Guest Writer

Dialogue between Dr. Marie Syrkin and Rabbi William Berkowitz

Part 2

By Rabbi William Berkowitz

Continued 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 on!

But today I shall be gay.

What is the use of sadness?

Tell me that.Because these evil winds begin to blow?

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 on.

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 spirit.

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 Council?

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 time.

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 to America.

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 remember anything.

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 place.

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, family.

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 culture.

Updated 4/27//07



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.