Renata S. Zajdman - Memoir excerpts

1943 - The year of the uprisings

...On April 18th 1943 my brother said to me "you must leave again - you are a stone around my neck" I understood that he was involved in some sort of activities. I heard rumors about bunkers and active resistance. The original 500.000 inhabitants were reduced to 40,000. They knew what was awaiting them. They had no illusions no hope. They could no longer be deceived. Before the mass deportations in July 1942 many young men and women wanted to start n active resistance. Knowing the importance of close family ties in the Jewish community, the Germans took advantage of our vulnerability. This posed many dilemmas. Should a son or a daughter endanger their elderly parent’s lives? Should a husband forsake his wife and children? Others felt that their responsibility was to remain with their community. Was it morally right to confront the enemy or endanger the populace? Never before they were confronted with moral issues of such magnitude. All this changed when only young people remained in the Warsaw Ghetto. The few hundred active ghetto fighters among them my brother Alexander had been warned and had advance knowledge of the total liquidation.

There is no way to describe the night in the sewers. I was told later that the sewer workers who worked for the City Cleansing and Sewerage Service were indispensable for getting people out, because going through the sewers without a guide was impossible. The workers knew the layout of the sewers under the city.

... We were wading in filthy water, treading on refuse—in places right up to my knees. A string of people each clutching the person in front firmly by the arm or belt, as not to get lost in the darkness, and deathly silence while passing under the manholes. And crawling on all fours as not bump into hanging grenades. And the stench.

I was clinging to a young man as not to be carried away by the current. The rats were jumping around us; the echo of the water was like a thunder…

APRIL 19TH 1943 at the beginning of the Passover feast when the Germans attacked the surrounded ghetto in Warsaw, for the first time since the days of MASSADA, Jews with weapons in their hands have risen against their powerful oppressors.

APRIL 43 is forever etched in my memory. It is chiseled in my mind for all time. The scenes were so bizarre…

The massacre of Jews became a constant activity. From day to day people decreased in numbers by the thousands. The whole city was full of smoke and stench of buildings put to torch and of burning flesh...

Streets and alleys on the Aryan side were filled with gendarmes and secret police, and not counting blackmailers, all of whom were searching for survivors escaping from the burning ghetto. Shops and restaurants were opened and merry-go-round and carousels were even operating on KRASINSKI SQUARE; paradise next door to hell.

Clouds of smoke rolled above the Ghetto. Tanks were coming from every direction; flying planes were dropping bombs and incendiaries. The Germans threw everything they had against the Jews: bombs, cannon, tanks and hundreds of soldiers. Every onlooker reacted in his own way. I stood every day, near the ghetto walls—I was pulled there like a moth to flame. Machine guns were on the balconies and in the windows sticking out of the houses next to the ghetto. The S.S in full battle stood opposite the wall. Germans were drilling holes in the wall and were using the holes as an observation points. The streets around the wall were blocked off and patrolled by German police on motorcycles. There was steady artillery fire and planes were flying low over the ghetto. Every few minutes there was an explosion and a house would collapse. Later the Germans were throwing gas into the manholes to block the sewers. I overheard few men talking about barbed wire coils being also thrown into the openings. I could never confirm it—there were many rumors. The Germans cut off the water and electricity. They patrolled the streets around the burning ghetto. The blackmailers were running wild looking for latest fugitives.

The flames were able to accomplish what the Germans could not do. The flames chased the people out from their shelters. Made them leave previously prepared safe hideouts in attics and cellars…Mothers would try to save their children by jumping from roofs and balconies. Thousands of people perished in the conflagration. The sky above Warsaw was ablaze, violent explosions blasted windowpanes in all buildings near the ghetto.

On KRASINSKI square there was a kind of an amusement park with merry-go-rounds and loud music... all just few yards from the ghetto walls… and the carousels were turning and lively organ was playing... The salvos behind the ghetto walls where drowned in lively tunes and vapors rose into the tranquil sky.

The indifference of the bystanders is described by CZESLAW MILOSZ in his famous poem "CAMPO DEI FIORI" about Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) Italian philosopher who was burned on the stake for heresy while people were dancing on the square…

A day in life in the Warsaw Ghetto

... Hunger, typhus and terror dominated our existence.

Smuggling ran from highly organized, to a primitive form, where children were sole providers of their families. They smuggled through cracks in the wall, begged, stole and bartered on the Aryan side. The children became the Ghetto's lifeline risking their young live day in, and day out. They were our precious "GHETTO RATS".

We tried to outwit the enemy. Survival was a daily challenge, a struggle for food, shelter, warmth, and sanitation.

I joined an underground educational network in the ghetto. Schools were illegal, but the drive to educate was stronger than fear, so we had clandestine schools.

The lectures took place in private apartments and, for safety, in small groups. We had illegal synagogues, illegal classes, illegal publications etc.

The network of informal classes was usually disguised as workshops. In my workshop I was taught how to mend socks and stockings.

There were no books in case the Germans came breaking in...

The textbooks for the secret school classes had to be duplicated by typewriter.

There was even a program of courses in medicine...

To remain a human being in the ghetto one to had to live in a state of constant defiance.

I am still angry when I hear the expression "like sheep to slaughter".

Jewish resistance took different forms and shapes and the defiance expressed itself in varied ways.

A whole underground life developed in the Ghetto, in spite of countless orders forbidding everything under the penalty of death.

In the Ghetto, children wanted to learn. My education never stopped. I was tutored in history, geography, Latin, mathematics and literature by former teachers.

The Ghetto had extraordinarily gifted and devoted educators.

There were no discipline problems: we genuinely hungered for knowledge.

Underground libraries sprang up with couriers bringing novels and works of history or philosophy to the crowded tenements.

Each of us chose a subject of particular interest. I always liked history and geography and used it to escape from reality.

I became a courier, a "WALKING LIBRARY". Libraries were clandestine, so children like myself delivered books according to a list I would carry under my coat to my "customers". A piece of bread was usually the reward.

I remember reading "WAR and PEACE" by Tolstoy and I remember being spooked by "40 DAYS OF MUSA DAGH" by Franz Werfel about the Armenian genocide. I began to read classics - how much I understood is hard to tell but I remember enjoying them very much.

INTER ARMA SILENT MUSAE (in the war the muses are silent). The muses were not silent for my friends. We discussed books, poetry, music and art on empty stomach. Books have always been my best friends and companions - NOW THEY BECAME WEAPONS AGAINST DESPAIR.

One of my friends was an 18 years old medical student who attended classes sponsored by the Jewish Council, under the cover of a "Course to Fight against Epidemics".

The underground school was located just outside the Ghetto walls, and getting to the classroom was most frightening. The students had to pass the check-point under the watchful eyes of two German guards and were entirely at their mercy, but there was no other way to reach the school building.

Professor LUDWIK HIRSZFELD was their teacher. The school lasted till July 20th 1942. Two days later, on July 22nd, came the day we feared the most, but refused to believe in or even think of, had finally arrived.

The Germans began to liquidate the Ghetto - and started the mass deportations to Treblinka. The daily quota was 6,000 to 10,000 human beings…

Renata Zajdman - Survivor of Warsaw Ghetto