In mid-summer 1944, all signs clearly pointed to the approaching military defeat of Nazi Germany. In the West the Allied armies captured Rome and entered occupied France. In the East the huge mass of the Red Army rolled the Germans back from Soviet lands and steadily advanced toward Germany proper. The large Red Army offensive that began on July 19, 1944, crushed German resistance and entered occupied Poland. The troops crossed the Vistula River at two points south of Warsaw and were rapidly approaching the capital’s eastern suburbs. Soviet propaganda called on the local population to rise up in arms in support of the advancing Red Army.
The Polish Government-in-exile in London faced a singularly complicated situation. Since the Soviet Union had withdrawn its recognition of this government a year earlier, the Poles could not count on coordinating a planned uprising with the Soviets. They also lacked detailed information on movements planned by the Red Army. However, the government-in-exile believed that, in the interest of the Polish nation and state, the liberation of at least the capital city of Warsaw could not be left to the Red Army. Thus, it was decided to start an uprising in Warsaw against the Germans on August 1, 1944.
The Soviets wanted the world to believe (and to a great degree did believe themselves) that the oppressed populations were eagerly awaiting liberation by the Red Army, and any armed resistance beyond enemy lines would be in support of that army. This helps to explain the ambiguous Soviet attitude to the 1944 Warsaw uprising led by the Armia Krajowa (AK; Home Army), which was loyal to London but which was joined by the Armia Ludowa (AL; People’s Army), Bataliony Chłopskie (Peasant Battalions), and other Soviet-affiliated organizations. By September 13, 1944, however, when the Soviet-sponsored First Polish Army conquered the Praga suburb of Warsaw (liberating quite a number of Jews in hiding there), the anti-Russian leanings of the majority of rebels became obvious. Nevertheless, the commanding general, Zygmunt Berling, disregarding heavy losses, tried his best to help the insurgents, sending troops and supplies from Praga to the fighting town. Two battalions of his army under fiery German pounding were ferried across the Vistula to the insurgent held left bank. But under mounting German attacks they suffered such heavy losses that late in September 1944 Berling was compelled to stop his operations in support of the dwindling uprising. Consequently, the commandment of the Red Army left Warsaw to the German until mid-January 19411.
The number of Jews still in Warsaw, in August 1944, is estimated as 20-30,000. About half of them, trusting their “Aryan” appearance and false documents, worked and moved freely, many of them belonging to different underground organizations. The other half generally had to hide under inhuman conditions in cellars, attics, cupboards, and lofts. For the Poles, the uprising was a patriotic, national action. Moreover, many--probably even the majority--regarded the uprising as a safeguard for Polish independence not only against the German occupiers but also against the future threat of Russian occupation. As for the Jews, quite a number shared their Polish fellow-citizens’ patriotic attitude, the success of the uprising would, above all, mean the end of their underground life, and the entry of the Red Army would mean liberation.
These concerns were all the more evident with regard to the motivation of a group of about 400 prisoners from the Gęsiówka concentration camp, who were liberated at the start of the uprising by the rebels and spontaneously joined their ranks. Only a minority of Polish Jews were in that group, mostly prisoners recently transferred from the Pawiak prison. The majority were Hungarian and Greek, with some Czech, Dutch, and Slovakians. They knew hardly any Polish, and their knowledge of the country was practically nonexistent. While they did not share Polish fears or anti-Russian prejudices, the desire for revenge against the Nazi oppressors and solidarity with their liberators had been strong enough to make them devoted and fearless fighters in the Polish uprising.
Half a century later, on August 1, 1994, attracting worldwide attention, Poland celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw uprising--a well-known drama turned tragedy, considering the enormous losses on the side of the insurgents, the wholesale slaughter of the civilian population, and the total destruction of their city.
Five days later, in a modest ceremony, a tablet affixed to the house at 34 Mordechai Anielewicz Street, just opposite the entrance to the devastated Jewish cemetery, was unveiled. The inscription on the tablet in Hebrew and Polish reads: “On the 5th of August 1944 the scouts’ Zośka battalion of the Radosław group of the Armia Krajowa captured the German concentration camp Gęsiówka and liberated 348 Jewish prisoners, nationals of different European countries. Many of them fought and fell in the Warsaw Uprising.”2. This was a very symbolic event. The location was in what used to be the very heart of the ghetto and, after its destruction in 1943, the site of the Gęsiówka camp in the ghetto ruins. None of the old houses remains. Here, fifty years ago, on the afternoon of August 5, a daring attack by a voluntary force of two platoons of Polish scouts, led by a solitary Panthertank-one of the two just captured from the Germans and converted to Polish use -succeeded in seizing the Gęsiówka camp. According to an official report, during the short but fierce battle, none of the 348 Jewish inmates was killed or wounded.3 Almost all of them volunteered to fight in the uprising.
Among the few survivors present at the ceremony, the only surviving officer of the Zośka battalion--then captain and now a retired high UN official and lieutenant-colonel--Wacław Micuta gave a stirring address. He deplored the anti-Semitism that still prevailed in Poland and the resulting backlash, the “anti-Polonism” of certain Jewish circles. He expressed the hope that the scouts’ motto “all mankind brethren” would prevail.
Who were the liberated Jews, and how did they survive?
The total destruction of the Warsaw ghetto was ordered by Himmler in February 1943, “as a measure of security and pacification of Warsaw.”4. In addition, there was a directive to exploit anything and everything that was to be found to have any value. Under the German master plan, after the full exploitation had been completed, the 180 hectares of the ghetto ruins were to be levelled and converted into a park. This project was scheduled to be completed on August 1, 1944.
Four German enterprises were charged with executing the project, budgeted at 150 million Reichsmarks. The machinery included twenty-two narrow-gauge steam engines, shuttling 565 trucks on 30-km.-long tracks laid in the ruins, and nine big mechanical--mostly steam--engines. The technicians who were hired were primarily Poles, with a few Germans. All the menial work was to be done by Jewish prisoners. The first camp commandant, SS Oberstürmbahnführer Goecke, of KZ Mauthausen brought 300 German criminals with him from there to assist the SS guards in overseeing the Jews as Kapos, Blockälteste,and Vorarbeiter.
After the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in May 1943, Jürgen Stroop and his collaborators had set all the houses in the ghetto on fire and had deported the last 50,000 surviving Jews to Treblinka and to forced-labour camps. In July 1943, a concentration camp for the remaining Jews of theKZ Warschau was established on the ruins bordering the intact Pawiak prison and GęsiaStreet; hence, the name “Gęsiówka 5.
Stroop suspected that up to 10,000 Jews were still hiding in the ruins. In order to isolate them from the outside world and to prevent contacts between the inmates and the employed Poles, he barred Polish Jews from the Gęsiówka work force. Indeed, 3,683 Jewish prisoners sent, in 1943, from Auschwitz were Belgian, Dutch, French and Greek nationals. Still, fifty Polish Jews were included on one occasion when the Auschwitz SS was shorthanded. And among the “foreigners” there were a number of men who had emigrated from Poland during various periods. Among them was Chaim Itsel (Charles) Goldstein who had left Warsaw for Paris in 1929, and now returned via Auschwitz. His book, Sibn’ in a Bunker,6 which has been translated into many languages, relates his experiences and the story of his survival along with his six companions. As a result of the failure of the German strategy, contacts with Poles employed on the site were established quite early. Thanks to these contacts, some of the secreted valuables found in the ruins could be exchanged for badly needed food and medicines.
Generally, the attitude of the Poles was rather ambivalent: there were some who obviously enjoyed the sight of Jews toiling under the German kicks; others were simply indifferent. But there were also those who tried to help. Goldstein tells how, hungry and sick with malaria, he was saved out of sheer compassion by a Pole who surreptitiously helped him in his work, brought food and quinine. On another occasion young Polish peddlers, disregarding the threats of the SS guards, threw bread and apples to a passing group of Jewish prisoners.
While the prisoners had to dig in the ruins in search of hidden treasures, the camp commandant, Goecke, embarked on a much simpler scheme to collect gold. First he tried to order the visiting doctor to check the prisoners' dentures and extract gold teeth and fillings. Not discouraged by the doctor’s refusal, he took a short cut: every day his SS guards would bring a couple of prisoners with recognizable extensive golden dentures. Then Goecke and one or two of his confidantes led the group into the ruins to be shot there in cold blood as "trying to escape." When these dental practices became too widely known, Goecke and two of his helpers were arrested and sent to Germany. It is unknown whether they had to face trial there. If they did, then it was certainly not for killing Jews—which was in any case officially programed and encouraged--but more probably for the illegal appropriation of gold belonging to the Reich.7
In the winter of 1943/4, only one-third of the Jewish working force survived a typhus epidemic. The new commandant, Obersturmbahnführer Schmitzer, asked Auschwitz for replacements. Soon he was sent a new and still unused work force of more than 4,000 young--mostly Hungarian--Jews. In the next two months he could boast that 80 percent of the projected demolitions had been accomplished, and 34 million usable bricks had been extracted.
A twenty-man squad “corpse unit” (Leichenkommando) had been busy round the clock burning corpses on wooden pyres in one of the courtyards. Besides the deceased or executed in Gęsiówka and Pawiak prisons, hundreds were brought every day from the mass public executions in the town and the clandestine killings by the Gestapo on the site of the ruins. With the ever-growing number of executions, it was then decided to build a crematorium. Since at the end of the daily toil, every Gęsiówka prisoner had to bring four bricks to the construction site, at the end of June 1944, the crematorium was ready and was provided with a sufficient supply of coal. Only the outbreak of the Warsaw uprising on the day that had been planned by the Germans to mark the end of their ghetto “rehabilitation” project, prevented the Germans from starting it up.8
In face of the swiftly progressing Russian summer offensive, the Germans ordered the evacuation of Gęsiówka and Pawiak. On July 27, 1944, the prisoners were told to make themselves ready for a 60-km daily march. Those who felt they were not strong enough and needed transportation were ordered to come to the camp infirmary. There 180 were shot that same evening along with some 250 sick inmates who had been brought there earlier.
The next morning, in sweltering heat, the SS guards drove the thirsty and already exhausted prisoners westward. Whoever could not keep up with the murderous pace was shot on the spot. After three days of marching, the decimated column arrived at the Zychlin railway station. There the prisoners--100 to a boxcar--embarked on a four-day journey to theDachau concentration camp. As a result of the inhuman conditions, at least fifteen people died daily in every boxcar. According to the Dutch Red Cross statistics, out of 1,050 Dutch Jews sent, in 1943, from Auschwitz to Gęsiówka, only fifteen survived until the liberation of Dachau by the American army on April 29, 1945. About 300 prisoners were left in Warsaw. They were joined by ninety-six Jewish men and twenty-four women transferred from the evacuated Pawiak prison. The prime task of the prisoners left in the camp was to gather all the leftovers from the camp and stores and to dispatch them to Germany. A fifty-man work unit sent each morning to the railway siding at the former Umschlagplatz toiled there under the watchful eyes of the SS guards loading goods to be sent to Germany. Then the prisoners would also be used to remove the more evident traces of the German crimes. Once the work was done, in accordance with the standing German concentration camp practice, they were all to be shot. Here again the SS designs were thwarted by the outbreak of the Warsaw uprising.
The main group of prisoners left in Gęsiówka was kept busy removing the corpses of the executed inmates and cleaning and emptying the barracks and stores. With the sounds of cannon fire coming closer and closer, the tension in the camp rose. On August 1, steady gunfire could be heard all around. The same evening the German Kapos were issued army uniforms and armed. The fifty-man unit sent in the morning to the Umschlagplatz did not return to the camp for the night. Those in the camp were confined to barracks and cut off from the outside world. Some bet the Russians were already in the town; others sensed the outbreak of a rebellion; some believed both scenarios.
In fact, the initial operational plans of the Polish High Command provided for the early capture of both the Gęsiówka camp and the Pawiak prison. But on the first day of fighting, only the outer perimeter of these strongholds fell to the insurgents. It was the good fortune of the unit of fifty to be in that perimeter at the railway siding of the Umschlagplatz and to be liberated in the very first hour of fighting. There practically all of the liberated--among them, Chaim Goldstein (“Warszawiak” in the AK)--volunteered spontaneously to join the uprising.
In the following days Gęsiówka was stormed at least twice, but each time the attacks stopped short of the strongly fortified defenses. The Polish area commander, mindful of the losses suffered, decided to circumvent the strongholds and to leave their capture to a more propitious time. That tactically sound decision left the surviving 350 Jewish prisoners to the Germans’ rage--meaning almost certain death. In full knowledge of the situation, a group of Polish officers, all of them veterans of the Polish Scouts’ Organization (Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego, integrated into the AK as Szare Szeregi – The Grey Rangers)asked for permission to have one more try. Albeit reluctantly, permission was granted, on the condition that the attacking force would be a limited one, entirely voluntary, and supported by only one tank. . Taking the Germans by surprise, two platoons of the scouts’ Zośka battalion, led by a solitary tank, succeeded in capturing Gęsiówka. The “Felek” platoon attacked, while the “Alek” platoon engaged in a diversionaryattack.9
The surprise, emotion, and enthusiasm of the liberated prisoners is difficult to describe but easy to understand.10 “Wacek” (CaptainWacław Micuta), commander of the operation, lived to experience one more surprise: he had just about left the turret of his tank when he saw a militarily organized column of striped-clad prisoners. Then he heard in Polish: “Junior Officer Henryk Lederman presents the Jewish battalion ready to fight.”
Following Wacek's report permission was given to accept volunteers. A dozen professional electricians and mechanics were recruited into the armored platoon. Other skilled mechanics were absorbed into the only rebel arms-producing workshop on Grzybowska Street.11 Many others joined the three scouts’ battalions: Parasol, Wigry, and Zośka. Since there were so few arms, the largest groups were absorbed by the logistic units of Wigry and Zośka quartermasters Captain Feliks Cywiński (“Ryś”) and Lieutenant Ludwik Michalski (“Fil”).
Their activities are part of a lesser-known history of Jewish fighting as part of the Polish Warsaw uprising in 1944. In order to appreciate the entire story, the Jews who joined the AK and the AL earlier have to be identified along with the hundreds or more Jews who, after the outbreak of the uprising, left their hiding places and joined its ranks. And finally, the part played by the revived Jewish Fighting Organization – Źydowska Organizacja Bojowa(ŹOB) must also be told.