By Larry Domnitch
Before the Germans captured the city of Warsaw in the 1939 Blitzkrieg, there were 360,000 Jews in the Polish capital. The Jews were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, which was established on November 15, 1940.
Disease and starvation claimed many of the ghetto’s inhabitants, but the population was maintained by the continual influx of Jewish refugees. Warsaw’s Jewish population soon reached 460,000.1 The Jews of the Ghetto initially did not realize that they were being forced into what was a holding pen for the slaughterhouse—Treblinka, the death camp that would destroy 800,000 people, the vast majority of whom were Jews, within the span of a few months.
On July 22, the eve of Tishah B’Av, 1942, the death sentence for Warsaw’s Jews was issued. In the early morning hours, the Judenrat was convened and the authorities for “Resettlement Affairs” ordered the “resettlement in the east of all Jews residing in Warsaw regardless of age and sex.” The order called for 6,000 Jews per day to be rounded up and deported.
A week before the announcement of the deportations, rumors had already spread in the ghetto. The Jews were gripped with terror. Head of the Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, asked the Nazi officials for an explanation, but received nothing but denials. On the 22nd of July, at 7:30 in the morning, Czerniakow, along with the members of the Judenrat, were told that the deportations were to begin the next day—Tishah B’Av—and the expulsions would include children. He immediately understood the gravity of such an order and that his previous cooperation with the Germans was a grievous error. This was an order he refused to sign. The night following the first deportation, he took his own life, leaving the following note: “I am powerless. My heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this.”2
Chaim Kaplan, in a diary on the Warsaw Ghetto, Scroll of Agony, foresaw the doom that awaited the Jews of Warsaw with the issuance of the decree. He had surmised that the deportations could only be a death sentence and that those who deny it “grasp at straws.”3 In a July 26 entry, Kaplan wrote, “We, the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto, are now experiencing the reality. Our good fortune is that our days are numbered—that we shall not have to live long under conditions as these.”4
The decree ordered all Jews to be deported except those who worked in German industries or the Judenrat. Over the next nine days, 66,701 Jews were deported to Treblinka.5
At Treblinka, a sign displayed at the entrance intending to maintain calm stated, “Do not worry about your future. . . . All of you are headed for the east, to work; while you work, your wives shall take care of your houses. But first you must bathe and your clothes must be cleaned of lice.”6 Only moments later, after merciless beatings by SS and Ukrainian guards, the victims were herded into the crematoria.
On July 29, the next round of Warsaw’s deportations began. The SS, along with Latvian and Lithuanian troops, closed off individual blocks and forced people from their homes. Many were shot on the spot; others were savagely beaten. When the crowd’s numbers reached a few thousand, they were herded off to the “Umschlagplatz”—a deportation railway yard, to be transported. Every morning and evening, the roundups took place. Over the month of August, 142,525 were deported, with 135,120 Jews being sent to Treblinka. By mid-August, it was widely understood that “resettlement” was a myth. Enough evidence had already reached the ghetto by witnesses to Nazi atrocities. By October 3, 310,000 Jews were deported, including most members of the Judenrat. Many were deported on September 21—Yom Kippur.
Dr. Hillel Seidman wrote in an entry in a Warsaw Ghetto diary entitled The Night of Tears:
“As night falls, I finally reach home, my brain bursting with terrifying images. Crossing our courtyard, I notice our small shtiebl. About 20 men sit on upturned benches—it is Tishah B’Av tonight! Two flickering candles dimly light up the bent heads, with their eyes staring into the far distance, as that heartrending tune wells up: “Eichah . . .”
“The tune that was perhaps first composed at the exile from Jerusalem and has since absorbed the tears of generations.
“We Jews of Warsaw, sons of those exiles, sit on the ground to mourn our own personal churban, the destruction of a major kehillah—the largest and most vigorous in Europe—which resulted from that earlier Churban. We weep at our fate, a nation without a land, within the grasp of our fiercest enemy and condemned to death. We grieve both for the loss of the Beis HaMikdash and the extinction of our lives.”7
On Tishah B’Av 1942, the well-organized Nazi killing machine whose horror knew no bounds was set into high gear in the city of Warsaw.8 A chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto, Emanuel Ringelbaum, called the eve of that Tishah B’Av in 1942 “the blackest day in Jewish history in modern times.”9 v
1. Courage Under Siege: Starvation, Disease and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto, Charles Roland, Oxford University Press, p. 27
2. The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow, Introduction by Josef Kermisz, p. 23
3. Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim Kaplan, Translated and Edited by Abraham I. Katch, Collier Books, p. 380
4. Ibid., p. 383
5. Yisrael Guttman, Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, Indiana University Press, p. 211
6. The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow, p. 46
7. Dr. Hillel Seidman, The Warsaw Ghetto Diaries, Targum/Feldheim, pp. 55, 56
8. Of the 40,000 Jews who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto following the deportations, several hundred armed themselves and fought against their oppressors when the soldiers came to liquidate the ghetto in April 1943.
9. Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelbaum, edited and translated by Jacob Sloan, Schocken Books, p. 126