Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An Interview with Israel Gutman: Part 1

The following is the first part of a three-part series of interviews with Israel Gutman.  

Besides being an historian of the Holocaust,  Israel Gutman was a leading fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; a survivor of Auschwitz (where he was a member of the Jewish underground), two other Nazi camps, and the death marches; he helped create Yad Vashem, edited the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, and was a key witness at the Eichmann trial and an important advisor to the Polish post-war government.  

The interviews were conducted by Breindel Lieba Kasher.  The Introduction is by Yehuda Bauer of Yad Vashem: 


Personal Interviews with Professor Israel Gutman
by Breindel Lieba Kasher

Introduction by Yehuda Bauer

Edited by Charles Fishman


Introduction by Yehuda Bauer

Israel Gutman is one of the great historians of our time. He has concentrated his writing, in the main – though by no means exclusively – on the history of Polish Jews during the Holocaust. But he has done much more than that: he has written general overviews of Holocaust history, has taken part in major historiographical debates on the subject, and has helped formulate general theories of the destruction of European Jewry. His emphasis has always been on Jewish reactions to German policies; he has been, in the main, a historian of Jews, counteracting a tendency that saw in the Jews an object, rather than a subject of history.

Beyond all that, he has been a teacher and a guide to large numbers of students. He has edited the great books that summarized the crucially important conferences on Holocaust issues published by Yad Vashem, and has been an advisor and editor of memoiristic literature, as well as of prose written about the Holocaust. He was the chief editor of the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust published by Macmillan, Yad Vashem and Sifriat Poalim.

All his academic work is, basically, the result of a life full of tragic events, that led him from a lower middle class family in Warsaw, through the formative experience of active membership of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, to being a participant in the Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion of April-May 1943. It was the youth movement that shaped his life, more than anything else, the warmth and the comradeship, and the tragedy of seeing his friends killed in that great attempt to shape the Jewish response to the destruction of Jewish existence. Wounded in the fighting, he was transported to Majdanek concentration camp, and from there to Auschwitz. He was rescued from certain death by a former Polish class-mate from Warsaw, a prisoner-clerk in the camp, who arranged to have him sent to the industrial part of the Auschwitz complex, in Monowitz, where he managed to survive. He was a member of the Auschwitz Jewish resistance group, a link in the chain of resisters who smuggled out gunpowder from Monowitz to Birkenau and the gas chambers, in an attempt to facilitate a revolt of the inmates there. When Auschwitz was evacuated by the Germans, he was put on a train to Mauthausen camp in Austria, and from there he was marched, with many others, to the camp at Gunskirchen, some 28 kilometers from Mauthausen, in a terrible death march. Starved and emaciated beyond recognition, the inmates were liberated by the Americans. Israel Gutman, who barely survived, was sent to Switzerland to recuperate, and then returned to Austria, where he became, again, an activist in his youth movement, smuggling Jews to Italy and to Palestine. In Israel he was for many years a member of a kibbutz in the north of the country, and participated in the social and political life of his movement. It was there that he wrote his first books, on the Warsaw ghetto rebellion and Mordechai Anielewicz, its leader, and on the Auschwitz concentration and death camp. From there, he began his academic career – not an easy transition for someone whose formal education was almost non-existent.

Israel became an academic, but an academic of a very special sort. As a result of another tragedy, he and his wife left the kibbutz, and he settled in Jerusalem. He wrote his MA thesis on the Chassidic movement, and his PhD on the Jews of Warsaw during the Holocaust. He became a professor at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, and then became its head. He was always very active at Yad Vashem, and even before his retirement he became the first Head of its Research Institute. After that, he became an Academic Adviser to Yad Vashem.

Israel's professional life is centered on Polish Jewry, and on Polish-Jewish relations. He is a frequent visitor to Poland, and fulfills the function of an active member of the Auschwitz Committee, which tries to deal with the shaping of the memory of the erstwhile camp. But Israel also leads another life, devoted to his daughters and their families, and to his friends. From a person with his background and life experience, one would hardly expect a personality full of humor and a kind of skeptic optimism based on a tremendous knowledge of Jewish and general, basically European, culture. You cannot catch Israel not having read things that belong to that cultural universe. Nor can you catch him not having read any important Hebrew book, of the past or, indeed, the present. He seems to swallow everything that is produced in the languages he reads – Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish, German, English and French. His range of knowledge is astounding, and therefore his insights are deep and persuasive.

Israel loves controversy, and a good, sometimes short-tempered, argument. But there is another dimension to his personality which remains largely hidden – he is a 'Mensch', a warm and caring individual, loyal to his friends, truthful and straightforward. Another important thing, perhaps: he is very sparing in his description of his own, personal, life. Israel is a very private person, not an egregious story-teller about himself. He downsizes his ego very, very far below its actual worth – a tendency that is as rare among academics as among others. He does get hurt when attacked, or when he feels that a controversy is handled in a personal manner; the point is that he seldom shows it. He conquers himself and he moderates his public responses, often beyond what he perhaps should do. His self-discipline is quite amazing; but, of course, in private conversation and in small circles, he lets go.

I admit that I am not very objective. I have been working with Israel for more than 35 years, and in some senses we are really part of each other. We are a little but like non-identical twins. We have a constant, close, very friendly, and productive relationship, we disagree with each other and fight a great deal, and we have a basically identical outlook, despite, or perhaps because, of completely different personal life experiences.

Israel Gutman is the product of a combination of Polish Jewish and Polish culture, of a liberal European civilization, and of modern, contemporary Hebrew civilization. This is a rare, and tremendously important combination, that allows him to be what he is: a truly great personality.

What else can one say, beyond what he uncovers in the interviews that follow?

                                    — Yad Vashem, August 19, 2007



“There is a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov on the verse, ‘my soul passed out at its speaking’  (Song of Songs 5:6) that states that a part of the soul of the speaker emerges when the person speaks. It follows that for communication to occur, there must be an identification between the essence of the soul of the speaker and the essence of the soul of the person spoken to, since the speaker is not simply uttering words but sharing a part of the essence of his soul.”

A drashah [sermon] for Shavuot 5700 (June 12, l940 by Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, known as The Esh Kodesh [The Holy Fire].

Interviews with Professor Israel Gutman  at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel, were conducted on October 26, 1999,  November 9, 1999,  November 15, 1999,  January 9, 2007,at the end of January, 2007, March 2007, and at the end of March, 2007.



Introduction:  The Esh Kodesh

1.  In the Beginning
2.  Before the Ghetto
3.  Inside the Ghetto Walls
4.  The Youth Movement
5.  1942: A Complete Change
6.  Preparations for an Uprising
7.  The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
8.  Death March
9.  Homeward Bound (1)
10. God, Tradition and Yiddishe Ta'am
11. Homeward Bound (2)
12. Oral Torah: Giving it Over
13. Who is Jewish?
14. The Eichmann Trial
15. Yad Vashem



Where were you born?

I was born in Warsaw.

And were your parents also from Warsaw?

My parents were from Warsaw. My grandparents were all born in Warsaw.

So you must have felt rooted in Warsaw?

Yes, I felt connected to Warsaw. I never left, except once, for several days, until the outbreak of the Second World War.

How old were you in 1939 when the war began?

I was sixteen. I was living with my parents. They were average Warsaw Jews, a family that struggled for existence.

What did your father do?

My father had a little shop, some small working house, but in the last few years before the outbreak of the war, he was simply a worker for others.

And your mother was at home?

And my mother was always at home, yes.

What were your parents’ names?

My father’s name was Binyamin. My mother’s name was Sarah. Her family name was Oberman.

How many children did they have?

We were three children, two sisters, and I. One sister was older. I was the middle child and my small sister was nine when the war broke out.

What were your sisters’ names?

My older sister was Rivka. My younger sister was Genya, Golda. We called her Genya.

Were your parent's religious?

Yes, I would say traditional, more than religious, but my father went to a synagogue, a little shteible [a little prayer house] on Shabbat. In Warsaw, in almost every apartment house there was a shteible. Today there is one isolated synagogue. Warsaw had three hundred and fifty thousand Jews; a whole quarter was entirely Jewish. The Jews felt they were among Jews, free to be Jews. They spoke Yiddish. They were members of clubs and organizations and political parties. They read Yiddish newspapers. They went to Jewish schools. The whole family life, all the neighbors and the street, was Jewish.

Did your family keep Shabbos?

To some extent, yes. I would not say we were strictly religious, but Shabbos was Shabbos.

Did your mother bake challahs?

I believe she bought the challahs, but perhaps, yes, I do believe there were times when she baked the challahs herself.

Do you remember your mother lighting Shabbos candles?

Yes, of course.

Did your mother cover her hair?

No, not my mother, and I do not believe the majority of women covered their hair during this time, as I remember; it was a matter of a generation. My grandmother, the mother of my mother, covered her hair with a sheitle [a wig].

Did your father wear a kipa [a skullcap]?


I have seen so many photographs of Jewish boys in special Jewish caps. My father spoke of these Jewish caps with so much tenderness. Do you remember these caps? Father also said men tipped their hats when they passed people in the streets.

Yes, special Jewish caps; yes, I remember. Polish men wore hats, too, because of the climate.

On Shabbos, was there a different feeling in the streets?

For a long time, our neighborhood was a mixed neighborhood with Jews and Poles and only a small percent were Jews, so on Shabbos the Poles kept their shops open. The last years before the war we were in the heart of the Jewish quarter. Shabbat was Shabbat in the whole quarter.

You know, I have been to Warsaw so many times. I walk down streets trying to imagine what Shabbos must have felt like before the war. Did you see candles in windows? Could you smell Shabbos food cooking? Did you hear prayers from the little shteibles? Do you remember Jewish men running to shul, old Jews with  long, gray Jewish beards? When people passed each other in the street, did they say, Good Shabbos to one another?

Yes, first of all, there was no work and no school. We wore our special Shabbos clothes. There was a kind of preparation for Shabbat, a special atmosphere in the street and in my home, and this feeling was also for Jews who were not religious, this atmosphere of Shabbat.

Did you go to a Jewish school?

The elementary school I first went to was a very Polish public school. There were only two Jews in my class. The Poles liked me and I liked them. We were very friendly. I felt I belonged in the class and after hours my friends and I hung out. We were one big group, but to other Jews who were not in our class, they acted with hatred. This was why my parents decided to move from the mixed neighborhood to the Jewish Quarter.

How old were you when you moved to the Jewish Quarter?

I believe I was 14. When I began high school, it was a Jewish high school.

Did you learn in Yiddish?

No, in Polish. We had, perhaps, one hour a week of Yiddish. Now all of my friends and my whole class was Jewish.

Did you speak Yiddish at home?

We children spoke Polish. Among my friends in the Youth Movement — I belonged to a Youth movement from the age of 14 — we spoke Polish. It was a Zionist youth movement, and we wanted to speak Hebrew, but it was only a wish. It was not the real language we were able to speak or communicate in.

Did your parents speak Yiddish among themselves?

Among themselves, my parents spoke Yiddish.

Did they speak Yiddish to you children?

They spoke Yiddish and Polish.

Did your mother call you Israel?


When Hitler first came to power, did it affect the Jews of Warsaw? Were they fearful?

What do you mean in power? Hitler came to power in 30 of January, 1933, in Germany.


Yes, of course, we knew about what was happening. We read newspapers. The Jews were very engaged and knowledgeable about what was going on in political life, what was happening in Germany, who was Hitler, and what is the meaning of Hitler; yes, we knew. The question was how did we interpret this information. Were we able to absorb and understand what was the real meaning of Nazism? Well, this was another story.

Poland in January, February, 1934, had a kind of an agreement with Nazi Germany. This greatly influenced the policies of the Polish government and the behavior of the Polish people in regard to the Jews. From this point, we of course felt a change. It was also a time of boycotting German products and economic life was getting more and more difficult. So Hitler, in Germany, had some influence on our day-by-day life, but still, Hitler was in Germany and we lived in Poland.

In 1935, when Germany enforced the Nuremberg Laws, did this affect the Jews in Poland?

Yes, but still it was happening in another country.

And Kristallnacht, 1938?

Oh yes, Kristallnacht was important from another point of view. First of all, I was older and more able to understand what was happening around me. I was a member of a youth movement in which we discussed these questions. We were more aware of what was happening. Information came with the Polish Jews who were expelled from Germany, over the Polish border to Zbaszyn. Suddenly, the destiny, what had happened to those Polish Jews, came very close to us. It touched us. Now, it became our problem.

These years before the outbreak of the war was a period of intense antisemitism. The Polish society, from an economic and political point of view, was in a situation of deep crisis. There was high unemployment. It was a very difficult situation for Polish people — so many disappointments and such deep disagreements with the government and the political parties, especially with the Polish peasants. They had no answers. On the one hand, there were the “Endeks.” They were a very strong political party. They argued that the Jews did not belong to the Polish nation. They were guests, strangers. They had no right to live in Poland. On the other hand, there was a stream in Poland, a kind of movement, that was, perhaps, less concentrated, less organized. It was not deeply antisemitic but also from their viewpoint as Christians, the Jews were always strangers. As the situation became more and more difficult, more and more Poles agreed that the Jews should not have the same rights, in terms of economic life. They came to the conclusion that there were just too many Jews in Poland and the solution should be emigration or the expulsion of the Jews. There were outbreaks of violence. The majority of Poles were perhaps against violence, but they did agree that the solution to Poland’s economic problem was to force the Jews to leave, to go to Palestine or any other country, as long as they were out of Poland. Each Jew felt it and for us, the children, it was painful.

 The “Endeks” instituted antisemitic edicts in the universities and ghetto benches for Jews only.

Yes, in the universities it was very evident with the ghetto benches; it was extreme and that made things clear, but, in more subtle ways, it was spreading through the whole Polish society.

You were fourteen at that time. You said you were liked in school. You said your class of Polish students adopted you and you were all friends. Did that change?

I will tell you, I was very popular. I had many friends and I had much in common with them, and so long as our meetings and our lives were concentrated in the frame of the class, it was alright, but the change was outside the classroom — the anti-Jewish atmosphere. I felt it and I suffered.

In the journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, “Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto,” Ringelblum makes a joke. He says something like, he wished he were back in the good old days, when the Poles ruled, and the Jews were only spat upon.

Yes, it was a dream. He cried in a dream and his wife woke him up and asked him what had happened. He said, “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming I was again among the Poles and they were calling me ‘You dirty Jew!’"

His wife asked, “You were happy they were calling you ‘dirty Jew?’”

“Yes,” he said, “I was back in those good old days, before the war!”

This is what Ringelblum writes. It was a joke. In comparison to what happened during the Nazi period, this was easy.

Because of this intense antisemitism, your family decided to move out of the mixed area to a Jewish neighborhood?


What was your address?

The Street was Nowiniarska 11. It was in the heart of the Jewish Quarter. There were almost three hundred thousand Jewish people in a certain neighborhood. Every third person in Warsaw was Jewish. This created a very strong feeling that the Jews of Warsaw were deeply rooted.


Before the Ghetto

You were living in a neighborhood that was totally Jewish, and your life, despite the rising anti-semitism, was not so drastically different than beforeis that correct?

Yes, of course, my life was as before, with some changes, but it was the regular life as before.

On September 1, 1939?

September 1939 there is a complete change.

Right away?

Right away — it is after a week. Warsaw was a city under bombardment. It was the month of September. It was one of the most tragic months because a great part of the Jewish Quarter was completely ruined. It was an absolute change, a shock. This month was a turning point in our lives.

Where were you when the bombs began falling?

I returned home a day before the outbreak of the war. I was in a summer camp with my youth movement. The first thing my mother said was that I came back a different child. I lost a lot of weight. We were always too busy to eat. The next day, the bombs began falling and they didn’t stop for a whole week.

What were people from your youth group saying during this frightening time?

At the end of the first week, the whole youth movement was liquidated. I was 16. The instructors, who we called the “elders,” were only three or four years older than me; they left Warsaw in the direction of Eastern Poland and then [traveled on] to Vilna. In Vilna, they created what was known as “The Concentration of Vilna.” We youngsters remained in Warsaw without our Youth Movement. This lasted a long time. Yes, we still had connections among ourselves. We were friends and that was very important for us. After a few months, January, February, l940, those leaders who left for Vilna sent messengers to tell us to renew the youth movement. There were a few leaders. Mordecai Anielewicz was one. The old leadership from the Jewish communities, the leaders of the political parties, and the members of the Polish Parliament all left. The new Organization would exist in the form of an underground, except for the Judenrat and some social self-help programs.

Was your mother at all worried that you were a part of an underground organization?

I will tell you. The main problem in our day-to-day life, from the beginning, was how to spend a day, what to do, how to get food; there was no school, we were not free to go in the streets.  These were the main problems. These were the worries.

This is the time before the ghetto.

This is a year before the establishment of the ghetto. There was still a possibility to move about, to meet Poles, to have dealings with the Polish society, even professionally. It was war. The war destroyed a great part of the industry and all production of economic life in Poland. The majority of people had no way to make a living, especially the intelligencia; people working in industry, teachers, office workers, all these people were no longer working. It was the beginning of great struggle for them. There were many refugees, people who left the big cities like Łódź. They came in masses and had nothing. Buildings, a great part of them, were destroyed and tens of thousands of people remained without a place to live. This was a tremendous shock. This was the situation, from the very beginning, until the end of the war, the every-day struggle to stay alive.

What was crucial, I believe, was the essence of Jewish tradition and the depth of closeness in the Jewish family. The Jewish upbringing was deeply connected to the principles of Jewish life, religion, but not only religion; it was a mentality, which was specifically Jewish. This was why   the Jewish family struggled to stay together. When I say “family,” I am talking about the immediate family — father, mother, children, grandfather, grandmother, the extended family. This connection stayed very deep all the time.

The Polish Jews could never imagine the extent of what would be Germany’s policies regarding Jews. It was difficult to grasp the meaning of the ideology of National Socialism. They knew about the hatred the Nazis had toward German Jews, but Polish Jews — why would the Germans have any interest in them?

The Germans were an occupying force during the First World War, and during the First World War, relations between Germans and Jews were quite good, much better than with the Russian occupiers. This was only twenty years ago. The older generation remembered this. In some ways, they felt connected to German culture. The German Jews reflected a kind of free world with many possibilities for progressive development. So the Jews were not able to grasp what awaited them under German occupation. All too quickly, they found out with the marking of the Jews and [the] taking [of] Jewish property. Jews were now unable to move about freely or work in any Polish establishment.

German soldiers did not look upon the Jew as a human being. One of the main changes was forced labor: gathering up Jews on the streets and in their homes to work for the Germans. It was not just the work, but the suffering and violence, the way the Germans looked at the Jew and the way it were forbidden for the Jew to look a German in the eye or speak to a German. It was impossible to explain something to him in a normal way. This is what happened from the beginning until the last days of the German occupation. Jews were suddenly in a world in which he, she, had no place at all.

I believe most of the Poles were completely uninterested in what was happening to the Jews.   For them, the Jew did not belong to Polish society. Some of the Poles were so antisemitic that they thought the behavior of the Germans, the violence, was justified. They enjoyed and agreed with what the Germans were doing to them.

There was hunger. There was a problem of finding a place for people to live. There was a problem with what to do with the children. There were no schools. It was forbidden to pray in public. It was forbidden to gather together. There was no Jewish newspaper. There was no contact with the outside world, no contact with extended family. There was a feeling that the Jews were in a kind of prison with unbelievable conditions. This was the situation. The hunger was terrible. There were epidemics. Relationships began to suffer; people who lived under such hard conditions lost their tolerance. They were no longer polite. The situation was not easy before the war, but this was a time without any precedent.

The Judenrat replaced the former Jewish organizations. It would not be right to think of the Judenrat as a kind of organization working on behalf of the Germans. This is not right because the first structure of the Judenrat was [composed of] Jews from the leadership that remained. It was a representation of Zionist organizations, the Bundists, and the ultra orthodox, Agudat Israel.  Zygelbojm was a member of the first Judenrat, and Czerniakow was the head of Warsaw’s Judenrat. He was a decent person with a lot of good will and very far from being a tool in the hands of the Germans. Objectively, [the Judenrat] was a tool because the Germans did not ask them anything. The Judenrat could not initiate anything on their own. The Germans ruled them. For the Germans, the Judenrat existed for one purpose, to enforce their orders.

Besides the Judenrat, there were self-help organizations. Ringelblum and Gitterman, who escaped to Eastern Poland, came back. They began building networks of social help, food kitchens, and places for children to learn care for refugees, [mainly] collecting materials to help the needy. These self-help organizations existed throughout the war. They were illegal and opposed the German order. They did not obey the German decree to hand over all their money and property.  No Jews took this seriously. The Jews were not allowed to work in certain professions, but no one took that seriously. Illegal forms of production began and continued later on in the ghetto.

The same was true in the political arena. The Jewish political parties, and this is a very, very important phenomenon, the Jewish Youth organizations, started working again.

The Germans focused on Jewish money, Jewish property, and the Jewish connections outside, with the Poles, but what Jews did with their spiritual life, their political views, among themselves, this they did not care about. So what happened was the possibility to develop a kind of cultural, spiritual, and political life in this framework. We are speaking, of course, of this time before the ghetto, but it was even stronger during the ghetto period. 


Inside the Ghetto Walls

Would it be correct to say that with the establishment of the ghetto the Jews, at least in the beginning, may have felt less threatened by the Nazis? The Jews were closed in, but perhaps, for a time, the Nazis stayed out.

Yes, the truth was, we lived an underground life. Little by little, we had the feeling that in this closed Jewish area we could  go about, speak freely, discuss things, read books, and it was of no interest to the Germans. They were taking us to forced labor. They took everything we owned from our private houses; everything  of worth was confiscated. We never knew what would happen tomorrow. It was the  dynamic. Each day, German policies seemed to get worse than the day before. There was absolutely no security. The good thing was, for the time being, the Jews were together and the Germans stayed out of the ghetto.

When the ghetto was closed, were you already living in that area?


So you didn’t have to move?

No, we didn’t move.

Until the last moment, it was not clear whether the ghetto would be closed or open. The Germans said nothing. It was a decisive difference because the meaning of an open ghetto was that the Jews would have the possibility of spending the day outside the ghetto, working. There were people who thought a closed ghetto could be a positive thing. There would be no more attacks from the Polish side. Not too many Germans entered the ghetto. It would be a place for the Jews to be among themselves. 

 Yes, That is what I wondered about.

Of course it was a great illusion. First of all, it was a closed ghetto. Jewish property, the shops, and the undertakings, all this was gone in one day.

What did you do in the ghetto?

I did forced labor. Each Jew, everyone, was forced to work 6, 7, 8 days a month. My family was in  such a bad situation that I worked for Jews who were in a better situation. I received some money for this work. I remember it was not enough for more than, maybe, half of a bread, and I worked full time.

Did your father work, too?

My father was ill. He was not able to work. We were poor. The only possibility was for us to sell everything that we had. I lost my parents and my older sister a year and a half after the war began.

A year and a half after the war began, your parents and your sister died? Was that because of an epidemic?

Not exactly. My sister was ill before the war. My father was ill for a long time. My mother died from typhus. I remained with my small sister. It was a  tragedy. They died  because  there was no possibility to help them. We were poorer than even most people in the ghetto.

A year and a half after the war began — you mean by1940 you had lost most of your family?

Yes, by the end of l940, I was alone with my . . .

With your little sister, Genya?

[Yes, he nods; we were unable to speak . . .]

Did you remain in the same apartment, the two of you?

Yes, for  some time. By the end of 1940, the beginning of 1941, I left with my sister. We went to live in one small room with other people. I was not able to manage a flat by myself. After some time, my sister entered The House of Korczak.

And you, you remained alone?

I remained by myself, yes. I worked. Thanks to the people my father worked for before the war.  They took a great interest in what happened to my small sister and me. They were very wealthy people, well  known in the ghetto, the family of Avraham Gepner; I don’t know if you know the name.

Yes, I do.

He was one of the most known people in the ghetto.

I read about him in the Ringelblum Journals.

He helped me. He got me work and he arranged for my sister to go to The Children’s House of Korczak.

Oh, your sister went to stay in the Korczak Orphanage? There is a building that stands now, in Warsaw. It was, I think, the first Orphanage of Korczak. Was your sister Genya in this place?

No, they changed places twice. The place that stands now was the basic place, the first orphanage. She was not there.

What was the name of the street of the orphanage where she was?

This orphanage you speak of that exists now is on Krachmalna. The orphanage in the ghetto was on Sienna Street.

It was not easy to get to stay at  Korczak’s orphanage because the conditions there were better than any other place in the ghetto. Thanks to the sister of Abraham Gepner, my sister received a place in the orphanage.

Were you able to visit your sister in the orphanage?

Yes, it was natural for me to go every week. This was a special time for visitors, for families. I also came for special evenings, for special events.

Did you ever meet Korczak?

No, I met his partner, Stefa Wilczynska. I met her almost every time I came, but with Korczak, I don’t remember having  talks with him.

Do you remember seeing him?

Seeing him, yes.

Did you have the feeling that your sister was relatively safe?

I thought that for my sister, it was the best that could happen. I wasn’t able to help her much. I was a child myself. I was happy she was there. She was not happy. I visited her every week, two or three hours of the day. Families came to visit and took the children out for walks or for a visit home. I connected to Stefa. I had no connections with Korczak. My sister was a little afraid of Korczak. I believe I didn’t exchange even a word, a sentence, with Korczak. I saw him very often but . . .

Was Stefa warm towards you?

Stefa and I talked very often. She was interested in me because she knew that I was a member of a youth movement. Stefa had come back to Poland from Palestine. She was in Palestine on a Kibbutz. Perhaps she felt sorry for me because I was alone with my sister. I had many, many conversations with her and she told me about how my sister was feeling, how she found her place there, how she was doing.

On August 5, 1942, all of the children from Korczak’s Orphanage were marched to the trains  waiting to bring them to Treblinka. Did you have any prior knowledge of this?

Yes, at the beginning of the evacuation, they presented the children with the possibility of leaving the orphanage, going back to their families. I took my sister out for some time, but after being outside with me, two weeks, perhaps — it is impossible to describe what happened — she  said she wanted to go back to the children. I don’t really remember how long she was with me, perhaps only a few days, and she went back. I remember the day. Such a thing one cannot forget, when  they took the children to the Umschlagplatz.

Your sister Genya was one of the children taken to Treblinka?


We remain quiet.


The Youth Movement

What was the youth movement you belonged to?

It was Hashomer hatzair.

Would you say the youth movement became your family?

The movement was my life. Yes, it was my family. It was strange, but in this Underground we were very active, and it was very positive in many aspects. We met every day. We read books.  We discussed all the problems. We worked together. We walked together. We published a press. I was among the publishers of one of the papers. The press belonged to the organizations, and we gave some articles to The Oneg Shabbat for their archives.

Didn’t the Oneg Shabbat also have a press?

The Oneg Shabbat put out a bulletin during the last months of the ghetto with crucial information that made us aware of what was happening. They reached all of the Jewish population.

 Did you ever meet Ringelblum?

Yes, not personally. Only the upper echelons of the movement had personal relations with Ringelblum; they worked with him. I attended  a seminar organized by the underground. He lectured there. The title of the lecture was, “The Jewish Labor Movement.” I went a few times to listen to him speaking,. but I had no direct contact  with him. 

Did you meet Mordecai Anielewicz?

I knew him well. There were seminars from the end of December ’41 until the beginning of January ’42, on Nalewki Street, number 23. It was leadership seminars for the younger members of the organization, seminars on different subjects: Jewish history, literature, and psychology. It was there I heard Ringelblum speak. Another speaker, Menachem Linder, was very impressive.  He spoke on demography. I remember the spirit. It was a fantastic feeling: we were learning, we were reading, we were together and, in some strange way, we felt free. The feeling in the youth movement was so strong and so alive. Because of this, I cannot say, for me, it was only a period of suffering. Our connections in the youth movement were stronger than before. Before, we had a family, we had a school, and we had our friends outside of the organization. We had a rich life.  In the period of the war, the movement was my whole life. It affected my thinking and influenced my future. It was the source, my fundamental essence.

Were there a lot of people in your organization?

The organization was a big organization during the time of the ghetto, but we were divided into small groups of about ten, and the whole group was about 50, 60 or 70 people.

How did the organization function?

We were together. We learned together. We read books and spoke about them. We tried to understand what was going on in the war. We received information and discussed it. By the end of  ’41, we came of age.

The movement decided that we would be instructors organizing groups of small children. The instructors were 18 and the children were 13, 14. We worked for some time in the food kitchen.   I took care of a group of small boys — I remember them perfectly — but this was only for a short time.

What work did you have in the kitchen?

The children were hungry. They had no school. We read to them. We prepared food to give to them. We received money from the Joint until 1941. In ’39 and forty, especially in the beginning of  ’40, there was substantial help sent from America. After April ’42, the Underground liquidated all the new youth groups and the only ones who remained were the original members from pre-war time.

In other words, you remained?

I was among the youngsters who remained. A much stronger Underground existed. The entire strategy changed because on the 17th of April there was such a night of murder. The Nazis killed, according to a list of names of people from the ghetto, 55, or 53, people; among them were a few activists from the Underground. It was not clear why, what their intention was. Today, we are   quite clear that they carried out these executions in preparation for the expulsion of the Jews from Warsaw. They tried to liquidate groups that could organize some resistance or be of any threat to their plans. We had to make a stronger, more compact, Underground.

In the beginning of ’42, we received firsthand information from Vilna about Barbarossa.  Barbarossa began on the 22nd of June 1941, a war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.  From the beginning of the war, they killed masses of Jews in the new occupied areas: Kovna, Vilna, Bialystok, Lvov. This information arrived, firsthand, from Vilna. All of our organizations voted to make one united  group. The message from the Hashomer Hatzair in Vilna was: resist. Vilna, Warsaw, and Bialystok were first to create a network of fighting organizations. We understood that what happened in Vilna, in Kovna, the mass killing of Jews, was only the beginning of a new policy to annihilate the Jews. The first core group was “The Anti-Fascist Organization.” This Anti-Fascist Organization included Zionists and Communists. The police arrested a part of the group of communists. Today, we know there were a few traitors outside the ghetto. So, once again, we reorganized an underground inside. This occurred in the middle of April ’42.

The organization changed to an organization of resistance, but as of yet, there were no weapons. What new functions did you have?

Of course the decision was more in terms of readjusting our thinking, more a political step than an actual ability to establish a fighting organization. We had no experienced soldiers. We had no knowledge of how to organize a battle within a town, or a city, and mostly, we had no weapons.

Nonetheless, it was a great shift. Is that correct?

Until this time, the main struggle for the Jews was to stay alive, and a belief that we would survive. Not all of the Jews would survive, but the main part of the Jews in the ghetto would.  We didn’t know when the war would end, but everything we did was with the belief that there would be an end. Our efforts were focused on keeping the greater percentage of the people alive until the end. And when this change of policy occurred in the youth movement, the Jewish population, even the political parties, and we, the youngsters, did not expect or accept it, not yet.

Look, the difference between the youth movement and the majority of the Jews were we knew the expulsions were not just for some Jews. We knew the Germans planned to destroy all the Jewish People. We were preparing for a rebellion and we knew that the rebellion would lead to our death, and we were ready. Still, it was impossible to grasp the infinite evil humans were capable of. It was so strange, so contradictory to our way of being that we, somehow, held on to a thought: perhaps at some moment, things would change. This really could not be the end of us all, could it?

It was so sad, so horrible that from the beginning of the war you lost your parents and your sister. Do you think your aloneness, as harsh as it was, made it clearer for you to focus all your attention on the Underground? You did not have to divide your allegiance or responsibility to your family.

Yes, it was one of the main problems for the youth, worrying about family. The Jewish family was a deep kind of love and commitment, but there came a time when it was leave the family and commit to the fighting organization. There was no choice.

The mass expulsion of the Jews from Warsaw began on the 22nd of July 1942. Around 300,000 Jews were deported. It is impossible to describe what happened. There were stages. The Jewish Police helped with this deportation. From the beginning, they claimed those Jews who were working, especially those working for the Germans in factories, would remain. They did not say   how many Jews would be deported, but we figured 60,000 or 70,000, mostly the refugees who were without jobs, homes, families. There were many. In reality, that would be only the beginning. Later, they sent workers, children, families. Their intention was to leave 35,000 Jews from the whole Warsaw Jewish population — 10% would be left. 90% would be sent to their death.

It is difficult for me to go on . . . and then . . . Why would they leave the 10%?

Workers for the German war industry. In fact, what remained were 50,000. The organization, and many [other] Jews decided that they would no longer appear for selections. Of course, it was not easy to hide because the Germans searched from place to place, room to room.

End of Part I


Breindel Lieber Kasher was born in New York City and has lived more than half her life in Israel. She is a documentary film-maker and published poet. Her work has been translated into Hebrew, Polish and German and can be found in Midstream, Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators, 21st Century Journal, Cyclamens and Swords, International Poetry Journal, Poets West, Seventh Quarry, and Palabras. She has twice been a winner of the Reuben Rose Prize from Voices Israel.  

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