The Holocaust rarely produced happy endings—any such story would be a freakish aberration. Perhaps this depressing reality feeds our continual need to remember the few heroic instances of resistance. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising may not have been ultimately successful—the Nazis ruthlessly crushed the rebellion, razed the ghetto and shipped thousands more Jews to Treblinka—but it was the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II. Flash forward to our time, and we have repeatedly memorialized the revolt on TV and in films.
In this vein we remember Isaac Zuckerman and Zivia Lubetkin, two twentysomethings who fought in the Jewish underground and lived to tell the tale.
Zuckerman (also spelled Cukierman) was born in Vilnius, Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire), and grew up embracing socialism and Zionism. When World War II began in 1939, Zuckerman fled to Soviet-occupied eastern Poland, where he organized Zionist youth groups. He returned to German-occupied Poland in April 1940 to organize an underground resistance movement.
There, he met fellow resistance leader and future wife, Zivia Lubetkin, a Polish-born Jew who from a young age had also adhered to the Labor Zionist Movement and had been one of the founders of the Jewish Fighting Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ZOB) in Warsaw.
“She had blazing eyes and a penetrating glance,” recall those who knew Lubetkin, adding that she “was simple and direct, demanding the maximum of others and of herself.”
To resist meant to anticipate when to take risks, and when to put them on others. One misstep could leave blood on one’s hands; a Jew, or someone discovered to be helping Jews, could be killed not only by the occupying Nazis but a general populace nourished on centuries of anti-Semitic bigotry.
An excerpt from “Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland” by Matthew Brzezinski illustrates the choices that Lubetkin and Zuckerman faced. In 1941, Lubetkin and Zuckerman, along with Mark Edelman of the Jewish Fighting Organization, were not sure what to make of reports of the Vilna Massacre. Were the reports true? Were the Nazis planning on liquidating the Jews of Warsaw, as well?
“A lot of people refused to believe that this was anything more than an isolated incident,” Edelman recalled.
Nonetheless, the answers to these questions would determine the underground’s next moves.
It was incredibly dangerous for Jews to travel, so a colleague arranged for a non-Jewish friend to report back. It was a heavy risk to take: should the colleague be caught, he most certainly would have been killed. (Brzezinski writes: “Leaving the Ghetto without a pass became infinitely more perilous on October 10, 1941, when Warsaw district governor Ludwig Fisher announced that henceforth any Jew caught outside the walls would be summarily executed. The death penalty, Fisher added in a statement published in the New Warsaw Courier two days later, would also apply to any Gentile harboring or lending assistance to Jews. ‘I instruct the entire population of the Warsaw District to draw careful attention to this latest decree because it will be administered with merciless severity,’ he warned.”)
The Gentile messenger made it back safely, with news that the reports were indeed true, as Brzezinski writes:
“In Vilna, a special pogrom unit of Lithuanians called the Ipatingas, or the Elect, had been created by the Germans. It was staffed with relatives of victims of Soviet repression, many of whom were told by the Germans that Jewish Bolsheviks were responsible for their family’s sufferings. In ‘revenge,’ they killed, or helped the Germans kill, nearly a third of Vilna’s sixty thousand Jews.”
Even worse, the bloodletting was not unique to Vilna—far from it—as brutality had been dished out like a public spectacle, appreciated and cheered on.
“In other Lithuanian towns, the SS released violent criminals from jails and put them to work murdering Jews. In the Lithuanian capital of Kaunas, or Kovno as it was then also known in Polish, meting out ‘rightful punishment to collaborators and traitors’ had become a spectator sport, according to eyewitnesses, complete with large crowds, ‘cheering and clapping.’ Lithuanian children were lifted onto the shoulders of their parents to catch a glimpse of the famous ‘Death-dealer of Kovno,’ a sight that one German regular army officer later described as the most frightful event he’d witnessed in the course of two world wars.”
“‘On the concrete forecourt of the petrol station a blond man of medium height, aged about 25, stood leaning on a wooden club, resting,’ the disgusted officer, a colonel in the Wehrmacht’s Army Group North, recounted. ‘The club was as thick as his arm and came up to his chest. At his feet lay about fifteen to twenty dead or dying people. Water flowed continuously from a hose washing blood away into the drainage gully. Just a few steps behind this man some twenty men, guarded by armed civilians, stood waiting for their cruel execution in silent submission. In response to a cursory wave the next man stepped forward silently and was beaten to death with the wooden club in the most bestial manner, each blow accompanied by enthusiastic shouts from the audience.’”
“Once the mound of Jewish bodies at his feet had reached fifty, the Death-dealer fetched an accordion, climbed to the top of the pile of corpses, and played the Lithuanian national anthem.”
Years later, at the Eichmann trial, Lubetkin would recount how the reports from Vilna changed the course of the resistance’s strategy.
“After we had heard the account from Vilna, on the one hand, and the story of Chelmno on the other hand, we believed that this was being done systematically,” she said. “I must say that in the previous years, even we could not picture to ourselves that a nation in the 20th century would indeed execute a death sentence on an entire people. We asked ourselves more than once: They are degrading us, they are suppressing us, are they truly thinking of destroying all of us? We did not believe it… But doubt was gnawing at our hearts all the time. We had been living in this way for years.”
Thus, the events at Vilna and Chelmno, a concentration camp where some 150,000 people were killed, confirmed Lubetkin’s and Zuckerman’s worst fears that the Nazis were indeed planning a final solution, the annihilation of every Jew. Perhaps, too, those fears motivated them to continue on: after all, what else does one have to lose when facing near certain extermination?
Of the Warsaw ghetto, Lubetkin testified at the Eichman hearing, “Jews in the ghetto felt, that in essence we had been placed beyond any law, and that any German could do whatever he pleased… But apart from the legal prohibitions, from the first days we became outlaws in matters of life and death.”
Zuckerman also testified at the Eichmann trial, explaining “that it is impossible to evaluate the Jewish underground in its isolation from the general underground, without seeing what was happening in the world.”
“I am not referring to wider aspects,” he added. “But if we were to view ourselves, despite the fact that we were isolated in the ghetto and not to view the influences, the mutual interaction between the factors in action, we would miss the point. Until the Jews of Warsaw were murdered there was no sign of light in the world. El Alamein and Stalingrad happened when there were no longer Jews in Warsaw, when the Jews of Warsaw had gone to their deaths—they did not even know that there would be a first victory. They were isolated. It seemed to me that the whole world had collapsed.”
Zuckerman later played a role in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but from the outside; with his forged “Aryan” papers, he had been providing much-needed ammunition and weapons to the ghetto partisans. Lubetkin fought from inside the ghetto as a commander. Later, the two helped organize the escape of surviving ZOB fighters through the sewer system.
Ultimately, historians have concluded that by the end of the war, some 3 million Jews in Poland had been exterminated, either in concentration camps or wherever they were found. In many cases, those who survived the camps returned home to find that all family members had been killed, and that their neighbors had no intent of preventing future pogroms—indeed, perhaps they would actively participate. It was on this background that Zuckerman and Lubetkin helped smuggle surviving Jews out of eastern and central Europe to Mandate Palestine through illegal immigration channels. The couple also ultimately ended up in Palestine, married, and founded a kibbutz named after the “ghetto fighters”—Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta’ot, in the western Galilee.
Zuckerman would later write a book, “A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” which remains one of the most extensive documents by any Jewish resistance leader in Europe.
Zuckerman died on the kibbutz in 1981; Lubetkin in 1978.
The couple’s granddaughter, Roni Zuckerman, became the Israeli Air Force’s first female fighter pilot in 2001.
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.