25 May 2020

Who was the boy in
the Warsaw ghetto with
his hands in the air?

A group of Jewish people are moved from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers on 19 April 1943

Patrick Comerford

I should be in Warsaw today [25 May 2020] on a three or four-day city break. But for the second time in just over two years, I have been forced to abandon plans to visit the Polish capital.

The package to Warsaw, with Ryanair flights and Airbnb accommodation, was a Christmas present, and I was due to fly out today and return on Thursday. But the travel restrictions introduced as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic have cancelled all these arrangements, and I now wonder when or whether I am ever going to visit Warsaw.

Two years ago, I had booked a three-day visit to Warsaw in early March 2018. That would have been my second visit to Poland, following a city break in Kraków and Auschwitz at the end of 2016. But the ‘Beast from the East’ and ‘Storm Emma’ made a motorway journey to the airport too risky that year, and Warsaw was transferred to my wish list.

I particularly wanted to visit Warsaw this year and to visit the sites of the Warsaw ghetto uprising on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and the end of World War II.

We all have photographs that have stayed with us as haunting memories from our childhood, and my two are an image of Adolf Eichmann behind a Perspex screen during his trial in 1960, and the photograph of the terrified young boy with his hands raised in the Warsaw Ghetto.

He was one of half a million Jews packed into the Warsaw ghetto, transformed by the Nazis into a walled compound of starvation and death.

In July 1942, the Germans began deporting 5,000 people a day from Warsaw to the concentration camps. As news of exterminations seeped back, the ghetto residents formed a resistance group.

‘We saw ourselves as a Jewish underground whose fate was a tragic one,’ wrote its young leader Mordecai Anielewicz. ‘For our hour had come without any sign of hope or rescue.’ That hour arrived on 19 April 1943, when Nazi troops came to deport the rest of the Jews from the ghetto.

The partisans were poorly armed as they fought back but were eventually defeated by German tanks and flame¬throwers. When the uprising ended on 16 May 1943, the 56,000 survivors faced summary execution or deportation to concentration camps and slave-labour camps.

Jürgen Stroop, the SS commander in occupied Poland, put together a 75-page victory album of his role in suppressing the ghetto uprising. The photographs in his album include the now well-known photograph of the unnamed boy with his hands raised high.

Franz Konrad, an Austrian-born SS officer in the Warsaw ghetto, confessed to taking some of the photographs before he was executed by hanging in Warsaw on 6 March 1952.

When the Ghetto Uprising was suppressed, Stroop ordered the destruction of Warsaw’s Great Synagogue on 16 May 1943. He gloated as he later recalled: ‘What a marvellous sight it was. A fantastic piece of theatre. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device which would detonate all the charges simultaneously … and pressed the button. With a thunderous, deafening bang and a rainbow burst of colours, the fiery explosion soared toward the clouds, an unforgettable tribute to our triumph over the Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was no more.’

The Great Synagogue of Warsaw was one of the grandest 19th century buildings in Poland and was once the largest synagogue in the world. It was designed by the architect Leandro Marconi and stood on Tłomackie Street. It opened on 26 September 1878 at the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Stroop’s destruction of the Great Synagogue was the last act of destruction in the Warsaw Ghetto. About 7,000 Jews died in Europe’s first urban anti-Nazi revolt, most of them burned alive. Almost all the survivors were sent to Treblinka.

Stroop was decorated with the Iron Cross and then sent from Warsaw to Nazi-occupied Greece in September 1943, before being recalled to Germany.

Stroop’s album with this photograph became key evidence at the Nuremburg war crimes trials. Stroop was convicted at Dachau and later in Warsaw. He was hanged near the Warsaw Ghetto on 6 March 1952.

Poland was once Europe’s Jewish heartland; 90 per cent of the 3.3 million pre-war Jews there had been wiped out by 1945.

The Great Synagogue was not rebuilt in Warsaw after World War II. Since the 1980s, the site has been occupied by a large skyscraper, once known as the Golden Skyscraper and now known as the Blue Skyscraper.

The identity of the boy in the photograph has never been confirmed. But he has become one of the well-known faces of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

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