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W. E. B. Du Bois: "The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto"

The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto
Jewish Life, vol. 6, no. 7

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on April 19, 1943, after German troops and police entered the ghetto to deport its remaining Jewish inhabitants. Less than one thousand ghetto fighters were able to hold out against well-armed German troops for nearly a month, but by mid-May, the SS had managed to crush the resistance. Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured, about 7,000 were shot, and the remainder were deported to camps.

After the uprising was put down, the ghetto itself was razed. It still lay in ruins when African American sociologist, author, and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois1 visited the site in 1949. The visit had a profound effect on Du Bois's views of the African American fight for racial justice. He described the impact viewing the ghetto ruins had on his thinking in the featured essay. Composed as "a tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters" and published in 1952, Du Bois titled the piece, "The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto."

Despite being immersed in the problems posed by racism during the Depression years,2 Du Bois was neither insensitive nor indifferent to the growing threat posed by Adolf Hitler. He used the pages of The Crisis3 to express the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) denunciation of German fascism and Nazi anti-Jewish policies. These sentiments were echoed in a resolution drafted by Du Bois for the organization's 1933 summer convention condemning "the vicious campaign of race prejudice directed against Jews and Negroes by the Hitler Government."4

It was World War II and the Holocaust, however, that caused Du Bois to rethink his previous admiration for European culture in general and the German traditions in particular.5 He abandoned his previous belief that antisemitism and white racism differed in their origins, and moved towards a new "unitary theory of prejudice" that understood both as forms of scapegoating and aggression.6 For Du Bois, the Holocaust was a "slaughter so vast and cruel that we will not be able to realize what happened to six million human beings in Eastern Europe during the Second World War until years have gone by."

Recalling his trip to the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, he wrote that the "complete, planned and utter destruction" he saw there, the utter void to which "nothing in my wildest imagination was equal," led him to take a more global view of racial oppression and what measures would be required for " triumph and broaden in this world."

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois [1868–1963], born and raised in Massachusetts. As a young man, he studied at the University of Berlin and then became the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University. Du Bois spent much of his academic career as a professor at Atlanta University. In 1909, he became one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and edited its journal, The Crisis. A critic of capitalism, Du Bois supported socialist causes for much of his career. He was also a supporter of African anti-colonialism and helped to organize several meetings of the Pan-African Congress. While living and working in Africa in 1963, the US government refused to renew his passport, so he became a citizen of Ghana, where he died in 1963 at the age of 95, the day before the March on Washington. For more on Du Bois life and work, see The Oxford W. E. B. DU Bois, ed., Henry Louis Gates, Jr., vol. 1–19 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

In his classic work of African American literature, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois had declared, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." Du Bois used this phrase to describe the life experience under the conditions of  systemic and legally institutionalized white racism that produced in African Americans a "double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's sense through the eyes of others." W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (New York: New American Library, 1903), 19.

The Crisis is the official magazine of the NAACP, founded by Du Bois in 1910.

Harold Brackman, "'A Calamity Almost Beyond Comprehension': Nazi Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in the Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois," American Jewish History, vol. 88, no. 1 (March 2000): 53-93: 61.

This shift reflected Du Bois's turn toward a variety of black nationalism which emphasized the importance of a distinctly "black culture." See: Tommy L. Lott, "Du Bois on the Invention of Race" in Modern Critical Views: W. E. B. Dubois, edited by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 2001).

Brackman, "A Calamity," 86.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Jewish Life, vol. 6, no. 7
Date Created
May 1952
Page(s) 1, 14-15
Author / Creator
W. E. B. Du Bois
New York, USA
Reference Location
Warsaw, Poland
Document Type Newspaper Article
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