Sex, Bribes and Gambling: The Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Who Didn't Take Part in the Uprising

In her new research, historian Havi Dreifuss plays down some old myths and uncovers the gallantry of everyday Jews who suffered the Nazis’ barbarism

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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FILE Photo: People line up long the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto.
FILE Photo: People line up long the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto.Credit: Photo Archive
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

During her research on the Warsaw Ghetto, Prof. Havi Dreifuss faced a serious dilemma: To what degree should she recount the details of the atrocities?

“I asked myself, how do I give expression to tdiedhe terror and the horrific descriptions without making people pull back and close the book?” she told Haaretz this week ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on Sunday.

In the end, she chose a middle course. In her new Hebrew-language book on the Warsaw Ghetto, she was unsparing in the details, but she left out certain photos including ones showing the rape of Jewish women by the Germans.

>>Read more: The story of the Warsaw Ghetto as told by the Jews, not the Nazis

“The deliberations regarding what and how to present what we know proved to me that we’re not really capable of telling even the partial story that we know – not to ourselves, let alone to others,” she says.

Prof. Havi Dreifuss

One might have thought that 75 years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, everything had been written about this key event in Jewish history. But Dreifuss found that in diaries and memoirs written in Polish, Yiddish, German and Hebrew lurked a story yet to be told. She spent the last few years delving into archives to unearth the story.

“I felt there was a big gap between what’s described in sources written during the Holocaust, which deal with everyday life in the Warsaw Ghetto, and the story we always relate, which focuses exclusively on the deportation of the Jews or the uprising,” she says.

At the center of this story are tens of thousands of Jews who continued to live and die in the ghetto between the great deportation in July 1942 and the uprising in April 1943. These were Jews who did not belong to underground organizations but took part in the uprising in many other ways.

“After looking at the documentation from that time, you conclude that it’s impossible to talk about the uprising while only dealing with the combatants,” Dreifuss says. “You have to include the many people who decided to disobey the Germans come what may, opposing them with all their might, in their decision to hide in bunkers and other places, even as their houses were literally collapsing around them.”

Dreifuss realized that the uprising’s power didn’t just stem from the use of arms by members of the underground. It also was there whenever someone didn’t show up for deportation. And Dreifuss’ rich sources show that, as in every human society, the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were a diverse group.

Dreifuss is cautious regarding the subjects of her study, but her research reveals a reality harsher than the one conjured at state ceremonies. “A complete societal disintegration,” she labels the phenomenon, borrowing from a Holocaust survivor and historian, Israel Gutman (1923-2013), who wrote that disaster does not unite people; on the contrary, it creates distance and disintegration.

FILE Photo: The Warsaw Ghetto Credit: Photo Archive

“It seems to me that for too many years we’ve told the story of the Holocaust with a lot of exclamation marks, with ostensibly clear messages of a consoling nature,” Dreifuss says. Expressions such as “they managed to cope with the harsh reality impressively” don’t serve the truth, she says; they’re meant to serve us rather than the past.

“Ultimately, the Holocaust is mainly a horrific story of a terrible defeat and a huge loss,” she says. “A personal, human and communal loss; a loss of a nation, of a world and of human beings.”

The profligate rich

Her book shows that concepts such as fraternity, sharing a common fate and mutual aid aren’t the most precise way to describe daily life in the ghetto. The reader also encounters rich Jews who wasted their money “in ostentatious profligacy inside the starving ghetto,” who enjoyed entertainment and cafés, played cards and gambled, ate goose and chocolate, drank themselves drunk, danced and partied, while outside their windows people were starving to death in the street.

“I wander the streets, looking at the pathological luxury and feeling shame,” she quotes educator Avraham Levin. “It seems that these people wear silken garments over shrouds.”

Cases of robbery and murder of Jews by Jews are also documented in the book, as are cases of Jews hiding food from one another, exploiting their ability to take more than their fair share. Dreifuss describes sexual licentiousness and corruption, which was also expressed in bribes to Jews in official positions in the ghetto, in order to stay off the deportation lists.

“The ghetto’s rich people paid a ransom and returned home,” she writes.

Dreifuss also doesn’t paper over cases of collaboration with the Germans. “In a human society under such extreme conditions, it’s obvious that such things happened, even if only at the margins,” she says.

Dreifuss found evidence that Jews served as German agents, telling the Germans about life in the ghetto – “not providing information that they thought could hurt Jewish society,” she says.

FILE Photo: A woman in the Warsaw Ghetto. Credit: Photo Archive

Another phenomenon was the activity of the Jewish police, who helped catch Jews and send them to Treblinka. “It’s no wonder that these people were perceived in the ghetto as traitors and murderers,” Dreifuss says.

The Jewish underground movements tried to assassinate members of the Jewish police, with the understanding that before fighting the Germans “they needed to cleanse Jewish society of collaborators,” she notes. There were Jews who divulged the hiding places of other Jews.

“They did so out of a desperate attempt to save their lives or the lives of their loved ones, often after being tortured or threatened with execution,” she says.

At this point Dreifuss distinguishes between these phenomena and the collaboration of people of other nationalities with the Germans. “Jewish collaboration with the Germans – in the Warsaw Ghetto as in other places – was a totally marginal phenomenon, whereas assisting the Germans in the persecution of Jews was a prevalent norm in Polish society, for example,” she says.

“Moreover, as opposed to Jews who committed controversial acts in the delusional hope that they would save their lives, the non-Jewish collaborators chose to do so for a variety of reasons such as anti-Semitism and greed.”

It’s not only the wider community in the ghetto that receives a fresh inspection, it’s also the mythic heroes. “I have no desire to shatter myths, but on the other hand I made no attempt to sanctify them.”

FILE Photo: Two children on the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto. Credit: Photo Archive

“It was important for me to describe events as the sources present them, and I hope that in doing so, enough respect was given to those heroic figures, who ultimately were also human beings,” she says.

>>Read more: The Nazis tolerated gays. Then everything changed

Korczak, Anielewicz and others

Thus, for example, in dealing with Janusz Korczak (the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit), she explains that the famous description of the educator leading a line of children from the orphanage to the deportation square isn’t realistic. She says that “it’s hard to imagine a 64-year-old man leading young children in an orderly fashion for such a long distance.”

She also quotes Marek Rudnicki, who observed this last journey: “The atmosphere was dominated by a great passivity ... apathy. There was no apparent excitement that was Korczak there.”

FILE Photo: The streets of the Warsaw Ghetto. Credit: Photo Archive

As Rudnicki put it, “There were no gestures, no singing, no heads proudly held high ....There was a terrible, weary silence. Korczak dragged one foot after another, hunched, muttering to himself from time to time .... This was not a time for philosophical ruminations. These were moments of total despair, blunt and silent.”

Dreifuss adds that on that same day thousands of other children walked to the deportation square, Umschlagplatz, also accompanied by staff members who remained with them on their last journey. The names of many of those educators remain unknown.

In this context, Dreifuss suggests the possibility that the descriptions of Korczak walking at the head of the line actually referred to other orphans who were walking there. She adds that Korczak’s famous march may have taken place at the deportation square itself, “marking an extremely impressive act of protest that does not require the addition of false details.”

Dreifuss corrects another myth, noting that as Korczak was about to enter the train car, he rejected an offer to save his own life, refusing to abandon the children. “It’s hard to verify whether Korczak was given an opportunity to save his life at that point. It’s an unlikely scenario in that cruel setting,” she writes.

Dreifuss also has something new to say about Mordechai Anielewicz; though normally considered the leader of the uprising, he was one of a group of leaders, Dreifuss says. She also disputes the story known to every Israeli schoolchild: Anielewicz committed suicide so as not to be taken prisoner.

According to her sources, Anielewicz believed to the very end that survival was possible, and it wasn’t he who called for suicide. In fact, he believed that urine fumes on cloth could ward off the German’ tear gas, making it reasonable to assume he ended his life in a way that would not be seen as heroic if captured on film.

Dreifuss stresses that this does not detract from his heroism. “His impressive personality and his key role in forming the underground are very significant,” she says.

Dreifuss believes it’s important to talk about Anielewicz’s less-known comrades. Her research gives better-detailed descriptions of the Jewish Military Union, also known by its Polish initials ZZW – the Beitar underground movement led by Pawel Frenkel.

In part because all his senior partners were killed, Frenkel never attained the iconic status of Anielewicz. He returned to the spotlight in recent years due to the efforts former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, based on arguments that Frenkel, who was on the right side of the political spectrum, was left out of history books for political reasons. (Arens died earlier this month.)

Dreifuss’ research is already having an impact outside the academic world. The Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is updating its section on the uprising.

“The purpose of these changes is to present a more balanced portrayal of Pawel Frenkel’s role in the uprising, as well as the more popular nature of the revolt and the support of the ghetto’s residents, as reflected in the important research done by Dreifuss,” a source at Yad Vashem said.

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