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Monday, February 13, 2017

Five Years in a Warsaw Ghetto: The Stars Bear Witness

Author: Bernard Goldstein

Publisher: AK Press (2004) (Originally published 1952).

Paperback 256 pages

Finished 2/12/2017

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          “It was impossible to describe the hellish scenes which took place in Warsaw’s streets during those two terrible weeks. Everywhere there was wild panic, unashamed hysterical terror. People ran frantically through the streets, a deathly fear unmistakable in their grim, weary eyes... The multitude filled the streets, a nation on the march. Long, long rows of little carts and all sorts of makeshift vehicles heaped with household possessions, wailing children, the old, the sick, the half-dead, moved from all directions toward the ghetto, pulled or led by the stronger and the healthier, who plodded along, tearful despairing, bewildered.”
Waiting for deportation
          A man who survived five years in the Warsaw Ghetto after the Nazi invasion of Poland and the clustering of all Jews in the country into a very small area, for obvious easy deportation. The author managed to escape the concentration camps, but that did not make his trials any easier. The author was a well-known figure in pre-WWII Warsaw labor struggles and when the time came to make the ghetto at least semi-livable he worked tirelessly to do so. It is a fascinating read in their attempts to organize and struggle against the Nazi regime.
Captured members of the Jewish resistance
          Now it should be pointed out that the author was a socialist, not a communist. We have a tendency to confuse the two nowadays, but history has shown us (also mentioned in Out of the Night) the socialists do the heavy lifting in organizing and fighting for labor rights, then the communist elements come in and subvert them, eventually changing the organization into a different direction to suit their purposes (as we have seen recently in the atheist organizations), thereby latching on to a popular cause to sneakily promote their own. Goldstein, mentions several of his fellow organizers being shot by communist agents, and several more disappearing into the Lubyanka, after the Russians drove the Nazis out of Poland.
          The author describes the actions with a strange distance, keeping all emotions out of it (the quote above being one of the rare exceptions). In fact we learn almost nothing about him, his beliefs, or his background, except where it becomes important to reference it in his recounting. This is the Warsaw Ghetto’s story, as he saw it, not his own. As such it is more technical, and not emotional, as one might expect. This conversely demonstrates the author’s deep depression and anger over the events. He must divorce himself emotionally from the events in order to discuss them.
          Strange as this may sound, one of the great stumbling blocks that the resistance found was hope. People clung to the hope that things could not get worse, the propaganda about extermination of the Jews was just bluster. First they came for the weak and infirm, then the unemployed, then whoever they could grab. It wasn’t until the population of 500,000 was whittled down to 40,000 that real resistance popped up.
          This resulted in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the fall 1943. This was on the eve of the final attempt by the Nazi’s to clear out the Ghetto for good. There were heavy losses on both sides, but it ultimately ended with the Ghetto destruction and its survivors scattering about the city. This did set the stage for the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, which was a general revolt by the remaining inhabitants of the city. The uprising was urged on by the nearby Russian army, who promised to support them, but ultimately failed to do so. This was probably a calculated move on the Soviet’s part, as it had two potential resistors wear themselves down battling each other: The Nazi’s whom they wanted to push out, and the Poles whom they wanted to oppress.
          The truly crushing blow comes right at the end of the book. After all the devastation, the author is filthy, dressed in rags, covered in lice, afflicted with dysentery, malnourished and yet must flee. Not due to Nazis, but because of the incoming Russian Communist army and its puppet Polish government. The Communists begin rounding up the Jews again, including anyone with a hand in the previous labor struggle before WWII. He discovers that there is an old death sentence against him by the Polish Communist Party and thus has to flee to save his life.

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