“Unprecedented in the history of mankind.” The great deportation from the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of Abraham Lewin

Written by: Przemysław Batorski
79 years ago, the Germans began the great deportation of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka II extermination camp. 300,000 Jews were led to their deaths. Abraham Lewin, teacher, writer and member of the Oneg Shabbat group, described these terrible events in his diary.

Abraham Lewin with daughter Ora. Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters’ House (fragment)

It is possible that our ghetto was bypassed by the total slaughter à la Vilnius, Lviv, so far minor murders (up to 110 victims at one time) have been dealt with precisely thanks to the intense Jewish work in ghetto workshops. It is possible that this is stopping the local German authorities from radically solving the Jewish question in the ghetto. I was told that one week, while the wings of the angel of death soared above the ghetto, a certain German workshop owner said to his Jewish workers: “Hast kein Angst. Die, welche arbeiten für uns Deutsche, werden die Letzten erschossen” [“Do not be afraid. Those who work for us Germans will be shot last”].[1]

The above words were written by Abraham Lewin in his diary on July 8, 1942. At the time, the Warsaw ghetto had existed for over a year and a half. The Jews knew that mass shootings and deportations had taken place in other cities, but many were still under the illusion that forced labor in German workshops (“szopy”) would save them from death.

Lewin himself hoped for a miraculous event that would change the fate of the Jews. “When will the dawn of a new beginning appear, this so ardently longed for salvation in the world?” [2]– he wrote on July 7.

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Warsaw ghetto. Great Liquidation Action, Jews chased by German soldiers into wagons going to Treblinka. Jewish Historical Institute collection

Two weeks later, the liquidation action began in the ghetto, officially called by the Germans “relocation to the east”. Many Jews were already so devastated by diseases, the torment of overpopulation, and especially hunger that they voluntarily went to the place of deportation – Umschlagplatz, the reloading yard. To those who boarded the trains, the Germans promised 3 kg of bread and 1 kg of marmalade.[3] “They throw loaves of bread into the wagons. The first ones even grab two or three loaves, the others are left without bread at all”.[4] Some people were given bread, but all of them in overcrowded cattle cars went to the gas chambers of the newly built Treblinka extermination camp, located 80 km north-east of Warsaw.

“They stopped the round-up at three o’clock. How are the Jews trying to save themselves? Fictitious weddings with policemen. Guta [Lewin’s sister – editor] married her husband’s brother” [5] – noted Lewin on July 24. Wives and children of members of the Order Service (Jewish ghetto police) were initially excluded from deportation.

Terrible news about the plans of the Germans. It turns out that they intend to exterminate 250,000 Jews. So far – 53,000. (…) The Nazis thank the Jewish police for their “fruitful work”. They say they will use the police and in other places. (…) So far, eight Jewish policemen have committed suicide. [6]

– wrote Lewin on July 29.

The German press wrote that the reports of the mass murder in Warsaw were false, because the film, shot in the ghetto in the spring of 1942, showed that many Jews lived in good conditions. [7]

Today is the twenty-sixth day of “action” which is still going on. – wrote Lewin on August 16, after his wife was deported. – The horror and enraged bestiality are unprecedented in the history of mankind. Even the legend of the pharaoh and his command that every newborn baby be drowned in the river is not equal to them. People who returned from the Umschlagplatz said that they released the women caught yesterday in the workshops if they sacrificed their children. Unfortunately, many women were saved in this way: they gave their children between the ages of three and twelve, fourteen.

How painful and tragic it is for us. Women with documents – released. They did not release women with a child in their arms or by their side. The Germans are insatiable for their hunger for Jewish blood. Their lust for blood is unbridled. Future generations will not believe. And this is the terrible truth, naked truth, without any coloring, bitter and terrible truth. The Jewish policemen were ordered today to provide 5 people for deportation each. There are 2,000 policemen, so they should deliver 10,000 victims. If they do not obey the order, they will face the death penalty. (…) Again I heard about the letters that supposedly came from the displaced people. They say they work in the Siedlce district and are doing well. [8]

Until September 21, Treblinka claimed approximately 300,000 victims. What remained in Warsaw was a residual ghetto, empty streets and about 60,000 Jews. Lewin himself was murdered during the next deportation, in January 1943.

Lewin’s diary has survived in the underground Ringelblum Archive. Get to know more about the 22nd of July March of Remembrance, dedicated to the teachers from the Warsaw Ghetto

Written and translated by:
Przemysław Batorski
[1] Abraham Lewin, Dziennik, ed. Katarzyna Person, transl. Adam Rutkowski, Magdalena Siek, Gennady Kulikov, JHI Press, Warsaw 2016, p. 158-159. In several places the text was simplified.
[2] Ibid., p. 156.
[3] Ibid., p. 177.
[4] Ibid., p. 178.
[5] Ibid., p. 171.
[6] Ibid., p. 177.
[7] Ibid., p. 179-180.
[8] Ibid., p. 195.
Przemysław Batorski   JHI Web Editor