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Conclusions: Courage Under Siege
Excerpts from: Charles G. Roland,
Courage Under Siege:
Disease, Starvation and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
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From Conclusions, pp. 226-227:
When the Warsaw ghetto vanished, the Jews of Poland had been under Nazidomination for 44 months. The ghetto itself ceased to exist in May 1943. It hadbeen a living — and dying — entity for exactly 30 months. This book hasattempted to show how the Jews tried to live, and succeeded in dying, during thistime. The account being done, what can be concluded?
Perhaps most broadly, the great cliche of humanity is displayed yet again: weare tough and resilient and enormously adaptable under pressure. Not all of us,but enough so that it matters. Thus large numbers of Jews did survive manymonths of hunger, exposure, and disease. The fact they they could not withstandthe ultimate murder process at Treblinka and similar camps does not alter theremarkable fact of their having survived until that point.
Conversely, we can see clearly how intimidation, coercion, and hunger canunite to suborn a population, or at least a substantial part of a population.
Fortunately, despite the appalling ferocity of the Nazi occupiers and thefinal destruction of millions of Jews, there is a positive side. Encouraginglyoften, the human spirit, the humane instinct, revealed itself as still existent. The Warsaw ghetto story is replete with instances, large and small, ofself-sacrifice and of dedication to others in the face of bleakness and terror.
A good example of this ability to achieve despite adversity is theclandestine medical school. This school was a vigorously functioning enterprisefor 15 months. The courses were well organized, popular, and highly respected inthe ghetto. Nevertheless, in retrospect, it is easy to see how futile was the attempt tooperate a medical school in the Warsaw ghetto. But the enterprise was no emptygesture. It was never that. Until the summer of 1942, perhaps the majority ofthe inhabitants of the ghetto believed that many of them would survive the war,though it was all too obvious that many would not. They had no precedent forbelieving otherwise; despite the centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment in centralEurope, its most violent expression was in pogroms which, however frequent andgrim, were isolated and sometimes spontaneous events that never rivaled theHolocaust in aims or results. Thus, even as conditions worsened rapidly for theJews of Warsaw, they assumed that this large-scale “pogrom” would, like theothers, end, and life would return more or less to normal.
There is nothing particularly Jewish in this optimistic attitude, nor in itscontinuation in the face of contrary evidence of the most dramatic kind. Soldiers in battle rely on the so-called “foxhole syndrome,” in which no matterhow hard the fighting and how serious the casualties, each soldier is convincedthat he will survive in his foxhole, though he recognizes all too clearly thathis compatriots nearby may not. Similar instances abound in civil life and couldbe said to identify a basic psychological defense of humankind.
The medical school — and also the innovative hunger-research studies — areamong the few genuinely positive achievements to be associated with the Warsawghetto. In addition to their general contribution to morale within the ghetto,and to our appreciation of the school and the research studies as victories ofthe human spirit, they achieved concrete goals.
For the medical school, a number of men and women who began their educationthere, finished it after the war and practiced medicine for many decades. Butwithout belittling this accomplishment in any way, one might respond that theseJews would have become doctors if there had been no invasion of Poland, so thecontribution of their practice is more apparent than real.
In the case of the hunger-disease research the case is otherwise. By takingadvantage of the unparalleled “opportunity” of having so much hunger all aboutthem, the medical researchers created a body of knowledge that was unique. Thesemen and women would not have carried out this particular research had there beenno ghetto. Although perhaps half of the work done has vanished into the gaschambers, what remains has been a significant contribution to our knowledge ofthe human body and the way it behaves in conditions of extreme hunger andstarvation. This is a lasting achievement most aptly epitomized by IzraelMilejkowski’s apt quotation from Horace: Non omnis moriar — “I shall not diecompletely.”
The rest of the medical history of the ghetto is on a more mundane level. Although flawed, the attempt of the Judenrat and the numerous other organizationsto respond to extremes of hunger, filth, and disease was heroic. The flaws werenot of their own making, excepting some cases where efficiency was sacrificed topique or to vain dreams of personal power. The result of these efforts waslargely predetermined by the Nazis through their failure to supply the necessaryfood, medicines, coal, and other supplies. But the vast majority of the Germanswere at best indifferent to the fate of the Jews.
All these disorders were part of the daily life of the Warsaw ghetto. Thevast majority of ghetto inhabitants never entered the Transferstelle, they knewof “The 13” only by reputation, and direct contact with the Judenrat was onlyoccasional, setting aside frequent dealings with members of the Ordnungsdienst. But they knew every nuance of hunger in its soul- and body-destroying ceaselessgnawing. They watched relatives eaten alive by tuberculosis. They knewfirst-hand the panicky feeling when typhus was rumored in the next block.
This was life in the Warsaw ghetto. For almost one quarter of the Jews thereit was also death. The only consolation to those left behind was that the deadwere spared Treblinka.
From Charles G. Roland, Courage Under Siege: Disease, Starvation and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Copyright © 1992 Oxford University Press. Excerpts used by permission of author.