European Jews Facing the Imminence of the Holocaust

European Jews Facing the Imminence of the Holocaust

POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews; Polish Center for Holocaust Research, Polish Academy of Sciences; Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
POLIN Museum
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
23.04.2023 - 25.04.2023
Judith Vöcker, Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Leicester

The international conference “European Jews Facing the Imminence of the Holocaust” took place at the POLIN Museum in Warsaw from April 23–25 2023, marking the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was organised by the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Centre for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture Simon Dubnow, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The conference brought together scholarship on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the experience of civilians and resistors in hiding, bunkers, or the ghetto, on Jews facing or escaping the lingering Holocaust in Western and Southern Europe, and their eventual experiences in concentration camps or death marches. This intent was echoed by the introductions by Yacov Livne (Warsaw)—the Israeli ambassador to Poland—and Patrycja Mędza (Warsaw)—deputy director of the POLIN Museum—who emphasised the importance of discussing the experience of civilians and resistors during World War II.

AVIHU RONEN (Haifa) presented his research on the underground network of the Jewish Youth movements in the ghettos of Warsaw, Czestochowa, Bialystok, and Wilno. Ronen retraced their pre-war structures, and how they managed to maintain these networks across the General Government, leading to uprisings, armed resistance, and partisan activities until September 1943. TOM NAVON (Leipzig) discussed how Polish Communists became Jewish fighters, identifying them as the most under-researched resistance group even though they can widen our knowledge and perspective on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. CAROLIN PIORUN (Leipzig) recounted the Jewish responses and perceptions about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising among the Yiddish PEN Club in London. Piorun grasped their activities as a political act in the face of persecution and representation in Europe, since the writers of all PEN Clubs hoped to become a “League as a Nation of Writers”.

In her keynote lecture, BARBARA ENGELKING (Warsaw) detailed the activities of Jewish civilians during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, commemorating them during this 80th anniversary. A specific focus laid on their resilience and efforts to prepare an extensive network of hundreds of bunkers, set up by engineers and technicians as proper hiding places scattered across the ghetto. Engelking went into careful detail about life hiding in the bunkers, especially during the weeks leading up to the Uprising when provisions were running low, bunkers were filling up, and tensions rose amongst the remaining civilians. In closing, she highlighted the memoirs of those remaining in the ghetto after the uprising, their quest for survival, flight, and post-war lives.

ANNA HAJKOVA (Warwick) portrayed Theresienstadt and the society of the Holocaust victims, which she differentiated according to their habitus, ethnic/racial background, and access to resources. Hajkova concluded that “Terezin did not create a common Jewishness”, highlighting how it differed from other ghettos due to its “beautiful cultural productions”, the caretaking of children, or sports tournaments. MARIA FERENC (Warsaw) explored the reactions of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto receiving news about the imminent emergence of the Holocaust. They emerged after the first wave of the Great Deportations and reached the ordinary residents through rumours and gossip. Some residents could not accept what they were hearing, others would even attack escapees from Treblinka because the reports were beyond the boundaries of their imagination. ADAM SITAREK (Łódź) discussed reactions to the activities in the Chełmno extermination camp in the ghettos of the Warthegau. Sitarek reconstructed the communication channels and chronology of news spreading and its consequences in the ghettos of Koło, Grabów, Krosznywice, and Stryków—identifying the Jewish Councils and Rabbis as the main actors attempting to uphold control and the overview of incoming information. EWA WIATR (Łódź) thematised rumours reaching the Litzmannstadt Ghetto upon the preparation and execution of the deportations to Chełmno between January and September 1942. Wiatr stressed Chaim Rumkowski’s role in denying rumours about potential deportations in early 1942, especially in light of discussing the differences between both deportation waves.

LEONID GERSHOVICH (Independent Scholar) carefully mapped approximately 20 revolts and acts of resistance in small ghettos in western Belarus and Northwestern Ukraine between May 1942 and August 1943. Gershovich stressed the different characteristics, participants, and successes of these revolts due to their geographic and topographic advantages, giving participants natural hiding places and resources. Through this strong infrastructure and its diverse and Jewish identity, a vital Jewish and Soviet partisan movement emerged. DAINA EGLITIS (Washington D.C.) focused on the experiences of Jewish girls and women in the Baltic ghettos throughout 1941 and 1943, which were guided by intense physical labour, misogyny, sexual violence, forced abortions, and sterilisation. Eglitis focused on what she called “gendered violence” against women to counteract reproduction, ongoing rapes and resulting pregnancies. NADJA WECK (Vienna) recounted the daily life in the Sambor ghetto, the role of the local non-Jewish population in collaboration, and aiding the Jewish population based on Artur Sandauer’s wartime stories on “Death of a Liberal”. Sandauer reflected on their motives to offer or refuse help, ranging from fear of discovery, lack of compassion, envy, malice, or wanting to benefit from their losses—eventually living at the expense of their former Jewish neighbours and even actively participating in their deportation. NATALIA IVCHYK (Rivne) discussed the fate of the children from the Lityn ghetto in southern Soviet Ukraine. Ivchyk emphasised that children were a particularly vulnerable group of Holocaust victims since the perpetrators approached them regardless of their age or development, with few chances of survival—exemplified by one million child victims during the Holocaust.

RADOSAV TUROVIĆ (Belgrade) gave a detailed account of leftist Yugoslav and Serbian physician Marko Anaf’s years of hiding in occupied Belgrade between 1941 and 1944 due to their affiliation with the communist party of Yugoslavia. Turović concluded that Anaf was able to withstand the common storm, fighting Nazism in his way by sheltering inside his home, thus, surviving regardless of the fate of Serbian Jews. MICHAŁ GROCHOWSKI (Wrocław) reconnected to Engekling’s keynote on bunkers in the Warsaw Ghetto, which were used on a large scale during the Great Deportations in 1942. Grochowski argued that Jews faced primarily three dilemmas: armed resistance with limited resources, fleeing the ghetto, or attempting to live in hiding—thus constructing bunkers in the ghetto at high costs. NATALIA ALEKSIUN (Gainesville) discussed Jewish accounts of mental breakdowns in the face of mortal danger by questioning whether they could reveal their Jewish identity. Aleksiun argued that the difficulty of studying this area lies in the circumstance that most sources do not recount these emotions, especially since many accounts remained incomplete—and were too difficult to narrate because they had lost their agency to survive.

DOROTA CHOIŃSKA (Wrocław) recounted how Polish Jews escaped the looming deportations from France to Spain after the first rumours of deportations to occupied Poland emerged in the winter of 1942. These journeys were meticulously prepared and undertaken only due to imminent direct danger as most journeys only succeeded due to sheer luck or aid from both sides of the border. STEFANIA ZEZZA (Rome) recounted the experiences of the Jewish community of Salonika facing the deportations in the summer of 1943 by consulting eyewitness accounts of survivors from the immediate post-war years. With the onset of occupation in April 1941, Zezza grasped their experiences in three phases of prosecution, which were concluded with large-scale deportations in August 1943. LAURIEN VASTENHOUT (Amsterdam) recounted how the Dutch and Belgian Jewish Councils sought information about the fate of Jews in occupied Poland. Vastenhout paid specific attention to their interpretation and awareness of this information, and how they used their agency regarding lingering deportations to the East—concluding that they focused on their potential sphere of influence and alleviated the conditions of their communities.

KATARINA RISTVEYOVA (Banská Bystrica) and LUCIA SOTAKOVA (Banská Bystrica) discussed the survival strategies of Jewish men, women, and children in the concentration camp in Sered. They outlined how the social dynamics within families changed as men often lost their role of the breadwinner and women had to serve as the head of the family, whilst providing for them physically and mentally. Children and youth experienced differentiating circumstances due to their gender and age but suffered in similar ways—having lost their freedom of movement, education, and nourishment. ALEXANDRA NATOLI (Evansville) presented the experiences of former members of the so-called “Scheißkommando” in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Members of the latrine commandos were doctors, medical students, or educated members, who had been targeted by the SS. Although these tasks were perceived as degrading, they enjoyed extreme material, situational, and communal privileges, thus, becoming coveted positions. MARTA ZAWODNA-STEPHAN (Poznań) discussed the experiences of women in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp during its latter stages of operation when it declined into a “Sterbelager”. In the summer of 1944, women were sent from Auschwitz, among them children and pregnant women, resulting in the birth of 200 children, although most did not survive due to the extreme malnutrition of the mothers and their physical inability to feed them. AGATA STĘPNIK (Cracow) discussed the physiology of female prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau through the literary works of Batsheva Dagan and Liana Millu. Both survived as young Jewish women wishing to record experiences from their captivity, especially about their femininity. From their universal experiences of haircuts and shaving, delousing, nudity, sexual abuse, violence, or harassment, they described how their psychological needs were not met, whilst under the constant male gaze and influence.

CLAUDIA VOLLMER (Hagen) introduced the audience to the Palmnicken Death March. Her main source was the oral testimony and memoir of Eva Nagler, who was one of few survivors able to assimilate and work for the local population, making it her life mission to tell her life story. RUTH LEISEROWITZ (Warsaw) discussed the death march to Palmnicken in January 1945 by retracing the different locations the few survivors identified in their memoirs and interviews. The focus lay on investigating the private management by survivors from multi-national backgrounds. Survivors recounted how coincidences or unexpected opportunities could offer avenues for escape. DANIEL BLATMAN (Jerusalem) explored narratives and experiences of death marches in post-war testimonies, primarily of Abraham Kimmermann and Robert Antler, and their emphasis that “it was useless to struggle” against orders from SS guards. Following Antler’s narrative, Blatman emphasised that they had no preparation or anticipation of what awaited them, quickly becoming aware that their chance of survival was marginal.

NURIT GROSSMANN (Haifa) recounted the fate of the Dykerman family from Gorzkowice, who were rounded up during the Great Deportations. Sisters Masza Dykerman and Miriam Abel were deported to Ravensbrück in early December 1944, where they were categorised as Polish-Jewish prisoners; only Masza was able to survive. ALEXANDRA PULVERMACHER (Klagenfurt) recounted the survival of Tosia and Marcel Reich-Ranicki in the Warsaw Ghetto. Both escaped the ghetto in January 1943 through the help of the Jewish Council and the Jewish Combat Organisation. Lastly, KLAAS SMELIK (Ghent) recounted the story of Etty Hillesum and her letters about the transit camp Westerbork, through which she became a witness of spiritual resistance. In December 1942, she started recording life in Westerbork with the desire to become a chronicler of her time, however, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she died in September 1943.

The conference delved into multifaceted aspects of Jewish experiences during the Holocaust, covering diverse topics from various, henceforth largely under-researched regions and prosecuted groups. The focus shifted throughout the conference, from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to civilians in hiding, resistance movements, and the spread of news or rumours within ghettos across occupied Europe. Key themes included the organisational structures of resistance groups, the struggles within ghettos due to limited information about the imminence of the Holocaust, and the diverse experiences of women, children, and men in various concentration camps or death marches. The role of Jewish Councils, the spreading of rumours, and the attempts to grapple with impending deportations were also highlighted, as well as narratives surrounding survival strategies, including hiding, escape attempts, or upholding resistance networks. Through these presentations and discussions, the speakers emphasised the importance of commemorating and further examining diverse experiences of the Holocaust and the multifaceted responses of its victims and survivors.

Conference overview:

Conference Opening

Panel 1: On Both Sides of the Wall: Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond

Avihu Ronen (Haifa): ”We are Here”: The underground network of the Jewish Youth Movement's in the Ghettoes, 1939-1943

Tom Navon (Leipzig): Return to the Ghetto. Polish Communists Becoming Jewish Fighters

Carolyn Piorun (Leipzig): “It is no longer only a Jewish sorrow.” The Yiddish PEN Club in London Responding to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Keynote lecture: Barbara Engelking (Warsaw): Jewish civilians in the 1943 uprising

Panel 1: Ghettos I

Anna Hajkova (Warwick): Theresienstadt and the society of the Holocaust victims

Maria Ferenc (Warsaw): “Everyone asks what will become of us”. Inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto in the face of the news about the Holocaust

Adam Sitarek (Łódź): "It would be best if we were buried there as soon as we arrived". Social moods during deportations from the Łódź ghetto (1942-1944)

Ewa Wiatr (Łódź): „A rumour spready like lightning through the ghetto that the entire population was to be deported”. Deportations from the Lodz Ghetto in 1942: preparation, execution, reaction

Panel 2: Ghettos II

Leonid Gershovich (Independent Scholar): Uprisings in the small ghettos - popular Jewish activism in the face of the Holocaust

Daina Eglitis (Washington D.C.): Women’s experiences of “life force atrocities” in the Baltic ghettos, 1941-1943

Nadja Weck (Vienna): Daily life in Sambor’s ghetto Blich during German deportation operations. Local non-Jewish inhabitants: between collaboration with German occupants and aiding their Jewish neighbours.

Natalia Ivchyk (Rivne): (Un)children's voices of the Lityn ghetto

Panel 3: In Hiding

Radosav Turović (Belgrade): Three and a half years in a shelter: The case of hiding Marko Anaf in occupied Belgrade (1941-1944)

Michał Grochowski (Wrocław): The third way - bunkers in the Warsaw Ghetto

Natalia Aleksiun (Gainesville): „I went into a nervous shock and began talking nonsense”. Jewish accounts of mental breakdown in the face of mortal danger

Panel 4: Concentration camps

Katarina Ristveyova & Lucia Sotakova (Banská Bystrica): Survival Strategies: Jewish men’s, women’s, and children´s experiences in Sered’ concentration camp

Alexandra Natoli (Evansville): The “Privilege” of Cleaning Excrement: Memories of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Scheisskommando

Marta Zawodna-Stephan (Poznań): Women in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in the last period of its operation

Agata Stępnik (Cracow): “This is such an embarrassing topic that it became the reason for the conspiracy of silence”. The issue of the physiology of female prisoners of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau in the works of Batsheva Dagan and Liana Millu

Panel 5: Death Marches

Claudia Vollmer (Hagen): Massacre on the Baltic

Ruth Leiserowitz (Warsaw): The moment of rapid decision. Private management in times of chaos and highest danger

Daniel Blatman (Jerusalem): “It seemed as if the dead had risen from his grave and start walking”. Describing the Indescribable: The death marches experience in post-war testimonies

Panel 6: In Occupied Europe

Dorota Choińska (Wrocław): “They would rather die than return to France...” - Polish Jews from France escaping the Shoah to Spain

Stefania Zezza (Rome): “MEANWHILE, THE JEWS FEEL THE STORM ARRIVING” . The Jews from Salonika facing the Holocaust.

Laurien Vastenhout (Amsterdam): Fate Unknown? How the Dutch and Belgian Jewish Councils Sought Information about the fate of the Jews in 'the East’.

Panel 7: Individual Trajectories

Nurit Grossman (Haifa): Amidst the Spheres of Ghettos and Camps Between Poland and Germany

Alexandra Pulvermacher (Klagenfurt): A Story of Survival: Tosia and Marcel Reich-Ranicki

Klaas Smelik (Ghent): Etty Hillesum's letters about the transit camp Westerbork (Netherlands) as a witness of spiritual resistance

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Englisch, Polish
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