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Books Review: The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City, by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak

A Nazi soldier inspects a group of Jewish workers in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943.

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Translated from the Polish edition, which appeared in 2001, this is a stunning work, one of the most important books on the history of the Nazi Holocaust. Presenting an astonishing amount of information, carefully evaluated and usefully organized, The Warsaw Ghetto is not only a lasting guide to a great Jewish city, it is a monument to contemporary Polish scholarship, on which it draws so heavily, and a moving memorial to the nearly half a million Jews who at one time or another suffered in one of the Germans' most grotesque creations during the Second World War.

The authors, two scholars at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, have combed a vast array of documentary sources - in Poland, Israel and elsewhere - as well as a small library of diaries, memoirs, secondary literature and other sources, including scores of photographs.





The book comes with eight maps, three of which, in a pocket at the inside back cover, depict the ghetto at three moments in time - the last being present-day Warsaw, set against the wartime plan of the now-destroyed ghetto. On these, readers will be able to find every street, every house (even house numbers), every gate, every public building, every cemetery, every park, together with railway lines, bookshops, entertainment spots, ritual baths and places of worship - and then, in over 800 pages of text, read about such matters as the price of bread and how it changed, the structure of smuggling, laundry, garbage disposal, the Nazi-imposed Jewish government, the circulation of books in libraries, the underground press, Jewish humour, disease, hospitals, pharmacies, shops, clandestine education, postal services, telephones, street life, religious life, murders by the authorities, deportations to Treblinka, and of course the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

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Why bother, one might ask, particularly when so much has been written before. I suspect that no reader who seriously embarks on this volume will ask this question, so compelling is it to engage with the comprehensive recreation, through text, of the life of an entire modern city that has completely disappeared - and has been recovered just as compellingly as Pompeii or monuments of the ancient world.

Of course, Warsaw was especially important. Warsaw in the 1930s had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe and the second, after New York, in the world - home at the outbreak of the war to close to 400,000 Jews, constituting nearly 30 per cent of the total population of the Polish capital, effectively a bi-national city, as one author has put it. Sealed off as a Jewish ghetto by the Germans in November, 1940, and then progressively reduced in size as the occupiers tightened their controls and shifted their policies toward the Jewish inhabitants, the numbers changed as thousands died from starvation, exposure and disease, but also thousands of newcomers were packed inside the walls, sent from other parts of Poland.









Then, in July, 1942, the Nazis began a massive deportation of Jews to be murdered in the death camp of Treblinka. Over a quarter-million Jews left Warsaw within a few months. The next spring, with about 80 per cent of the ghetto's population already destroyed, and as the Germans were preparing to eliminate the rest, remnants among the survivors began a heroic and suicidal uprising against the occupation - the first instance of an armed civilian revolt against the Germans anywhere in occupied Europe. Fighting went on for weeks, and the repression involved the liquidation of what remained of the ghetto - street by street, building by building.

As the combat raged, what remained of the Jewish population went underground, to bunkers constructed as a final refuge. Engelking and Leociak, inquisitive and generous with information, list in an appendix the addresses of 80 bunkers, together with a brief description and their evidentiary source. I note for example, among many others, a bunker at 20-21 Franciszkañska Street: "Garbage collectors' bunker. It had an underground connection to the sewers; before the uprising smugglers brought in their goods this way from the Aryan side."

Or another, on 18 Mi{lstrok}a Street: "The best and largest bunker in the ghetto (it held about 300 people), under the courtyard, owned by a gang of thieves. It had several exits. The boss of the gang, Szmul Osyer, made it available to the ZOB [the Jewish Fighting Organization, or main resistance group] In this bunker the high command of the ZOB committed suicide on 8 May, the day that it was discovered by the Germans."

Readers may be surprised at the demonstration of the most intense aptitude and appetite for organization among the ghetto's inhabitants. Whatever motivated and enabled these starving, disease-ridden, cold and often bereaved inhabitants to create smuggling networks, a sophisticated municipal government, a whole array of social-service institutions, clandestine newspapers, theatres, libraries, concerts, underground universities, vocational training and business enterprises?

Some of the explanation may be found in prewar Jewish Warsaw, an extraordinarily sophisticated, diverse and talented society onto which the Germans imposed, in a paradoxical way, a kind of Jewish republic. But there was something else, which enlivens these pages - an unquenchable sense, likely fed by desperation, that doing something was perhaps the only alternative to utter despair, which would mean surrendering to the Germans' murderous plans.

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There was something absurd about the Warsaw Ghetto, as its inhabitants could not help but observe and wrote about frequently. Why were they in this situation? Why did the Germans pack them together for no apparent purpose? The authors include a quotation from the notes of Janusz Korczak, the famous Warsaw Jewish educator. A customer complained to a Jewish merchant, when making a purchase. The merchant's wife replied: "My good woman, these are not goods, and this is not a shop, and you are not a customer, and I am not a shopkeeper, and I am not selling you anything, and you are not paying, for these pieces of paper are not money. You don't lose anything, I don't earn anything. Who cheats anyone today, and what would it be for? It's just that you have to do something. Well, isn't that true?"

Michael R. Marrus is a Senior Fellow of Massey College. His latest book, to appear in October, is entitled Some Measure of Justice: The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s.

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