The other side of the nightmare

The other side of the nightmare

A dramatic story of the Jewish resistance in World War II Poland

Death squads ranged door to door in Vilna, Isaac Zuckerman’s hometown, exacting a terrible toll.

Warsaw – a vibrant, cosmopolitan magnet of the 1930s, bustling with shops, nightlife, museums, and a heady sense of place shared by its 1.3 million residents.

How could anyone fail to fall under the spell of a city boasting streets named Pleasant, Goose, Peacock, Valiant, Mushroom and Cordials?

And these were the thoroughfares that ultimately would come to define the heart of the wartime ghetto and its more than 400,000 Jewish inhabitants.

As Hitler’s eastward gaze settled on this crown jewel along the Vistula River, he thought only of a city that was much too Russified, one that would have to pay the ultimate price of his territorial ambitions, his contempt of Jews, Slavs, and communists and his designs on the Polish corridor and thus a clear path to Soviet soil. If Warsaw had the temerity to consider itself the Paris of the East, then the dictator would reduce it to the rubble of the Reich as part of a larger blitzkrieg against the nation.

Joseph Stalin’s view of the city, and indeed the entirety of Poland, was refracted through a radically different lens. After World War I, Stalin commanded revolutionary forces arrayed against the armies of the newly reconstituted Second Polish Republic, but he botched his command, refusing Lenin’s plea to shift troops. Now he ached for revenge but would first have to buy time with Germany by agreeing to one of history’s most intransigent cooperation treaties. It was signed on August 23, 1939, just a week before Hitler pounced on Poland from the west and a fortnight before the Soviets unleashed forces from the east, catching the nation in a vise of treachery.

After the Poles overcame their initial shock and began to fight back, Hitler ordered unrestricted bombing and wanton executions. For the first time in their parallel but separate histories, Jews fought alongside Poles on the outskirts of Warsaw and in its metropolitan ramparts. Thousands of Varsovians who only days before had enjoyed the delights of the city began streaming from it, their homes obliterated and their direction dictated by ethnicity, political leanings, or just hoped-for prospects.

The dystopian events of the next five years would turn both Warsaw and the Polish countryside into a virtual charnel house. By war’s end, fully 15 percent of the population had perished in the fighting, or were massacred, or met their fates in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps. Few nations paid as steep a price as Poland, and none among the population bled as heavily as its Jews.

And yet there were those among this repressed minority who not only resisted the onslaught but managed to counterattack and survive the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943 and the battle for the city a year later. The narratives of these Jewish heroes (righteous Gentiles also figure in the calculus) form the foundation and inspiration for Matthew Brzezinski’s “Isaac’s Army.”

The former Warsaw correspondent of the New York Times and Moscow reporter for the Wall Street Journal confronts this crucible of wartime darkness and inhumanity through intimate and unsparing portraits of a select few who chose to transform themselves from passive bystanders into remarkable guerrillas. Brzezinski captures the existential urgency of their lives with crackling prose and a sure grasp of the emotional and physical terrain. His passion for their daring and exploits is palpable, just as is his understated treatment of their fears and foibles.

The Isaac of Isaac’s Army (a magnificent misnomer considering the atomized band of Jewish brothers and sisters ranged against overwhelming German and Soviet forces) refers to Isaac Zuckerman, a 24-year-old Socialist Zionist organizer from Vilna with a knack for being in the right place at the right time, the wrong place at the wrong time, an inverse combination of both, and of extricating himself from these situations through a combination of luck and bluster. Zuckerman’s deficits in the netherworld of wartime occupation were his Semitic looks, his faulty Polish (Yiddish being the lingua franca), and his propensity for the bottle.

Every leader needs a faithful subaltern, and in Zuckerman’s case it proved to be teenager Simha Ratheiser. Instead of high school, Ratheiser matriculated as a bodyguard and lead courier. His Slavic features and blond hair allowed him free movement outside the ghetto, and his natural pluck and youthful bravado carried him through an unending succession of tight spots. The other linchpin of the Socialist Zionist triumvirate was Zivia Lubetkin, steely, fearless, the highest ranking female member of the Jewish Fighting Organization, Isaac’s girlfriend and ultimately his wife.

Two rebellionists from the opposite end of the political spectrum – the Bund – completed this charismatic core of conspirators. Bundists believed that Poland, not Palestine, represented ground zero, and that for all their second-class citizenship and limitations during peacetime, they were still stakeholders in the nation’s outcome. And none believed it with greater zeal than Mark Edelman, a 24-year-old Belorussian, who rose to become a commander in the Jewish Fighting Organization, or ZOB, and Baruch Spiegel, a frail tailor who evolved into one of the group’s most committed operatives.

Additionally, Brzezinski introduces a secondary set of Jewish Varsovians, who reflect an assimilated, almost externalized counterpoint to the ghetto fighters. They are the Osnos and Mortkowicz families. The former manage to flee Poland in separate stages, migrating through India and ultimately on to America; the latter, representing a matriarchal range of three generations of the country’s leading publishing dynasty, survive through the intercession of nuns in the countryside and a fearless member of the Gentile Resistance.

If the fog of war quickly envelopes the conventional soldier – one who wears an identifiable uniform, drills and trains regularly, is decently supplied with weapons and food, and acts in concert with hundreds of comrades – then the dilemmas of the Jewish resistance fighters seem almost insuperable. They were often isolated from one another, acting by wits and intuition rather than orders, invariably hungry, generally without weapons, treated with hostility by Polish resistance groups, splintered into factions among their own people, and knowing with certainly that after early 1942 they were marked for extermination. On top of this came random beatings, being impressed off the streets for labor gangs, or falling into the crosshairs of jittery German, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian troops. Polish thugs and “greasers,” and, sadly, a few Jewish traitors and miscreants also muddied the equation.

Yet a nucleus of these resistors endured and evaded for five years, emerging on the other side of the nightmare. Beyond being lucky, Brzezinski extols their common qualities of youth, politicalization, and stubbornness. Even more importantly, each seemed to experience defining moments of clarity about the cause, mostly after initial passivity and paralysis during the massive Jewish deportations from the ghetto in 1942. The resultant survivor’s guilt proved overwhelming. This one feeling, more than any of the other incremental debasements, seems to have galvanized their collective wills.

“Isaac’s Army” veterans ultimately would resort to a variety of methods to achieve their goals. By war’s end they had honed skills in forgery, bomb making, marksmanship, tunneling, bribery, encrypting, disinformation, intelligence gathering, and underground publishing. They knew the labyrinthine Warsaw sewer system intimately and used its fetid channels for escape, sometimes with tragic consequences. They memorized train routes and timetables, the better to maximize their courier network. Every door in the ghetto’s remaining structures became their extended portal to live and fight another day, often fleeing moments before the enemy swooped in.

By the time of the second Gross Aktion, or second deportation, in 1943, the Jewish Resistance (never a monolithic term) had acquired a minimum store of weapons through such brazen acts as attacking an SS nightclub full of officers and of negotiating, however unevenly, with the Polish Home Army. For the first time, Jews and Poles tried not to talk past one another. The Warsaw ghetto was prepared to react. Drainpipes had been fashioned into grenades, tunneling was extended, and resistance fighters emerged from sleeper cells braced to the task. During the uprising from April 19 to May 16, these brave souls rained havoc on the Germans, shocking the shock troops before being overwhelmed.

More than a year later, Isaac, Zivia, Simha, and Mark participated in the broader battle for Warsaw, manning the barricades in August 1944 and surviving in hiding until January 1945, when the Germans pulled out and Stalin cynically unleashed the tanks he had been holding back for months until the Nazi had finished their dirty work. The Paris of the East had been obliterated, with only an estimated 5,000 survivors living in the ruins of a city whose toll exceeded Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Postwar currents took Simha, Zivia, and Isaac to Israel, all by different routes and circumstances. Zuckerman and his wife died relatively young. Mark Edelman stayed in Poland, defiantly so, as did Joanna Mortkowicz, who carried on the family tradition as a screenwriter and author. Boruch Spiegel immigrated to Canada and ran a factory. The Osnoses died in America, while their son retired as a psychiatrist.

Though the physical footprint of the ghetto is barely distinguishable today, Brzezinski nobly succeeds in keeping alive the extraordinary legacy of its occupants. “Isaac’s Army” pulsates with the personal trajectories of the heroic few whose ranks thin by the day. Their stories, in the skilled, empathetic hands of the author, uplift, inspire, and nourish the spirit.

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