Joseph Kaplan was born in 1913, passed through Heder and Yeshiva and spent a little time at the Hebrew Gymnasium but had to stop studying because of the material situation of his family. He attended evening classes instead. While very young, he joined the Hashomer Hatzair with which he identified himself. He studied Hebrew and made a living as a carpenter.
In Hashomer Hatzair, he was first a guide then unit head and then head of the group. From there, he became the leader of the Lodz-Kalish District and later proceeded to Wolhynia. H Geller reports on his activities there. The entire region had been left without guides and instructors who had all proceeded to Eretz Israel or else had been summoned to the headquarters in Warsaw. It was 1937 and they were awaiting the new representative urgently. One rainy morning a young fellow in a tattered overcoat arrived at the Rovno Ken (club centre). He had a head of thick black hair, a sunburnt face and a rather mischievous smile and his name was Joseph Kaplan. A few moments later, he opened his bag, produced a few hectographed sheets and said: I put out these circulars in Kalish. I prepared them myself. The next day our own First Circular appeared. The leadership in Wolhynia had gone into action. The leadership of course consisted of a typewriter, a hectograph and Joseph Kaplan.
The next day, he vanished for two months while he went to all the little Clubs in the small towns. There was no railway no highroads. All journeys were made by waggon or on foot. But warm Jewish hearts were to be found in those little towns. He had to advise, instruct, scold and
encourage and hold back those who wished to go to Eretz Israel before they had completed their full instruction period. On his own, he came to know the thousands of Hashomer Hatzair members in Wolhynia.
Two months later he returned, weary, more tattered than before but full of life and declared that he had cracked the nut. For now he knew the entire district and had found faithful assistants everywhere. A few days later he published a detailed report covering each place separately. Then he vanished again, returning to Rowno only from time to time. On one occasion he told the story of his own hard life, the childhood without happiness and the frequent intervals of hunger
In due course he wished to proceed to Eretz Israel but was summoned to the Warsaw headquarters from which he maintained his contact with Wolhynia.
In 1938, he was still planning to proceed to Eretz Israel. By the beginning of 1939 his passport was ready. The war broke out. The Halutzim poured eastwards. He spent a long interval in Lida and used the time in sending Halutzim on to Wilna from which there were prospects of Aliya. The Movement was left in the hands of boys in Poland He himself reached Wilna in January, 1940.
He, however, only spent a month there for the Movement in Poland had been abandoned. In February 1940, he returned as a member of the Delegation of Warsaw to handle activities under the Nazi occupation The other members were Mordechai Anilewitz, Tosia Altman and Shmuel Bratzlaw. Joseph coordinated activities and was justly regarded as the head of the Movement. The Delegation did a great deal. The Movement was restored and began to expand Two Kibbutzim were set up and Hachshara was organized as an underground activity, the members engaging in urban work. Two underground National Councils and two Seminar Courses were held.. The Warsaw Ken numbered more than a thousand members who issued ten different journals in hundreds of copies and maintained contact with every other Ken in the small towns
Joseph's special function was contact with the various institutions. He kept in personal touch with Dr Ringelblum, the heads of the Joint, the underground and representatives of communal institutions. He was the established 'contacts' man with the various centres. Though he had an exceedingly Jewish appearance, he went everywhere in spite of the danger involved. In the ghetto it was he who delivered the educational lectures. It was Joseph who organized Hachshara in order to make sure that the older members did not break off their ties with the Movement even if they could see no way of continuing their activities.
During his first Warsaw year, he set up Hachshara at an estate which was found to belong to an anti-Semite whose only purpose was to exploit his cheap workers to the utmost. The lads worked from morning to night and were fed only on left-overs. This Hachshara was closed down and he south Hachshara elsewhere.
The famous Hachshara farm at Czenstochow had been taken over by the Wehrmacht the German army. He resolved to get the farm from them and
succeeded. He also obtained the abandoned estate of a Jewish landowner near Zarki with the assistance of the local Judenrat. There he established a Halutz training farm. He and Zvi Brandels had travel permits as sick persons and within a few weeks, had transferred the older Hashomer Hatzair members to the Hachshara centres, two or three at a time.
He devoted all his efforts to the issue of newspapers, first for the Movement and later as an underground press. Only in these papers was it possible to find military reports with expositions of war and political developments. It was exceeding difficult to get the paper out of Warsaw and he, therefore, decided to publish special issued for other towns. These took the form of three books each of 160-180 pages. They were given a special cover bearing in Polish the name: Agricultural Calendar for 1942. They contained a selection of the Warsaw press, news from Eretz Israel and the smaller branches and were distributed by special underground methods.
Early in 1942, a left-wing anti-Fascist Resistance Organization was set up on the initiative of the Jewish communists. The other participating groups were the left Poalei Zion, Hashomer Hatzair, Dror and the Z.S. Joseph was a member of the command. Its significance was that it brought the various groups together, but it achieved nothing and did not last long.
That spring, the Germans entered the ghetto one night, took 50 Jews from their beds and shot them in the street. Joseph escaped and concealed himself at Zarki. The mass transportations began on 22nd July, 1942 and more than 300,000 Jews were removed from the ghetto within 55 days. Joseph returned to Warsaw and began to make further plans He found work in a wood manufacturing factory and became expert at forging stamps and documents.
When leading survivors met to discuss what should be done, Joseph was one of those who demanded that they should defend themselves; but there were no arms. Hashomer Hatzair, Dror, Akiva and Gordonia together established the Jewish Fighting Organization but there were neither arms nor money. Meanwhile, the debate continued. The younger ghetto residents wished to fight and die while the others wished to hold out as long as possible. But the younger people saw no prospects of rescue. They knew what was going on in Wilna and precisely what was taking place in Treblinka. Arieh Wilner managed to smuggle ten pistols and five hand grenades into the ghetto and some benzene was obtained for preparing Molotov cocktails. Joseph continued to insist that proper preparations must be made for resistance.
On 3rd September, 1942 the German Commissar Hansel came to the factory where Joseph worked and asked for him. Some of the workers went to find him As soon as he returned he was handcuffed and taken out to a closed car. When another member of the Command went out to look for ways and means of liberating Joseph, he was stopped by the Gestapo men in the street. They began to search him and he drew a knife but they killed him on the spot. Thereupon instructions were given for all underground members to move to new addresses. The only one caught was a girl who was carrying arms.
When Joseph and another Jew were being taken from the Pawiak Prison
to the Transportation Centre, they were conducted into one of the gateways as they marched and were shot. It is possible but not certain that the second Jew shot was an informer.
In his last letter Joseph had written: Don't believe the Germans any more. All their promises are just satanic tricks to split the community. If we are fated to die, let us die honourably. Resist the Germans by force everywhere. Organize the youth. Protect yourselves. Don't go to the railway waggons!
Details of Joseph's personality were described by Irena Adamowicz, a pious Catholic who helped the members of Hashomer Hatzair and visited Israel in June, 1958. The personal details shed additional light on Joseph's interesting personality and bring him even closer to us.
.Joseph went from Wilna to Warsaw at his own demand. He felt he was the father of the Movement and thought that there was no one else to do the work. I last saw him in Wilna on January 14th, 1940. He went southwards and reached Warsaw by way of Brisk (Brest Litowsk). He travelled as a returning Jewish refugee because he had a typical Jewish appearance and that caused him much trouble He used to travel a great deal to the small towns with a Judenrat Permit which did not give the right of travel by train. But the main difficulty was to get him through the streets to the railway station and he was always very worried about whoever accompanied him.[Page 300]
.His outstanding quality was his organizing capacity and success in all negotiations In Radom, the Judenrat caused trouble to the Movement. Joseph arrived there and straightened matters out. He dealt with every issue energetically and obstinately. He dedicated himself so much to each detail that he was afraid that he would lose his mind. He used to say that he had a great deal to do before he went mad.
Other qualities were his level-headedness, a gift of distinguishing between main issues and trifles and a power of swift decision He used to deal with details a great deal but never forgot the main purpose, the aim to which the details were subordinate. If he made a mistake, he was prepared to confess it but usually he displayed ample self-assurance. Agriculture was his aspiration When he met Polish agriculturists; he always impressed them as a very great expert.
Sometimes he would behave like a child. One day I met him in the Nalewki. He began to pull me by the sleeve and dance. Passers-by began to stare at us. It turned out that he had just heard that his Kibbutz Maanit had settled on the land. He also had a weakness for bright little objects, for fine notebooks and fountain pens When he received something of the kind he was as happy as a child. But he really loved working with his hands and was always pleased when he could use them.
He was of middle height and thin with a mop of black hair. He had large black smiling eyes and his smile was a little bit lopsided. He was not a good looking man but had an attractive exterior. His clothes were usually dark grey.
Until the truth was known about the slaughter at Ponar in the spring of 1942, he
believed that it would be possible to outlive the years of fury. But after that he ceased to believe and opened the eyes of others. He began to be active to travel. On one of these journeys, he cause caught. I believe it was at Skarzysko. He was placed against the wall and told that he had the right to write a letter. But, he told himself: if I do write they'll think they will have to kill me, so I shan't write. And sure enough, some Nazi appeared and allowed him to clear off. He managed to bend down and pick up his money that had fallen to the ground.
Together with his practical sense and level-headedness, he tended to engage in adventures. When there was talk of the possibility of getting out, he told me he was prepared to go out and come back. I looked at him as though he were crazy. On one occasion, he told me, that in his opinion the Jews ought to go on wearing the yellow badge after the war as well!
He always spoke about the principal duty of every Halutz which was to go to Eretz Israel. He also believed in a World Soviet Republic that would bring redemption to all. But as long as there were frontiers it was necessary to rehabilitate Jewish life.
In June 1942, I went to Wilna for the last time and went to meet Joseph before leaving. A few days earlier we had quarrelled as usual about different matters. Now I came to make it up and say good-bye. We knew that there were not many prospects of surviving.
I saw him for the last time during the great transportation from Warsaw, a few weeks or maybe days before his death. We met at the Jewish Cemetery. I brought him letters from Wilna. He took bread and eggs out of his pocket and we ate. He spoke to me about weapons and about the need to arrange people on the Aryan side. He spoke in a business-like tone without generalizations.
This was at the time when the whole ghetto was waiting for death
Memorial Stone for Joseph Kaplan at Kibbutz Maanit
Adek Boraks of the well-known Boraks family reached Wilna from Kalish soon after the beginning of the war and helped to transfer members of Hahalutz to Soviet-occupied territory. His free and colloquial Polish served him in spite of his distinctly Jewish appearance as a passport with non-Jews, peasants, smugglers, etc. He was appointed a member of the Reserve leadership of Hashomer Hatzair. Between 1939 and 1941 he and the others moved from place to place together with the Jewish masses but almost all of them returned to Wilna including Adek when news of the German occupation arrived. He used to leave the ghetto at night, remove the yellow badge and try to find allies who would supply him with arms. He began to be an expert at forging documents.
One evening when he left the ghetto and came to the house of a girl who lived outside, two gestapo agents rang at her door and demanded to see their papers. She explained that he was her fiancé and before showing his own forged documents, he requested to see their authorization. They merely glanced at his papers and apologized before leaving.
He left Wilna and found his way to the Warsaw ghetto where he met the representatives of the Joint, the Parties and whatever Jewish Community there was. He was the first person who brought them the whole truth in simple language. Naturally, the majority either did not believe him or felt
Sure that it would not happen in Warsaw. After receiving money promised him by the Joint and a travel permit, he began to make his way back. In Grodno he and his companions were arrested by gendarmes but escaped through the ruins of the bombed-out street in the darkness. When they reached Warsaw by car they were caught again while they were trying to find a way into the ghetto. It is not clear how they got away but they arrived in the ghetto chained and handcuffed without overcoats or hats in the chilly night.
On proceeding to the railway station to reach Bialystock and Wilna some extortionist tried to get money out of him. He did not answer them and they summoned a policeman. Where did you get this transit paper from? From the Judenrat? asked the policeman ironically. Adek did not lose his head but became very angry and answered in his good street Polish: Mister, from what Rat where is that Rat? Is there a town called Rat in Poland? I got it in Grodno and not in any of your Rats! They cleared off. Afterwards people said of Adek that he could even escape from the hands of the devil himself.
Adek returned to Bialystock where he met his Kibbutz comrades. The closet of these was Zerah who had grown up with him in the Kalish Ken. After studying the situation he realized that he ought not to leave this place for it had no Military commander. He was the only one who had ever obtained any real military training. Discipline required him to proceed to Wilna while logic told him that the needs in Bialystok were more urgent. When asked to stay, he said: Discipline and responsibility require me to go back to Wilna first and then appeal. The argument that he was risking his life did not help. Adek stood firm. It would not be a good example if a member of the leadership should engage in a breach of discipline for reasons of mere logic. He decided that he would not go back empty-handed but would smuggle gold coins in order to buy arms. The coins were then sewn into the pads in the shoulders of his jacket. A week later, he sent a cable: I have a job and would like to ask your advice Edward. Which meant that he had arrived safely and that there was money for weapons.
Now it was decided that he should return to Bialystok and take charge of the military command. He prepared a code in order that they should be able to use postcards. Weapons would be called furniture, rifles would be cupboards, and dollars would be Stefan and so on. The key to the code was in the hands of Adek, Joseph Kaplan and Rozka. In a single postcard he could supply ample information which often made a dangerous journey unnecessary.
He needed plenty of patience. The partners were not in a hurry to supply the arms freely. Promises were broken. Disappointments followed one another. Adek, Zerah and Yoshka (from Wylkowiski) planned the organization of the 'cells', each of five. Cell members were admitted one by one after two or three talks face-to-face; sometimes even more. Each member knew only the other four. The activities of the Cell were not discussed among the larger Hashomer groups as though they did not exist.
In a debate on Forest and Partisans as against war in the ghetto, Adek said: Haverim, I want to clarify our attitude to the ghetto once again.
Maybe there are better prospects for effective war in the Forest. But are we going to be satisfied with that and abandon the masses to be led like sheep to the slaughter here too as they were in Wilna while seeking martial effects in the Forest? I do not belittle sabotage activities. We would blow up so many bridges; we would explode so many ammunition trains; we would cut so many telegraph wires, etc. All these are of the greatest importance. But they do not offer any answer to the main question: How are we to organize a mass response? How do we find a way of giving expression to the resistance of the people? How do we lead to the revolt of Jewish masses that are closed away in the ghetto awaiting the fate of sheep led to the slaughter? Suppose we fight in the Forest? Do we then wash our hands clean because we have done our duty? That is a solution for individuals who wish to lend a hand to the war against fascism.
But where is the communal and national solution? Are we to abandon the unorganized ghetto with its old folk, women and children and say we have saved ourselves? Where is the responsibility to the history of the People? Where is the vanguard character of our Movement? I see our Movement as the head of the masses in their revolt, not as an elect group who satisfy their own consciences but as the pioneers of a nation; for surely we have educated our comrades to that end! The War of the Masses will have to be fought in the ghetto and we have to head it together with others who think as we do. First and foremost the ghetto! And first and foremost, the National War. The War of the Jews. They are killing us as Jews and as Jews we shall fight back. And we shall not give answers as individuals but as an organized community. That is the kind of thing which will have its value in history.
At about this time one of the fellows brought the first rifle to the ghetto and it was used in training. The butt was removed and Adek used to move it from place to place. He was selected for this underground activity and also organized the Cells.
He directed attention to the establishment of a Fighting Front of all the movements which supported the principle of combat. The easiest way led to the communists. First meetings were held between him and their representatives. Later there was also a meeting with Shlomo Poporetz who represented the most nationalist and revolutionary section of the Bund. In this way, a High Command was established between the Shomer Hatzair, the communists and the Bund consisting of Adek, Yoshke Kawe and Poporetz. This was the basis for the broader Front which was established in the course of time. Adek was sent to the Military Centre of the Command. With the establishment of the second Block, consisting of the Hashomer Hatzair, Dror, the Zionist Youth, the Revisionists and part of the Bund, Adek's slogan became: Unification of the two Blocks into a single fighting Front.
In February 1943, Adek began to betray his nervousness at meetings. He feared an Action in the ghetto. One day he announced with certainty that the Action would be carried out and did not permit those who were on the Aryan side to enter the ghetto. A day later, Zerah sent a slip of paper to the workers outside the ghetto wall: Haika, the Action is over Our comrades tried to fight. Here is the list of our losses: Frank, Yoshke,
Isruelik, Zivia, Rozka, Yankel and Sender. Nineteen in all and the last on the list Adek.
This is how he met his end:
Adek's post was discovered. He shot with his pistol and the fellows attacked the S.S. with their fingernails! Traitors had played a part here. And since Adek had lost the essential basis of defence and surprise from ambush, he also had no power of manoeuvring. Gedalia managed to catch Adek's words: We will pay them back yet! Continue! Their hands were raised. The Germans searched their pockets. Adek stood at the head of the squad, his face flaming and his eyes shooting fire. After that we no longer saw Adek. The transport left the ghetto and from the distance we saw how they were being hit over the head and how the fighters were behaving impudently towards the Germans.On the very threshold of the Furnaces, Adek and his companions organized a revolt so that the Jews should not enter of their own free-will. They were killed just outside the furnaces and fell proudly and bravely.
-Echoes came from afar. Jews who were in the same goods waggon and who had escaped the furnaces told about the remarkable commander and rare companion who decided together with his comrades not to jump out of the waggon but only helped others to jump.
Adek (Elijah) Boraks was born in Kalish in September 1918. His father was a progressive Zionist and the owner of a Tricotage Factory. He studied at the Jewish gymnasium and joined the Hashomer Hatzair Movement. In 1933 he proceeded to Wolhynia on Hachshara. In the army he was a corporal.
During the fighting in Bialystock on 5th November, 1943, he headed a group in Smolna Street.
Certificate of Polish Order of Virtuti Militar!
Jacob David Sitner
He was born in Kalish in 1897 to a well-to-do orthodox family. His father was one of the wardens of the Kehilla and a well-known communal worker. So was his mother, whose heart was always open to general distress. Educated in the traditional spirit, he helped to establish the Tseirei Zion Movement in the city and headed it during and after World War I. Later, he established one of the first Leagues for Labour Eretz Israel which had hundreds of members. He visited the small towns in the region, delivered speeches, organized and acted on behalf of the Central Office. In 1925, he moved to Warsaw where he headed a large firm of transport agents but there as well, he devoted much of his time and energy to the Poalei Zion (ZS) Party and was a member of its Warsaw Committee for many years. At one time he was a member of the Party Council and later member of the Central Committee which often used to meet in his home where various discussions were held during the most difficult period of the Movement.
He and his wife Havera Leah one of the oldest and most devoted in the party saw to it that every haver should feel at home and he encouraged many members at times of distress and crisis. They were both kind-hearted, delicate and liked by all. The theoretical monthly of the party, Die Neie Gesellschaft was founded on his initiative and with his help. He took part in establishing most of his party's enterprises and institutions
and was a delegate to the Congress for a Labour Eretz Israel in Berlin in 1930. He visited Eretz Israel in 1935 and submitted a plan for establishing a Histadrut enterprise for goods transport between Poland and Eretz Israel. His plan was approved but the implementation was delayed.
He was one of the devoted and active members of the underground and represented it in enterprises for social aid in the Warsaw ghetto. He served as Chairman of the Local Committee of Poalei Zion (SZ) in Warsaw during the days of the underground. During the first ghetto period, he managed a brush-making factory which employed members of the Kibbutz of Dzielna Street. For some time he manufactured jam at home. Afterwards, he went over to brush-making shop. In October, 1942, he was murdered. His wife Leah who was also active in the underground gave her life in April, 1943 with their son Joel (Yulek who wrote poems which were published in the Polish underground press). In a letter by the Party in Poland to the Ihud Olami and dated 15th November, 1943, his name is listed among the active party leaders who died at their posts.
We know little about Abraham Diamant. What is known as: He was an active member of the Poalei Zion in Kalish; was a corporal in the Polish army and fell on 1st or 2nd May, 1943, when he was forty-two years old. In the List sent from Warsaw in May 1944, Hersh Wasser writes about him as the Corporal:
He was one of the few soldiers of the ghetto who as a mark of distinction was entrusted with a rifle a very rare treasure among the fighters. Abraham Diamant was a worked aged 42, tall and broad-shouldered whose face expressed gentleness and strength at the same time. A serious, concentrated man and an ideal comrade, he was prepared to share his last slice of bread or spoonful of food with others. He had an absolutely firm character, was daring and despised death qualities which are not very common.
From his childhood, he was connected with the Jewish Labour Movement and was an active Poalei Zion member in Kalish. On his way from communal and political activity to sharing in the battles of the Jewish Fighting
Organization, he went through all the Nazi hells. The Germans exiled him from Kalish to Warsaw in October 1939 together with his wife and child. He had 20 zloty in his pocket and a little bundle in his hands and lived in one of the deathly refugee camps. He felt the German whip, the pangs of starvation, distress and typhoid. During the first expulsion to Treblinka on 22nd July, 1942, his wife and daughter were taken from him and sent to the death camp. In spite of all these harsh blows of fate, which broke thousands of other people, Abraham's spirit did not fail. He became even more silent. The furrows on his forehead grew far deeper, his gaze became angrier and his hands clenched into fists.
The idea of resistance and active battle against the raging Fascist beast found a fervent supporter in him. He identified himself with the new Movement from the moment it was organized. The Polish Corporal, the brave soldier, gripped the rifle in his hands once again.
He did not wish for praise and honour. He used to tell his friends that the war of the Jewish fighters, and even their deaths, would not be a useless sacrifice. The struggle of the ghetto fighters would be part of the War of the Forces of Freedom against Fascism and the basis for a better future for Jewish masses everywhere in the world. The Ghetto Fighters would be the builders of the future.
When the day of action came, the fighter Diamant occupied the position assigned to him at an attic in 32 Swiento-Jerska Street. That was on the 20th April, 1943. On that day he picked off seven Germans with his rifle and silenced a German machine-gun nest. He stood on guard by day and night and would not be parted from his rifle even for a moment. He repulsed German attacks with a savage fury. When the S.S. men surrounded the house and burst into the upper floors, Diamant would not leave his post but returned fire. Only after the Germans had already reached the roof did he make his way to another area together with other fighters. After that he was always on the move, on patrol, on guard, on sorties, alone or with the other fighters. He had no pity for himself, never hesitated even for a moment and resolutely stared death in the eyes.
On May 1, he fought amid ruins in the burning remains of the house at 30, Franciszkanska Street, in which there was a large shelter for the civilian population. A unit of the Fighting Organization defended the entrance. All of a sudden, news arrived that the Germans had discovered another entry to the shelter and were coming in. The fighters opened fire. The Germans answered with hand grenades. Three fighters headed by Diamant went out through a different side of the shelter and attacked the Germans from the rear. Two Germans were killed and the rest dispersed. Our objective had been achieved for the moment. The fighters took up positions in the ruins of the neighbouring house. A second unit of S.S. men approached and a struggle for life and death began. Abraham's shots did not miss their mark. The Germans did not dare approach their positions but shot with machine guns from the distance. All of a sudden, Diamant began to reel. A bullet had gone to his heart. He wanted to hand his rifle over to Hersh Berlinski who headed his group but did not manage. From the ruins, he fell into a burning cellar. His body was not found. It was entirely burnt
Comrades relate that Zerah was taciturn, close-mouthed, firm, deep-thinking and used to give good reasons for his words. He was heavy but gentle and had a sense of proportion. Nobody imagined that he could lie or do anything that was not noble or abandon anybody. Haika Grossman writes:
Adek and Zerah were very close friends and neither of them ever hid anything from the other. I never saw them in an intimate conversation and used to wonder how they could be such good friends. To which Adek would tell me: With a mere glance. The ripe masculine friendship was both considerate and reserved. Zerah, what will happen if I should die a natural death? Adek would ask. You'll die twice Zerah would answer. Once from the illness and a second time out of grief at such an ordinary way of dying. It was only rarely that their source of humour would dry up.One evening Adek asked whether the day would ever come when they would reach Eretz Israel. And Zerah answered: Why don't you ask whether you'll remain alive? And that led to a discussion about survival after death Zerah said that he did not care whether they would cut his body up into pieces. The important thing is to be here and fight here as long as you have life let in you.
When the lungs of a haver were affected and he did not wish to go to the doctor, Zerah tricked him. He fixed an appointment and sent the haver there, claiming that it was an important meeting. The fellow was insulted but began to accept treatment and recovered.
Zerah also took part in the debate on Forest Resistance or War in the Ghetto. This is how Haika Grossman describes the discussion.
The deliberateness of Zerah always led to silence in the room I do not know how Zerah came to be so respected by all the haverim that they used to listen to him so attentively. But they used to say: Silence, Zerah has asked for the word. He spoke as though he was thinking aloud, stressing his peculiar pronunciation of the letter L, he would talk very slowly without any apparent emotion. Yet, everybody knew that Zerah was boiling. Zerah was tensely living through the problem. He began by saying: Frank is right.. If we have to weigh the problem we are entitled to weigh it in terms of the war against fascism. Any other approach, no matter how dressed up in the ideology of helping Jewry or helping yourself as best you can, means treachery. Anybody who says that the masses can be saved through the forest is either misleading himself or is purposely misleading others. How can we save the masses if we are in the forest? Is that the way you are going to save the ghetto; the old people, the women and children? And will you leave the war against the fascists to the gentiles? What? I see that there are some here who wish to take us back to a discussion we finished with long ago. Doesn't this lead us back instead of forward? First of all, it is impossible to save masses. That is a utopia a dangerous illusion which leads to an acceptance of fate. It is possible to save only individuals and even if somebody talks of saving masses, he only seems to mean saving individuals, consciously or unconsciously. And maybe he is counting himself among them? It doesn't matter if somebody is hurt by my words. Maybe I am being unjust. But this is not a private or a personal matter, neither are mine nor yours. If we were only among ourselves we might be able to fix it up. But we have to decide how to educate masses a Movement and how and what can demand of others. So first we must make sure that everything is in order among us: and as for the ghetto and the partisans, I identify myself with the opinion of our haverim in Wilna - with the opinions of Adek and Haika.After that Zerah was sent to Grodno to help the young haverim to carry out the armed revolt.
I still remember how the resolution was adopted. The room was very sad. The only bright thing was Zerah's face. It burnt and glowed. He urged that the resolution should be acted upon at once. We wanted him to stay with us another day, to discuss matters and to prepare a plan. It was the first time that we saw the well-balanced Zerah so tense. At once, he demanded at once! The earth is burning under their feet already. Many Jews have already been uprooted. The transports are already on the move, the crowded railway waggons are passing the stations without stopping and it is only through the tiny barbed windows that they are making their[Page 310]
last despairing call to the world, telling passers-by and railway workers that they are Jews from Grodno. Those transports disappear in the West and we know that this means Treblinka. Can we still do anything?
The next day Zerah hurriedly packed his bag, took the only 'Aryan hat' which was a sort of property of the Movement and which Adek had used on former 'Aryan' journeys. (We used to say: The hat makes the man). Yendza forged him a permit at short notice and as before, we accompanied Zerah to the exit. We entreated him to wait until tomorrow for at this time of day, Jews had to work and nobody went out or came in. 'I am going over the fence' he insisted. We accompanied Zerah to the fence. Adek, Zerah and I went through the ghetto streets in order to be with one another as long as possible. Zerah and Adek entered the courtyard. Before Zerah had climbed on top of the out-house in the courtyard, one of the Jews who lived there dashed out, caught him by the leg and dragged him down. 'I shan't let you pass! They'll punish us all because of you! Clear away from here' And he added good wagoner curses. This was a huge, broad-shouldered fellow. He grabbed the bag in his powerful arms and began to hit out from right to left. Adek nimbly caught hold of him. The battle lasted several minutes. Zerah mounted the roof and Adek caught the bag, tripped the giant up, flung the bag up on to the roof and Zerah jumped over the low fence and vanished.Zerah spent a fortnight in the closed ghetto, trained the leaders of the 'Fives', planned attack points, organized the bringing in of materials and arms. The weapons were neither good nor plentiful. Once again electric bulbs filled with vitriol, iron knuckledusters, sticks and various other primitive weapons. Zerah and Yocheved looked for a way to establish a united front with other movements. He looked for contact with the communists, the few remaining Bundists and the Revisionists but he found all of them helpless. He looked for a way to the 'decent Jews' of the Judenrat in order to get money from them. They warned him that they would not take part in any hot-headed or mischievous tricks.
Zerah could see the end of the ghetto and wished to establish the organizational contact between the Grodno and the Bialystok undergrounds. The majority had decided to remain where they were and organize a defence as far as possible. Once again Zerah devoted himself to fixing defence points and allocating duties. He inspected the weapons and shared them out, gave instructions for their use and prepared a general plan.
When the effectives demanded that he should return to Bialystok he did not accept orders. And he returned only when the chapter of bloodshed was over. When people were heard in the Bialystok ghetto demanding a revision of the policy of resistance, it was Zerah who stood in the breach.
I still remember his face, his compressed lips, his quivering voice and his powerful but somewhat restrained appearance. He did not make any charges; he made no personal attacks, he only explained, convinced, showed why there was no other way, that there were more failures in stores for us besides our failures until now; that there was no other way except the way of complete devotion and self-sacrifice. That Adek was right when he had not abandoned the positions, otherwise we would have emerged from the Action with a mark of shame burning on our brows. We would have caused demoralisation in the ranks of the fighters and would have shaken their confidence in us as a leadership and a Fighting Movement. He asked to speak a number of times and grew neither weary nor despairing. - - Gather your strength[Page 311]
don't abandon the proper way; don't waste time on a debate that has neither social nor moral significance! That was what the piercing eyes of Zerah told me.Following the liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto, the Underground made a final attempt to accompany the masses and rouse them to revolt at the Concentration Point. Zerah and Yoshka undertook this task. Zerah was in command of one sector and fell in the battle.
Zerah Silberberg was born in 1916 and was a member of Hashomer Hatzair from his childhood. He went to Slonim for Hachshara and was there when the war began.
I telephoned. Mr. Tanski was waiting for me at the other end? He was very happy that we were still holding out but had no news for us. He had already had all the necessary permits but had gone off to have them approved by the gestapo. The officer had inspected them with care, tore them to little pieces and then scolded Tanski for still making efforts on behalf of the Jews. According to him, we had to do something for ourselves. He wished us success and that was the end of our conversation. The last hopes of deliverance had burst like a soap-bubble.
In due course, the secret of Tanski was revealed. He was the manager for Koznikowski and thanks to him; Jewish workers were assigned to this place. It can almost be said that my family and I remained alive thanks to him. During the first expulsion, he housed all the workers and their families in his cellars. He obtained dwellings in the ghetto for us, took us through the barriers in his motor-cars and equipped us with all kinds of permits which meant work. He had considerable influence and extensive connections. During the January Action he came to us with a car in order to carry us from our hiding place to work. He helped anybody who wished to find a refuge on the Aryan side.
He was a mysterious figure. Opinions differed as to whether he was a
German or a Pole or a Volksdeutsche. But it was also suggested that he was a Jew though we did not think that was likely.
He fell in August 1943 after being arrested in his workshops on a charge of false papers. The denunciations of the Kapos were what put him into the hands of the Germans. When he was arrested he seized the weapons of two detectives belonging to the Criminal Police and escaped in his car. But the next day he was caught on the denunciation of one of his good German friends and was executed.
Only then was everything known. Tanski was none other than Temkin of Kalish. His sisters, Mrs. Katz, her husband and daughter worked for him. His father, an old man of seventy-five, was reciting Psalms in our cellar. The son had wanted to take him to the Aryan side but the old man wanted to be buried in a Jewish grave.
From: Three Hundred Hours in the Burning ghetto by M Berland, Yad ve Shem, Jerusalem 5719
He fell on 13th April, 1943. But before that, the Kalish tailor Israel Shari had taken part in many battles and had made his mark as a fighter and patrolman. He was the commander of a patrol unit and carried out very responsible tasks. He used to ascertain the objectives of the German columns, the number of soldiers in a village, their arms and similar information.
On 23rd January, 1943, we were fighting a savage battle with the occupants who had suddenly attacked us. We retreated without losses. The Germans avenged their defeat on the village of Svatnitza which used to help the partisans. After seven days of wreaking havoc, the Germans pretended to be leaving the village in order to entice us back.
Our commander sent Shari and another two Jews to scout the region. Near a cow-shed, Shari saw a German but the other saw him too. The whole neighbourhood was lit up and Shari buried his head in the snow. The Germans emptied a whole belt of machine gun bullets but Shari killed him with a single shot. The whole German orchestra then began shooting. Shari exploited the confusion and crawled back. A bullet hit him in the hand and he spent two months in bed.
At last, the Gestapo learnt where our camp was and they prepared a punitive expedition against us. They did not catch us by surprise Israel Shari whose wounded hand had not yet healed, took his rifle in both hands.
Retreat! he shouted. I'll hold them up here.It was clear to us that Shari had made up his mind to sacrifice himself and save the unit. After we withdrew, he remained alone. He hilled the commander of the German unit with two bullets and brought confusion into the German ranks for a moment. That moment saved us but then the Germans came down on him. He fell like a hero. All honour to his memory.
Einikeit, Moscow N°150.
He was born in Kalish in 1923. In 1939 he settled in the village of Bursk where he organized a group of Jews to acquire arms and go to the forests. On 16th August, 1942 he went to Luberk Forests and joined a company of Russian partisans. He was appointed commander of a section at Otriad Kartokhin
After the liberation, he was killed by the Bandera Men.
In 1942, he escaped from the ghetto in Nowogrodek to the Poshtshe of Lipitsisonska. To begin with, he was in family camps and later joined the Orlianskaya Borba Lenin Brigade. In September 1943, he was wounded in the head and fell into the hands of the Germans, unconscious. They shot him at Zhetel. He was 24 years old when he fell.
His parents were poor and he worked hard from his youth. While still young, he joined the Youth Movement of the Left Poalei Zion. For some time he worked as a weaver and lost his place more than once because of his excessive activity in the Movement. For many years he was chairman of the Textile Workers' Trade Union in Kalish, which was one of the few unions in Poland to which both Jews and Poles belonged. He represented his Union in the Institutions of the General Trade Union Movement and as the vital spirit of the Left Poalei Zion and its youth in Kalish. Tall, strong and healthy with a friendly expression, he was considerate to all who came to him. He worked a great deal among the youth, guiding and teaching. He finally opened a coal shop but struggled hard to make a living for his family for all his time was dedicated to his public activities. Often enough he did not demand payment when poor people came to his shop.
He was a warden of the Kehilla and a member of the Municipality for his party. Party men were not the only ones who came to him for advice and help. He devoted his time and heart to all who were in need. He was the chairman of the Curatorial of the Borochow School and took part in various other Kalish Institutions.
When war broke out and the District was annexed by the Reich, the Jews were expelled. Tanzer moved to the town of Rzeszow (Reisha) in Western Galicia and from there to Warsaw where he was active in the underground of his Movement. For some time he worked at Tebens Metal Factory. When he was imprisoned at the Poniatowo Concentration Camp, he continued his communal activity and took part in the Fighting Jewish Organization at the camp where he was murdered. His name is included in the List of 320 Jewish communal workers, scholars, scientists and artists that were murdered.
Vitka Kempner of Kalish has an honourable place among the women who fought in Vilna. She studied in Kalish, was an active member in the Hashomer Hatzair Movement and when studying at the Warsaw University, was an active member of the Avuka Students Society. In 1939, she crossed the frontier and reached the Halutz Concentration in Wilna. In the ghetto she was a member of the Hashomer Hatzair Secretariat and helped to organize the Fighting Jewish Organization. Later, she was in the Nekama Partisan Group where she commanded a unit and headed a patrol unit. She received the 'Red Flag' Order of Distinction. Later she helped to organise the Haapala (Immigration without Certificates) to Eretz Israel from Eastern Europe.
In June 1942, the Command of the P.P.A. Fighting Organization decided on the first act of sabotage against a train. The Haverim stole dynamite from German bunkers. In a dark cellar at N°3 Carmelite Street, people worked by candle light to prepare a mine in a piece of metal pipe. The elementary information they had acquired came from Soviet pamphlets which were stolen from the Archives of the YIVO (Yiddishe Wissenschaftliche Institut). Vitka went out to find a suitable place to place the mine along the railway line.
Her dark hair became blond and Aryan. In the morning she went off to work among a group of Jews. She slipped away from them in the street, removed the Jewish badge from her chest and back and mounted the pavement. Now she was an Aryan and went out of town to the railway leading to Vilioka. Germans were on guard there and civilians were not allowed to approach. They stopped Vitka.
She played the innocent, told them that she was going to the neighbouring village and did not know that she was not allowed to cross there. They warned her that if she was caught again, she would be arrested. Vitka went away and appeared not long after at some other place that was not being guarded at the time. But she then found that there were Jewish workers nearby. Apart from this, a steep slope was necessary if the operation were to succeed.
So Vitka went out each morning from the ghetto for three days, spending the whole day near the railway line and searching for the right place for the operation. All the 'joie de vivre' went from her face. She became silent and
Her eyes seemed to look inward. She was thinking about the operation and the responsibility.
When dawn rose on July 8th, Vitka, Isa Matzkevitz and Moshe Brause left the ghetto carrying the mine. Their objective was to blow up a German train 7 kilometres south-east of Vilna. The operation had to take place at night and they would have to be back in the ghetto by dawn the next day so that they could go out to work as usual.
At dawn, Vitka reached the ghetto, her legs torn and bleeding but her face radiant. The mine had been planted and nobody had noticed them. There was strength in her eyes which gave them an unusual brightness while her face had a different expression. When she was asked what she had thought during the long night, she answered: How to do the job without falling into their hands? I was sorry that I had no cyanide of potassium with me?
News of the explosion arrived at 3p.m. The train was destroyed, both engines and ammunition waggons. The Germans were at a loss for this was the first operation of its kind near Wilna where there were many garrison troops. They did not suspect the Jews for they were sure that the Jews were already defeated and would not raise their heads. Such a deed could only be done by free men.
It was a happy day for the Fighters of the Ghetto. They laughed in the streets. Passers-by shrugged their shoulders thinking that the others had gone crazy.
Many coaches containing German soldiers and ammunition in the train, which was on its way to Polotsk, were smashed. In the morning, the peasants counted 200 bodies of soldiers, apart from those who were completely blown apart and could not be counted. After their census, the peasants collected pistols, rifles and many bullets.
Vitka Kempner displayed her full capacity in the Forests. One night in October, 1943, she went 40 kilometres on foot carrying a suitcase full of mines and entered Vilna. There she blew up an electric transformer. Next day, she entered the Keilis Concentration Camp and took 60 people out to the Partisan bases. In the Nekama Camp she organized the survey patrol and headed it. She took part in blowing up a train near Oran where 200 Germans were killed. With the aid of five other Partisans, she set the Turpentine Factory at Olkiniki on fire. She distinguished herself at the battles of Deinimova in January, 1944 and captured two gestapo agents. She took part in blowing up 2 railway engines and 2 bridges.
In November 1943 she had to fetch important documents in Vilna. On the way she was caught by a German patrol that took her to the Gestapo. She escaped from their hands and vanished. The next day she brought an important Kovno member of the Underground to the base.
A Society of Jewish women in Brazil has been named after her. She
In 1940, the Nazi began to exterminate Jewish children. They expelled the Jewish mothers from their homes collecting them in a certain Square which they surrounded with S.S. soldiers. A Nazi Officer delivered a speech to the mothers and called on them to hand over their children who would be sent to special Children's Institutions where they would be provided with better care.
Unfortunately, not all the mothers understood that this was all lies and deception. Many of them handed their children over to the Germans. When the polished German Officer tried to take Hannah Rackman's child from her arms by force, she slapped the office twice across the face. He put his hand on his pistol while she, according to a witness, stuck her nails in his face and tried to scratch his eyes out. She fell while defending herself in this way.
Rivka and Vera Shurek were the wife and young daughter of Abraham Shurek of Kalish. According to the accounts of A. Sutzkever and B. Mark, they were both active in Bialystok ghetto. They became famous in the struggle against the Germans who made special efforts to capture them alive. Both of them fell in a clash with a German patrol.
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