As the couriers on the “Aryan” side continued on their work, the ZOB received intelligence indicating that the Nazis were preparing for another round of deportations. The ZOB urged the ghetto to resist. Its members papered every surface with signs reading: “Jewish masses! The hour is close. You must be ready to resist. Do not go to your slaughter as sheep. Not even one Jew is to go to the train…We should all be ready to die as human beings.”
On the morning of January 18, 1943, 200 Germans and 800 Ukrainians marched into the ghetto.
With the same tactics they used in the summer of 1942, they rounded up thousands more Jews and shepherded them to the Umschlagplatz. What the Nazis did not know was that, this time, the ghetto was prepared. Mordecai Anielewicz and twelve ghetto fighters under his command quietly infiltrated the lines of deportees. When Anielewicz gave the signal, the thirteen fighters opened fire on the guards. All of the deportees escaped in the ensuing chaos. Some even stayed behind to fight the Nazi with their bare hands. Fighting continued for four days, at which point the Germans, unprepared for an organized Jewish resistance, retreated.1
Three months before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began in earnest, the ZOB was already organized and ready to fight. A few weeks prior to the January Uprising, one of Vladka’s missions brought her into the Ghetto. Along the way, she ran into Lusiek Blones, one of the youngest members of the ZOB at just thirteen years of age. He led her to ZOB headquarters: “I trailed after him, crawling through lofts, up and down stairs, and in and out of holes…this devious route…was safer than the streets. Bruised and grimy, we reached our destination, a run-down, fourth-floor flat.”
A group of young Jewish smugglers in the ghetto, 1942. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Inside, Abrasha briefed her on the state of affairs. The ZOB had become the de facto authority in the ghetto as both the ghetto fighters and the “civilians” prepared for open
combat.2 The ZOB urged the “civilians” to construct hiding places—typically underground bunkers—where they could remain, safely and comfortably, even though a protracted siege. The best of these hiding places had bunks, sanitary arrangements, medical supplies, non-perishable food, links to the municipal electric and water supplies, access to fresh air, and access to tunnels leading out of the ghetto.
The bunkers, their entrances, and their underground connections formed a complex maze below the ghetto. Meanwhile, Command divided the volunteer fighters into individual fighting units, each retaining the framework of the youth groups in order to keep morale high. Each group was stationed in the attic of a residential building, and, from these posts, were
to attack the Germans. As most of the residential buildings in the ghetto stood at between three and five stories tall, the fighters placed ladders between the attic windows of neighboring buildings, constructing an overhead passageway of sorts. These passageways, combined with the fighters’ intimate knowledge of the ghetto’s built environment—the buildings, factories, and passages between windows above and the cellars, bunkers, and passages below—allowed the ZOB to function within a complex maze impenetrable to the Nazis. As the fighters had no formal military training, let alone training in urban warfare, this impenetrability formed the core of the ZOB’s defensive strategy.
Despite this enormous progress, ZOB remained in dire need of arms, and no good news was coming from the Coordinating Committee. “We are on our own…the world doesn’t want to hear about what’s happening to us…The ghetto is as good as isolated,” Abrasha lamented during one of Vladka’s visits to the ghetto. And another one of her comrades, Yurek Blones, was frustrated. On a trip to the “Aryan” side, he lost his temper: “We, the Fighting Organization, are…constantly on guard; there could be a roundup any minute. Weapons—that is our greatest need!…Are we actually to be left defenseless?” He kept asking, his voice breaking, “Tell me, why are they helping us so little?” No one on the Coordinating Committee had an answer; they knew the isolation and hooplessness all too well.3
The couriers fantasized about being able to produce their own weapons, but that possibility seemed so far out reach. Yet, one night, an oddly excited Michal met Vladka in the cellar
at Gornoszlonska 3. He was carrying a chemistry book. He flung it open and began to read to her from a section regarding the results of mixing potash, hydrochloric acid, cyanide, sugar, and gasoline. This was the formula for a homemade bomb. If it worked, if they could pull this off, they could be self-sufficient and freed from their reliance on dangerous and
unwieldy underground channels. Vladka purchased the chemical components, and they mixed the solution when their landlords were out. They tested their homemade weapons in the lime kiln of Stanislaw Dubiel’s factory. “With a powerful explosion the bottle shattered and the liquid inside burst into blinding flame. We had scored a success!”
They immediately got to work. Michal climbed the wall and organized a series of small “munition plants” inside the ghetto.4 On the “Aryan” side, the couriers traveled far and wide to acquire the chemical components without rousing any suspicions. They sometimes had to transport the checmicals across the city by horse-cart. If discovered, it would mean death. Until the couriers could smuggle the chemicals into the ghetto, they slept with them—the cyanide, the hydrochloric acid, etc—under their beds.
Meanwhile, their steadfast ally, Stephan Machai, was behaving oddly. “Stephan had changed a great deal. He was no longer the kindly person who had collaborated with us for so long…He was hobnobbing with underworld characters.” And at the same time, the Gestapo was finding and arresting their agents, uncovering their hiding places, on a seemingly daily basis. And all those people and places had in common was Machai’s knowledge of them. The Gestapo even came for Michal, arresting him as he walked outside his apartment building.5 Their suspicions fell once more upon Stephan Machai. In addition to his change in demeanor, Machai had suddenly stopped working. He’d taken to “sporting new and expensive clothing, indulging in costly food and drink…We were naturally suspicious. But we could find no incriminating evidence against him.”
The underground workers lived in constant fear, never knowing who would be next. They avoided Stephan, and quietly changed addresses and identity cards. Vladka now carried a passport made out to Michalina Wojczek, and quietly moved into a tiny flat. Vladka’s friend Zoshka Kersh, who’ recently escaped from the ghetto, soon joined Vladka and her landlady. So too did a thirteen year old girl named Krysia Zlotowska, and Michal, who had escaped from custody and returned to his work. Their room was always filled with illegal literature and forged documents. Most of these papers lived hidden, in Vladka’s bed, out of sight of the landlady until they were ready for transport into the ghetto.6
One cold winter morning a loud knock on the door jerked Vladka awake. Michal and Krysia were still asleep and Zoshka had already left for work. The landlady answered the door. A harsh voice asked “Does Vladka Kowalska live here?” Vladka’s heart began to pound. The landlady told the man that there was no one in the flat by that name. Yet, before the she could finish speaking, heavy footsteps marched into the flat, and towards Vladka’s bed. She forced herself to feign surprise as two men—Polish police officers—tore the covers from her bed and stood, menacingly, over her. They demanded her name. “I am Michalina Wojczek,” she told them, but they continued to question her, absolutely certain that a Vladka Kowalska lived
By this point, Michal and Krysia were awake. Michal dressed quietly, while Krysia stared at their landlady in open terror. Finally, Vladka said “Yes [Vladka Kowalska] lives here, but she left for work at least half an hour ago.”7 The police were not convinced. “Get dressed, all of you—and be quick about it!” one of them ordered. “We know who you are. You’re all Jews!” Vladka’s thoughts raced to the forged documents and illegal literature hidden beneath her pillow; if the men searched the room “heaven knew what awaited us. Those who engaged in illegal activities were often cruelly tortured before they were finally put to death.” While she silently panicked, Michal had the
presence of mind to offer the men a bribe. They hesitated for a moment, but accepted upon hearing the amount. As money changed hands, the men offered a compromise. They only wanted Vladka, so, instead of arresting all three of the Jews, they would take one of them as a hostage until “Vladka” handed herself over.
Without fear or hesitation, before Michal and Krysia could react, before the police could change their minds, Vladka walked to the door and flung it open, marching ahead of the police into the bright, cold morning. As they walked, the police attempted to negotiate with her. “Just tell us where this Vladka is working, and we’ll let you go,” they urged. Vladka repeated, simple, that she did not know. The party continued on in silence. Suddenly, one of the men spoke again. This time his voice was rushed and fearful. “When the Germans interrogate you, don’t tell them we took any money from you. Understand?” Vladka acted confused. “Why shouldn’t I tell them? You’re not afraid, are you?” This stopped the men in their tracks. They began to consult in whispers until, “Go home,” one of them told her, “it is Vladka we want, not you.” And with that, they turned and walked away.
Vladka stood in shock for a moment, and then noticed Michal and Krysia some distance behind her. They had been following Vladka and the police to learn where they were taking her. “Now they embraced me, overjoyed at my narrow escape.” They moved out of their room that same day, and were more certain than ever that this had been the doing of Stephan Machai. “We sent him several letters warning him bluntly that unless he stopped working against us, we would settle accounts with him ourselves.” Celek even talked to some of the leaders of Armja Krajowa, the Polish Home Army (or AK), about having Machai “liquidated.” However, that proved unnecessary; the Gestapo shot him when they’d run out of use for his information.
The underground remained hard at work. On the eve of the Uprising, one of Vladka’s missions took her back into the ghetto. This time, she was to deliver sticks of dynamite. She wrapped them in greasy paper to make them look like packages of butter, and proceeded to Paryowski Place. As usual, she paid the chief smuggler, and climbed the ladder. Crouched atop the ghetto wall, Vladka scanned the ground for Yurek Blones and Yanek Bilak, but they were nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, she heard gunfire somewhere behind her on the “Aryan” side. The
smugglers scattered in every direction, taking the ladder with them. She was now stranded on top of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto, alone, clutching dynamite. Under other circumstances she would have jumped, but this time, she feared that the impact would cause the “butter” to detonate. The gunshots moved closer. Weighing her options, Vladka prepared to jump, and to die in the ensuing explosion. At the last minute she heard a familiar voice. “Vladka, Vladka!” it called, “hold on!” It was Yurek. He helped her down and, with the Nazis in close pursuit, they ran.
Once they’d lost the Nazis, the two of them moved carefully through the streets while Yurek updated her on the state of the ghetto. “Everybody…is busy digging bunkers for themselves…or else they’re partitioning attics and lofts for secret hiding places,” he said. They passed groups clustered around a poster. Moving closer, Vladka stopped and stared in disbelief; it was an open appeal from the ZOB calling on all the Jews of the Ghetto to disregard orders and resist deportation. The ZOB was openly calling for resistance. Their preparations were common knowledge, and that appeal was not the first to openly grace the walls of the ghetto. Moving further in, Vladka noticed that “the mood of the ghetto had changed. Jews now would…defend themselves—at any cost…The ghetto Jews wanted to stand fast, to hold their ground.” The ghetto was practically unanimous in its stand against the Germans, and the ZOB was their unquestioned leader.
When Vladka and Yurek arrived, ZOB headquarters was bustling. Fighters moved about engaged in whispered consultations. Couriers—mostly women and girls of seventeen and eighteen years of age, hailing from Hashomer Hatzair, Dror, and the Bund—came and went, revolvers, grenades, and ammunitions concealed on their persons. One of Vladka’s old friends, a woman named Miriam Shifman, worked for a factory which manufactured German uniforms. She pulled one of these, plus several German caps, out of a package. “There was much joking and an exchange of sarcastic comments as one after another tried the uniforms on.” The next room over played host to the “munitions” plant. Inside the darkened room, two young
men hard at work, stirring a cask, and very carefully transferring the explosive liquid from the cask into bottles. Molotov cocktails lined the wall. One of the young men told Vladka about a recent weapons testing: “A couple of nights ago we tested one of our homemade hand grenades…You should have heard the bang and seen the flash! The German sentry must have been scared out of his wits.” They all laughed.
The happy atmosphere was infectious—Vladka had almost never seen headquarters like this. But, it was getting dark, and she needed to get back over the wall. Before she left, Abrasha told her that they anticipated a roundup at any moment. “On your next visit,” he said, “I will show you a whole row of bunkers. If the struggle should go on for a long period of time, you will know where to find us.”
But there would be no next time.
1 The Nazis murdered between 5,000 and 6,500 Jews over the course of those four days.
2 They even levied taxes on the ghetto to support their work. According to Marek Edelman—commandant of all the resistance groups in the factory area of the Ghetto and the Bund’s representative in the General Command of the ZOB—they only “taxed” Jews known to be wealthy, or known to have prospered since the sealing of the ghetto. The ZOB would investgate financial situation of the parties in question before taxing them. When an individual was selcted for taxation, the ZOB would leave them a letter identifying the time and place at which specific amounts of money were to be deposited. Often, the ZOB had to exert pressure while collecting these “taxes.”
3 There were a few reminders that they weren’t alone. A Coordinating Committee member named David Klin owned a radio. He invited his comrades over to listen to the Polish broadcast from London. They all listened to the broadcast, tears running down their faces. There was another world outside Poland, outside Warsaw, a world where people, where armies, where countries were fighting the Nazis. The broadcast called on the Poles to endure, and to never lose hope. In Klin’s flat, the tiny group of underground Jews waited for the broadcast to mention them, to acknowledge them. But there was just a Polish soldier’s song, and the broadcast ended.
4 As they moved forward with this project, Mikolai introduced Michal to a Polish underground officer named Julian, an expert on explosives. He taught Michal the ins and outs of manufacturing grenades, bombs, and Molotov cocktails.
5 Through a contact in the Polish police, the Committee was able to get word to Michal. However, after two weeks, their communication was cut off and they all feared the worst. And indeed, their fears were well founded. The Gestapo marched Michal back to the ghetto, and loaded him onto a Treblinka-bound train. As it started to move, Michal tinkered with the the metal screen covering the car’s sole window. He managed to remove the screen. After squeezing through the narrow opening, he jumped, falling to the ground amidst a hail of bullets from the Ukrainian guards standing atop of the train. When the train was out of site, Michal stood up, wiped the blood off his face, and limped back to Warsaw. One evening, as Vladka and Celek were meeting in the cellar, the door flew open. There stood Michal; bruised, bloodied, and alive.
6 For her part, their landlady “knew that we were all Jews; yet she and her sons accepted the discomfort and crowding in the small room.”
7Actually, it was Zoshka who’d left for work.