The Closure of the Ghetto in the Memoirs of Stefan Ernest

Andrzej Żbikowski

The date of the official establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto and its closure on the night from 15 to 16 November 1940 was certainly one of the most important moments in the lives of the Jews of Warsaw. The moment is recalled in virtually all personal documents, accounts and memoirs written by ghetto prisoners as a turning point in their lives. From among these numerous texts, I would like to cite one that I find surprisingly matter-of-fact and competent. It was discovered relatively late in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute and published in 2003 by Czytelnik in an edition prepared by Marta Janczewska (Młodkowska at the time). I am talking about the memoirs of a Warsaw Judenrat official hiding under the false name Stefan Ernest, then published as O wojnie Wielkich Niemiec z Żydami Warszawy 1939-1943 (On Great Germany’s War Against the Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943).

At the time, Janczewska did not know who Stefan Ernest really was, and discovering the truth about him took her a dozen or so years. The Jewish Historical Institute will soon be republishing Stefan Szpigielman’s memoirs, Trzeci front. O wojnie wielkich Niemiec z Żydami Warszawy (The Third Front: On Great Germany’s War Against the Jews of Warsaw), in a new, expanded edition (also prepared by Marta Janczewska).

The restoration of his identity to the author of an exceptional memoir, written in hiding in a cellar in the spring of 1943, is a grand event, something very rare these days. It is also interesting that Szpigielman was the first husband of Adina Blady-Szwajger, a prominent doctor who cared for ghetto children at the Bersohn and Bauman hospital. Szwajger’s memoirs, which she wrote very late (Świat Książki 2010), make no mention of her husband’s name or of the fact that he worked in the Judenrat’s Labour Department. The prominent doctor and dutiful liaison officer of the Jewish Combat Organisation, a friend of Marek Edelman, probably left out these details of her husband’s biography on purpose. She writes with sadness that she walked her husband, broken as a result of hiding in a dark basement, to the Hotel Polski, giving him a Palestinian certificate intended for her, which gave him some chance of survival. After several days Szpigielman was deported to Bergen-Belsen, where he most likely perished. Readers will find the details of this tangled story in Marta Janczewska’s extensive and extremely competent analysis.

In this short text, I would like to focus on the closure of the Warsaw Ghetto as related by Stefan Szpigielman (Ernest). I must also quote his opinions at length as the old edition of the memoirs is hard to come by, and we will still have to wait some time for the new one. All quotes are from the first edition (pp. 50-57):

The establishment of the Jewish quarter wasn’t really a surprise. Like the sword of Damocles, the threat had hung above the heads of Warsaw’s Jews from as early as November 1939, when a finished project of the ghetto was postponed for sanitary reasons, a general epidemic of typhus, and technical [reasons]. But ever since the threat emerged, it would constantly return, either in the form of rumours spread by fearful pessimists, or, most importantly, in the form of allusions, monosyllables, and perfidious, solemn denials from the authorities interpreted by the members of the Council”. The Jews were threatened with disease, military expediency, the example of Łódź, but not many believed that such measures would actually be introduced.

Nevertheless, “before the ghetto was sanctioned, the preceding month was marked by the mass expulsion of Jewish residents from entire houses, city blocks, streets”. Jews had to disappear completely from the so-called German district. “Anyone who had not taken caution by prudently removing their belongings beforehand, walked out with nothing as the procedure lasted no more than half an hour”.

In the second half of October, the face of the city changes. Here begins the great traffic of furniture in all the streets of Warsaw, a ritual [involving] all kinds of vehicles, starting with huge automobile trucks and Węgiełek buses, through carts, carriages, buggies and trolleys, to wheelbarrows and baby strollers, and finally an insane pedestrian and wheel traffic of those who had collected all their belongings into bundles and pillows on their backs.”

[…] All of it, however, was nothing compared to the delirious roaming of tens of thousands of people in the streets of the ghetto at the end of July 1942, during the recently started ‘resettlement operation’, when successive streets and blocks were closed off to the residents as the action progressed. […] But at the time [in November 1940], even that seemed a terrible torment to the people who had not been through enough yet. At that time the problem was to find a room and save one’s movables – furniture, clothing, linens – life was not endangered yet. Whoever managed to find some solution to that problem felt glad, as one does having triumphed over an enemy. The problem was supposed to be solved by the Office of Accommodation set up earlier by the Council (moved from the Community offices on Tłomackie to Dr Friedman’s former clinic) to deal with the housing issues of refugees and those whose homes had burnt down […].”

The author then describes the borders of the ghetto and writes about the gates, streets, guards, provisions and the terribly cramped conditions. In his opinion, the Germans did not manage to isolate the Jews from the Aryan side completely, despite their ruthlessness. “Thanks to its topographical features and the impossibility of completely isolating it from the rest of the city, the ghetto was connected with Warsaw through countless channels. Food and resources flowed into the ghetto by various routes, while products and everyday utility items flowed out. The strict, camp-like isolation of the Łódź ghetto was not achieved, and although food prices skyrocketed due to the ‘risks and costs of trade’, the ghetto was essentially supplied with all food products, even the most exquisite and rare. It would be a mistake to think that everything was in abundance and everyone in the ghetto lived in the lap of luxury. The consumption of these imports was available only to the handful who were able to pay the high prices. These things were for the “top ten thousand”, as an ordinary person in the ghetto would say, happy to be able to afford a day’s worth of black bread and swede. And, let us add, as the months passed things only got worse and worse. The battle for earnings was fought among gate policemen and smugglers, “rogues” operating on their own, the unaffiliated, outpost workers counting on their own ability to smuggle in minor goods or on the mercy of the guards and, finally, hundreds of children, running right between the legs of Wachmeisters, darting to grab or carrying a sack of potatoes, a bundle of carrots or beets bought with their meagre capital over on the Aryan side.” Hunger was the most visible consequence of imprisoning the Jews behind a three-meter-high wall.

The smugglers – in memory of whom Leon Berenson, a famous lawyer, wanted to erect a monument after the war – were the true heroes of the ghetto. “They were the only soldiers who really fell in the line of duty, fighting to provide food for the quarter, felled by the bullets of night patrols and day watches – fighting to preserve the unfortunate status quo. Setting aside the convents of the Gestapo and the ‘big entrepreneurs’ with zero morality and the rowdy brokers of these transactions, the ordinary “rogue” smugglers got sympathy from the public. Because it provided a basis for survival, it gave the impression that the general population en masse would somehow vegetate through it until better times.”

After 50 years, Szpigielman’s wife, Adina Blady-Szwajger, had only the following to say about the closure of the ghetto: “The closure of the ghetto was fast-approaching. The look of the street and the hospital was changing. Jews from towns and cities were being brought to Warsaw. There are more and more impoverished, ragged people in the streets, begging for a piece of bread. More and more children with scabies, lice and fungi at the hospital. More and more starving children with adult eyes and more and more cases of tuberculosis.” Things only got worse with each month.

Andrzej Żbikowski
Jewish Historical Institute

Andrzej Żbikowski – professor of Eastern European Studies at the University of Warsaw, researcher at the Jewish Historical Institute since 1985; Jewish Historical Institute deputy director for research, education and publishing from 2007 to 2008. He is currently the head of research on the recent history of Polish Jews and a collaborator of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research. Author and co-author of numerous publications, including U genezy Jedwabnego. Żydzi na Kresach Północno-Wschodnich II Rzeczypospolitej, wrzesień 1939 – lipiec 1941 (The Origins of Jedwabne: Jews in the North-Eastern Borderlands of the Second Polish Republic: September 1939-July 1941) (2006) and Wysiedlenia, wypędzenia i ucieczki 1939-1945 Atlas ziem Polski (The Atlas of Polish Lands: Forced Migrations, Expulsions and Escapes) (2009). He has been a member of the Permanent Exhibition Team at the Warsaw Ghetto Museum since 2020.