On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, we are bringing closer the fate of Jewish civilians who did not take an active part in the fighting but were hiding in bunkers and shelters at that time. The temporary exhibition "Around us a sea of fire" (Wokół nas morze ognia) in the POLIN Museum draws attention to the silent resistance of civilians, just as important as the resistance with weapons in hand. You can also learn about the events from the time of the uprising while listening to the accounts of witnesses from the oral history collection at the POLIN Museum - we present excerpts from four of them: Krystyna Budnicka - one of the protagonists of the exhibition, Halina Ashkenazy-Engelhard, Jerry Rawicki and Janusz Ostrowski.
On 19 April 1943, German troops entered the Warsaw Ghetto - the largest ghetto in German-occupied Europe. At that time, there were only approximately 50,000 Jews there. In the summer of 1942, approximately 300 thousand of the residents of the ghetto were murdered by the Germans at the Treblinka extermination camp. Mainly young people, employed in German production workshops, remained in the ghetto. In the atmosphere of fear and terror, the idea of armed resistance was born not to be taken alive to Umschlagplatz - the place from where the transports to Treblinka departed.
On 19 April, several hundred male and female fighters started to fight. Most of the ghetto residents were in bunkers and shelters at that time. Despite despair, hunger and fear, they fought for every single day of their lives. The Germans set fire to houses and killed those in hiding. In mid-May, they suppressed the uprising and razed the ghetto to the ground. For the Germans, the symbolic end of the uprising was the blowing up of the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street (ul. Tłomackie). A few Jews managed to get out of the ghetto, to the so-called Aryan side of Warsaw, and survive.
Halina. You could hear shooting all the time
"On 19 April, at five o'clock in the morning, one of the colleagues arrives shouting: «The ghetto is under siege, cannons, artillery, firing from all sides! Get dressed, you can't stay here!»”.
Nineteen-year-old Halina Ashkenazy, her mother Maryla and her twenty-one-year-old cousin Celina Einholz escaped from their room on Franciszkańska Street (ul. Franciszkańska), which was assigned to them while they were working at a German workshop. Their friends directed them to a bunker nearby.
"Through a toilet bowl hole, a ladder went down. And there was a huge room and lots of people there. There were a few buckets, to last the whole day ... [no toilet] You could hear shooting all the time. And those heavy boots of the Germans. We could hear them walking and shouting: «Raus! Raus! Raus! Raus!», for us to get out. They knew that people were hiding. But we were quiet and nothing, we didn't come out. All day long like that. Silence in the evening. We went back to our flat to lie down."
Jerry. We knew that people were fighting
"That night in April we knew that something was going to happen. My underground unit was in Leszno. At that time, I was with friends at a seder dinner, 300 metres away, but I excused myself saying that I had to meet someone and I left. In the unit, I asked what was going on. They are shooting".
Sixteen-year-old Jerzy Rawicki was involved in the underground - he used to go outside the ghetto with other workers, passed on information and smuggled weapons and food. When the uprising broke out, his group, as they had no ammunition, withdrew.
"Several buildings were on fire, there were fires. We knew that people were fighting but we couldn't go there, we didn't know where they were. We hid in the basement. I don't know how many days or weeks we stayed there. I was sick, I had scabies and dysentery. I lost consciousness".
Krystyna.It's like in a bread oven
"Our bunker was below the basement level. The soil from the ground was spread all over it - on the ceiling and side walls. The bunker was safe as it was connected to the storm sewers".
Eleven-year-old Hena Kuczer (Krystyna Budnicka later on), together with her family - her parents, sister and four brothers and other people - hid in a bunker built by her brothers within the territory of the ghetto, on Zamenhofa Street (ul. Zamenhofa), already in January 1943. The group had a small supply of food, bunk beds, water, electricity and even a radio. Everyone was tired - physically and mentally.
"I lived as if in lethargy. Feelings off, thinking off. We slept most of the time. I remember cuddling with my mom and that's it. But sometimes I imagined that I was a knight or that I was eating bread - that I had the taste of bread in my mouth".
On 19 April, the girl's three brothers, Izaak, Rafał and Chaim, joined the uprising.
"They are gone, and we are in the bunker. And we are running away because it's burning up to our knees, it's terribly hot. It is like in a bread oven because the ground is getting hot. And there is no possibility to survive there. We are running to the canals to cool down there. But the Germans started throwing gas bombs into them. Human corpses often floated in the canals. Whenever there was gas, we ran back to the hot bunker. All the time like that".
Halina. We are jumping over red-hot timber beams
"20 April, constant shooting. To the bunker again. And it's terrible in there, there is no air there. Children and women were crying and screaming. It got quieter on the third day. The Germans withdrew. They thought that they would seize the whole ghetto easily, but there was resistance. After two days, they brought tanks and heavy artillery and opened fire again".
Halina, Celina and Maryna are hiding away in the attic, but they hear shouting after a while - the houses were going to be set on fire. They are escaping upstairs - through the holes between the attics, from one house to another. Other people are following them.
"We can feel those flames, this heavy smell of smoke, black smoke. Finally, we are stopping because it's the last house, the end of the street, there's nowhere to go. Suddenly one of the boys says that the first-floor windows face an empty square. We are going down, he is jumping out first, then the rest of us. The boys are catching the girls. It turns out that it's an abandoned factory guarded by Jewish policemen. They let us stay the night. They throw us out at six in the morning. We are walking back through the ghetto, everything around us is on fire, smouldering - hot bottles and red-hot stones due to the fire. We are jumping over red-hot timber beams. We don't know where to go. A Polish fire brigade shows us a tenement house that they have just saved from fire: «We save it because it was next to the wall and we were scared that the fire would go further".
Janusz. They were setting the fire, we were putting it out
"The Germans chased people out of the tenement houses using fire - they could arrest them or kill them on the spot. But there were also warehouses, workshops and factories all around, the whole ghetto was working for the Germans. Our job was to save it all. They we setting the fire, we were putting it out".
Janusz Ostrowski - a Pole, at the age of 17 at that time - a member of a branch of the Warsaw Fire Brigade. When the uprising broke out in the ghetto, the Germans engaged the Fire Brigade to put the fires out. Janusz spent every other day in the ghetto.
"One day, we are standing in front of a burning tenement house. We are on standby to make sure the neighbouring houses don't catch fire. But we are not allowed to save the one on fire. Suddenly, we hear shrill female screams coming from the top floor. There are eight women in the window. They are trapped, flames and smoke everywhere, the staircase is blocked by debris. There is no way to extinguish the fire, even if we wanted to, in spite of the Germans. We are staring in horror, the whole team of eight firemen".
The sergeant orders to check whether there are any Germans around and says: "Whoever is not afraid stays to help to take those women down".
"We brought a fire escape ladder - every fireman knows that it's a ladder with a hook that hooks onto a window opening. You can go up to the 100th floor using it. Hook - climb, hook - climb. The three of us climbed up and took the girls down one by one using ropes. It was the first time I rappelled, and it was with a girl. She was terrified, she was squeezing my neck so hard that I could barely breathe".
Halina. And they are taking us slowly, marching to the Umschlagplatz
"In the tenement house indicated by the firemen, we found a room to stay together there. We went out only in the evening, like mice. We knew where a mikveh was - we took water from there to drink a little and wash. Nothing to eat, just some crumbs".
After a few days, the Germans and Ukrainians surrounded the building and drove out those in hiding. Halina, Maryna and Celina are going out to the courtyard.
"And they are taking us slowly, marching to the Umschlagplatz. And they are pushing us into those train wagons, the wagons of death".
Jerry. The shirt will be my ticket to the Polish side
"One night I was left alone in our basement. There were rotten potatoes, like water, which I drank and used to wash. And I had a clean shirt with me - it was going to be my ticket to the Polish side. I went outside and saw a group of Jews led by Ukrainians. They caught me too. We were walking towards the Umschlagplatz. The fighting was over, the ghetto was burned down. And suddenly someone shot from somewhere. They all fell to the ground and I fled and hid".
At night, Jerzy left his hiding place. At the ghetto wall, he came across two young men who wanted to blow up the bricks with a grenade, but they failed.
“Only two or three bricks were broken. I was skinny. I said to myself: now or never. I took this shirt out, I put my hand out first. To this day, I don't know how I managed to get out of the ghetto".
Krystyna. We couldn't go back to the bunker
"After the uprising, my brothers came back and joined us because they knew that we would die without them. The bunker survived all those tremors, but the place where our supplies were stored was burned down. My brother Rafał took over the leadership and ordered: now, there will be a military system, we are swapping day for night - the idea is not to have any movement".
In the summer, the Germans began systematic demolition of the ghetto. Looters prowled the ruins searching for valuables and other items.
"One day in September, we heard a shuffling. We fled to the canal, but my two brothers and a man went to see what was going on. And it turned out that there were two Poles searching through the rubble. They told them that they were cleaning, and then: »We will bring you some bread«. They were naive. Sadly, instead of running away, the three of them were waiting for that bread. At night, there was no trace of them. The bunker was looted. We couldn't go back there".
Halina Ashkenazy-Engelhard and Celina Einholz jumped off a train going to Majdanek. Celina died on the way to Warsaw, betrayed by Poles, Maryla died in the camp. Halina ended up in a church at Kawęczyńska Street (ul. Kawęczyńska) in the Praga District of Warsaw, where she received help from Fr. Michał Kubacki. After the war, she emigrated to Israel. She died in 2016.
Jerzy (Jerry) Rawicki, after escaping from the ghetto, stayed overnight in random places; Janusz Rybakiewicz, among others, helped him. Using a Polish name, with the Peasant Battalions (Bataliony Chłopskie), Jerzy managed to break through the front line and reach Lublin. After the war, he found his sister in Radom and settled down in Wrocław. In 1948, he emigrated to the United States. He died in 2022.
Krystyna Budnicka and her sister-in-law Anna made their way to the "Aryan side" and survived the war. They stayed in different hiding places and were looked after by different people. They were probably supported by the Council to Aid Jews "Żegota". Other members of their family - mother Cyrla, father Józef Lejzor, sister Perla and brothers Izaak, Boruch, Szaja, Rafał (Ruben), Chaim and Jehuda - died. After the war, Krystyna worked as an educator. For years, telling her story, she has been supporting the educational activities of the POLIN Museum. She lives in Warsaw.
After the war, Janusz Ostrowski worked in the field of solid state physics and medical electronics. He worked at the Polish Academy of Sciences and was a professor in the United States. He returned to Poland in 1993 and died in 2015. The fate of the women rescued by his firefighting unit is unknown.
The programme for the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, under the slogan "Thou shalt not be indifferent" (Nie bądź obojętny), can be found at polin.pl. The exhibition "Around us a sea of fire. The fate of Jewish civilians during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising" at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews will be opened on 18 April, on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the uprising. For the first time, we will be talking about the unknown details of the uprising, we will give voice to the civilians who were hiding in the ghetto. The author of the concept of the exhibition is prof. Barbara Engelking, the curator - Zuzanna Schnepf-Kołacz.More about the exhibition.
The accounts of the witnesses to the Warsaw Ghetto can be watched on the "Oral History | Museum POLIN Collection" YouTube channel.
Compiled by: : Klara Jackl
- Civilians in the Warsaw Ghetto
- The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
- The Oneg Shabbat underground archive in the Warsaw Ghetto
- Female fighters and underground activists in the Warsaw Ghetto
- Love and sacrifice for loved ones in the accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto survivors
- Women's self-help activities in the Warsaw Ghetto
- Memorials at the sites where the Warsaw Ghetto wall stood
- First Monument to the Ghetto Heroes at Anielewicza and Zamenhofa Streets
- Monument to the Ghetto Heroes at Zamenhofa Street