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:


Map of the Warsaw ghetto.  When the Warsaw ghetto vanished, the Jews of Poland had been under Nazi domination for 44 months. The ghetto itself ceased to exist in May 1943. It had been a living — and dying — entity for exactly 30 months. This book has attempted to show how the Jews tried to live, and succeeded in dying, during this time. The account being done, what can be concluded?

Perhaps most broadly, the great cliche of humanity is displayed yet again: we are 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 many months of hunger, exposure, and disease. The fact they they could not withstand the ultimate murder process at Treblinka and similar camps does not alter the remarkable fact of their having survived until that point.

Conversely, we can see clearly how intimidation, coercion, and hunger can unite 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. Encouragingly often, the human spirit, the humane instinct, revealed itself as still existent. The Warsaw ghetto story is replete with instances, large and small, of self-sacrifice and of dedication to others in the face of bleakness and terror.

A good example of this ability to achieve despite adversity is the clandestine medical school. This school was a vigorously functioning enterprise for 15 months. The courses were well organized, popular, and highly respected in the ghetto.

Nevertheless, in retrospect, it is easy to see how futile was the attempt to operate a medical school in the Warsaw ghetto. But the enterprise was no empty gesture. It was never that. Until the summer of 1942, perhaps the majority of the 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 for believing otherwise; despite the centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment in central Europe, its most violent expression was in pogroms which, however frequent and grim, were isolated and sometimes spontaneous events that never rivaled the Holocaust in aims or results. Thus, even as conditions worsened rapidly for the Jews of Warsaw, they assumed that this large-scale “pogrom” would, like the others, end, and life would return more or less to normal.

There is nothing particularly Jewish in this optimistic attitude, nor in its continuation in the face of contrary evidence of the most dramatic kind.  Soldiers in battle rely on the so-called “foxhole syndrome,” in which no matter how hard the fighting and how serious the casualties, each soldier is convinced that he will survive in his foxhole, though he recognizes all too clearly tha this 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 Warsaw ghetto. In addition to their general contribution to morale within the ghetto,and to our appreciation of the school and the research studies as victories of the human spirit, they achieved concrete goals.

For the medical school, a number of men and women who began their education there, finished it after the war and practiced medicine for many decades. But without belittling this accomplishment in any way, one might respond that these Jews would have become doctors if there had been no invasion of Poland, so the contribution of their practice is more apparent than real.

In the case of the hunger-disease research the case is otherwise. By taking advantage of the unparalleled “opportunity” of having so much hunger all about them, the medical researchers created a body of knowledge that was unique. These men and women would not have carried out this particular research had there been no ghetto. Although perhaps half of the work done has vanished into the gas chambers, what remains has been a significant contribution to our knowledge of the human body and the way it behaves in conditions of extreme hunger and starvation.

This is a lasting achievement most aptly epitomized by Izrael Milejkowski’s apt quotation from Horace: Non omnis moriar — “I shall not die completely.”

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 organizations to respond to extremes of hunger, filth, and disease was heroic. The flaws were not of their own making, excepting some cases where efficiency was sacrificed to pique or to vain dreams of personal power. The result of these efforts was largely predetermined by the Nazis through their failure to supply the necessary food, medicines, coal, and other supplies. But the vast majority of the Germans were at best indifferent to the fate of the Jews.

Typhus quarantine.  That fate was determined, prior to the 1942 deportations, largely bystarvation and its attendant diseases. Of these, typhus was an awesome problem. So, it has been suggested, was tuberculosis.

All these disorders were part of the daily life of the Warsaw ghetto. The vast majority of ghetto inhabitants never entered the Transferstelle, they knew of “The 13” only by reputation, and direct contact with the Judenrat was only occasional, setting aside frequent dealings with members of the Ordnungsdienst. But they knew every nuance of hunger in its soul- and body-destroying ceaseless gnawing. They watched relatives eaten alive by tuberculosis. They knew first-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 there it was also death. The only consolation to those left behind was that the dead were 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.


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