“Another phone contact took place on the night of April 22 [1943]. - Michał Klepfisz is dead. He fell in battle. We don’t have much ammunition. We need weapons. - The contact was terminated by the switchboard. This was the last call from Abraham Blum.”

One of the first who had fallen on the Jewish side during the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto was Michał Klepfisz. His tragic death echoed broadly, even beyond the borders of occupied Poland. Due to the 74th anniversary of his death, we would like to bring closer and recall to the readers of Virtual Shtetl the figure of this legendary ghetto combatant. In the memory of those who were close to him, Klepfisz remained a modest, tall, blue-eyed, dark-haired youth who above all cared for others. Some of the facts about him, however, differ from the commonly held beliefs and the legend surrounding him.

Michał Klepfisz was born in Warsaw on April 17, 1913. His parents were Jacob and Mariem Rojza from the house of Salamon. Father Jacob came from a well-known rabbinical-Hasidic Klepfisz family. However, he broke with the tradition and from 1905 was a member of the Bund. Not only his parents but also Michael's relatives were the members of the party. During the Polish-Bolshevik War, in their apartment at Świętojerska 30 fl.61 (in the same tenement house lived also Adina Blady-Szwajgier – whom we mentioned in March edition – with her mother and grandmother) was an illegal Bund secretariat. In documents Klepfisz stated that his native language was Yiddish, faith - Jewish.

From 1921, he studied at the Felicity Buki-Cygielsztrajch mathematics and science gymnasium, from which in 1927, after the 5th year, he moved to Second Gymnasium of Male Teachers Union of Polish High Schools in Warsaw. In the spring of 1931, he passed the matriculation examination in mathematics and natural sciences.  He received the certificate on June 5, 1931.

In the same year, he started studying at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology. In later years he belonged to the construction section. Due to poor financial conditions, he had problems with paying tuition fees and completing his studies on time. This was caused by the unemployment of his father - the former teacher. The entire four-person family (he had a sister Gina [Regina]) was supported from mother's salary - a teacher at public school no. 47 in Warsaw. In the 1930s, perhaps for financial reasons, the Klepfisz family often changed their place of residence. From Świętojerska 30 they moved to Orla 5 fl. 13, and from there, around 1936, to Grochowska 52d fl. 12.

On March 25, 1936, after five years of study, Klepfisz passed the first diploma exam at the Warsaw University of Technology Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, with an overall grade - satisfactory. On January 19, 1939, he was granted permission by the Dean of the Warsaw University of Technology Faculty of Mechanical Engineering to undertake his diploma thesis. The outbreak of war had destroyed his graduation plan.

In 1934, he met his future wife Rosa Perczykow (July 22, 1914 Warsaw – March 23, 2016 New York), with whom he married in July 1937. The couple lived with Michael's parents.

In many memories it was emphasized: "Michał grew up in a Jewish-socialist atmosphere. The path that led him to a role in the Warsaw ghetto uprising was quite natural and a result of personal development."

From his earliest years, he was associated with Bund organizations. He was a member and an activist of Cukunft, Morgensztern (Morning Star), and of Ringen academic circle during his tertiary studies. In the second half of the 1930s, he was an instructor of Morgensztern's militia. He taught Jewish youth how to defend themselves against anti-Semitic attacks. In 1934, he showed great courage. During the Cukunft summer camp near Nowy Sącz, he saved a child in a cradle flowing down the Dunajec River. As it was later emphasized, it was the first time when he was talked about on the radio. The next time his name was broadcasted on radio was after his death in May 1943.

After the outbreak of war in 1939, as militarily trained, he took part in the September campaign, fighting in the Warsaw Defense Workers Brigade. Then, like many Jewish socialists, he and his wife escaped to Lwow and from there to Donetsk, where he worked in a Soviet aircraft factory. After some time he returned to Lwow, wherefrom, in summer 1941, with his wife Rosa, daughter Irena (born April 17,1941) and sister Gina he returned to Warsaw. It was after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war and the seizure of Lwow by the Germans.

In Warsaw, young Klepfisz spouses again inhabited with their parents, but this time they were all locked up in the Warsaw Ghetto. Michal very soon began to operate in the underground Bund’s Central Committee. In the spring of 1942, due to health problems, he stayed for a while in a sanatorium in Otwock.

In the summer of 1942, he lost part of his family. First to the death camp, Treblinka II, his father was deported with the grandmother on mother’s side (bearing the name Salamon); then mother along with her sister, also a Bundist - Guta, Wiktor Szulman’s wife. Afraid of being caught and taken to the Umschlagplatz, Klepfisz with his wife and daughter managed to get through to the so-called Aryan side. Rosa and Irene hid initially at their former maid, and later in a village where Michał visited them. Then Irenka was placed in a convent as a Christian child.

In the ghetto, his sister Gina also continued her pre-war activity in the ranks of the underground Cukunft Central Committee, and worked as a nurse rescuing people from the Umschlagplatz. In the autumn of 1942, seriously ill, she found herself on the so-call Aryan side. In December 1942, she died in a hospital. She was buried under her "Aryan" identity as Kazimiera Jóźwiak (in some sources another wrong name is given: Zofia Zakrzewska), at the Bródnowski Cemetery in Warsaw.

Michał managed to escape at least twice from a wagon carrying Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka II. He served as the link between the ghetto and the outside world. To the closed district he smuggled, among other things, files and pistols, as well as illegal literature received from the Polish underground. He often had to hide between matzevot in the Jewish cemetery at ul. Gęsia.

Since the forming of the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB), Michał started also operating within it. Probably at that time he underwent training at the Technical Research Office in the Headquarters of the Home Army.

Outside the ghetto, his name was Tadeusz Metzner. He lived at many addresses. Initially, together with Stefan Machaj (before the war they worked together at the same factory), he stayed in the Szczepaniak tenement house at Górnośląska 3. The owner probably denounced him because he was captured there by the Germans and sent to Treblinka II. He escaped from the transport. Then he lived, among other places, at Przemysłowa 5 (together with Władka Meed) and also at Stanisław Dubiel’s place. It was probably at this last address where after January 18, 1943, he started home-made production of explosives: grenades, incendiary bombs and Molotov cocktails. The secrets of their production he taught to other members of the Jewish Combat Organization.

On April 17, 1943, that is on his birthday and the birthday of his daughter Irenka, he saw his wife for the last time. On that day, he managed to get a gun, which he decided to smuggle on his own into the ghetto. The uprising started two days later. He fought in the brush factory area.

On the second (April 20) or the third (April 21) day of the uprising, when together with Mark Edelman and Zalman Fridrich, alias Zygmunt, they went out to explore the area and got into the crossfire from machine guns. Klepfisz was literally riddled with bullets. Probably the next day, he was buried there where he was found, that is in the backyard at Świętojerska 32 or at the back of number 34. This was the first known and witnessed death in the uprising on the Jewish side.

On April 22, information about his death broke outside the walls of the ghetto. As early as on May 11, 1943, representatives of the Bund and the Jewish National Committee in Poland, through the Government Delegate for Poland, sent a message to the members of the National Council of the Republic of Poland in London: "Engineer Klepfisz, member of the Bund, one of the pillars of armed resistance, died heroically." On February 18, 1944, Chief Commander Lieutenant General Kazimierz Sosnkowski awarded him posthumously the silver Cross of Virtuti Militari for his courage and participation in the uprising. In memoirs and obituaries, it was emphasized: "He was the one who organised, secretly of course, the explosives factory in the Jewish quarter." Currently, thanks to his daughter Irena, the Klepfisz' medal - the highest Polish military decoration awarded for outstanding military merit - can be seen at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The legendary Bundist was also commemorated on the stone block - a symbolic monument at Zamenhofa Street - one of the "links" on the Memorial Route of the Jewish Martyrdom and Struggle in Warsaw.

The body of Michael Klepfisz remains to this day somewhere in the underground ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, near the address where he lived most of his short life. At the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw at Okopowa Street, in the Bund section there is only a symbolic grave consecrated to his memory (section 12, row 4), one of the few traces of his existence.

Martyna Rusiniak-Karwat

Bibliography:

  • Michal Klepfisz's personal files from the Archive of the Warsaw University of Technology.
  • Edelman M., Getto walczy (Ghetto fights), Łódź 2015.
  • Grupińska A., Ciągle po kole. Rozmowy z żołnierzami getta warszawskiego (Still around the circle. Conversation with soldiers of the Warsaw Ghetto) Warsaw 2000.
  • Hertz I. Sz., Michał Klepfisz zl’ fun bawofyntn widersztand in warszawer geto, “Unzer Tsait” from October 1943, no. 9, pages 27-29.
  • Kucik J., Nito mer Roze Klepfisz zl’ / Rose Klepfisz Has Died, “Forward” from April 3, 2016.
  • Meed W., Po obu stronach muru (On both sides of the wall), Warsaw 2003.
  • Neustadt Melech, Hurbn un Ojfsztand fun di jidn in Warsze: Ejdes-Bleter un Azkores, Tel Aviv 1948.

Sources of quotations (in order of appearance):

  • Meed W., Po obu stronach muru, Warsaw 2003, page 167.
  • Hertz J. Sz., Klepfisz Michał, [in:] Doires bundistn, ed. I. Sz. Hertz, vol. 2, New York 1956, page 360.
  • “Polska Walcząca” (Poland Fighting) London, [in:] Żyd polski – żołnierz polski / Polish Jew – Polish Soldier, Warsaw. 1939–1945, Warsaw 2010, page 24.
  • “Polska Walcząca”, [in:] Żydzi w służbie Rzeczypospolite (Jews in service of Polish Republic), vol. 2: 1939–1945, prepared by A. K. Kunert, A. Przewoźnik, Warsaw 2002, page 200.
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