In a research conference in mid-March sponsored jointly by Western Galilee College, Yad Vashem, and Ghetto Fighters’ House, we presented a new and less familiar aspect of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.
Upon the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April and May 1943, the Jews of the ghetto who survived were deported to various camps. Several members of the two underground organizations that operated in the ghetto – the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union ‒ were deported to the Trawniki, Poniatowa, and Budzyn camps in the Lublin district. A correspondence was found in the collection of Adolf Berman (a representative of the Jewish National Committee) housed in the Ghetto Fighters’ House archive, which reveals rich and varied underground activity in these camps. But while each of the underground organizations operated independently during the period of the ghetto and uprising, this correspondence reveals close cooperation among those who remained part of the organizations in these camps.
In April 1943, the historian Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum was deported to the Trawniki camp. Three months later, he was liberated by Shoshana (Emilka) Kossower, a former member of Beitar, and Theodor Pajewski, a Polish railway worker. Both were sent by Adolf Berman. During these months, Ringelblum set up an underground infrastructure in the camp. His meetings in Trawniki with Attorney David Shulman, a member of the Jewish Combat Organization, created the base for this cooperation.
On 2 October, 1943, Dr. Ze’ev Shifris, commander of the Jewish Combat Organization in the Trawniki camp, wrote,
“Rumors circulated yesterday that the Budzyn camp will be liquidated. We anxiously await clarification…If a rescue is not organized, we will never again see any of those people. Everything possible must be done to save them. For this we need money…”
On the back of the letter, Shulman wrote, “I have written this chronicle until the very last moment. I don’t know if I should continue writing…It endangers us greatly.”
Later that month, Shulman wrote,
“We recently cleaned out all our money. We bought six long ones for 7-8, beans for 4, and one short one for 4. Now we must augment our stock…We are grieved that there is no letter from Antek…”
These and other letters suggest that the underground activity in these camps included organizing for armed resistance, welfare work, aid, rescue attempts, and documentation. It was Shulman who continued and even completed the chronicle that Ringelblum wrote about Trawniki (the chronicle was lost in a fire during the Polish uprising in 1944).
The rumors described above by Shifris proved to be partially true. On 3 November 1943, all the Jewish prisoners in the Trawniki and Poniatowa camps and many in the Majdanek camp were murdered. The German code name for this was “Operation Harvest Festival”. The Budzyn camp was not affected, and we have later correspondence from there to Warsaw. In the late 1943 collection of letters, found in the Ghetto Fighters’ House archive, written by the Ringelblum couple on the “Aryan side” to Adolf Berman, we found reference to the meeting with Shulman in Trawniki. In another letter, Ringelblum asks, “Why is there no information about the Jewish Combat Organization? Their deeds must be recorded for history, even if they are not agreeable to us …”