Warsaw Jewish Ghetto – A Mirror Image of Gaza

Warsaw Jewish Ghetto – A Mirror Image of Gaza

Warsaw Jewish Ghetto – A Mirror Image of Gaza

History repeats like bad memory and bad faith. It’s uncanny.

I have not been to Palestine, except in my imagination. But I have walked through Warsaw. And Gaza reminds me of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, and the sprawling Jewish quarters in Warsaw, which was under an endless siege, in the pitch darkness of impending death, denied food, water, medicine, the right to live. Indeed, Benjamin Netanyahu is applying the same, vicious logic of extermination on the Palestinians, as what Adolf Hitler did to the Jews of Warsaw! Meanwhile, the West and the US backs his mighty military machine, funded with billions by the American arms industry.

The entire city of Warsaw was erased to the ground by the Nazis. The Jewish quarters was burnt and bombed out. The black & white pictures of this ravaged landscape can be seen in an old-factory, now called ‘The Warsaw Rising Museum’, situated in the Wola district. This dark museum, through a labyrinth of precious, valiant and tragic memories, was established in 1983; it was inaugurated on July 31, 2004, marking the 60th anniversary of this great resistance against the fascist war machine.

About 50,000 citizens and soldiers led the ‘Uprising of 1944’. The Communist Red Army, positioned across the border, was not allowed to help the Poles, under the orders of Joseph Stalin, allowing the resistance to be eliminated by the Germans. The map hangs out there, marked in red, as a reminder of Stalin’s sinister strategy. That is why, the people of Poland, who suffered under a military dictatorship backed by Soviet Russia for decades, hate both the Communists and the fascists in equal measure.

I have entered the replica of the tunnels inside the museum, built inside sewers and gutters, and I was breathless in a few moments. The tunnels now remind me of the cobweb of turrets and tunnels inside Gaza.

I have seen the Warsaw Ghetto, or, its original site. It still sends shivers down the spine. The brilliant ‘Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews’ is located on the site of the former ghetto. Polin in Hebrew means Poland, or, ‘rest here’, and is linked to a narrative about the first Jews who arrived in this country. This incredible museum, a magnificent work of genius, which would take several days to absorb and negotiate, commemorates 1,000 years of Jewish history. It has been built in post-modern style by Rainer Mahlamaki and Ilmari Lahdelma.

This is where the Nazis targeted 400,000 (or, 500,000?) Jews and sent most of them to the concentration camps, labour/death camps, and gas chambers of the Holocaust. I have seen some of their faces – both the Jews and the Nazis, in faded, sepia pictures. Earlier, they were isolated, ghettoized, degraded and starved of food and water for months in abject darkness in the ‘forbidden city’. Thousands of them survived by having one bowl of soup in a day, often made of straw, or smuggled potatoes. If caught with potatoes, they would be instantly shot dead. Even now, inside inexpensive street cafes and magical breweries and pubs in Warsaw, one can find delicious varieties of potato dishes!

I have read and witnessed their life-stories in films, documentaries, literature, books on their history. Most of them were forced into the cramped, degrading journeys through the heart of Europe (as Europe and America watched in abject and shameful silence) to their horrible deaths in over-crowded cattle-trains jam-packed like poultry chicken for mass slaughter, where they had to shit right inside the compartment, and not a wisp of wind or a drop of water would be allowed to enter.

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However, not all succumbed to this fated death journey of absolute condemnation. There were many who chose to resist and fight back – and they fought like brave fighters till the end, almost 60,000 of them. They refused to die in a Nazi gas chamber.

A Nazi SS officer, Major General Juergen Stroop, reported that these groups of poorly-armed 20-30 men and women refused to surrender. He said that the women would be “firing pistols with both hands, and unleash hand grenades…”. On the fifth day of this incredible resistance, the Nazis decided to destroy the entire ghetto. Burn it down, they were ordered. (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L Shirer).

Writes the surprised officer: “The Jews stayed in the burning buildings, until because of the fear of being burned alive, they jumped down from the upper stories … With their bones broken they still tried to crawl across the street into buildings which had not yet been set on fire… Despite the danger of being burned alive, the Jews and bandits often preferred to return into the flames, rather than risk being caught by us.”

The operation was commanded by Himmler, Hitler’s close aide. Stroop informed his superiors on April 25, 1943, that 27,564 Jews had been captured and they would be sent to the notorious concentration camp of Treblinka the next day itself. Or else, immediate “liquidation” would be undertaken en masse. He also informed that “1,330 Jews were pulled out of dugouts and immediately destroyed; 362 Jews killed in battle”.

Writes Shirer: “Towards the end of the rebellion, the defenders took to the sewers. Stroop tied to flush them out by flooding the mains but the Jews managed to stop the flow of water. One day, the Germans dropped smoke bombs into the sewer through 183 manholes but Stroop ruefully reported that they failed to have the desired results.”

The Polish-Jewish fighters, with practically no arms, wounded, dying, starving, thirsty, cold and outmaneuvered by the German military, fought it out for one entire month, against all odds, while Stroop reported that by April 26 many of them were “going insane from the heat, the smoke and the explosions”.

On the last day of this ‘controlled massacre’, Stroop reported: “Of the total of 56,000 caught, about 7,000 were destroyed in the former ghetto during large-scale operation, 6,929 Jews were destroyed by transporting them to Treblinka; the sum total of Jews destroyed is therefore 13,929. Beyond that, five to six thousand Jews were destroyed by being blown up, or by perishing in the flames.” Stroop had reported that he had caught a “total of 56,065 Jews, whose extermination can be proved’. He called all the Jews “sub-humans and bandits”.

So what did the Israeli defense minister call the Palestinians after the slaughter of innocents by the Hamas on October 7? “Human animals” – as he announced the “complete siege” of Gaza.

Shirer writes that the Nazi gas chambers amounted for the 36,000 murdered from the Warsaw Ghetto. He writes that the ‘final solution’ continued till the end of the war. So how many Jews murdered in cold blood? “According to the SS witnesses at Nurmemberg, the total was put at between five and six million”. Karl Eichmann, chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo, carried out the mass extermination.

Hannah Arendt, later covering the trial of Eichmann, who was captured in Argentina, writes in that seminal essay, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’, that what was striking in his daily conduct during the trial was that he did not feel an iota of guilt or remorse on the magnitude of the crime he had committed against millions of innocent people. Indeed, this was the dominant social-psychological syndrome expressed by all Nazi and Gestapo officers who willfully participated in the Holocaust.

Now, in the manner in which the world powers, including India and in the Middle-East, are allowing the daily bombing of Gaza, including that of hospitals, schools, homes and refugee camps, the genocide of children and ordinary folks, and slow death in the thirsty and hungry alleys of Gaza, the Eichmann syndrome and Himmler’s doctrine seems to have persisted in the post-war scenario. No lessons have been learnt. The global war machine remains as cruel, prolonged and nasty, and eternally hungry for innocent blood.

German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, who himself committed suicide escaping the fascists, was therefore eternally prophetic when he said: “There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

However, unlike in the armed resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto, in Palestine, the unarmed and displaced refugees in their own homeland, seemed to have become like the trapped and condemned Jews of the concentration camps. Waiting for inevitable death.

Certainly, yesterday’s Warsaw Ghetto is now the Siege of Gaza! And, every day, Netanyahu looks more and more like Hitler!

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Karen Gabriel
Karen Gabriel
5 months ago

A very fine and moving piece on the situation in Gaza that documents the parallels between Nazi Germany and Zionist Israel. I will be sharing this.

Neshat Quaiser
Neshat Quaiser
5 months ago

It was necessary to write this piece Amit Sengupata.

5 months ago

This is such a moving piece Amit. Thank you for writing this…unfazed history continues to repeat itself..and humans in power seem to have learnt little humanity from the past. ..as they continue to implement their agendas of hideous violence and cruelty ..

subhash gatade
subhash gatade
5 months ago

 “There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Sharing the piece

Neena Vyas
Neena Vyas
5 months ago

Dear Amit, your piece moved me to tears and desperation. How could a people so oppressed, the jews, themselves become oppressors and subject other people what they had suffered and endured? I ask this question silently each day as i see the Gaza horror unfold

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