The most important thing -- the dream of my life -- has come true. Jewish self-defense in the Warsaw Ghetto has become a fact. Jewish armed resistance and retaliation have been realized. I have been the witness of a splendid, heroic struggle by the Jewish fighters. --Communication from Mordechai Anielewicz, commandant of the Jewish Fighting Organization, from the Warsaw Ghetto, April 23, 1943.
Barbara Steiner, nee Bajla Zyskind, was 14 when the Second World War started. She remembers it clearly, along with a great many other things that some people would rather forget.
She was on her way to a store to buy books for school, which would start Sept. 3, 1939. She remembers seeing planes overhead. "I thought, 'They must be ours.' " She was mistaken. The following day, Warsaw was bombed.
We are accustomed now to hearing stories about Jews being randomly, arbitrarily killed by the Germans in World War II, being herded like cattle to the slaughterhouse, being burned like so many million sticks of wood in the ovens.
This story is different. This story is about the time--the first but not the last time--that the Jews fought back.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Tonight, the opening ceremony of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors will commemorate the uprising.
It took a long while for that moment to come--3 1/2 years. During those years, a world was destroyed, the centuries-old enclaves of Jewish culture and learning in Warsaw, Lvov, Vilna, Riga and hundreds of small villages and towns throughout Europe were leveled. Barbara Steiner, living in Warsaw, watched her family die, leaving her alone at 16.
Before the war, the Zyskind family had been reasonably comfortable. Barbara's father was trained as a rabbi--he was a Hasidic Jew and, therefore, very religious--but he had gone into the family's construction business. Her mother was a housewife. Her two brothers, both older, worked--one was an engineer; the other sold machine parts. The younger brother married in 1938 and his wife had a baby the following year.
The Germans created the Warsaw Ghetto in December 1940, rounding up Jews from various neighborhoods and herding them into one section of the city. The Zyskinds' apartment already had been taken for the German occupation forces in January. Her family was given "15 minutes, maybe half an hour" to pack. "What can you save in 15, 20 minutes?" she asks in heavily accented English that often borrows its sentence construction from Yiddish. "My mother, to her the most precious thing was her wine, which she made. For my father was the books, that was the most precious thing. Whatever we could, we saved, but that was very little. From that time on we were already among the very poor ones, not just poor, but very poor. We didn't have an apartment. We didn't have where to go. We didn't have any money."
A friend offered a place to live. The entire family moved in, both brothers, wife and child. The Germans built a wall around the ghetto they had created. Food was rationed. "What they gave us and told us we could buy, and what was in the store, wasn't enough to survive," she says. "I'm not talking already to live from it. So the hunger was terrible. There were people dying on the street from starvation." In time, when the starvation worsened, bodies collected in the street and were picked up daily by rickshaws. There were no more horses.
When her own school shut down, Steiner worked for a while teaching smaller children, but then the starvation got too bad, "so people stopped worrying about the children, teaching them, and I didn't have what to do."
Her older brother fled when the Gestapo came looking for him after he tried to sell cornmeal he had milled himself. She never saw him again.
Money was scarce, food scarcer. Steiner's father had spent much of his life, she recalls, looking for one volume to complete a set by Moses Maimonides, the physician, theologian and preeminent Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. Her father found a copy of the book and bought it with the bread money.
"We are starving. We are hungry," she says, reaching back to re-create the situation from the comfort of a chair in her spacious apartment in Skokie, Ill. "To him this book was more important than a piece of bread. He said, 'Without the bread, we will somehow survive. But the book,' he said, 'they can take away from you everything, but to take away from you what you have in your mind, they have to kill you.' That was my father. He learned his whole life. He spoke I don't remember how many languages. He was a man with high, high principles of life and extremely, extremely intelligent."
He died of starvation in December 1941. The family could not go to bury him because the cemetery was outside the Ghetto. Steiner's mother died a week after her husband. "I don't think that I cried anymore."
Steiner found another job, caring for a shopkeeper's daughter. "And after a few days I was walking with a sandwich for the little girl. My brother saw me and said, 'Barbara, give me a little piece of bread. I'm dying.' And I didn't. And I never saw him alive again. I lost him a week later. And I was left alone."
Blaming herself now, she stops to weep for a brother dead more than 40 years.
At the time Barbara Steiner's family was dying, Stefan Korbonski and his wife, Zofia, were also living in Warsaw, on the other side of the Ghetto wall, in what he refers to as "the so-called Aryan side." Korbonski was a lawyer, a member of the liberal intelligentsia and one of the leaders of the Polish Underground in Warsaw. Throughout the war, he and his wife were active in gathering intelligence, which they radioed to London, in organizing and directing civil resistance to the German occupation. Korbonski was recognized in 1981 by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, as a "Righteous Gentile," one of those who aided Jews during World War II.
Korbonski, who now lives in a kind of exile with his wife in Washington, dates the beginning of the Holocaust from July 22, 1942. That was the day the Germans announced their intention to transport 7,000 Jews a day from the Ghetto. The Germans said the Jews would resettle in labor camps. In fact, they were taken to Majdanek, a Nazi death camp south of Warsaw.
Korbonski transmitted the information as soon as he learned it. Until then, the BBC had immediately rebroadcast the reports received from Korbonski, he said. No mention was made of the deportations, however. When he demanded to know why, Korbonski said, he received a message: "Not all your radiograms lend themselves to publication." Some time later, he found out, his initial report had been dismissed as exaggerated anti-German propaganda.
In the ghetto, daily, the Germans were rounding up Jews and taking them to the Umschlagplatz for deportation. The trains left full and returned empty.
For Barbara Steiner, the months after her family's death are a blank. She says she cannot recall what she did, where she lived, how she survived. Her recollection picks up months later. Thousands lay dead in the streets. She was alone. "Dirty, filthy, I was." She sold the lining from her coat for a piece of bread. Someone stole the bread before she could eat it.
To see her today, at 57, a wife and mother of a grown son and daughter, sitting comfortably among the gewgaws and accumulated bric-a-brac of middle-class life, her reddish-blond hair carefully coiffed by professional hands, it is hard to identify this woman with the emaciated girl she describes. How did she survive? She wonders herself.
Physically, she is stout but small, under five feet tall. While serving cakes and cookies with coffee later, she speculates that "the reason we are all fat now is because we didn't have enough to eat then. All the time we thought about food." She cries easily at the memories, but underneath there is the suggestion of strength and determination. She had a will to survive. And, she says, "if I tell you that I thought my father is watching over me and really talked to me, you will think that I am crazy. But that's exactly what happened."
She recalls hearing about a Jewish woman who still had some money and was looking for a young person to care for her daughter. Steiner knew the woman, knocked at her door. She tells this part of the story almost with amusement at how fortune smiles on some and frowns on others with deadly consequences.
"I was terrible filthy. And I suppose she saw some lice crawling. I'm sure. And as she opened the door, she said, 'Barbara, as much as I would love to do, I can't. You're dirty -- sickness.' Can you imagine the feeling of a girl? You're talking about a person who's altogether 16 years old. So I cried and walked down. And as I walked down, the Germans were already there because that was already the time that there were actions going on in Warsaw. And what is an action? They close a few streets and they took out all the people which were there."
She dived into a basement through an open window, the Germans firing at her. The basement was full of feathers. She burrowed among them and hid.
When she emerged an hour later, the building was empty. The woman who had turned her down for the job was gone, with everyone else, taken by the Germans. She took some clothes, ate what she could find and went off with another girl who appeared from nowhere to get a slave-labor job at a broom factory in the Ghetto, the only way she could avoid deportation.
The question arises as to why the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were so slow to see what was happening. "There is now lots of people asking, 'Why didn't you do anything?' How do you answer?" Steiner ponders her own question. "I tell them, first of all, they did it so systematically. They didn't do it at one time. First of all they took away the furs and the jewelry. So you thought maybe that would be enough. Then they made ghettos. And you figured maybe that would be enough. Then you hungry and you fight for the bread. And mainly, if you take away the dignity from a person, then I don't think so that he's capable of doing a lot."
She recalls one person who escaped from the death camp at Treblinka. "He came to Warsaw and he wasn't completely normal, and he was hollering up the street, and he was saying, 'You're all going to Treblinka. If you're rich or you're poor, you wind up in the same place.' Nobody believed. Nobody believed. First of all, nobody believed because how can a human believe that this is possible. Second of all, if you're terrible hungry, the first thing is how to get food, not how to fight. If it comes to the Orthodox Jew, there was altogether another question about fighting because they believed it was God's will, God will protect them."
In the broom factory where she was working, the Germans came periodically to take people to fill the trains. By now, in the fall and winter of 1942, only the young and strongest were left. Most of the children were gone. The old were gone.
No one knows for sure how many were left of the 500,000 Jews who had lived in Warsaw. Steiner thinks 50,000 remained. "We decided," she said, "that's enough. We will fight. We will not let them slaughter us the same way they did to our parents." Zionist organizations formed fighting units in the Ghetto, as did the Communists and the Jewish Bund. The most famous of these fighters was Mordechai Anielewicz, a young student--"skinny," Steiner remembers, the son of a couple who owned a fruit store, not the type one would think of as a leader at all. She remembers him as a "very shy boy." He was a member of the left-wing group Hashomer Hatzair, the Young Guard.
The Jews of the Ghetto learned how to make Molotov cocktails. They were taught how to use weapons. Steiner was recruited at age 17 to be a nurse. She was assigned a bunker, designated by the street address 30 Swientojerska. She was not permitted to visit it until the uprising began.
Arms were purchased and smuggled in by Jews who managed to pass as Gentiles on the "Aryan" side of the wall. The Polish Underground provided some arms, not nearly enough in the estimation of the Jews who survived the uprising.
Korbonski can see both sides. "I think the Jews in the Ghetto were right when they said from their viewpoint it was too little," he says. But from the perspective of the Polish Underground, arms were priceless. "They were not sure these arms would be used. Anielewicz and the others agreed," Korbonski says, "the Ghetto uprising had no chance of success. They decided to sell their lives dearly--Germans must pay for murdering Jews. But all the Jewish leadership and the Polish liaison officers were unanimous in expressing the opinion that 'we cannot count on any kind of victory.' "
Instead, Korbonski says, the Polish Underground decided that it would undertake diversionary actions when the uprising started.
On Jan. 18, 1943, the fighters confronted the Germans in some relatively small incidents, inflicting some casualties and suffering some.
In April, as Passover approached, rumors started circulating in and out of the Ghetto that a mass deportation was coming. Steiner recalls that it was quiet in the Ghetto. The word was that when the special squads surrounded the Ghetto and came in, the uprising would start.
It began April 19, when the first forces entered the deserted streets of the Ghetto. Steiner recalls that she was setting the table for the Passover seder when she was told to go to her bunker. As the Germans and their support entered the Ghetto, they were met with gunfire.
Korbonski recalls with pride that he immediately sent a message to London announcing the uprising and pleading for the British to address the Ghetto fighters from a secret radio station called Swit (Daybreak) that the British had set up in London. They tried to give the impression that it was located in Poland.
The British complied. In his memoirs, Korbonski recalls listening to one such broadcast, "a program based on our telegram, designed to make it seem as if the announcer were describing his impressions as he looked out from the window of the radio station, and saw the blaze and smoke and heard the roar of cannon . . . We looked at each other, feeling a kind of sorrowful satisfaction . . ."
Anielewicz wrote a friend that the broadcast "has given us a feeling of satisfaction. The knowledge that people beyond the Ghetto walls remember us is an encouragement in our struggle."
Knowing they had almost no chance of success, Steiner says, they still hoped. "We were hoping that maybe a miracle will happen--that maybe the war will end in between. Maybe they will open a front and they will start to bombing Warsaw and even to bombing the Ghetto with us. But just to destroy the Germans . . . But most of all, the hope was to see revenge. In that time, I did want to survive, I really did. From '43, I did not see that it will be possible for me to survive, so at least to kill a few Germans. At least to do something."
The fighting raged for weeks. The Germans estimated their casualties at 16 dead and 85 wounded. The ghetto fighters estimated 1,000 German dead and wounded. From historical accounts of the fighting, the higher figure seems more accurate.
Her bunker, Steiner recalls, held about 50 people. Although some bunkers were cramped and overcrowded, Steiner remembers hers as being large with enough supplies to last a year. They had food, a well for water, electricity and communications with a lookout in the building. Every night, when the Germans pulled back from the Ghetto, there was a patrol. Steiner went on one such patrol, on eerily quiet, deserted streets. Whoever did not know the countersign when challenged was to be shot.
They would have lasted longer, Steiner maintains, except that the Germans started burning the buildings. Stukas bombed the Ghetto from the air, the Germans shelled the buildings and soldiers torched them. Steiner never had a chance to use her nursing training. "There was nobody wounded. They were dead, because a German didn't leave anybody wounded. We thought that we'd really be able to face the Germans, but we weren't. They were killing us and making sure that we were dead. There wasn't even one wounded.
"Now that I think about it, I didn't use even one Band-Aid. Nothing."
Steiner was among a handful who managed to escape the bunker at Swientojerska 30 to another nearby. Some were killed by poison gas; others were shot or perished in the flames. The Germans found Steiner's second bunker on May 5, 1943. She was shipped off with the others to Majdanek in a cattle car whose windows had been boarded shut to provide as little air as possible. Steiner survived by breathing through a knothole for three days. She recalls that at least half of the 150 or more people in her car were dead when the train arrived at Lublin.
On May 8, the Germans surrounded the main bunker at Mila 18, where Anielewicz and the other leaders of the Jewish Fighting Organization had their headquarters. About 300 civilians surrendered. The 80 fighters inside refused to come out. The Germans used poison gas. Some of the fighters committed suicide. It is said that before they died, each sang the song of his party or group. Anielewicz was among those who died. Today, a memorial to him stands at a border kibbutz in Israel named for him. The statue of Anielewicz is of heroic proportions.
The Germans claimed that the fighting was over by May 16, after four weeks--longer than it took the Wehrmacht to defeat the Polish Army, Steiner notes with pride. In fact, the fighting lasted longer. Shots were reported as late as September in the Ghetto. Fresh traces of fighters were found in a bunker in October. The Germans leveled the Ghetto, but Jews survived in caves until the Polish uprising in August 1944.
The motivation behind the uprising was simple, according to Steiner: "It wasn't a question of survival. It was a question to die with dignity. To show the world that we are not animals, that they could not do what they did to everybody. That was the main reason . . . This was for our fathers, for our mothers, for the whole families. That was exactly our feeling. We told ourselves that we will fight to the end. And we would have if it wouldn't have been for the fire."
What she regrets is that the uprising did not occur earlier. "I wish that it would have happened before. I wish that we wouldn't wait until '43. I wish we could have started it in '39 when there was a half a million. If each one of us would take one stone, we would kill them by the thousands. And then I think I'm proud of what we did."
At that time, Steiner worried about what kind of person she would be if she survived:
"If I talk about everything I went through, I'm not talking about me, me. Because I wouldn't be able to go through everything and still be normal--quote unquote normal, whatever that means. I'm talking like two different people. This other person, this other Barbara, went through all those things, I didn't. I didn't. Because how can you after such a cataclysm, such a destruction of everything, how can you raise children? How can you laugh? How can you enjoy a normal life?
"And how can you want to achieve yet some things in life, like in our case we came to this country and most of us didn't have anything. We had to learn the language, what little we know. We had to build our life. We had to start from a knife and a fork and a spoon, and never ask for a charity. I would die before I would ask for charity. So, this couldn't be the same person. I suppose this blocks out, my mind blocks out this part.
"I was always afraid what kind of a person I would come out after the war, if I was all right. Because I was afraid I would come out without a feeling, you know what I mean? The minute the war stopped, it was the same. I can cry with a baby. I can cry with a movie . . . I am a believer--with everything. I'm a big believer in God. If you don't believe, it's a terrible empty space. And I have so many empty spaces that I have to have something.
"Yes, I am," she adds wistfully, as an afterthought. "That's funny, but I am."