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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 soldiers 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 forces 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 Black 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' views of the fight for racial justice in the United States. In the featured text—originally delivered in an address at a New York City hotel—Du Bois describes the impact that viewing the ghetto ruins had on his thinking. Composed as "a tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters" and published in 1952, Du Bois titled the piece, "The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto."2

Despite being immersed in the problems posed by racism during the Depression years,3 Du Bois was neither insensitive nor indifferent to the growing threat posed by Adolf Hitler. He used the pages of The Crisis4 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."5

World War II and the Holocaust caused Du Bois to rethink his previous admiration for European culture in general and—German traditions in particular.6 He abandoned his previous belief that antisemitism and white racism differed in their origins, and he moved towards a new "unitary theory of prejudice" that understood both as forms of scapegoating and aggression.7 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 described the "complete, planned and utter destruction" he saw there. Du Bois wrote that "nothing in my wildest imagination was equal" to the desolation. This experience led him to take a more global view of racial oppression and to consider what measures would be required for " triumph and broaden in this world."

To see other primary sources related to Du Bois, see the Experiencing History items, W. E. B. Du Bois, "A Forum of Fact and Opinion: Race Prejudice in Nazi Germany" and Lothrop Stoddard, "In a Eugenics Court." For more on Du Bois' life and work, see The Oxford W. E. B. DU Bois, ed., Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Although the term "Negro" was frequently used as a respectful term in the 1930s, it is widely considered offensive today. For more on how such terms have changed to adapt to developing standards of respectful speech, see Tom W. Smith, "Changing Racial Labels: From 'Colored' to 'Negro' to 'Black' to 'African American,'" The Public Opinion Quarterly, 56:4 (Winter 1992): 496–514.

In his classic work, 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 Black Americans a sort of "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 that emphasized the importance of a distinctly Black culture. To learn more, 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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