Workers Vanguard No. 1024
17 May 2013
From the Archives of Marxism
Warsaw Ghetto Anti-Nazi Uprising of Labor
By Art Preis
Militant, 6 May 1944
Last month marked the 70th anniversary of the heroic uprising against the Nazis by Jews interned in the Warsaw Ghetto. Memorial events grotesquely claimed the memory of these martyrs for Zionist Israel, a state whose oppression of the Palestinian people calls to mind the Nazis’ drive for lebensraum (“living space”). During the Nazi occupation, Zionist leaders in the West provided little assistance to the East European Jews. As Polish Jews bitterly observed in a January 1943 appeal to American Jewish leaders: “The survivors of the Jews in Poland live with the awareness that in the worst days of our history you have given us no aid.”
Who came to the assistance of the isolated and courageous Jews fighting extermination? The Polish nationalist Home Army not only refused to offer any practical or military assistance but also pocketed most of the small quantity of arms airlifted from Britain for the ghetto insurgents. The British Royal Air Force refused to bomb the gas chambers of Auschwitz even as they carried out sorties a few miles away. But 600,000 Soviet soldiers died liberating Poland from the Nazi scourge. We honor their memory. (For more, see “Hail Warsaw Ghetto Fighters!” WV No. 452, 6 May 1988.)
As our comrades of the Spartakusowska Grupa Polski said, “We stand in the tradition of the brave Trotskyists in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw” (WV No. 892, 11 May 2007). Trotskyists, including those of Czerwony Sztandar [Red Flag] who went to their deaths in the Warsaw Ghetto, sided militarily with the Soviet Union despite the misrule of the Stalinist bureaucracy and opposed all the imperialist combatants, not least the “democratic” Allied powers. For the imperialists, World War II was a struggle over the redivision of colonies and spheres of exploitation. The Trotskyists saw in the German working class, trampled under the fascist jackboot, the instrument to overthrow the Nazi regime and to expropriate the bourgeoisie that had brought Hitler to power.
Zionist leaders remained silent about Nazi atrocities. The American government kept their knowledge secret as well. But our forebears, the American Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), broke the government and Zionist news blackout. They reported in their newspaper, the Militant, on 19 September 1942 that the State Department had “suppressed information that it received from its consular agents in Switzerland. This information has to do with the treatment of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Evidence of the greatest atrocities has occurred there in connection with the renewed campaign to exterminate all Jews.” The SWP also fought to lift U.S. immigration restrictions on Jewish refugees, even as American Zionist leaders did not.
The article reprinted below, which was based on the limited information available at the time, originally appeared in the Militant on 6 May 1944.
* * *
The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto, which began on April 19, 1943 and raged for 42 days, will go down in history as the first great revolutionary act of working-class mass resistance to the Nazi enslavers and hangmen of Occupied Europe.
Amid the dark alleyways and crumbling walls of their rat-infested, disease-ridden Ghetto prison, 40,000 men, women and children, the proletarian remnants of the Jewish population of Warsaw, Poland, went to their death battling arms in hand against the massed, trained legions of Hitler.
With weapons sufficient for only 3,000 fighters, the starved and ragged Jewish workers, who were organized and led by the labor and socialist underground movement, for six weeks held out with revolvers, rifles, a few machine guns, home-made bombs, knives, clubs and stones against thousands of trained soldiers using heavy artillery, tanks, flame throwers and aerial bombs.
The battle ended only after the Nazis dynamited and put to the torch every hovel and tenement in the entire area, and when every Jewish fighter lay dead under the ashes and rubble that marked the site where 400,000 Jews once lived.
Only within recent weeks have some of the details of the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto been revealed outside of the labor and socialist press. But from the still-scanty information now available, three salient facts stand out. The Jewish fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto were overwhelmingly workers, armed, organized and led by the labor and socialist underground. They were inspired not merely by Jewish and Polish nationalist sentiment, but by class solidarity and socialist convictions, hoping that their struggle, conducted under the red flag, would help to arouse the workers everywhere in Poland and Europe to revolutionary class struggle. And theirs was not a “spontaneous revolt, out of desperation,” as bourgeois press commentators would have it appear, but a well-prepared, skillfully planned, organized mass action.
The Gestapo on July 22, 1942, demanded that the Judenrat (Jewish Council) deliver 6,000 to 10,000 persons a day for deportation to the “East,” as it turned out, for mass execution in specially designed gas chambers or by machine-gunning. Deceptively, the Nazis broadcast the rumor that the deportees were going to labor camps and even “the machinery of the Jewish auxiliary police was utilized by the Germans to spread rumors about the favorable labor conditions which awaited the deported.” (The Battle of Warsaw by S. Mendelsohn.) The Ghetto was a self-contained, isolated world with its own government, police, firemen and public health agencies.
The extermination campaign was initiated because “the German authorities, according to the report of the Polish government representatives, reckoned with the possibility of armed resistance at the time when there were still half a million Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. They were afraid of it...”
Within the Ghetto, a conflict arose. The Jewish leadership from the bourgeois class counseled against resistance, spreading the hope that the deportations were what the Nazis claimed. But the Jewish underground labor organizations, according to an official report to the Polish government-in-exile, “through handbills warned against the trap and called at least for passive resistance.”
The extermination campaign raged unabated. By January 1943, only about 40,000 to 45,000 of the original 400,000 Jews remained alive in the Ghetto. During this entire period, the Allied powers and their press scarcely commented on the unprecedented mass slaughter of the Jewish people.
Then came accounts of the first resistance. In the Polish newspaper Przez Walke do Zwyciesta, Jan. 20, 1943, it was reported, “We extend our admiration to the Fighter Unit (of the Jewish Labor underground) which during the latest liquidation met the Gestapo with gun in hand. Shooting broke out and developed into a real battle on Zamenhofa Street from where the Gestapo agents and German police had to flee and to which they returned only with reinforcements. Jews defended themselves with hand grenades and revolvers. Twenty Gestapo agents and police are dead and many more wounded.”
For three months the Nazis drew back from completing their liquidation drive. The Jewish workers of Warsaw used the respite to organize further for armed resistance.
When, in the middle of April, 1943, the Gestapo and Nazi military police attempted to renew the “deportation” drive, their orders for an assemblage of the Ghetto inhabitants were defied. Their police detachments tried to enter the Ghetto. “As a reply from the seemingly empty houses came flying bullets and hand grenades. Roofs and attics began to spit fire and to rain death on the German police. Fear descended on Hitler’s henchmen. They fled in confusion.” (Polska, April 29, 1943.)
From the account of an official representative of the Polish Government-in-Exile, we learn that the Nazis began the attack with “numerous, heavily armed S.S. detachments on cars mounted with machine guns and on tanks.”
“The actions of the defenders were perfectly coordinated,” says the report, “and the battles were fought on practically the entire territory of the Ghetto. Jewish resistance was brilliantly planned, so that in spite of the vast superiority in men and materiel on the German side, good results were achieved. In the first days of combat the Germans took severe punishment; hundreds of them were killed and more wounded. Several times they had to retreat behind the Ghetto walls. During the first week the battle had all the characteristics of regular military operations. The din of a tremendous cannonade was constantly heard from the Ghetto.” This phase of the battle lasted a week.
Then the Nazis concentrated forces at individual points of resistance reducing them slowly one by one with dynamite, flame throwers and incendiary bombs. The Jewish workers fell back on guerrilla tactics, fighting from cellars, roofs, sewers, sortying out at night to assault the Nazi troops under cover of darkness. “The burning in the Ghetto kept spreading. The fires were becoming intolerable. After six days of further combat, after the Germans had already been using planes, artillery and tanks, they managed to break into the northern part of the Ghetto... By April 28th, the Germans had thrown into the battle 6,000 heavily armed troops. Estimates place the number of Germans dead at between 1,000 and 1,200. The Jews lost about 3,000 to 5,000...”
According to the most authentic accounts, Nazi occupation of the Warsaw Ghetto was not completed until 42 days after the fight began, and even months later they were meeting unexpected resistance from tiny hidden groups dug into the ruins and cellars.
Above all, it is necessary to emphasize the working class character of the resistance. The Stalinist swine and the bourgeois nationalist and religious leaders are engaged in a systematic campaign of falsification intended to obscure or deny the class struggle content of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. While a few middle-class elements did participate, they fought under the inspiration, guidance, organization and leadership of the workers.
“Workers and the working intelligentsia are the heart and soul among the masses of fighting Jews who arose gun in hand against Nazi atrocities,” states an appeal of the Polish Labor Movement issued on the second day of the revolt. “Almost all underground publications, as well as the reports of the government representative, speak of the Jewish Fighter Organization which began and led the struggle... both the appeal of the Polish Labor Movement and some newspapers indicate that the organization consisted chiefly of workers, most of them young.” (S. Mendelsohn, The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto.)
An underground manifesto from Poland, issued by the Fighter Units, proclaims, “Our activity will still make it possible for a certain number of people to be spared... We live in full realization that it is our duty to proudly continue our glorious heritage of Socialist struggle.” (PM, April 18.)
That struggle is continuing, inspired by the example of the Jewish workers of Warsaw. In Lodz, the biggest Polish industrial center, 130,000 Jewish workers went on a general strike, halting temporarily the Nazi extermination drive there. Armed rebellions have flared up through all the labor camps. A full scale armed resistance was carried on for a month by the Jews of Bialystok, where 30,000 died in struggle and where the “German losses were high despite the heavy armaments, tanks and fire-throwers thrown into the battle.” (PM, April 18.)
Since the Warsaw battle, the British government has closed the last door of refuge for the Jews, in Palestine, while the American State Department and Roosevelt shed crocodile tears in public but deny haven to the Jews in any United States territory. Roosevelt could only mumble evasive statements about “military necessity” and “post-war” plans when asked to intercede with the British government to open Palestine once more for Jewish refugees. And on British soil, Jewish soldiers who resisted the anti-Semitic attacks imposed on them in the armed forces of the reactionary Polish exiled regime are court-martialed and given prison sentences.
Now it should be clear to the Jewish people everywhere, and to all the workers, that the capitalist “democracies” will not save the Jews from fascist barbarism. As the Jewish workers of Warsaw have demonstrated, only the workers themselves in revolutionary struggle will fight fascism to the death.
All honor to the brave Jewish worker dead, who have shown the workers everywhere the revolutionary road to freedom and socialist emancipation from capitalist reaction and fascism. When tens of millions shall rise in the manner of the heroic 40,000 worker-fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, the forces of Nazism and capitalism will be swept away like chaff before the irresistible might of their onslaught.