It was the first civilian urban revolt against Nazi forces in German-occupied Europe. The Warsaw ghetto uprising raged for 33 days in the spring of 1943, making it the longest Jewish insurgency of the Second World War and the signal episode of resistance to the Final Solution.
It was of negligible military value and was crushed with savage brutality, but the uprising has become synonymous with heroism and the indomitability of the human spirit.
And Boruch Spiegel was in the thick of it.
Yet when his commanders first showed him a gun, “I was afraid to look at it,” he once told an interviewer. “There was a tiny safety catch on it and I thought, ‘What if it goes off in my pocket?’”
Mr. Spiegel, who died in Montreal on May 9 at the age of 93, was one of the last surviving fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, in which a vastly outgunned band of 750 young Jews held off German soldiers with crude arms and Molotov cocktails.
The revolt never had a real chance, but the fighters still managed to hold out for a month, longer than some countries invaded by Adolf Hitler.
“Thousands of Jews spontaneously joined the uprising once it had started,” notes holocaustsurvivors.org. “The Germans had the most modern military weapons, including tanks. The ghetto fighters had a few guns, mainly pistols which turned out to be useless; some hand grenades and, most effectively, Molotov cocktails. The fighters had been severely hampered by lack of arms. They had tried with very limited success to obtain weapons from the Polish underground.”
As a young man, Mr. Spiegel was active in the leftist Jewish Labour Bund, and when it became clear that the Germans were not just deporting Jews but systematically murdering them in death camps like Treblinka, Bundists joined with other left-wing groups to form the Jewish Combat Organization, known by its Polish acronym ZOB.
The Warsaw ghetto, established in the autumn of 1940, was the largest of all the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe. At its peak, it was home to about 400,000 Jews crammed into 2.5 per cent of the city's total area. The poor, the ill and the least skilled were the first to perish. “The worst part is the hunger, and the first victims are the weak, the children,” Mr. Spiegel recalled.
In January, 1943, when German soldiers entered the ghetto for another deportation – some 250,000 Jews had already been shipped to Treblinka or otherwise murdered in the summer of 1942 – ZOB fighters fought back for three days and killed or wounded several dozen Germans, seized weapons and forced the stunned Germans to do something they hadn't been accustomed to doing: retreat.
“We didn't have enough weapons. We didn't have enough bullets,” Mr. Spiegel told the Montreal Gazette in 2003 on the eve of a return to Poland to mark the uprising's 60th anniversary. “It was like fighting a well-equipped army with firecrackers. And none of us had military training. We were not brought up in our organizations to handle guns. We didn't believe in it.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Spiegel learned to use his gun – and even slept with it nearby.
In the early morning of April 19, 1943 – the eve of Passover – a German force of 10,000 men, equipped with tanks and artillery, tried again to enter the ghetto and surrounded its walls to begin a final liquidation of the ghetto, by then reduced to about 60,000 souls. The plan was to liquidate the ghetto in three days and hand Hitler a present for his birthday, April 20.
Mr. Spiegel was on guard duty and, according to his son-in-law, Eugene Orenstein, a retired professor of Jewish history at McGill University, gave the signal to launch the attack. The scattered ZOB fighters, joined by a right-wing Zionist counterpart, peppered the Germans from attics and underground bunkers, sending the seasoned attackers into retreat once more.
The German commander reported 12 killed or wounded. “We thought we would survive a day, a few days,” Mr. Spiegel recalled for the Gazette.
Changing tactics, the Nazis began using flamethrowers to burn down the ghetto house by house and smoke out those in hiding. On May 8, ZOB's headquarters, at 18 Mila St. (an address later made famous by author Leon Uris, in his novel Mila 18), was destroyed. The group's commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, is believed to have taken his own life, but scattered resistance continued for several more weeks in what was now rubble.
By then, Mr. Spiegel and 60 or so other fighters had spirited their way out of the ghetto through sewers. One was Chaike Belchatowska, whom he would marry. The Spiegels joined partisans in the forest near Wyszkow, then returned to live in hiding with a Polish family on the so-called Aryan side of Warsaw.
“He was very modest, a reluctant hero,” said his son, Julius, a retired parks commissioner for Brooklyn, N.Y. “He was given an opportunity and he took it. I don't think he was braver or more resourceful than anyone else.” His father “was essentially an ordinary guy forced by circumstances to do things that were out of character,” Julius Spiegel told the Associated Press.
Boruch Spiegel was born into an Orthodox family on Oct. 4, 1919, and reared in Warsaw, the son of a leather worker who ran a small cottage industry that specialized in briefcases and spats. After the Germans invaded Poland in September, 1939, Boruch and his brother Beryl made their way to Bialystok, in eastern Poland, which was newly occupied by the Soviets. When Beryl went back to Warsaw to get his parents and two sisters, he became involved in the Bundist underground. Boruch joined him.
While Jews all around them were deported to the camps, the family held out as long as it did because the Spiegel apartment had a steel door and the German police did not take the trouble to break it down.
Nevertheless, Mr. Spiegel's father died of malnutrition and his mother, two sisters and Beryl perished in a manner that Mr. Spiegel never learned. Mr. Spiegel himself nearly died in a slave-labour camp and was taken to the staging area for Treblinka, but managed to escape and return to the Warsaw ghetto.
Even after the ghetto uprising was crushed, he fought with partisans and returned to Warsaw for a revolt by Poles in the late summer of 1944. That, too, was brutally put down when the Germans destroyed most of the city, shot many and selected others for slave labour. Boruch, Chaike and other Jews hid in a bunker in the ghetto ruins, and remained there, unaware that the city had been liberated on Jan. 17, 1945.
After the war, Mrs. Spiegel wanted to remain in Poland, but Prof. Orenstein said that Mr. Spiegel had “felt he could not live on the soil of the graves of his dear ones, and he didn't believe there was a future for Jewish life in Poland.” The couple went to Sweden, where they married and had Julius.
In 1948, the family moved to Montreal, where Mr. Spiegel took up his father’s trade at leathercraft, first as a worker making handbags, then establishing his own factory. In 2003, on the uprising's 60th anniversary, Mr. Spiegel and the five other living ZOB fighters were honoured by the Polish government.
Mr. Spiegel summed up the uprising this way: “We showed we can resist. We started to believe in ourselves. We never thought about winning, but we could resist.”
In addition to Julius, Mr. Spiegel leaves a daughter, Mindy Spiegel of Montreal, and four grandchildren. Chaike Spiegel died in 2002.
Follow us on Twitter: