aggravated by the alarming phone calls [from the ghetto], our nearest and dearest were begging us to help them, and we were completely helpless.” Rachela Hönigman who did not manage to get her husband out of the ghetto dreamt of him begging her for help.”
Many were consumed by guilt – Janina Bauman wrote: „Shamelessly safe, I looked from the outside at the doomed struggle of my lot.” She was hiding with her mother and sister on Marszałkowska St., and were unable to leave the room during the day. But
“late at night, when everybody was asleep, mum, Zosia and I would sneak into the dark living room and out to the balcony. The sky hanging over the city fast asleep was blood-red from the fire devouring the Northern District... Clouds of black smoke driven by the wind blowing from the north obscured the clear springtime sky. Sticky soot fell on the houses and stained the pavements of the city celebrating a holy day. The people gathered in overcrowded churches sang ‘Hallelujah’.”
The indifference and resentment of Poles augmented the pain and the sense of disillusionment and loneliness.
“The glow was visible from every corner of the city at every hour of night and day. Upon hearing of children being burnt alive, people would say: ‘That’s in the ghetto’ which sounded as if it was far, far away. People said: ‘That’s in the ghetto,’ and the calm was restored. But that was on Nowolipie, Muranowska, Świętojerska Streets, mere several dozen metres away.”
Also at the very spot where POLIN Museum stands today.
Barbara Engelking, April 2023
The article comes from POLIN Museum’s guidebook of the temporary exhibition “Around Us a Sea of Fire. The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” (ed. Barbara Engelking and Zuzanna Schnepf-Kołacz, Warsaw 2023). The layout of the text, the selection of photos and the subheadings come from the editors (Mateusz Szczepaniak). Detailed bibliography can be found in the footnotes in the guidebook.
- Unique Photographs Showing Witnesses to the Tragedy of the Warsaw Ghetto
- Film encounters with witnesses to the Warsaw Ghetto
- The Story of Czesław Miłosz, a Witness to the Tragedy of the Warsaw Ghetto, Who Later Won the Nobel Prize in Literature
- Information about the history of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on the Virtual Shtetl Portal
- POLIN Museum’s Program: “Thou Shalt Not Be Indifferent. 80th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising”
- POLIN Museum’s Temporary Exhibition: “Around Us a Sea of Fire. The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising”