On Shabbat, the study tour group took a walking tour through what was previously the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite Nazi intentions to destroy Warsaw as they pulled out of Poland, pieces of the city still stand, including sections of the wall. We visited a quiet corner of an apartment complex where a portion of the Warsaw Ghetto wall remained. At this intersection, we talked about smuggling into the Warsaw Ghetto. During the first few months after the establishment of the ghetto, walls were built between buildings using existing walls, so houses at the edge of the ghetto had windows that gave access to the outside world. As a result, children were often used as smugglers and breadwinners for their families because they could fit through windows and were often less suspicious. Through the years, Nazis built walls in the middle of streets to restrict underground activities, though this did not end smuggling.
Our guide took us to an apartment complex that survived the bombings and was within the ghetto walls. The building was typical of the housing within the ghetto. It had a courtyard with only one entrance to the street, and each corner of the courtyard had staircases that lead to the various apartments. The design was functional for Nazis as during roundups they blocked the entrance to the courtyard and called for everyone to come out as they entered the buildings. With lists of who lived in which complex, they efficiently cleared out each apartment. Standing in the courtyard of such a building gave the study tour group a small sense of the helplessness the people living there must have felt.
In October, 1942, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the camp. As Jews were organized at the Umschlagplatz (the platform for the trains which took Jews to their death), Jewish fighters armed with pistols snuck into the ranks of those about to be deported and attacked the German officers. After this, fighting continued for about three months and the next deportation was delayed until January, 1943. During these months, many of the Jewish fighters were killed, however some survived. During our tour through the Warsaw Ghetto, we stopped at a manhole in the street which was significant to those who survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. During the uprising, fighters used the sewage system to evade and surprise the Nazis, and eventually used it to flee for their lives.
As we stood looking at the manhole on Prosta Street, we imagined the story our guide told us. Toward the end of the uprising, a Jewish fighter, Simcha Rotem, also known as Kazik, found himself on the Aryan side of Warsaw. He nevertheless convinced two sewage workers to show him the way back to the Warsaw Ghetto. As he lifted himself out of the manhole, all he could see was burning buildings, but he forced himself to look for survivors. He found some dozen survivors in the sewage system beneath the Ghetto. He instructed them to go to the manhole on Prosta Street, just outside of the ghetto, and he organized vans to pick them up at dawn the next day. Some of them were restless and wouldn’t wait, because it was dangerous. They search for other venues of safety, but didn’t find any. Eventually, the Germans found them, and they were killed. Rotem was forced to drive away knowing that more people remained in the sewage system, but he had no way to communicate with them. Rotem saved countless people that day. Almost all of the remaining 42,000 Jews were deported to Majdanek, and many of them were killed during the Erntefest (Harvest Festival) in the fall of 1943.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website