from April 11 issue.
BERKOWITZ: In writing about the
Warsaw Ghetto, in the chapter “The Struggle of the Spirit,”
you have two poems by children. One little boy, Motele, wrote:
From tomorrow on I shall be sad – from tomorrow
But today I shall be gay.
What is the use of sadness?
Tell me that.Because these evil winds begin to
Why should I grieve for tomorrow – today?
Tomorrow may be so good, so sunny,
Tomorrow the sun may shine for us again;
We shall no longer need to be sad.
From tomorrow on I shall be sad – from tomorrow
Not today, no! Today I will be glad.
And every day, no matter how bitter it be, I will say:
From tomorrow on I shall be sad, not today!
Here is a poem by Martha, a little girl, that reads:
I must be saving these days (I have no money to save),
I must save health and strength,
Enough to last me for a long while,
I must save my nerves,
And my thoughts, and my mind, and the fire of my
I must be saving of tears that flow –
I shall need them for a long, long while.
I must save endurance these stormy days,
There is so much I need in life:
Warmth of feeling and a kind heart –
These things I lack; of these I must be saving!
All these, the gifts of God, I wish to keep.
How sad I should be if I lost them quickly.
These were written by children in the Warsaw Ghetto.
SYRKIN: I found these poems in
the Gazeta Zydowoska, a Ghetto paper. They were written in Yiddish
and I translated them. The first poem was by an 8-year-old child.
The second, which is much more mature, is by a little girl, Martha,
age 11, I believe. Of course, they both perished. Look at what that
child asks for. She asks for thoughts. She asks for saving of thoughts.
She asks for saving of thoughts and to have a kind heart. You see
in that poem the whole desire of the Ghetto not to be brutalized,
not to become what the Germans tried to make them. This is a tremendous,
conscious struggle to remain human, which is expressed so marvelously
in the lines of this child, which does not ask for bread, does not
ask for warmth, but for human qualities.
That child of 11, under conditions of such terror,
which I do not have to describe to you, could create this dream
to remain human – this is the greatest triumph of the spirit.
This is heroism and nobility. This is one answer to the question,
how did they resist. This is resistance, deep and profound in nature.
The child perished, but she is alive due to this desire.
BERKOWITZ: I am equally moved
by the other poem. Dr. Syrkin, I would like you to describe briefly
the community that inspired these poems. What was the Warsaw Ghetto
SYRKIN: The Council played a very
equivocal role in the life of the Ghetto. The German authorities
set up the Ghetto, and then they designated a certain number of
people to be the Jewish representatives vis-à-vis the German
authorities. These Jews were the Council. I believe that in the
beginning the Council acted in completely good faith. They acted
as a buffer between the Ghetto and the German authorities. Whatever
miserable rations were available, whatever work could be doled out,
whatever sanitation took place, there had to be some kind of authority
– an authority that dealt with the Germans.
Of course, the great horror began when the Council
was asked to furnish Jews, to deliver them to the Germans, and the
Council members, at some point, became aware that the Jews they
were delivering were not for labor, but destined for death. And
the selection started.
If you read the diaries of the Ghetto that exist
– there are famous diaries like the Lieberman diary, the Kaplan
diary – you will notice that in the beginning they saw the
Council as very ordinary people. The bitterness against the Council
increased with time, of course, as their functions became clearer
and clearer. In the case of the Warsaw Ghetto, when the head of
the Council discovered what was really going on, he committed suicide.
There were different kinds of councils in the Ghetto, and some,
when certain demands were made of them, refused to collaborate.
There were probably others, under the threat of guns, that did not
perform the bidding of the Germans, probably with the rationalization
that in any case there would be a selection in the Ghetto.
I think it is impossible for us to judge them.
We here cannot judge what the Council was doing then. But I think
that there is something that we must understand: Selection for death
was implicit in the Ghetto from the first day.
For instance, there was something in the diaries
of Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum that I cannot forget. Ringelblum was the
archivist of the Warsaw Ghetto, a historian, and a marvelous human
being. Certain he was the last person to be a collaborator. He had
a page in his diaries that goes something like this: “All
night I heard the crying of children outside, freezing to death
in the snow. In the morning, people came and took away the corpses.”
You say to yourself when you read this, all night he heard the crying
of children dying – why didn’t he get up and bring them
into his house? You say this now, here in America. The whole point
is that there was limited warmth, limited food, and one person existed
at the expense of the other. Ringelblum had nothing to give the
child who was dying in the snow, probably not even a bit of space
to spare. There were too many dying in the snow, and this was going
on throughout the Ghetto.
He describes the situations and discussions that
show that those still alive in the Ghetto were thinking and saying.
“We have just so much left of food; should we say that we
will save perhaps ten while the others perish, or shall we all perish
in doling it out? And whom shall we save? Shall we try to find ten
children? But the children may be too weak to live. Shall we try
to find ten young people who, perhaps, will be able to survive,
to achieve something?”
This selection, which you see in its ultimate form
when the Council selects, is already an essential part of the existence
of the Ghetto. The most delicate soul, the most marvelous spirit,
the most dedicated beings are engaging in selecting. Even when you
think of illegal immigration, it is a selection of those who will
get on the boat and those who will not get on the boat. Part of
the tragedy of the existence of European Jewry is that selection
is, from the start, implicit on the conditions.
BERKOWITZ: Dr. Ringelblum in his
diary writes the following: “You know then that the last surviving
educational workers remain true to the ideas of our culture. Until
their death, they hold aloft the banner of culture in the struggle
against barbarism.” He concludes, “We doubt whether
we shall ever see you again. Give your warm greetings to all our
leaders of Jewish culture, writers, journalists, musicians, artists,
all builders of modern Jewish culture and fighters for the salvation
of Jews and all humanity.” This was written when people knew
they were going to die the next day, the next week, the next month.
What are some of the activities that went on in
spite of and against the barbarism?
SYRKIN: Dr. Ringelblum organized
a group called Oneg Shabbat – celebrants of the Sabbath. They
were determined to keep a record of what was happening. It is interesting
how they maintained their historic sense, a people that was doomed.
We learned so much about the Ghetto because of the people who kept
records. They buried their papers, they smuggled them out, and the
record remained as written by Ringelblum, Kaplan and others.
They also kept trying to organize activities. They
had lecture series on Sholom Aleichem, on Moses Mendelssohn. This
is interesting. These were Jews from all over Europe who were in
the Ghetto in Warsaw. Many of them had been assimilated Jews. Now
they were beginning to learn and to speak Yiddish for the first
And here is a moment when Ringelblum must pause
in his diary because they are giving lectures in Yiddish on Sholom
Aleichem, or when they are discussing Socialist Zionism, Marxism.
“Who knows,” he says, “this may mean the revival
of Yiddish.” Can you imagine at such a moment, to have this
notion that the language is going to be revived?
They gave courses that they thought would be practical.
For example, in the early stages, a lot of them were studying English
for the day when they would be able to get out and use it. There
was a course on cosmetology. These were practical things, you know,
and the desire to train for something.
A diary has appeared recently that was written
by a young boy. It was found and translated. The boy was named Moshe
Flinker. He was killed in Belgium at the age of 17. This is very
different from the Anne Frank story. This boy’s family had
decided that they would save themselves, not by hiding, but by living
openly. They were well to do and lived openly in Belgium, thinking
that perhaps they would get away with it there. They were captured.
Young Moshe left a diary in Hebrew. I think it is one of the most
remarkable ever written. The boy – remember, he was keeping
his diary in the 1940s – was a great Hebrew student, but he
decided that he must learn Arabic because he sensed – in 1944,
mind you – that there would be a Jewish state, and he wanted
to be a diplomat for the Jewish state. So he had to know Arabic
as well as Hebrew.
You can picture this young boy, with the doom of
death on him, sneaking into libraries in a Belgian city to get Arabic
grammar books. One more thing which has nothing to do with the book,
illustrates, again, the Jewish spirit in its intensity.
I went to the DP camps for a very interesting reason
in the beginning of 1947 – you have to keep the date in mind
to understand. There was no State of Israel yet, and things looked
very black. The Hillel Foundation here had persuaded American universities
to allot a certain number of scholarships to young Jews in the DP
camps. The American government had agreed to let about 300 above
the quota go to American colleges. I was involved in choosing the
applicants for this project.
I would like to tell you about the most remarkable
examination I ever proctored when I was picking the lucky 300. I
went to the DP camps, and the questions, naturally, arose –
here were young Jews gathered from every part of Europe; how could
we choose from all the thousands. They had no documents. Those had
been destroyed long ago. In the past few years they had not been
going to college; they had been in ghettos and concentration camps.
So we had to go back a few years to where their education had been
interrupted. And we decided that the only way to choose was to give
an examination. We could not tell all of them that they would go
We announced that the examination would be held
in Munich, and those who passed would go to America – to Columbia,
Vassar or wherever they chose. The next question was, in what language
should we test. These were people from Hungary, Poland and other
countries. The examiner, of course, had to be able to read the answers.
A general question on literature or history had
to be answered in depth, in French, German or Yiddish or Russian,
because those were the languages that I knew. I could not read any
others. A question in physics or mathematics of a general kind could
be answered in those languages as well as in Hungarian and Rumanian,
because the examiner who marked those knew these two languages also.
Then there was another question: If these boys
and girls were to go to an American university, they had to know
some English. They had to be able to write a paragraph in English
on why they wanted to go to America. I will never forget that day
as long as I live. Young people came from all over the DP camps
in Germany, and they sat there – hundreds of them –
and the questions were given to them. Many of them looked at the
test and stood up and left. They had forgotten; years and years
had passed. Others began to weep. Most of them remained.
Then I saw something that I had never seen in my
life before; they broke out in the most horrible sweat. A beautiful
blond girl, I recall, burst into tears and left. She was supposed
to be very good in mathematics, but she said that she could not
Finally they got through with the examinations.
It took much longer than we expected. We had expected that it would
take about two hours, but it took all day. Then came the question
of grading. We could not give grades of 98, 97 or 96. We had classifications,
1, 2 and 3.
Eight years ago, at Brandeis University I met a
young professor of physics who had been in Class 1. Another –
who had been the blond girl who had jumped up and ran away –
I saw as a graduate student at Harvard. These were among the successes.
But there were many more failures. I tell you this story for the
courage and zeal it shows. This examination, written in three or
four languages, was taken by people who had not even looked at a
book for four years. This tells much about a people and their spirit.
BERKOWITZ: One question on the
Warsaw Ghetto that has been asked should, again, be answered: Why
did the Jews of Europe begin to resist so late? Why did the Warsaw
Ghetto fight back only when a mere 30,000 were left, and over half
a million had been massacred?
SYRKIN: Because many of them still
hoped. They hoped for the victory of the Allies. They hoped there
would be some kind of deliverance. They knew that the resistance
meant the finale. As long as there was an element of hope in their
minds that something would intervene, they waited. They were mistaken,
but who are we to say that they should have acted otherwise? Early
resistance would have doomed them. It is the greatest delusion to
assume that if they had started six months earlier, they would have
succeeded. They would have been liquidated that much more rapidly.
With the Nazi war machine against them, they had not chance. And
they waited, hoping that perhaps the Allies would do something,
that the Germans would be defeated, and that some change would take
BERKOWITZ: In addition to the
Warsaw Ghetto, there were Jewish partisans throughout Eastern Europe.
What about them?
SYRKIN: In Vilna, particularly,
there was an active group of partisans, people who had fled to the
woods and attempted to fight. That was one type. There was also
an attempt there to establish a community in the woods, not to fight
but simply to live. You might ask, why did they not all go to the
woods. I spoke to one of the heads of the Vilna partisans. If the
young men, for instance, had left the ghetto and gone into the woods,
they would have had to completely abandon the old, the women and
the children. Only the young men and the strong could go into the
woods in winter and operate; and those who went did so knowing that
they were free to leave the ghetto and their people. But they felt
that they could not leave the ghetto and all it meant: women, children,
The Vilna group was very active as partisans, but
there was another tragedy. They were alone. They could not tie up
with the Polish partisans, for instance, or the White Russian partisans,
because these hunted the Jewish partisans. The Jews were alone in
the woods as they were in the ghettos. Anti-Semitism was so entrenched
that Polish partisans attacked the Jewish partisans. There were
many instances of that.
BERKOWITZ: You have a phrase in
one of your chapters: Rescue Is Resistance. I think it is an unusually
telling phrase. Who were the rescuers in some of the countries of
Europe who were also part of the resistance movement?
SYRKIN: In Holland and in Denmark
the situation was much brighter than in Eastern Europe. There were
Gentiles who assisted the Jews. There were really heroic figures
who attempted to smuggle Jews out, hide them. And it is really a
question why the people in these small countries showed so much
more valor than those of Eastern Europe. Even in France there were
not as many rescues as there were in Holland and Denmark. The smaller
the country, the more valor there apparently was in the attempts
to actively assist in the rescue of Jews.
BERKOWITZ: Dr. Syrkin used the
phrase a woman of valor as part of the title of her book on the
life of Golda Meir. I should like to use the same words to describe
and characterize Dr. Syrkin herself in her noble life and work.
But I believe we would have to have one more element, one more word,
one more phrase, and that is the word ahavah – the concept
of love. For this is a concept that is fundamental to all that Dr.
Syrkin has done. She has, through a lifetime of service, indicated
her love for her people, and for the land of Israel, and for its
Rabbi William Berkowitz was associate rabbi of
Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in New York City from 1951 to 1960 and
rabbi from 1960 to 1984. He has served as a president of the Jewish
National Fund. He designed and has conducted a series of public
dialogues for more than 50 years. His unique question-and-answer
discussions with prominent Jewish and non-Jewish personalities,
held in the presence of live audiences, have been a window of immediacy
into the views and lives of such notables as Ariel Sharon, Shimon
Peres, Alan Dershowitz, Theodore Bikel, Alfred Molina, journalist
Mike Wallace, Arthur Kurzweil, Sen. Jacob Javits, Adin Steinsaltz,
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel, Henry Kissinger, Menachem Begin,
Sam Levenson, actress Tovah Feldshuh, and former Jerusalem Mayor
Teddy Kollek, to name just a few.