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Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April 19, 1943)
On its Seventieth Anniversary
by David P. Rosenberg, M.P.A., Reference Services Research Coordinator, Center for Jewish History

In April of 1943, news of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising reached the Vilna Ghetto, and Hirsh Glick wrote the song “Zog Nit Keyn Mol”(“Never Say”). It soon spread not only throughout the Vilna Ghetto, but also to other ghettos and concentration camps. Sung to a marching tempo, the song begins:

Never say you’ve come to the end of the way,
Though leaden skies blot out the light of the day.
The hour we all long for will surely appear,—
Our steps will thunder with the words, “We are here!”

This translation is from Yes We Sang! Songs of the Ghettos and Concentration Camps, which is available here in the reference collection of the Lillian Goldman Reading Room.

The uprising was the largest single revolt by Jews during the Shoah (source), and it started on April 19th. I was intrigued by the question of how news of it reached the Vilna Ghetto and the American people, so I decided to do some research. I recently read an article on the documentary Reporting on the Times, which is premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (see “‘Reporting on the Times’ Calls Out New York Times Holocaust Coverage”), so I searched the New York Times using database access provided in the Reading Room. 

On April 23, 1943, the Times published a skimpy, four-paragraph article that states “…the ghetto populace is resisting deportation of the city’s remaining 35,000 Jews.” It states that the resistance was “costing the Germans many lives.” Despite the fact that it speaks about the Jews in terms of “liquidating the ghetto” and “deportations” in the credit of the paper, the final paragraph of the article says that “Polish circles here believe 1,300,000 Polish Jews already have perished under the German occupation.”

According to the article about the documentary Reporting on the Times, the “film points to a story published in the paper July 29, 1942, about the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. The story bore the headline ‘Warsaw Fears Extermination,’ was published on Page 7, and was not even a stand-alone story, instead consisting of a handful of paragraphs nestled next to an ad for Emerson spinet pianos.”

A U.P. article from May 7, 1943 is more forthcoming. It reads: “The Jews, fighting against annihilation by the Nazis were reported using bedsteads as bunkers and fighting with arms smuggled into the ghetto.”

The next article I found was from May 15th. In it, Rabbi Irving Miller—acting as secretary general of the World Jewish Congress—reports that “All Jews in Warsaw’s ghetto have been ‘liquidated’ according to Poles’ reports…”

The World Jewish Congress did publish a monograph titled “Lest we forget; the massacre of the Warsaw ghetto. A compilation of reports received by the World Jewish Congress and by the Representation of Polish Jewry.” To my surprise, this was published in August of 1943. Page 38 reads in part:

The manner of the German attack showed that they expected armed resistance. The struggle began and the Germans suffered relatively large losses. There was talk of several killed, a large number of wounded, and the loss of ammunition and military equipment…The first German attack was repulsed within a few hours…The Germans therefore changed their tactics…burned block after block of houses in the outer streets of the ghetto…The German attack was very cowardly…

Daring to resist : Jewish defiance in the Holocaust has a touching letter from Mordechai Anielewicz, a 23-year-old commander to Yitzhak Zuckerman. Zuckerman would escape the ghetto through the sewers and helped to secure arms. In the letter, Anielewicz pleads with Yitzhak:

We are now switching to guerrilla warfare… We know the pistol has no real value and we rarely use it. We need grenades, rifles, machine guns and explosives.

Zuckerman became a founder of the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz in Israel, where he died in 1981.

The collections here at the Center hold additional resources about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, including:

Every time I come across a Judenstern “Jewish Badge” like these (held by the LBI archives), I am shaken. However, I find solace in the fact that this material is being preserved for the education of future generations, and when I remember the heroes and martyrs of the Jewish resistance, who sang the concluding verse of “Zog Nit Keyn Mol”:

In blood this song was written, and not with pen or quill,
Not from a songbird freely flying as he will. 
Sung by a people crushed by falling walls—
Sung with guns in hand, by those whom freedom calls. 

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