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Atrocious Normalcy

A new study of the Warsaw Ghetto features the brutal and the banal.

In 1943, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was living in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, wrote “Campo dei Fiori,” his great poem about the coexistence of normality and atrocity. The Campo dei Fiori is the plaza in Rome where, in the year 1600, the heretical philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned alive by the Catholic Church; “before the flames had died,” Milosz writes, “the taverns were full again.” The same willed blindness could be noted in Warsaw, the poem declares. Just outside the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Jews were being starved and shot, a Ferris wheel was operating: “The bright melody drowned/the salvos from the ghetto wall,/and couples were flying/high in the cloudless sky.”

Milosz draws the comparison not to chastise “the people of Rome or Warsaw,” he says, but rather to capture

the loneliness of the dying,

of how, when Giordano

climbed to his burning

he could not find

in any human tongue

words for mankind,

mankind who live on.

The poem, one of the first ever written about the Holocaust, captures what is perhaps its essential terror--the way the Nazis cut off their Jewish victims, legally, morally, and physically, from the rest of mankind. The Warsaw Ghetto was the logical culmination of Nazi anti-Semitism, a place where Jews could be murdered literally under the eyes of their neighbors, without anyone protesting or even paying attention.

This silencing of the Jews is one reason why every new communication from the Holocaust’s victims and witnesses--and they are still being found, 65 years later--represents not just an addition to our historical knowledge, but a kind of moral and metaphysical victory. From the diary of Anne Frank to the Ponary Diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz--buried in empty lemonade bottles in 1943, not published until 1999--such testimony refutes the Nazi idea that any part of the human race could be permanently forgotten. Hannah Arendt made this point in Eichmann in Jerusalem: “The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible.” It follows, Arendt writes, that “nothing”--no act of resistance or commemoration, even by those who consider themselves totally abandoned--”can ever be ‘practically useless,’ at least, not in the long run.”

The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (Yale University Press), an encyclopedic study by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, is a monument to that saving principle. The book, published in Polish in 2001 and now translated into English by Emma Harris, offers a decisive answer to Milosz’s despairing poem. Far from leaving no words “in any human tongue,” Engelking and Leociak show, the Jews who lived and died in the Warsaw Ghetto left so much evidence and testimony that we can reconstruct their world in amazing detail.

Simply listing some of the information Engelking and Leociak have recovered--from published memoirs, private documents, and Jewish and Polish archives--gives a sense of the scope of their undertaking. The names, phone numbers, and addresses of the functionaries in the Judenrat; the street corners where the Jewish “Order Service” police maintained permanent posts; the average number of calories consumed daily by different social groups (ranging from a minimal “high” of 1,665 for Judenrat officials to a mere 784 for beggars); a list of all the shops and businesses in the Ghetto (at 72 Zelazna Street, for instance, were a food shop run by M. Kotman, a florist run by M. Stok, a “shop” run by Sz. Rosenberg, and a clothing bazaar, owner unknown); and a calendar of all the concerts and plays performed in the Ghetto, complete with excerpts from newspaper reviews (at a concert in March 1942, David Zajdel and Maksymilian Filar played violin sonatas by Handel and Mozart, but “the pianist was insufficiently attuned to the violinist”).

Even these scattered details begin to show what was so uncanny about the Warsaw Ghetto: the persistence of the ordinary forms of modern urban life, in a place that was essentially a waiting room for Treblinka. Engelking and Leociak divide their book into six major sections, and the first four--”Topography and Communications,” “Institutions,” “Economic Life,” and “Community Life”--deal not with dying but with living. Not until the final two sections, “Deportation” and “The Armed Struggle,” does the reader encounter the inevitable fate of almost everyone in the Warsaw Ghetto.

This is an accurate reflection of the way the Jews of Warsaw experienced the Ghetto. Unlike the millions of Jews killed in Soviet territory by the mobile death squads or Einsatzgruppen, or the millions more deported to labor and death camps like Auschwitz, the 400,000 or so Jews who occupied the Ghetto were not instantly condemned to death by the Nazis. Rather, they lived in the strange interlude between the German occupation of Poland, in September 1939, and the official decision of the Nazi leadership to exterminate all the Jews, in early 1942. During this period, the Germans chose to torment the Jews of Warsaw--the largest Jewish population in the world, outside of New York--by concentrating them in a walled ghetto, destroying their religious and economic life, reducing them to starvation rations, and allowing epidemics, especially typhus, to rage freely.

From October 1940, when the ghetto was sealed off, until July 1942, when the “great deportation Aktion” began, approximately 2,500 Jews died there every month. The overall population did not drastically decline, however, because the Ghetto was constantly being filled with Jews deported from other parts of Poland and Germany. It is the life led in the Ghetto in this period, when death was ever-present but not yet totally inevitable, that The Warsaw Ghetto explores so meticulously.

That life could not be called ordinary; it was, rather, a macabre parody of ordinariness. There was a kind of government--the Judenrat or Jewish Council, led by the prewar civic notable Adam Czerniakow, which was in charge of everything from supplying the Ghetto with food to delivering the mail to burying the dead. There was a kind of economy, mostly illegal, in which small manufacturers recycled the Jews’ remaining possessions into items for the Polish and German market: milk cans, cheap shoes, brushes, chemicals, soap, rubber goods, and electrical appliances are among the products documented. There was a kind of police force, the Order Service, with Jewish personnel and its own uniform; there was even “a fashionable children’s toy consisting of the uniform and accessories of the Order Service.” There was an official Jewish newspaper--the Gazeta Zydowska, widely despised as a Nazi puppet--and many unofficial publications copied on typewriters or by hand. For the few Jews who brought a lot of money into the Ghetto, and the few others who made a lot on the black market, there were even restaurants, cafes, and theaters to patronize. One entrepreneur created a “beach” in an open lot, where you could pay to lie on a deck chair.

But while the statistics and surveys in The Warsaw Ghetto give the facts of this life, it is inevitably the personal memories and anecdotes that suggest its real tenor. The Germans postered the Ghetto with placards showing a caricatured Jew and a huge louse, with the words “Jews--lice--typhus.” When a cow appeared in Zamenhof Street, it created “a general sensation and lively discussion” among the children, who had never seen one before; they also had no memories of rivers (though Warsaw is on a river, the Vistula didn’t run through the Ghetto), or even of trees. Stepping into the street in the morning, you would find corpses, including the corpses of children--one woman remembered finding a dead child covered with a poster put out by a Jewish charitable group, bearing the slogan “Save the children! Our children must live!”

It became impossible to keep kosher--one of the Nazis’ first acts, even before the Ghetto was created, was to ban kosher slaughter--or observe the Sabbath. For most of the life of the ghetto, public worship was banned, and all schools, religious and secular, were closed. Public drunkenness was common, and people told desperate, horrifying jokes. There was even a town fool, one Rubinsztajn (the book consistently uses Polish spellings), who “roamed through the streets with his peculiar hopping gait, uttering wild yells and singing ‘Alle glaych, utym yn raych!” (Everyone’s equal, rich and poor!)”--that is, equal in the face of death. He was a Fool out of King Lear, madly wise, the emblem of a world turned upside down: “Only those who were madmen did not fear the Germans and dared to behave aggressively, and perhaps in this situation they were normal in being able to comprehend the nature of the Nazis,” one resident remembered.

The life of the Ghetto is hard for us to imagine, but for its residents, it was the ending that was unimaginable. On July 22, 1942, the Germans posted a notice that all Ghetto residents, with the exception of certain workers and officials and their family members, would be deported from Warsaw. “The inhabitants of the ghetto,” Barbara Engelking writes in her day-by-day chronology of the Aktion, “tried to understand what lay behind the text of the communiqué…. The majority of the inhabitants did not believe the stories of mass extermination.” People told themselves that only unproductive “elements”--the old, the young, the sick--would be deported; or that the deportees were going to work in the East. Even at a meeting of Jewish underground activists, one man declared, “I believe in God, I believe that there will be a miracle. God will not allow the Jewish people to be destroyed.”

But, of course, He did. From July through September, some 250,000 Jews were deported from the Ghetto to Treblinka, where they were killed. The account of these days--the Jewish policemen seizing Jewish children to make up their quota, so that they themselves would be spared (in the end, of course, they weren’t); the thousands of people waiting to board trains at the Umschlagplatz; the people who jumped out of moving trains and were machine-gunned by guards--are very hard to read. When the Aktion was over, there were only about 35,000 Jews living (legally, at any rate) in the Ghetto, which now ceased to be a city and turned into a wasteland filled with labor camps, known as “shops,” where Jews did slave-labor for German contractors.

It was when the Germans began to liquidate even this “rump ghetto,” in April 1943, that a few hundred young Jewish partisans launched the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They were supplied with what meager arms they had by the Home Army, the Polish underground movement, which consistently supported the Jews and decried their treatment, at least in official communiqués. The Uprising was an affair of house-to-house guerrilla fighting, of pistols against cannons and Molotov cocktails against tanks, and it ended, inevitably, in the defeat and slaughter of the Jews. It was, in a sense, a preview of the larger Warsaw Uprising launched the Poles the following year, which also led to complete defeat.

But the willingness and the ability of some Jews to fight, at the very end, became a potent symbol to world Jewry after the war. Here, at least, the thinking went, the Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. The Warsaw Ghetto confirms our admiration for those young, hopeless fighters. But it also reminds us of how much courage was needed even by those who did not fight--the vast, ordinary majority who simply tried to stay alive in one of the worst hells humankind has ever created on earth.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.

© 2009, Tablet Magazine