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The forgotten workers’ resistance against the Nazis: Warsaw’s Jewish tailors

By Martin Smith | 26 January 2016

Jewish tailors working in the Warsaw Ghetto 1941

Jewish tailors working in the Warsaw Ghetto 1941

Tucked away in Emmanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto is the following entry:

The English communiqués have recently been full of descriptions of sabotage in various countries occupied by the German army. There is no large [munitions] industry in the ghetto, but Jewish tailors working in the German commissary shops, wishing to do their part for the sabotage, have sent off a transport of military uniforms with trousers sewed together, buttons on backwards, pockets upside down, sleeves reversed (the left sleeve where the right should be). The transport was reversed from Berlin and now the Production Department is all-agog. There are threats of drastic punishment.

—— mid-September, 1941

This is to my knowledge the only account of the heroic industrial resistance against the Nazis undertaken by Jewish workers in the Warsaw Ghetto. In my opinion it ranks alongside the industrial action taken against the Nazis in Holland in 1941 and in Turin, Italy, in 1944.

Ringelblum was a Polish-Jewish historian born in 1900. He was an active member of the Labour Zionist movement. He and his family were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto following the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939. He, along with a group of Jewish academics and writers, collected diaries, documents, decrees and commissioned papers in order to record the life of the ghetto and to ensure the Nazis could not wipe out the memory of Warsaw’s Jews.

Emmanuel Ringelblum’s records have ensured that this resistance was recorded for posterity. The compiling of these archives was a brave act: if these historians were caught they would have been executed.

Ringelblum’s archives both give a unique insight into the near-impossible conditions the tailors had to organise under and the heroic and selfless act they organised.

On the eve of World War Two the Jewish population in Warsaw numbered 337,000 – about 30% of the total population of the city. The Nazis set up the ghetto on 14 October 1940. Jews from all over Warsaw and the surrounding area were forced to move into the ghetto. A 12-foot high wall surrounded the area, so the Jewish inhabitants were physically cut off from the rest of Warsaw and the world. By March 1941 over 445,000 Jews were living in an area making up only 2.4% of the city’s area.

The conditions inside the ghetto were horrific. Jews were allocated a daily food ration of only 181 calories, about a quarter of the meagre rations given to the Poles in Warsaw. On average 3,882 Jews died a month of starvation and illness. Even before the Nazis began their mass deportations to the death camp in Treblinka over 100,000 of the ghetto’s residents had died of hunger and disease.

The Warsaw Jewish Council (Judenrat), imposed on the Jewish population by the occupying forces, made no attempt to resist the Nazis. Instead they hoped that by appeasing the Nazis many Jews would be spared.

The Nazis allowed the Judenrat to set up some workshops in the ghetto. The largest was Tobbens and Schultz, a Nazi German textile manufacturing conglomerate making German uniforms. This was the hub of the of the tailors’ action.

The second key industrial base was the Brush works area – a complex of small-scale metal works. Both were located in the northeast sector of the ghetto. Conditions in the factories and workshops were akin to slave labour. After deductions, a worker received 3 to 5 Zloty per day. Up to 18,000 people worked in these factories. Ringelblum described the working conditions as a “free society of slaves”.

Resistance

Both the Ringelblum archive and the diary of Adam Czerniaków (head of the Judenrat) paint a horrifying picture of ghetto life – but they also show that, despite all the hardships, an illegal cultural and political life flourished. More than 70 underground papers were produced, and there were mass religious gatherings, musical concerts, plays and political meetings. This underground life was a form of resistance.

Jewish workers also attempted to reorganise their union, the Central Trade Union Council (CTUC) inside the Ghetto. It registered approximately 30,000 former union members. As well as organising small-scale activities, printing illegal newspapers and procuring weapons, CTUC members organised the tailors’ sabotage.

Bund

One of the most important and active political organisations in the Ghetto was the Bund (a huge Jewish socialist movement, opposed to Zionism). More than 2,000 people participated in festivities organised inside the Ghetto to mark the Bund’s 44th anniversary in October 1941.

These political and trade union organisations were not formed as a result of the Nazi invasion – their roots in the Jewish working class went back decades.

Though little is known about the Jewish tailors’ resistance, one thing is certain: it was inspired by other strikes in Europe against the Nazis. The Jewish workers heard about these actions through Allied bulletins that were smuggled into the ghetto.

The tailors’ sabotage was a completely selfless act. In the slave camp conditions of the ghetto, these workers had no chance of success: they had little industrial power and every possibility of being executed on the spot or deported to Treblinka. The sole purpose of the action was to show solidarity with other European workers resisting the Nazis. Sadly Ringelblum does not record what happened to the action.

It is an interesting fact that it was workers who organised the first collective resistance. As individuals, they were no more nor less heroic than anyone else in the Ghetto, but their experience of collective organisation and their industrial power, although very limited, enabled them to strike back.

We also know from several survivors’ testimonies that the ghetto factory workers were also heavily involved in the smuggling of weapons and the running of the illegal print presses.

Deportations

The first wave of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camp at Treblinka began on 23 July 1942 and ended on 21 September 1942. About 300,000 ghetto residents were murdered. Two thirds of the ghetto population had been liquidated – leaving just 60,000 people. Then the deportations were temporarily halted. Emmanuel Ringelblum wrote in his diary:

The majority of Jews understood what a terrible mistake had been committed by not resisting the SS. If everybody had attacked the Germans with knives, clubs, shovels, choppers. If we had received the Germans, Ukrainians, Latvians and the Jewish Ghetto police with acid, molten pitch, boiling water and so on – to put it in a nutshell if men, women and children, the young and the old had risen in a single people’s levy, there would not have been 300,000 murdered at Treblinka, but only 50,000 shot dead in the streets of Warsaw.

—— September 1942

Within a few days of this diary entry Ringelblum and his team of archivists agreed to hide the archives, along with Ringelblum’s own private notes. They were hidden in three metal cans underground inside the ghetto just before uprising began in the spring of 1943. One can was located in September 1946 and a second in 1950. The third has never been found.

After the first round of deportations a number of young political activists drawn from the Bund, the social democrats and Zionist groups formed a joint organisation called the ZOB. (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa – the Jewish Fighting Organisation). They quickly became the political leadership in the ghetto. The ZOB issued a proclamation calling for the Jewish people to resist going to the deportation point (known as the Umschlagplatz).

Factory workers at the Tobbens plant and the Brush Works area were ordered to assemble for deportation on 19 January 1943. But they refused to go to the assembly point. Instead the Nazis rounded up around 5,000 other Jews from the ghetto and marched them off to the deportation centre. Members of the ZOB attacked the Nazis and forced them to flee the ghetto.

Fighters

The ZOB’s victory was only temporary: on 19 April 1943, Nazi troops and police entered the ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants. But they were met with the display of defiance and resistance that later became known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Around 750 ZOB fighters battled the heavily armed and well equipped Nazis. The ghetto workshops, Tobbens and the Brush workers area were key strongholds for the resistance fighters.

The Jewish fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month. But on 16 May 1943, the revolt was finally crushed as the Nazis razed the ghetto to the ground. More than 56,000 Jews were captured: of these, about 7,000 were shot and the rest were sent to concentration and death camps.

The revolt had no chance of victory. The ghetto fighters had no illusions – they knew there was no possibility of their small forces, pitifully short of weapons, defeating the Nazis. They knew that the Soviets and Allies could not come to their aid and they received very little help from the Polish Resistance movement outside the ghetto walls. Instead, the goal of the uprising was as simple as it was heroic: to show the Nazis and the world that the Jews of Warsaw would not go quietly to their deaths.

Shortly before the uprising Ringelblum escaped the ghetto and went into hiding. But tragically he was captured by the Nazis on 7 March 1944 and murdered.

Yet the Ringelblum archive has ensured that the world knows about the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. The archive also charts the daily struggles for food and dignity in the ghetto and exposes the despicable role played by the Judenrat and Jewish ghetto police.

Sadly there is no detailed record about the tailors’ action, its leaders or its outcomes. But thanks to Ringelblum’s archive, the workers’ collective resistance to the Nazi occupation was recorded – and today it should be celebrated.

The photograph in this article was taken in 1941. It is one of 218 authorised by the Jewish ghetto administration. It is not known whether they were meant to be seen by the Nazis or industrialists. After the war they found their way to a private owner in Poland, and in 1990 they were handed over to Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust study centre).


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