Lubetkin, Zivia (1914–1978)
Lubetkin, Zivia (1914–1978)
Polish-Jewish resistance leader in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and a founder of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB). Name variations: Zivia Lubetkin-Zuckerman; Cywia Lubetkin; Ziviah Lubetkin; underground name: "Celina." Born in 1914 in Beten near Slonim, Polesie, Russian Poland; died in Israel in 1978; married Icchak Cukierman also seen as Yitzhak Zuckerman (1915–1981).
Active before World War II in the Jewish Socialist youth movement Dror-Hechaluts (Freedom-the Pioneer); along with husband, was one of the key leaders of both uprisings in the Warsaw Ghetto (January and April 1943); participated in the Warsaw Polish uprising during (summer 1944); immigrated to Palestine/Israel (1946); was a member of Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Getta'ot.
The lives of Jewish fighters like Zivia Lubetkin stand in defiance to the long-standing question about the Holocaust that asks, "Why did the Jews not resist?" Lubetkin, a key figure in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising who organized armed retaliation by Jews against Nazis during one of history's most heroic struggles, left behind proof of resistance that answers simply, some did.
Born in eastern Poland in 1914, the first year of World War I, she grew up in a world marked by economic crisis, fear of war, and a pervasive spirit of anti-Semitism. Even after Poland achieved its independence from foreign rule in 1918, a majority of the new republic's Jewish population continued to live their lives in a traditional context grounded in conservative religious orthodoxy and long-tested social patterns. Long before Poland became the first nation to be conquered by Hitler's armed forces, Poland's Jews—many of whom spoke Yiddish rather than Polish and worked as poor artisans and peddlers—were regarded by the country's Roman Catholic majority as an alien element that could never be assimilated or modernized. Starting in the 1920s, a growing number of young Jewish women and men were attracted to Zionist youth movements emphasizing a secular world view which promoted training in artisan skills and agriculture to draw Jewish energies away from an undue emphasis on trade and commerce. The intent of these movements was to create a new generation of self-reliant Jewish leaders whose ultimate goal was emigration (aliyah) to the nascent Jewish state of Eretz Israel, at that time still the British Mandated Territory of Palestine.
Zivia Lubetkin was one of the most talented and enthusiastic Zionist youth leaders in prewar Poland. Politically committed from an early age, by the late 1930s she had become a leading personality in the Dror-Hechaluts (Freedom-The Pioneer) movement, a group of young Socialist women and men with branches throughout Poland. Known for their dynamic political strategies, Dror-Hechaluts members were proud of the ties they maintained with other Jewish youth organizations, particularly to Po'alei Zion (Zionist Socialist Workers) and to Hakibbutz Hameuchad (the United Kibbutz) in Palestine. As a Dror leader, Lubetkin was elected to represent that organization on the National Jewish Council of Poland. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, she was obviously a person to watch in the emerging leadership of the Polish Labor Zionist movement. Respected by her comrades in Jewish labor youth circles for the maturity of her judgment, she had married another up-and-coming young leader, Yitzhak Zuckerman. In the fateful summer of 1939, Lubetkin attended the World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. She returned home to find Poland invaded by Nazi Germany and conquered within a few weeks.
The inhumanity of the Nazi ideology became clear to all Poles within days of the start of the German occupation. Because they were Slavs and thus defined as "sub-humans" within the Nazis' pseudoscientific hierarchy of superior and inferior races, the Polish population found itself subjected to harsh measures designed to deprive them of their political, intellectual, and religious rights. Priests and intellectuals in particular were targeted for "special treatment," and thousands were executed or sent to concentration camps where many more would die over the next years. Polish Jews were deemed even more deserving of Nazi brutality. With a Jewish population of more than 375,000, about 30% of the total population, Warsaw had the largest number of Jews in any European city. In the entire world, only New York City was home to more Jews. The Nazi occupiers created a Jewish Council (Judenrat) to allow Warsaw's Jews a form of "self-government," but this was in most ways little more than a cruel deception, because from the outset the Judenrat struggled to serve two masters: the all-powerful Nazis, who regarded the body as an instrument for carrying out their commands, and the Jewish community of Warsaw whose ever-increasing desperation could never be adequately addressed. Conscripted as virtual slave laborers, Warsaw's Jews were forced to work long hours under harsh conditions for very low pay.
On November 16, 1940, with the official sealing off of the Warsaw Ghetto from the rest of the city, an even harsher phase of Nazi rule began. Living conditions in the already terribly overcrowded ghetto worsened dramatically as a policy of "clean violence"—death by starvation, disease, and exhaustion—went into effect. This policy caused immense suffering and loss of life for the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, which became an involuntary home to about 400,000 people. Although a large number of Jews under Nazi rule held the illusory belief that somehow they would be able to survive by offering no resistance and by making themselves economically useful to the German war effort, the Nazi ideology looked upon all Jews, even the young and healthy, as eternal and implacable racial enemies that had to be annihilated if Adolf Hitler's dream of an Aryan racial state was to be actualized. For many of Poland's Jews, intellectual acceptance of such a horrible reality was at first difficult to come to grips with, and their basic strategy, largely fueled by denial, was one of emphasizing the ideal of Uberlebn, of surviving the German occupation through total compliance with the conquerors' demands.
During 1941, at least 43,000 people in the Warsaw Ghetto, more than 10% of the total ghetto population, died. Even under these conditions, the majority of the ghetto's inhabitants continued to believe that they would be able to survive Nazi rule by not needlessly antagonizing the Germans. They concentrated instead on keeping life and limb intact by relying on trade and smuggling food and other items into the ghetto.
For a number of months during 1939 and 1940, Zivia Lubetkin had lived in her home region, at that time under Soviet rule as a result of the partition of Poland agreed upon in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. In 1940, fully aware of the dangers, she made her way back to Warsaw to take part in the Zionist underground movement in the ghetto. Once there, she and her husband emerged as leaders in the small but growing Jewish resistance.
Designated by the leaders of the Nazi state as the Final Solution of the Jewish Question (Endlösung der Judenfrage), organized mass murder began in late June 1941, with Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. Mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) carried out mass shootings of Jews, Gypsies (Roma), and others deemed undesirable, resulting in the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. Seeking greater efficiency in killing, in December 1941 the Nazis began using mobile gas vans. This was also considered too slow and troublesome, so, starting in March 1942, the Nazis began operating stationary gas chambers at killing centers created on formerly Polish territory. To these death camps, located at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibór, and Treblinka, the victims were brought by rail and then killed in gas chambers using either carbon monoxide gas or the insecticide Zyklon B, which could take the lives of 2,000 people in less than 30 minutes. At the Wannsee Conference, held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942, representatives of the top bureaucracies in the Nazi state agreed on the details of executing the genocidal Final Solution of the Jewish Question.
In early 1942, while the majority of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto continued to live from day to day in the hope of surviving the horror of Nazi rule, it became clear to Zionist activists like Lubetkin and Zuckerman that the moment of mass murder had arrived. A signal of the impending disaster for Warsaw was the evacuation of the Jews of the Polish city of Lublin, which began in March 1942. Within two months, 30,000 Lublin Jews were sent to their deaths at Belzec. The underground press in Warsaw began warning readers that it was only a matter of time before they too would be annihilated. Although the Jewish resistance circles in the ghetto had access to few weapons and often lacked support from a population still largely in a state of denial, by April 1942 Lubetkin and other activists had agreed to the organization of a fighting unit. Created as a result of negotiations between Lubetkin's Dror organization, the Left Po'alei Zion, Hashomer Hatzair (the Young Guard), and the Communists, the unit was called the "Anti-Fascist Bloc," and it was hoped that this would become the nucleus of a full-fledged Jewish fighting force.
We felt that the end had come for all our people and that we were the last to remain, the smoking and dying embers. … The heart wondered and asked, wondered and asked—but there was no answer.
During the next few months, while the Anti-Fascist Bloc tried to acquire more weapons and debated their future strategy, the full extent of the horrors facing Jewish Warsaw became only too clear. In the summer of 1942, around 300,000 Jews were rounded up in the ghetto and marched to a central transit point (Umschlagplatz), from where about 265,000 of them were then transported 60 miles in cattle cars to the Treblinka extermination center. Sadly, much of the work of rounding up the ghetto population was carried out by its own Jewish police force, who were supervised and assisted by a 200-man force of German police and a unit of Latvian collaborators. Biding their time as the ghetto was rapidly being decimated, the members of the Anti-Fascist Bloc organized themselves into groups of five comprised mostly of members of the various youth movements, including Lubetkin's own Dror-Hechaluts organization.
On July 28, 1942, with the deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto in full swing, the youth movements, including the Dror-Hechaluts and Hashomer Hatzair, as well as the more religiously oriented Akiva, joined together to form a united military organization to offer armed resistance to the Nazi enemy. The result was the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization or ZOB), and the group's first high command consisted of Shmuel Braslav, Josef Kaplan, Zivia Lubetkin, Mordechai Tenenbaum (Tamaroff), and Yitzhak Zuckerman. Soon after its birth, the organization called on the threatened population to resist deportation by standing up against both the Jewish police and their German overlords. Still hoping to survive by not defying the Nazis, the population ignored these appeals. Although unable to mount a significant campaign of resistance, ZOB gave a dramatic signal of its existence in August 1942, when one of its members shot and gravely wounded the hated ghetto police commandant, Joseph Szerynski. This victory, however, was soon followed by the loss of two members of the ZOB leadership executive, Shmuel Braslav and Josef Kaplan, who were captured and killed in early September. On the same day, September 3, 1942, a further catastrophe befell the struggling band of resisters when the entire ZOB arsenal—a pitiful collection consisting of no more than five pistols and eight hand grenades—fell into German hands.
Although the deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto would cease on September 12, the next weeks and months became a period of great psychological stress for all survivors of the ZOB leadership, including Lubetkin. Depressed and desperate at their inability to halt the deportations, they had difficulty resisting the impulse to fight the enemy with their bare hands, despite their knowledge of the utterly suicidal nature of such actions. In time, calmer heads prevailed, and the ZOB began a new stage of retrenchment and growth.
As winter approached, only 55,000 Jews remained in the Warsaw Ghetto. Of these, 35,000 were considered valuable to the German war effort since they worked in factories producing weapons, clothing, and other items of strategic value to the Reich. The other 20,000 were individuals who had been able to elude the Germans and their allies and had found places in which to hide. The new situation in the ghetto presented Lubetkin and her ZOB comrades with a very different psychological landscape from that of only a few months before. Now it was clear to virtually every Jew that the Nazis were in fact determined to kill all Jews in their domain, and that it was likely only a matter of time before even those Jews who held jobs that appeared to be important to the war effort (kriegswichtig) would be deported to a death camp. Realizing that they were living on borrowed time, many of the ghetto's surviving population now held the ZOB in high regard, often voicing regret that they had not heeded its warnings during the summer, when the mass deportations were taking place.
In later years, Lubetkin would emphasize the importance of the educational and organizational activities that took place during the months before military resistance began in the ghetto, a period when she and her comrades worked tirelessly to halt the process of moral and spiritual disintegration which the German occupiers hoped would undermine the Jewish will to survive as a people long before the actual horrors of physical annihilation got underway. Thus she strove to consciously prevent the onset of the "spiritual Treblinka" that preceded the actual death camps.
On January 9, 1943, SS chief Heinrich Himmler visited the Warsaw Ghetto, ordering the deportation of an additional 8,000 Jews. Unlike the events of the previous summer, when the ghetto's inhabitants had reported for "resettlement," on January 18 few showed up. Although still possessing only a handful of weapons, the ZOB organization sprang to life, initiating attacks on the Germans and their allies in the streets, near the Umschlagplatz, and in various buildings. Many of the young Jewish fighters were killed in open battles with the enemy, invariably being outgunned. Use of partisan tactics, on the other hand, proved to be much more effective, and the Germans now refrained from entering dark, narrow hallways and cellars. Jewish women and men of the resistance learned to strike quickly, then successfully withdraw to hiding places by moving across the ghetto's rooftops. Within a few days, the frustrated Germans ended their January Aktion. Risking her life on numerous occasions, Lubetkin participated in the armed resistance of January 1943 and amazingly never received a scratch. She and her husband took on a legendary status, Lubetkin being known by her underground name of "Celina," and Zuckerman as "Antek."
When the Nazis began another sweep of the ghetto on April 19, 1943, they believed themselves to be well prepared to achieve a rapid and low-cost victory. But this would not prove to be a Blitzkrieg operation. The ZOB leadership had used the time between German assaults to prepare for a revolt that would serve to preempt a major blow by the enemy. Not only had weapons been procured, but the often shaky political coalition on which the ZOB was built had been strengthened considerably. Even so, one wing of the ghetto resistance movement, the Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy (Jewish Military Union or ZZW), comprised of militant Zionists of the Betar and Revisionist movements, always had monopolistic tendencies and proved difficult to bring into line as members of a united coalition. Lubetkin's diplomatic skills were crucial in the months leading up to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. As a member of the political arm of the ZOB, the Zydowski Komitet Narodowy, as well as of its Coordinating Committee, she was usually able to bridge the often considerable differences between the different groups comprising the overall organization, which by 1943 included the venerable Polish-Jewish labor organization, the Bund.
The signal for full-scale Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto was the total sealing off of the area early in the morning of April 19. Wishing to deliver the ruined ghetto and its captive population to Adolf Hitler on his 54th birthday (April 20), the German force of 2,000 men supported by tanks and flame-throwers was met by a disciplined Jewish army who had been able to turn many of the ghetto's cellars into fortresses. With its small arsenal of rifles, handguns, a few machine guns, and homemade Molotov cocktails, the ZOB used their weaponry effectively and routed German forces in less than two hours. Lubetkin later recalled:
When the Germans came up to our posts and marched by and we threw those hand grenades and bombs and saw German blood pouring over the streets of Warsaw … there was much rejoicing. The tomorrow did not worry us. The rejoicing amongst the Jewish fighters was great and, see the wonder and the miracle, those German heroes retreated, afraid and terrorized from Jewish bombs and hand grenades, home-made.
Over the next few days, after fierce clashes including hand-to-hand combat, the Germans tightened their siege of the ghetto, cutting off its supply of water, electricity, and gas. They brought in police dogs to track down Jewish fighters in the buildings and cellars in which they hid. Within a few days, both sides changed tactics, going from using large groups to relying on small bands of soldiers. The Jewish resistance adapted quickly to the new situation, breaking up its larger units into smaller, more mobile squads. The future resistance leader Hermann Wygoda was located in an apartment directly across the street from the ghetto and later provided the following account:
The rattling of different types of weapons coming from the ghetto was clearly audible as the Nazis attempted its complete destruction. That last handful of Jews knew their situation was hopeless, but there was no alternative left for them. They refused to submit voluntarily to the process of elimination that was requested and expected of them. In less than one year, the Nazis had managed to march to the gas chambers several million meek people and destroy them without as much as a protest. Those people had gone to their destruction terrorized and spiritless. Then, a few thousand desperadoes provided a rude awakening for the Nazis.
Throughout this time, Lubetkin and her husband were at the nerve center of the uprising, working day and night to maintain effective command and control of a rapidly changing situation.
A new German strategy was decreed by the frustrated German commander of the annihilation operation, General Jürgen Stroop, who ordered that the entire ghetto be systematically burned down. At its four corners, the ghetto was set on fire, first by German airplanes and then on the ground. Even under these nightmarish conditions, Warsaw's Jews died without contemplating surrender. Lubetkin wrote later that for the Germans this "was not the triumph they had planned."
With their last vital energy the Jews found shelter behind every wall, among ruins that could no longer burn. The inhabitants of entire bunkers—men, women, and children—crawled out from their underground hiding places and wandered about, loaded with their last bits of food, blankets, pots. Babies were carried in their mothers' arms, older children trailed after their parents, in their eyes an abyss of suffering and a plea for help. … Many who could find no other shelter went down into the sewers to wait through the next day. For the time being, deep underground in bunkers and sewers, the pulse of Jewish life still beat on.
In the desperate battle, many women as well as men fought to defend Jewish honor. Even Nazi commander Stroop provided history with documentation on this theme when he noted in his personal report to Adolf Hitler:
During the armed resistance, females belonging to fighting groups were armed just like the men. Some of them were members of the He-halutz movement. Not infrequently, these females fired pistols from both hands. Repeatedly, they concealed pistols or hand grenades (oval Polish hand grenades) in their underpants to use at the last minute against the men of the Waffen-SS, Police, or Wehrmacht.
From the very start of their rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto, Lubetkin and her comrades in arms knew that they could never beat the Germans. They sought a moral, not a military, triumph: "To live with honor and to die with honor." During the final days of the uprising, Lubetkin was in the ZOB command bunker located at 18 Mila Street, in an underground dugout she described as being "spacious and astonishingly well-equipped," with electric lights, a well, and such luxuries as a reading room and a game room. Until the start of the uprising, this luxury facility (by ghetto standards) had been part of the Warsaw Ghetto's underworld, the property of a gang of thieves and murderers led by a sinister Jewish criminal named Shmuel Asher. Despite his unsavory past, Asher now did not hesitate in sharing his supplies with the ghetto fighters and was in fact noted as "especially tender with the children." The criminals assisted the fighters, guiding them at night to spy out German positions. The densely crowded bunker could accommodate 120 ghetto fighters including the ZOB command. As days went by, more and more hiding places were discovered by the Germans. Sometimes, starving and demoralized Jews betrayed hiding places to the Nazis in return for a promise of immunity. The corpses of Lubetkin's comrades lay strewn everywhere, and she "dreaded walking at night for fear of stepping on them. Flocks of crows descended on the decaying bodies in the streets."
By the end of the first week in May, it became clear that the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto had entered its last stage. Leaving the command post at 18 Mila Street, Lubetkin and a small group of colleagues crawled out of the bunker and proceeded along hidden pathways, meeting occasional survivors of the armed struggle. She found temporary refuge in another bunker, but soon the Germans pumped gas into it and some of the 120 fighters committed suicide so as not to surrender. Finding a hidden exit at the last minute before being asphyxiated, a small group including Lubetkin were able to escape. Of 120, only 21 had survived. Soon their flight from the Germans resumed, this time through the cold, filthy waters of the sewers. At first, Lubetkin felt that "nothing—not even freedom—was worth this." For 20 hours, she and her group half-walked, half-crawled through the sewers, "that terrible cavern," feeling their bodies weaken more and more from thirst and hunger. When members of the group fell down, begging to be left lying on the spot, their companions did not abandon them. Eventually, they reached Frosta Street on the Aryan side of the ghetto but had to remain in the sewer for many additional hours. Organized by three Jewish associates and a Polish Gentile who worked together in the resistance, a truck came to pick up the dirty, rag-wrapped ghetto survivors. During the last perilous stage of the escape, German sentries at the bridge which led out of Warsaw were distracted, and Lubetkin and her group were safely delivered in the truck to the Mlochini forest seven kilometers from Warsaw.
Lubetkin later wrote of their arrival in the forest:
[We were] so dehumanized in our rags and filth, our dirty faces still unwashed, that we were hardly recognizable. They at once brought us warm milk, the first we had had in many days. Everything was strange. About us was the green forest and a beautiful spring day. It had been a long time since we had known a forest, spring, and the sun. All that had been buried and restrained in our frozen hearts for years now stirred. I burst into tears.
One of the group then died suddenly, his lungs destroyed by the gas attack in the ghetto.
For hours we sat silent, till one comrade arose and began to dig a grave. That night we all sat about a campfire … and in our hearts we felt that we were the last survivors of a people that had been exterminated.
Physically restored and determined to continue the struggle, Lubetkin, her husband, and a small remnant of Warsaw Ghetto survivors participated in a Jewish unit that fought in the tragic Warsaw Polish uprising of August–September 1944. When bloody defeat ended in surrender to the Germans in early October, Lubetkin, Zuckerman, and several other Jewish survivors once again were at great risk of being captured. As it had in 1943, something akin to the miraculous occurred. A Polish Gentile physician, Dr. Stanislaw Switala, saved the lives of Lubetkin, her husband and several other Jews in November 1944, by taking them to the hospital he directed and hiding them from the Nazis.
In mid-January 1945, Warsaw was liberated by the Soviet Army and Lubetkin, Zuckerman and a handful of Jews could once more breathe freely. But for Poland's Jews, the end of fascism did not bring a new beginning in Poland but rather a realization that Jewish life in that country, with its glorious past, had no future. Nine out of ten of Poland's Jews had perished during the Nazi occupation. Anti-Semitic prejudices and fears remained deeply embedded among many in the Polish population, resulting in the infamous Kielce pogrom of 1946.
Determined to start a new life in Palestine, Lubetkin and her husband now concentrated on assisting Holocaust survivors in restoring their shattered lives. Much of their time at first went into restoration of the Hechaluts movement, and both quickly emerged as leaders of She'erit ha-Peleltah ("the saving remnant"), one of the most effective survivor-relief organizations. The couple played a key role in organizing Beriha, the mass exodus of Jews from Poland in 1946 and 1947. In 1946, Lubetkin settled in Palestine, which in May 1948 emerged as the State of Israel. Here she and her husband became founding members of Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Getta'ot, the Ghetto Fighters' Kibbutz. Unwilling to forget the past, and convinced that its lessons could and should never be forgotten, they founded Bet Lohamei ha-Getta'ot, the memorial center located at the same kibbutz. A committed Socialist as well as Zionist, over the next decades Lubetkin became a revered icon of the dwindling band of veteran ghetto fighters. She also emerged as a major speaker for the kibbutz movement, becoming one of the best-known representatives of its national organization, Hakibbutz Hameuchad. In the early 1960s, both Lubetkin and Zuckerman appeared in a Jerusalem courtroom as witnesses in the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Zivia Lubetkin died in 1978, and Yitzhak Zuckerman died three years later in 1981.
On April 23, 1943, in the early days of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, ZOB commander Mordecai Anielewicz wrote what has since become a much-quoted letter to Lubetkin's husband:
What we have experienced cannot be described in words. We are aware of one thing only: what has happened has exceeded our dreams. The Germans ran twice from the ghetto. … I have the feeling that great things are happening, that what we have dared is of great importance. … Perhaps we shall meet again. But what really matters is that the dream of my life has become true. Jewish self-defense in the Warsaw ghetto has become a fact. Jewish armed resistance and retaliation have become a reality. I have been witness to the magnificent heroic struggle of the Jewish fighters.
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——. "Zivia: The Passing of a Heroine," in Midstream. Vol. 24, no. 8. October 1978, pp. 56–59.
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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia