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Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: The Chief Rabbi gets it wrong!


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On Friday, April 5, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sachs, devoted his “Thought for Today” on the BBC Radio 4 Today show to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Here’s the official BBC podcast:

Lord Sachs got it wrong on several counts:

  1. He said this was the eve of the anniversary of the uprising.
    WRONG!
    The uprising began on April 19, 1943. His made this mistake because that was the eve of Passover, and this is the eve of Passover. But Passover in 1943 fell in a different date.
  2. He said the uprising occurred because the Jewish authorities decided the time had come for resistance.
    WRONG!
    The Judenrat (Jewish Council) in the ghetto adopted a “keep your heads down” policy, and opposed attempts to organise resistance on the grounds that that might provoke the Nazis to even greater atrocities.

In fact, the Judenpolizei (Jewish police) collaborated in rounding up Jews to be sent to the death camps, and had a quota of how many they should round up every day. One Jewish policeman killed by the resistance was found to be carrying a Nazi Party membership card, dating back to 1933.

The resistance was organised by the secular left.

Though he is widely regarded as speaking for all British Jews, according to Wikipedia,

Jonathan Henry Sacks, Baron SacksKt (born 8 March 1948) is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. His Hebrew name is Yaakov Zvi. As the spiritual head of the United Synagogue, the largest synagogue body in the UK, he is the Chief Rabbi of the BritishOrthodox synagogues, but he is not a religious authority for the Federation of Synagogues or the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations or the other movements, MasortiReform and Liberal Judaism.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Sacks

 

Listen to a play about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising


Originally broadcast on BCB Radio in 2012.

After the memorial

Scene: A café, interior, mid-afternoon, late January. Time: the present.

Enter YAKUV and MAREK, two elderly Jews. Yakuv is dressed casually, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, trainers on his feet. He is bearded, his hair long and straggly, though with a receding hairline. Marek is the slightly younger of the two, clean-shaven, dressed in an expensive dark blue topcoat over a three-piece suit, a spotless white shirt and silk tie, a silk handkerchief in his breast pocket. On his neatly-trimmed head a yamulka (skullcap).

Yakuv rubs his hands together and shivers. Marek takes off his overcoat and drapes it carefully over a chair. They both sit.

MAREK:

I’d forgotten how cold it can be here in England, in January.

YAKUV:

How long have you been here?

MAREK:

Flew in yesterday from Ben Gurion. Temperature was thirteen degrees Celsius. You?

YAKUV:

I live here. And it’s not as cold as Warsaw.

MAREK:

Tell me about it. Remember that first winter? No electricity, no gas. We were burning up our furniture.

YAKUV:

You were lucky to have furniture to burn. Our landlord was always coming round, making sure we didn’t.

WAITER (or WAITRESS; the gender is not significant):

Yes, gentlemen?

MAREK:

Coffee for me, please. Black.

YAKUV:

Do you have decaff?

WAITER:

Sorry, no.

MAREK:

I expect they’ll have Coke.

YAKUV:

Never touch the stuff. Full of caffeine. Rots your teeth.

MAREK:

They’re big supporters of the state of Israel.

YAKUV:

(ironically) So that’s all right then. OK if my teeth fall out, so long as it’s good for the state of Israel! (To waiter) No, just a glass of water, please. Tapwater, mind, not that fizzy mineral rubbish. Oh, and one of those cream cakes over there. The one with the strawberry on top.

MAREK:

Is that real cream?

WAITER:

Yes, sir. They’re very nice.

MAREK:

I’m sure they are. (to Yakuv) I can’t have milk or cream, you see, after those beef sandwiches at the Memorial.

YAKUV:

Think yourself lucky they weren’t pork.

MAREK:

With those Bosnian Muslims there? Hardly likely.

YAKUV:

Me, I’ll eat any damn thing. Pigs are quite clean animals, you know. And very intelligent.

(Marek shudders theatrically.)

But if it’s important to you, stay kosher. I don’t believe any of that garbage, women unclean after childbirth, mustn’t eat the meat of the calf in the mother’s milk, superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

MAREK:

It’s what makes us special.

YAKUV:

Special targets, you mean. Remember that first Easter, 1940?

MAREK:

Will I ever! I lived in Solna Street. We were hiding under a table, away from the windows. We lay there for three days.

YAKUV:

While my comrades were fighting and dying to defend you. And small thanks you and your family’s kind gave to Bernard Goldsztein, who organised resistance to the pogrom.

MAREK:

My dad said you only provoked the Nazis to worse things than paying Polish hooligans four zlotys (Note: pronounced zWoties) a day to throw stones at us.

YAKUV:

Yes, well that always was the cry. Keep your heads down. But the killings had started already. Remember the way they shot 53 from one apartment building, just because one of them struck a policeman.

MAREK:

A navy-blue wasn’t he?

YAKUV:

Yeah, a Polish cop. Supposedly one of ours. And that was November, thirty-nine. Fifty-three shot, out on Nalewki Street. By then, we all had to wear yellow stars, even your high-and-mighty dad.

And remind me, what happened to him in the end?

MAREK:

He kept his head down for a year or two. But eventually he died in Treblinka. My mutti and my sister Florrie were gassed in Chelmno.

YAKUV:

Three comrades managed to escape from Chelmno and told the world of what was happening there. Eighty thousand killed in two months, November and December, 1940. Also hundreds of gypsies. But people didn’t want to believe them.

MAREK:

We had to have hope. What else did we have?

YAKUV:

You had a barbed-wire fence cutting you off from the world. Anyone going through it was likely to be shot. The so-called typhus quarantine zone had become a ghetto. Run by the Nazis’ Judenrat, the Jewish Council, and their uniformed Judenpolizei.

MAREK:

My dad had been made to sell his business to his Aryan partner. He was only allowed to keep two thousand zloty. So he sat around all day, reading Heine. In the original German. I thought that was unpatriotic, till he told me Heine was a Jew, too.

YAKUV:

You had to have a job. Otherwise you were classed as “unproductive”, and rounded up to be deported. To its shame, the Judenrat went along with this, and the Judenpolitzei was given the task of picking out the deportees. They even had a quota: six thousand people a day had to be sent out.

MAREK:

I came home one day and found mutti and Florrie in tears. My dad had gone.

YAKUV:

We had a meeting of the workers’ committee to consider the situation. We were all for resisting the deportations, but we were in a minority. Most felt that if we delivered the quota, the rest might just survive. And of course we still had no weapons. Messages were sent to the Polish underground over and over, asking for guns.

MAREK:

We heard you were one of the grenzgänger, taking those messages across to the Aryan side..

YAKUV:

Yeah, well I was young and spunky. And stupid. It seemed a great game to me, climbing the wall and through the wire, hiding from the patrols, taking messages to the Polish underground, bringing back food.

MAREK:

And guns.

YAKUV:

No, not me. Too heavy for a ten-year-old kid, half-starved. And, besides, the Poles didn’t trust us. They knew some of our so-called leaders were doing the SS’s dirty work for them. It was a long time before they gave us any of the weapons the British were dropping. Too damn few of them to spare, anyway. But I brought back info, which we printed in our papers.

MAREK:

I brought one of those bulletins home. My dad put it on the fire. Said it was red propaganda.

YAKUV:

Put it on the fire? When I think of the blood, sweat and tears our comrades put into those grubby little sheets. We’d won a battered old Skif mimeograph machine from the Public School at 29 Karmelicka Street, and when I wasn’t going over the wall I cranked it through the night by candlelight. I could barely see straight by morning. Luckily there was no school next day, though eventually classes were organised.

MAREK:

I got my copy from Marynka.

YAKUV:

Marynka Segalewicz, what a woman! She did a lot of the circulation work. Did you hear how she got stopped by one of the navy-blues?

MAREK:

The Polish gendarmes?

YAKUV:

Yes, as bad as the SS they were, though more corrupt. So she offered him a 500 zloty bribe.

MAREK:

That’s a lot of valuta! More than a month’s wages. A loaf was 40 zloty a pound. I remember my mutti saying how bread prices just kept rising.

YAKUV:

Damn right! Five hundred was too much, which made him suspicious. She said she was smuggling bread. Or maybe it was silk stockings, I can’t be sure. Anyway, he demanded to see the merchandise and in her panic she dropped the bulletins out from under her skirt.

MAREK:

So she got arrested?

YAKUV:

No, as a matter of fact. Two of our comrades happened to be passing by at the time, the guy we called Little Kostek, plus someone else, I can’t remember his name. Anyway, they saw Marynka’s predicament and started a fist-fight. That couldn’t be permitted so close to the ghetto wall, so the cop didn’t know what to do for a minute. Marynka made her escape.

We reckoned that twenty people read each copy of the bulletin, passing it from hand to hand. So you see how your dad deprived more than just you with reading matter.

I took copies over the wall for the Polish comrades to read. So they were circulated throughout the country, even throughout the world. One night, when we tuned in our illegal radio, we heard the man we called Comrade Arthur, who’d helped to co-ordinate resistance as the Nazis advanced on Warsaw, now our representative on the Polish National Council in London. He read out our report of the mass gassings in the death camps. But still people didn’t believe us.

MAREK:

The Nazis promised three kilograms of bread and a kilo of marmalade to anyone who offered to go. Plus, we were getting letters from people who said they were working in labour camps. They said things were tough and the work was hard but it was better than starving to death in the ghetto. My dad thought of volunteering.

YAKUV:

Yes, we saw those letters. They were fakes. But lots of people were deceived by them, not only your dad.

We sent out one of our comrades to find out the true facts. He was taken by Polish railwaymen to where the railway tracks forked, one of them going to Treblinka. They said the cattle trucks went there, and came back empty. No food was ever sent.

The chairman of the Judenrat killed himself when he realised what was really happening. What a coward! If he’d stayed in office and help us organise the resistance, if he’d disbanded the Judenpolizei, who were doing the Nazis’ dirty work for them, they probably would have shot him anyway. But at least his death would have counted for something. Like they say, better to die on your feet than on your knees.

MAREK:

Yes. We’ve learned this lesson now. But it took a long time.

YAKUV:

Have we? I’m not so sure.

MAREK:

Anyway, people kept disappearing. Neighbours, friends. My dad said the reds didn’t get deported.

YAKUV:

Not at all! We lost many of our best comrades at that time. The quota had been doubled, so trains left the Umschlag, the deportation point, with six thousand every morning and another six thousand in the evening. Each Jewish policeman had a personal quota. He had to bring in seven people every day. By such methods, they upped the numbers to sixty thousand in two days.

One of our best comrades, Sonia, actually volunteered to go, to try to set up an organisation in the camp.

She said: “My place is not here. Look who remains in the ghetto, only the scum. The working masses march in formation to the Umschlag. I have to go with them. If I shall be with them, then, perhaps, they will not forget that they are human beings even during their very last moments, in the cars, and afterwards . . .” A brave woman.

Pretty soon there were only 120,000 people left in the ghetto.

MAREK:

But at the same time, the Nazis were bringing in a lot of lumpen, coming into the ghetto from all over Poland. My sister went to work in the hospital, where so many were dying, but my dad told her to quit. They had a big row about it.

YAKUV:

They weren’t proper hospitals. A few hundred people crowded into every large, unheated room of a synagogue, every hall of a deserted factory. “Fleckfieber!” posted up on the door.

MAREK:

Spotted fever.

YAKUV:

Right.

The Nazis were cramming in Jews from all over, lots of them sick, some even with typhus. They lay there all day on their filthy straw mattresses, with no strength to get up. Even if there’d been somewhere to go to take a crap, they couldn’t make it. The lucky ones had beds. Three-to-a-bed they were, so many dying, six thousand a month. The grave-diggers couldn’t keep up. Ugh! It was awful.

I was sent there one time, looking for a comrade from Lodz. The stench was terrible. He died in my arms.

They were refugees, unkempt, lousy, with no facilities to wash, undernourished, and hungry. The Judenrat  gave them soup once a day, weak as water it was.

MAREK:

My dad called them scum of the earth.

YAKUV:

They were human beings, just like you and me, fallen on even harder times.

MAREK:

My uncle was an undertaker.

YAKUV:

The Pinker-boys. Do you remember the Pinker Jewish funeral home, before the war? They really fell on their feet. They made fortunes, transporting coffins to be buried outside the ghetto. On the Aryan side, as we called it. Often the coffins were full of valuables, which they bought for a few zlotys from people who were finding it hard to live. Sometimes even people, alive, in the coffins, trying to escape. Made a hundredfold profit, a thousandfold, a millionfold.

MAREK:

My uncle said he never smuggled people. Too risky.

YAKUV:

The Nazis shot a hundred-and-ten smuggled people in one day. We could hear the shrieks from the Gesiowka central jail as they were loaded into special trucks. One woman shouted: “I shall die, but your death will be much worse!” So they shot her there and then. Brave lass!

Without guns to hit back, we had to work at keeping people’s spirits up. In 1940 already, we’d started organising co-ops, two barber shops, a co-operative tailor shop, and a co-operative shoemaker shop. The shops served not only as working places, but as comparatively safe meeting places for the entire organization as well.

We had about two thousand members, meeting in fives and sevens in people’s homes, studying military theory, organising, charitable work. Just to feed your brother or sister was an act of resistance. Or to teach the kids something.

MAREK:

My dad didn’t want me to go to the classes, but mutti put her foot down. “My son will not grow up an uneducated barbarian,” she told him. He said they’d just indoctrinate me with red propaganda, and I guess he was right.

YAKUV:

What sort of propaganda is in algebra, for God’s sake?

MAREK:

I suppose it was just getting to know you reds, and realising you were the same as us, good people. I guess I got a bit of a crush on Miss Dawidowicz.

YAKUV:

So you knew Tobcia Dawidowicz.

MAREK:

Know her? She taught me maths. Without her I’d never have become an accountant. She would have gone with us into the sewers at the end if she hadn’t sprained her ankle. I cried when we went into that stinking tunnel, leaving her to die up there when the Nazis came to her. We left her sitting there, with a gun.

YAKUV:

She led a dozen groups like yours into the sewers. Before that she’d been liaison between the various fighting units.

Remember the drama group? She ran that.

MAREK:

I heard about it. And the choir. I wanted to join because people reckoned I was a good singer. Mutti wanted me to become a cantor in the synagogue. But my dad . . .

YAKUV:

Don’t tell me. He wouldn’t let you go.

MAREK:

We were growing apart. He was hardly ever at home. There was a café on the corner of our street where he used to sit most days. They even had real coffee. There were also night clubs, but dad didn’t patronise them.

YAKUV:

Oh yes, the class divisions were greater than ever. There was a thriving black market, spivs, crooks. They used to ask me to run errands for them on the Aryan side. I always refused. I had my Party work to do. But other kids did it. People would do anything, just to survive. Often an eight-year-old would be supporting a whole family, uncles, aunts, distant cousins.

If you were carrying anything wrapped in paper, down the street, some kid would try to grab it, hoping it was food. And they’d eat it there and then. One kid got sick, cos it was soap. He didn’t realise until he’d swallowed it down. Came up again, soon enough, though.

All the time people were falling down dead in the streets, starved to death.

MAREK:

My dad wouldn’t let me play out, because of the corpses. Naked they were.

YAKUV:

Yeah, well people would strip off their clothes to sell them, then haul them out for the burial carts to collect. Sometimes they’d cover them with newspaper, for decency, weighed down with rocks. Every morning the carts came round, four or five A.M. Piled high, naked bodies.

It was February 1941 when the Party decided enough was enough. We wouldn’t go peacefully into the gas chambers. Abrasha Blum was put in charge of the resistance. He was a sick man, not fit to fight, but he was such an inspiration. He died fighting at the end, despite his disability.

But it was over a year before we were able to set up a proper battle organisation, representing all Jewish organisations. By that time we had obtained some weapons, just a few pistols, but straight away we began our attacks.

MAREK:

I knew some of the kids were involved, and that made me really jealous. I used to lie in bed, dreaming of killing Nazis.

YAKUV:

Well, kids didn’t do any fighting. But people saw that the Nazis were receiving their first setbacks, and public opinion began to swing over in our favour. The party began collecting “taxes” to finance our struggle. Some gave voluntarily. Others had to be “persuaded”. Even some members of the Judenrat gave us money.

MAREK:

Mutti gave me a few zlotys every day to get something to eat when I went to the classes. I used to put it in the collection.

YAKUV:

I personally carried thousands of zlotys over to the Aryan side to buy weapons. In three months, these taxes amounted to ten million zloty.

Then came May Day. We celebrated by killing more Germans than on any other day.

MAREK:

Killing your fellow workers on the day of international working class solidarity.

YAKUV:

No matter. They had no business being in our country, carting us off to the gas ovens. They voted for Hitler, after all.

And we didn’t only kill Germans, There were also Jewish Gestapo agents. We found a Gestapo ID on one, dating back to 1933.

MAREK:

A Jewish Nazi? How could that be?

YAKUV:

What about your Stern Gang? They did deals. Eichmann was also in touch with Zionists before the war.

MAREK:

I don’t believe that.

YAKUV:

It’s a matter of record. Anyway, there were four less Jewish Gestapo at the end of the day. Everyone cheered when we announced they’d got theirs. We met together that evening, reported how many we’d done in, sang The Internationale. But we knew we were living on borrowed time.

MAREK:

The Nazis kicked us out of our apartment. Blew up the whole street.

YAKUV:

We were fighting them, street by street, block by block. It was a bit like Stalingrad. But we were running out of ammo. I took a message to the Polish partisans, appealing for more weaponry. But they couldn’t get it to us. The ghetto wall was watertight. I had some narrow escapes, getting through. It was frustrating, knowing there were rifles on the Aryan side, and no way of getting them into the ghetto.

Things seemed hopeless.

And then Hitler made his biggest mistake. He attacked the Soviet Union.

MAREK:

My dad said the Soviets were as bad as the Nazis. They’d occupied half of Poland, after all.

YAKUV:

We had faith in Uncle Joe.

MAREK:

Uncle . . . ?

YAKUV:

Uncle Joe Stalin.

MAREK:

He killed as many as Hitler. He did a deal that gave him half of Poland.

YAKUV:

Buying time. We all knew it couldn’t last.

MAREK:

And he was an anti-Semite.

YAKUV:

Maybe, but we cheered when we heard about Soviet victories on the BBC world service. I was picked up by a Red Army unit after the uprising was over.

MAREK:

Poor kid!

YAKUV:

Not at all. I became their sort of mascot. They called me Yidchka, Little Yid.

MAREK:

So they were anti-Semites, too.

YAKUV:

They meant no harm by it. They fed me, gave me a dead SS guy’s uniform to protect me from the cold. One guy used to like to give me a cuddle at night to keep me warm.

MAREK:

A pervert!

YAKUV:

Perhaps. He played the violin, but it got smashed in a battle. He used to finger his music on my wrist. He was killed rescuing a wounded comrade on the outskirts of Berlin.

I visited his family in Moscow. Apparently he was quite a famous musician. They played me a record of him, Shostakovich I think it was. Not my taste, to be frank. I’m more into Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, White Christmas, An  American in Paris.

What happened to you after the sewers?

MAREK:

It was awful. Pitch black, and we couldn’t light a match because of the methane gas. We couldn’t stand up. In some places the roof was only 70cm high. I was a small kid for my age, but I couldn’t stand up straight. We had to crawl through the stinking waters.

The Nazis had blocked the passages with barbed wire, and set booby-trap grenades. Time passed so slowly it seemed more than 48 hours when we finally emerged into daylight.

We got out in Prosta Street, and people were astounded, to see all these filthy Jews, many with guns, coming out. For a start, many had never seen a Jew since the ghetto was blocked off from the rest of the city. We were loaded into a couple of trucks and rushed to safety. I stayed with a Polish family. The grown-ups joined the Polish partisans.

Eventually I got to Israel. The war was over by then.

YAKUV:

I came on a visit once. Wasn’t my scene. Just another ghetto.

MAREK:

But we’d learned the lesson of the uprising.

YAKUV:

How so?

MAREK:

Never to knuckle under. I did my time in the IDF. Showed the Arabs a thing or two. You’d have been proud.

YAKUV:

Proud? I was ashamed. That Jews should be fighting a dirty colonial war. Doing Uncle Sam’s dirty work for him, just like the Judenpolizei with the Nazis. The uniforms are different, but the results are just the same. Innocent people getting killed.

MAREK:

Oh, come on! What about the suicide bombers? We’ve got to defend ourselves.

YAKUV:

Let me tell you about your own history. D’you know who was the first suicide bomber, ever? A Jew.

MAREK:

When was that?

YAKUV:

In the war. He walked into the Nazi officers’ club in Kiev, blew himself up. Joe gave him a posthumous Hero star.

MAREK:

But that was different.

YAKUV (Stands up, furious):

You don’t get it, do you? It’s no different, except we’ve changed sides. Now we . . . YOU . . . are the Nazis. You’ve got the Apache gunships and Caterpillar bulldozers. The Arabs only have drainpipe rockets.

MAREK:

They’re religious fanatics.

YAKUV:

And you aren’t, I suppose!

Listen, I’m a materialist. I don’t believe in jihad, I don’t believe we’re the Chosen People. I don’t believe any of that religious hogwash.

But I tell you this. Jerusalem was in Muslim hands for centuries. They never denied you access to the Holy Places. But since forty-eight, it’s very different now.

Palestinians can’t get there to worship. You’re building walls round their villages. I see the pictures on the TV and it turns my stomach.

You know what it reminds me of? Warsaw, 1943. When I see them demolishing people’s homes, I remember how the Nazis blew up ours – blew up YOURS for God’s sake.

MAREK:

So you’re just another self-hating Jew.

YAKUV:

Damn right. I hated that bastard, with his Gestapo ID. I cheered when I heard we’d shot him down like a dog, to die in the gutter. I hated the Judenpolizei, as they loaded our brothers and sisters into the cattle trucks for Treblinka. And, by God, I’ve just realised: I hate YOU!

(He storms out)

(Pause. Marek stares after him for a moment, then looks at his watch.)

MAREK:

Can I have a coffee, white this time? And one of those cream cakes.

CURTAIN

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