"They catch people in the streets." Beginning of the great deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto, July 22, 1942

22.06.2021
Written by: Przemysław Batorski
79 years ago, the worst predictions of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto came true. The Germans began the "relocation to the east" – a mass deportation of Jews through the Umschlagplatz to the gas chambers of the Treblinka extermination camp. About 300,000 Jews were murdered by September 21.
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Warsaw ghetto. Great Liquidation Action. Jews walking down Prosta Street to Umschlagplatz. IPN/JHI Collection

 

"Strange things happen in the ghetto"

Tuesday, July 7, 1942

Such nice, bright blue days go on, without a single cloud in the sky. – wrote Abraham Lewin in the Warsaw ghetto. – “But they are heavy as lead and hopeless. Everyone asks what will happen to us and what will happen to Europe and the whole world. [1]

In the summer of 1942, the world showed little interest in the Warsaw ghetto. Again, it seemed that the German army was invincible: Wehrmacht tanks were advancing at Stalingrad and the Caucasus, standing at the gates of Egypt. The inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto already knew about the extermination of Jews in the ghettos in Lviv and Vilnius, some learned about the death camp in Kulmhof (Chełmno nad Nerem). Most did not believe that a similar fate awaited Warsaw, yet rumors of the upcoming "action" caused anxiety.

July 1942. Bloody heat. Some strange things are happening in the ghetto. – recalled Marek Edelman. – It's hard to talk to people. Crazy nervousness. Something will happen, "something, something," but what? Thousands of people are asking the same question. People get lost in guesswork, stay awake at night. It is not known why and why they join the German sheds. They give up their machines, they liquidate business. There will be something, something terrible, but what? [2]

Many Jews thought that working in German forced labor workshops would save them from deportation. They hoped that the Germans would not get rid of the thousands of forced laborers who made uniforms, shoes and brushes for the Wehrmacht for starvation wages.

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"In school". Photo from the Warsaw Ghetto. Ringelblum Archive

"Death sentence"

The Germans deceived the ghetto inhabitants, including the chairman of the Jewish Council, Adam Czerniaków, by claiming that the rumors about the deportation were only gossip, and if the Jews were deported, they would be invloved in forced labor in the occupied Soviet Union. On July 22, the Germans came to Czerniaków.

It was around 9.30 a.m. – recalled the former translator of the Judenrat, Marcel Reich, later Marcel Reich-Ranicki. – There was deathly silence throughout the building during the session. The officials, absolutely terrified, waited for a death sentence for them and their families. The entire building, especially the entrances to the conference room, was manned. The chauffeur of one of the cars of the arriving Gestapo officers set the radio on and the cheerful sounds of Strauss waltzes accompanied the meeting with mocking stubbornness, painfully making the gathered Jews aware that life goes on and that death is meant only for Jewry. [3]

On July 23, Czerniaków committed suicide by taking cyanide in his office. He did not want to sign the announcement that 10,000 Jews were to report to the Umschlagplatz every day.

Umschlagplatz was literally a "transshipment square" at Stawki Street in Warsaw, then connected by a siding with the Gdański Railway Station. For the purposes of the great deportation, the Germans made it a rallying point for transports to Treblinka. [4] SS men, their Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian helpers, as well as Jewish policemen, who were intimidated and deceived by the promise of survival, rushed thousands of Jews every day through the streets of the ghetto to this place of misery.

Witnesses remembered the brutality of SS soldiers and policemen who forcibly dragged Jews out of their apartments, shooting in the streets, starving to death in the scorching sun, and the monstrous scenes at Umschlagplatz where parents would give up their children to increase their own chances of survival.

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Abraham Lewin, Stefania Szwajgier, teachers and students of the "Jehudyjah" (Jewess) school at 55 Długa Street, Warsaw, 1927.
Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters' House

"The teachers sacrificed along with the children"

Representatives of all professions and social groups in the ghetto were going to their death in Treblinka. This year, we especially commemorate the teachers and teachers from the Warsaw ghetto – among them Stefania Szwajgier, the headmistress of the girls' gymnasium at Długa Street, as well as Abraham Lewin, Emanuel Ringelblum, Eliasz Gutkowski, Izrael Lichtensztajn and other members of the underground group Oneg Shabbat. We also commemorate those Polish teachers who gave help to friends on the other side of the wall.

Teachers were one of the most numerous professional groups in the ghetto – apart from those who worked in schools before the war, many people who did not belong to this profession opened their own secret classes, which gave them a chance to earn their living and survive. Children and adolescents were thirsty for learning that would allow them to break away from the nightmare of the ghetto and hope for a normal life after the war. Stefania Arkin-Halberstat, a teacher, recalled:

From September 1939/1940, together with Mr. Lyg, a mathematics teacher, I organized a class of 27 students from the former "Spójnia" [Bond] gymnasium. School classes were held in my apartment at 13 Orla Street or at Dr. Dawidson at Mylna Street. The children studied 3 hours a day. Parents willingly put them under our care. They knew that the classes would protect them from the street and the possibility of exposure to the Germans. They were children of mostly wealthy parents. The lessons was paid monthly. Three or four children were free. They were poor children living in the backyard. (...) In the class they taught:

Tomówna – nature

Kirszbrun – Polish language

Wajs – mathematics

Stefania Halbersztadt-Arkinowa – geography

Libera – Polish language

Kojrański – teach. from the city of Lodz – physics

Żoltkowska – German

Specialist teachers were well paid.

The school issued certificates and matura exams. It had its stamps and prints.

Matura exams were held in front of the commission that signed the certificates. The distribution of the certificates was ceremonial.

(...)

In the day-care centers there were the poorest children, children from small towns, children of people deprived of their possessions, without a place to live. In day-care centers, children received food and were taught songs, games, works, writing, reading and arithmetic. Classes were held in cramped rooms, unhygienic due to overcrowding.

(...) The attitude was to conduct [the lesson] in Yiddish. I was learning the Jewish language then. This work required a lot of idealism and effort. I had children here from Rypin and other small towns. I was concerned with the fate of every child. My work consumed me completely. Apart from it, nothing existed for me. But sometimes it gave me a lot of satisfaction. [5]

Teaching in the ghetto prepared for both professional work and higher education. The last students wrote their final exams a few days before the deportation began.

“One school after another went to the Umschlagplatz. The teachers sacrificed along with the children,” wrote Józef Gitler-Barski. [6] – “The Germans liquidated children with cynicism. The quilts were taken and then to the Umschlagplatz”.

"What did Luba tell about the behavior of the children and teachers during the blockade? All with bundles in their hands. They were all ready to go. To death.” [7] wrote Abraham Lewin.

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Abraham Lewin with students, 1932.
Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters' House

In the soul of a man innocently condemned to death. Abraham Lewin and his diary

Wednesday [July 22, 1942]

A day of fear and anxiety. The news of the upcoming deportation spreads around the city like wildfire. The Jewish part of Warsaw suddenly froze. Shops are closed, Jews are worried and scared to death. Fear blows from the Jewish streets. There is an ineffable sadness. There are killed people in many places. In the face of a universal, terrible misery, the victims are no longer counted, their names are no longer mentioned. The deportation is scheduled to start today. Refugee points and jail will go first. There is also talk of evacuation of the hospital. They catch unfortunate children on carts. [8]

Abraham Lewin – teacher, writer, Varsovian – taught Hebrew in a girls' gymnasium at 55 Długa Street. In the Warsaw ghetto, he was involved in the underground group Oneg Shabbat, collecting testimonies and documents about the fate of Jews under the German occupation. In March 1942, he began to keep a diary in which he described everyday life in the "closed district". One of the most important parts of the diary is the account of the great deportation.

Cloudy day again. It's raining. Scenes that took place in the house at 25 Nowolipie Street. Great street round-up. They drag old men, old women, boys and girls. They are caught by policemen and officials of the Commune. The latter have white bands on their forearms. They help the policemen.

(...) The policemen behave like wild beasts during round-ups. Their atrocities. They pull girls from rickshaws, empty apartments, leave the belongings to their fate. Unprecedented pogroms and murders. [9]

 – he noted on July 24, the third day of deportation.

On August 13, Lewin writes in his diary about the loss of his wife Luba (she was also a teacher at the gymnasium at Długa Street):

Thursday, August 13 [1942]

The twenty-third day of the slaughter. Today they have taken about 3,600 people from Toebbens' warehouses, mostly women and children. Today is Ora's 15th birthday. It's a bleak day in her life and mine. I have never had such a tragic day in my life. I haven't shed a single tear since yesterday. I lay consumed with my pain in the attic, I did not sleep a wink. Ora was muttering in her sleep: "Mom (Mommy, don't go without me)." Today, after Gucia came, I cried a lot. They throw me out of my apartment at 2 Mylna Street, they have probably plundered all my belongings. Those who remain loot and plunder without any scruples. Life turned upside down, a complete ruin in all respects. I will not find any consolation as long as I live. If Luba had died a natural death, I would not be so desperate and sick. But to fall into the hands of such murderers?! Have they already killed her? She came out in a light dress, no stockings, with my leather briefcase in her hand. How tragic it is! Our common life, which lasted over 21 years (I met her at the beginning of 1920), ended so tragically. [10]

Lewin was murdered in the Warsaw ghetto, most likely in January 1943. His diary has survived in the Ringelblum Archive – a collection of documents buried in the ruins of the ghetto by members of Oneg Szabat and found after the war.

 

22nd of July March of Remembrance

On July 22, as every year, the Jewish Historical Institute organizes the March of Remembrance for the victims of the great deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto. This year we will set off from the Umschlagplatz Monument towards Stare Nalewki Street. The event will start at 6 pm CET.

The route of the March: the Umschlagplatz monument (10 Stawki Street, corner of Dzika Street) – Stawki Street – Dubois Street – Anielewicza Street – Świętojerska Street – along the Krasiński Garden – Stare Nalewki Street.

Specially for the March of Remembrance 2021, we have prepared the audiobook of Abraham Lewin’s Diary. The book was read by actor Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, and its excerpts are already available on the JHI YouTube channel (Polish language only).

After the March, we invite you to listen to the premiere of the electroacoustic piece "Nothing New Has Happened Here" based on Abraham Lewin’s Diary in a chamber composition for violin (Maria Sławek), flute (Ania Karpowicz), voice (Marta Grzywacz) and synthesizer (Krzysztof Kozłowski ) and view the artistic installation "Benches", designed by architect Jakub Szczęsny.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Abraham Lewin, Dziennik, ed. Katarzyna Person, transl. Adam Rutkowski, Magdalena Siek, Gennady Kulikov, JHI Press, Warsaw 2016, p. 155-156. The quote in the title of the article comes from the entry from July 27 – ibid., p. 175.

[2] Marek Edelman, Nieznane zapiski o getcie warszawskim, ed. Martyna Rusiniak-Karwat, foreword by Aleksander Edelman, Warsaw 2017, p. 73-74.

[3] Marcel Reich, report 301/400, JHI Archive, Delet portal (Polish language only).

[4] Paweł Szapiro, Umschlagplatz, Polski Słownik Judaistyczny online.

[5] Stefania Arkin-Halberstat, report 301/5546, JHI Archive, Delet portal (Polish language only).

[6] Józef Gitler-Barski, report 301/1244, JHI Archive, Delet portal (Polish language only).

[7] A. Lewin, op. cit., p. 187.

[8] Ibid., p. 169-170. Text simplified.

[9] Ibid., p. 171.

[10] Ibid., p. 191-192.

Przemysław Batorski   JHI Web Editor