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Anonymous Diary from the Warsaw Ghetto

Anonymous, Diary from the Warsaw Ghetto 1943
Courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, Israel

The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto mounted by a coalition of Jewish organizations in April 1943 is an iconic historical event that has had a key influence on the ways historians and the general public understand and talk about the Holocaust. It has dominated postwar debates about Jewish resistance, and has been both lauded as a heroic moral stand that the doomed Warsaw Jewish population took against their tormentors, and bemoaned as the only significant instance of revolt among an otherwise docile Jewry who went meekly to murder. Today we know that the question of resistance is more complex; in our print series, Jewish Responses to Persecution, 1933-1946, we have represented a wide range of responses that various Jewish individuals and communities have pursued in the face of radical adversity, including the many instances of individual and organized armed resistance.

Because the uprising in Warsaw was organized by a coalition of political forces and their military wings, the narrative and memory of the event have often tended to prioritize political actors and politics over other stories and reminiscences. This was the case as early as the immediate aftermath of the event: Zionist and communist Jewish factions have debated the meaning of the uprising, and have fought over singling out a Jewish political force that would take credit for the heroic resistance.1

While the political convergence of the various Jewish political factions was indeed crucial to the organization of a resistance movement as unlikely and doomed as the one in the Warsaw ghetto, there were many other experiences of the uprising that have been silenced or marginalized by focusing on political groupings and events centered around their actions. Many Jews could not take part in the fighting, for various reasons; not least among those was the lack of weapons and the difficulty of organizing military units under the German watch. There are very few contemporary accounts, and even fewer postwar narratives, that do not focus on heroism displayed by military units led by political factions. A fragment of an anonymous diary surviving from this crucial period in the history of the ghetto provides a different narrative. Instead of brave Zionist and communist youths, the author focuses on "ordinary" people trapped in a bunker and experiencing the inferno of the burning ghetto while hidden in its bowels. The account is a key addition to the well-known and established histories of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

For a classic account, see Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994).

A disguised observation hole. See drawing of the bunker in the original diary.

That is, out of the ghetto.

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The sixth day, April 24, 1943

Quiet until 12 o’clock. "Alarm," the Germans are in our building, luckily it passes and we sleep on. Our schedule is turned upside down, we sleep during the day, cook and eat at night. We are in an air-raid shelter, a great silence prevails. It’s eight o’clock, steps can be heard outside the shelter. Someone knocks on the "Judasz,"1 for several minutes there is great anxiety.

The people knocking at the door are Mr. Rosenheim and Miss Sonia. They raise the alarm that the building is on fire. All young people go out to the courtyard, the building is in flames, the front of it was set on fire. Apartments are burning, we set out to extinguish the flames. We immediately open tanks of water, which we pour on the apartments lying above us. We look through the window and see that the ghetto is burning, entirely in flames.

[...]

The eighth day, Monday April 26th, 1943

Our building continues to burn. The building on the side of Zamenhof Street, where people were in hiding, is also on fire. People are running away from there and are coming to us, a difficult (catastrophic) situation is developing. The shelter has become crowded due to the large number of people and more would like to enter. They storm the "Judasz" and beg to be let in. People shout and argue amongst themselves, they all want to get in to the shelter. Meanwhile, giving any permission to enter is difficult. Around morning the situation clears up somewhat, many people are placed in other shelters. Others are placed in the shelter of Mr. Sowa and Mr. Rosenheim, the rest are placed with us.

[...]

The ninth day, Tuesday April 27th, 1943

The owners of the bunker sit down for the first time for a conference. The topic of discussion is the people who arrived from other bunkers and have nothing to eat because they have no reserves of foodstuff. Aside from that, arguments reign in the bunker, and there’s a great tumult. In the presence of Mr. Bychowski, who arrived with the other people, the following decision was made: every day an additional bowl of soup and cup of coffee will be given out per person. The rations will be distributed by the eldest, those who prepare the food. A supervisor was chosen for the distribution of food who had engaged in this earlier. Everyone was satisfied with this arrangement of affairs.

Next, several people were chosen to impose order in the bunker, and in addition to this a guard duty was established, Mr. Mordecho was chosen to be in charge. In this fashion the day came to a close. At 6 o’clock everyone lay on the beds, if in our circumstances one can call them beds. In my bed they put a small boy. He was so agitated, he tossed and turned so much, throwing himself in his sleep, that my side began to hurt, but thank God, the day passed peacefully. Suddenly a crack, a hand grenade exploded nearby, people rise, but in the next moments the deepest silence prevails. The enemy is around our building, is looking for us. Our means of defense is to maintain the greatest silence.

The 11th day, Thursday April 29th, 1943

It was a very dangerous night. At 4pm the enemy threw a grenade at our basement. The effect was enormous. In the front wall, a hole opened up the size of a finger, they say that the enemy has laid an explosive device. Our neighbor, Sowa, had the same exact night. He had a hand grenade tear open his roof, thank God everything turned out fine. The day was normal. Hygiene is at the "highest level."

It seems that when a man awakens from a deep sleep, he begins to think realistically. He begins to think about escape to the Aryan side.2 Whoever has the opportunity begins to prepare for this; these are real thoughts, but not accessible to everyone. Indeed, it is not possible to survive here in our basement for a long period of time. Above all, the air is unpleasant and lice and crowding prevail. What is left to be done—to leave and risk your life or to die here? He who has the opportunity and has courage to escape should do that, but it is necessary to wait a couple of days. If the enemy retreats from his attacks, the opportunity for flight will increase. And for this we wait.

Friday April 30th, 1943

The day passed normally, at night we all were terribly afraid, the enemy is searching for us everywhere. Listens in, knocks, circles about everywhere, our means of defense is to maintain the greatest silence and calm. On Saturday night we had such hours of unrest, the enemy was active from eleven o’clock in the morning. People could not sleep because of grenade explosions.

[...]

Finally after 5 days I once again take up my pencil. Five difficult and tragic days have passed, difficult from every respect. In this short time we have lived through much. Our living conditions from the moment we entered were very poor, and especially from the moment we took in 45 people. The majority had no food or provisions. The situation worsened, however, when on Monday at midnight the power station shut off the electricity. We now face a difficult problem: how will we be able to cook? The majority of our supplies cannot be used if not cooked. The reason is simple. We have no stoves that connect to the chimney. The leaders of the bunker discussed this problem for three days, in the meantime an argument broke out amongst them. The argument reached such proportions that brothers fought with their sisters, friends with friends. Hunger didn’t spare anyone. The argument was so loud that it was certainly possible to hear it outside the bunker. The situation was both terrible and dangerous, and it didn’t seem like there was any solution. All of our attempts were frustrated, we were helpless. All of our experts and people who had some sort of background in the matter gathered to confer: how to solve the problem of releasing the smoke.

The emotional state of people was critical. They can’t withstand the situation, they lie on the ground in a partial state of unconsciousness. The children especially have been affected [...]

3 days have already passed, 3 days without hot food. This situation to a large degree affects disputes between people. The problem of the kitchen still has not been solved. Everyone was of a different opinion. Despite the long quarrels and arguments, the kitchen was finally set up, an exit was found for the smoke. It is forbidden for anyone to converse in order to maintain the silence. For every question one receives crude and offensive answers, people in the bunker, in contrast to their previous behavior, have adopted a very insensitive manner of behaving.

[...]

Our lives are currently in danger and the quality of life is very low. People are half naked, badly dressed, they run by in a melancholy manner along the stone floor, they are not able to live, they are also not able to die.

[...]

I myself am surprised how it is possible that we have been able to live and survive 3 weeks in such conditions. We know very well what sort of an Action this is because it was announced in advance. This is the liquidation of Warsaw Jewry and with it our end and our destruction. The Germans used to attack us this whole time at night, now they are broadening their attacks to the daytime, as well. Therefore we have to keep quiet on our plank beds, so that the enemy doesn’t hear where we are. At night, however, it is possible to dare to go out to the street. The day passed well, to the sound of shots from machine guns and the explosion of grenades.

[...]

I go out to the street, it’s burning. Everything around is going up in flames. The streets: Miła, Zamenhof, Kurza, Nalewki, Lubecki. In short, all the streets are on fire. The majority of workshops are burning, warehouses, stores, and whole buildings. The whole ghetto is a sea of flames. There is a strong wind that fans the flames and carries sparks from burning buildings to those that are not burning and immediately destroys everything. A shocking picture. The fire expands to such an extent that people do not have time to run from their homes and tragically die in them.

Because of the fire there is great traffic on the streets. People with bundles run from house to house and street to street, there is no hope for rescue, no one knows where to take shelter. They search desperately, but there is nothing—no salvation, no refuge, death prevails everywhere. The walls of the ghetto are completely surrounded, no one can exit or enter. Clothing is burning on people’s bodies. They shout out from pain and cry. The buildings and bunkers are on fire, everything, everything stands in flames. Each person searches for rescue, each person wants to save his life.

People are choking because of the smoke. They all call for help. Many, almost all, call out to God, "O God, show your strength, have mercy on us." God, like a Sphinx, remains silent and doesn’t answer. And you nations, why are you silent, do you not see how they want to destroy us? Why are you silent!

[...]

The ghetto has been burning for four days, only chimneys and the skeletons of burned buildings remain. In the first moments of witnessing such a sight a person can’t help but shudder: "Yes," this is the work of the Hitler vandals who want the whole world to look like this. They certainly will not succeed.

In our thoughts we retreat to the past. We have lost many things that we achieved through many years of work. The only thing left to us is our shelter. Of course it is not a safe place for the long term. We live by the day, the hour, the minute.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, Israel
RG Number 68.112M
Date Created
April 24, 1943 to May 1943
Page(s) 9
Language(s)
Polish
Location
Warsaw, Poland
Document Type Diary
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