UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133d Homepage > Hist 133b+d Book Essays Index page > Student essay

"The Importance of Polish Aid in the Holocaust"

Book Essay on:
Simha Rotem,
Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 180 pages.
UCSB: DS.135 P62 W33613

by Dan Schneiderman
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$13 & searchable
at amazon

About Dan Schneiderman

I am currently a student at UCSB finishing my junior year. I am a Political Science major with a History minor and will graduate in 2009. I have always been interested in several topics surrounding the Holocaust and Nazi-occupied Germany not only because of certain aspects of my family background, but also because these themes seem to mirror many contemporary events in which past events may be able to serve as a model.

Abstract (back to top)

In his book Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter, Simha Rotem gives an account of his life as a resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Poland. Although he recognizes the often unwelcoming and antisemitic actions of certain Polish resistance groups, Rotem goes into great detail in order to explain the importance of Polish aid to the Jewish Fighting Organization, also known as the ZOB. According to Rotem, Polish underground movements like the AK and the AL helped the ZOB by procuring false papers, running weapons, providing funding and hideouts, and coercing cooperation from non-Jewish Poles not affiliated with the resistance. These actions proved to be necessary in order for Jewish resistance forces like the ZOB to find any success in the dismal years of the Holocaust.

Jewish resistance fighters, 1944
Jewish Resistance Fighters, 1944 (www.warantiques.com)

Essay (back to top)


In his Holocaust account Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter, Simha Rotem, also known as Kazik, tells of the dramatic experiences of the Jewish and Polish resistance fighters and their struggles in the early 1940s, up until the Polish Uprising on July 23, 1944. As he explains throughout his entries, although the strength and actions of those Jews who fought during the Warsaw ghetto revolt and its aftermath was essential to the Jewish resistance’s survival, without aid from sources outside the Jewish community most attempts to fight against the Germans would have been in vain. To explain the role external involvement and outside aid played in the Jewish resistance, one must look at several questions: first, what were the various Jewish resistance groups in Nazi-occupied Poland and the Warsaw ghetto; second, how did these groups interact with the other often anti-Semitic, Polish undergrounds; and last, what role did non-Jewish aid play in the Warsaw Ghetto revolt and the time thereafter? As this paper will show, non-Jewish Polish resistance movements played an integral part in ensuring the survival of the Jewish resistance and the removal of Nazis from Poland. They did this by procuring false papers, weapons, funding, hideouts, and by coercing cooperation from non-Jewish Poles not affiliated with the resistance. These actions proved to be essential to the success of the Jewish Resistance movements.

Jewish and Polish Undergrounds Operating in Nazi Poland

Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Combat Organization)

In Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter, Rotem plays the role of Kazik, a young Polish Jew who, along with his family, was herded into the Warsaw Ghetto in the first months of World War II. Although at first Kazik is passive about the takeover of the Nazis and the internment of the Jews, he suddenly volunteers for action after the killing begins a few months prior to the first Akstia, also known as the cleansing of the ghetto in July 1942.

By then (the second Akstia) I belonged to the ZOB and was part of the fighting group at Mila Street 34, where my parents also lived. When the second Akstia began on January 18, 1943, I and my comrades in the ZOB were determined to fight, but we had almost no weapons, except for a few scattered pistols (Rotem 18).

Like other younger Jews in the ghetto, Kazik and his companions felt a need to fight back against the Nazis. This resistance group, nicknamed the ZOB, was one of the main Jewish anti-Nazi forces in the Warsaw ghetto. Kazik recalls several operations which eventually led to the Warsaw ghetto revolt. Although many of them were basic actions such as getting food, supplies, weapons, etc., Kazik explains how these operations were important in swaying the Jewish population towards backing the ZOB instead of the local Judenrat (Rotem 24-25). Thus, upon the final Akstia of the ghetto, the ZOB setup a large final effort to stop, or more likely slow the work of the Nazis. Armed with only a few grenades, Molotov cocktails, and pistols, the Warsaw resistance forces were able to fend off Nazi forces for almost a month (Rotem 32-42).

Other than the initial sparks of resistance during cleansing of the ghetto, As Kazik explains throughout his story, the ZOB was charged with several other missions during and after the Warsaw ghetto revolt. The most important of these missions were getting and delivering weapons to the various fighting groups scattered around Poland, establishing communications between Jewish resistance groups, finding hiding places, moving Jewish escapees between the forest and the city, heading up rescue operations, and bribing Gestapo agents. Each of these missions’ success seemed to be somewhat dependant on the help of the various Polish undergrounds and residents.

AK (Armia Krajowa)

The Armia Krajowa, also known as the AK, was one of the more prominent Polish undergrounds to operate in Nazi-occupied Poland. With a membership of over 400,000 people, the AK became a distinctive military force in Nazi Poland and with the help of the Soviets, was largely responsible for the Germans’ removal in the Polish Uprising of 1944. Although the AK frequently came to the aid of the Jewish Fighting Organization, the underground was generally seen as the right-wing faction of the Polish resistance forces. Kazik frequently remarks that although the AK had an established Jewish aid program, the AK in itself was fairly antisemitic in its foundations and membership (Rotem 92, 114). An example of this antisemitism takes place several times throughout Kazik’s account, especially when the AK is recruiting fighters for the Polish Uprising. Many “Jewish looking” Jews feared joining the ranks of the AK in that they felt they might be exposed due to their participation with the group. The only reason why Kazik was able to join the AK fighting group was because he looked Aryan. Although they were the main source of aid in the Jewish resistance movement, this antisemitism seems to be a recurring theme throughout Kazik’s account of the Polish Uprising and the ZOB’s relations with the Armia Krajowa.

AL (Armia Ludowa)

The Armia Ludowa, also known as the AL, was the smaller splinter group of the Polish underground. Although they did not maintain the same membership of the AK, the 30,000 people who made up Armia Ludowa practiced more leftist approaches than their rightist counterpart. Like the AK, the AL was pivotal in the Jewish fighting effort due to their aid towards the Jewish Fighting Organization and their co-involvement in the Polish Uprising of 1944.

Nevertheless, unlike their public participation with the AK, Kazik explains the ZOB’s secrecy in dealing with the AL and describes how they withheld their AL contacts from the Armia Krajowa.

Antek’s work was primarily to maintain contact with the members of the Polish underground and with the Jewish leaders hiding in Warsaw. He maintained contact simultaneously with the two Polish undergrounds: the Armia Krajowa (AK) and the Armia Ludowa (AL). The AL knew about our contacts with the AK, whereas the AK was not supposed to know about our contacts with the AL (66).

Although much of it seems to stem from the AK’s large membership, both because it could be more easily penetrated by Gestapo spies, as well as the fact that they were largely antisemitic, the reasons for withholding information is not directly explained by Kazik. However, he does recall several events in which “spies” imbedded within the ranks of the AK nearly tore apart the Jewish Fighting Organization by reporting to local Nazi agents. Nevertheless, due to such situations, throughout the book one is able to see a growing feud between the rightist AK and the leftist AL.

The Role and Workings of Non-Jewish Aid: Polish residents and the Underground


Although Kazik’s account of the war gives a mixed view about the relations between the ZOB and the Polish underground movements, overall the relationship between the groups was one initially carved out due to necessity rather than cooperation. The underground’s aid to the Jewish fighters came in various forms. Not only did they produce documentation and Polish identity forms for the ZOB, they also coached Jews in how to act around the Polish population in German-controlled cities.

…The Polish underground had helped me get a Kennkarte (the identity card issued by the Germans in the Generalgouvernement which replaced the Polish identity documents)…I went to the clerk and requested a birth certificate…They had coached me in what to say (Rotem 61).

These documents were very important to the Jewish resistance in that, even for those Jews who looked particularly of Aryan descent, many were still forced to show documents to German officials like the Gestapo and other antisemitic Polish-Nazi conspirators (such as blackmailers). Thus, such documentation was necessary for couriers like Kazik who had to travel through the city to pass messages to and from the different ZOB outposts.

Polish Disguises

In addition to the procurement of citizenship and cultural documents, many Jewish resistance fighters who maintained the appearance of Aryan “Polish Christians” were able to use the guise of the AK to recruit the help of Polish residents and officials throughout Warsaw and the rest of Poland. As Kazik explains, “Even someone who was involved in underground work couldn’t call us liars, since there was a special department in the AK named the Committee to Aid Jews” (Rotem 98). In order to accomplish missions such as gaining weapons, hideouts, and even just spreading messages throughout the city, Kazik himself used the identity of the Polish underground to enlist the help of Poles living in Warsaw. Ultimately, those who were able to pass as non-Jewish Poles became the couriers between the different fighting groups and helped to maintain relations between the ZOB and the Polish undergroundmovements (Rotem 86-87).

Weapons Running and Training

In addition to this, the underground and Polish residents were essential to the Jewish resistance movements’ struggle inside the ghetto. In addition to providing basic supplies such as food and first aid, the main source of aid from the Polish was weapons running and training. During the rescue operations following the destruction of the ghetto, Kazik describes how he used his AK connections and Polish contacts from before the war to gain access to weapons and Black Market supplies.

After returning from Warsaw, I got busy acquiring weapons for the Jews. I decided the best way to transport them was with the help of the Polish policeman Adamczyk. I had known him personally before the war, when he had been a customer of my parent’s store…I met him accidentally on the street…One of the first missions I assigned to him was to transport weapons (pistols and bullets)…he performed his task loyally and efficiently. He didn’t do it for money but solely for humanitarian efforts(Rotem 71).

In addition to acquiring and running military supplies to the Jews inside the ghetto, Kazik goes on to explain the total extent of military aid from the AK.

The AK gave us an instructor who had formerly served in the Polish army. He had professional knowledge and a talent for communicating it briefly. He was one of my best sources of information about what was going on in the Polish underground. From my contact with him, I began to understand that the Poles were thinking seriously about an uprising, preparing to expel the German occupiers from their capital—and perhaps from all of Poland (Rotem 116).

This type of resource not only gave the ZOB the advantage of an organized and trained fighting group, but it also showed the Polish underground’s desire to finally incorporate them into the uprising as well. Where prior to this the Jews seemed to be more of a side project for the underground movements, the ZOB was now preparing for full cooperation with the Polish counterattack.

Securing Hideouts and Networking

One of the main sources of help from the AK, AL, and other Polish residents was finding and securing legitimate hideouts and apartment networks for the ZOB fighters. So as not to be discovered, the Jewish Fighting Organization used names of Polish residents and underground members in order to cover up any sign of Jewish residents. Even if local Poles knew of the existence of Jews hiding in certain apartments,

In general, when a Polish Christian who gave protection to a Jew learned that a Polish underground group was interested in the fate of those hiding, and even came to visit them, the Jew’s stock rose in their eyes. (Rotem 96)

Thus, through Polish aid, the ZOB members and Jews living in these places were able to hide safely because the concierges of the apartment buildings thought they were occupied by Polish residents (Rotem 97). A particular example of this is when the ZOB decided to split up their fighting parties across various apartment networks.

Wolska Street was in a typical Polish Christian neighborhood inhabited mostly by working-class Poles. We had concluded that it would be wise for our people to live in several apartments. It was important for Antek (the leader of the ZOB) to live separately, to minimize the risk of exposure. As soon as he came out of the ghetto, he moved into an apartment that we obtained with the help of the AL underground…It belonged to the wife of a Polish officer who was a prisoner of war in Germany. She lived alone and was told that Antek was a Jew, while I was introduced as a Christian, a member of the Polish underground who would live with him “for underground work.(84)

As shown in this example, the help of the local Polish people was necessary in maintaining the safety of the Jewish people in hiding. Another example of this came in the form of “Felek Rajszczak, a Pole, a first-rate builder, a dedicated Communist from his youth (one reason why he hated the Nazis), and a man you trusted from the first moment” (Rotem 103). Felek not only helped the ZOB build large hideouts within several underground-owned apartment buildings, but he also risked his life by withholding information about ZOB operations from the Gestapo. Through the Polish underground disguise and the help of securing apartments through people like Felek, the Jewish resistance was able to adequately hide themselves from the Gestapo and the antisemitic Poles.


Another important source of help from outside the Jewish ranks came in the form of basic funding. This funding came from several places such as the United States, Britain, Switzerland, the Jewish Agency, the Joint and special Bundist sources (Rotem 98). However, for obvious reasons, this money could not be directly channeled to the Jewish resistance forces and those still within the ghetto. Thus, “Money to support the Jews in hiding came to us (the ZOB) through the Polish underground, which was connected with the Polish Government-in-Exile in London” (Rotem 98). Although not all the money always came through, these funds made it possible for Jews in hiding to provide arms, buy supplies off the Black market, purchase day to day sustenance, and also fund several ongoing missions within the ZOB. For example, when Felek, the Polish man who helped the ZOB build hideouts, is captured by the Gestapo, Kazik as well as other couriers rush to his aid by bribing the Gestapo (Rotem 105). These types of encounters also took place when apartment concierges and other Gestapo agents would discover the whereabouts of Jews hiding throughout the city. Thus, funding from the Polish underground and other outside groups was an extremely important part of the Jewish war effort and was necessary for their overall survival.


Overall, it is obvious to see the effect outside forces had on the survival and success of the ZOB and other Jewish resistance forces throughout Nazi occupied Poland. However, although the AK and other Polish undergrounds were necessary to the missions and organization of the Jews, one may not immediately see the effect widespread antisemitism had on the initial relations between the various groups. For example, Kazik recalls how he once had to meet with AK officials who had been apparently conspiring against ZOB members hiding in the Wyszkow forest. At this point in time, the AK had not yet fully acknowledged the ZOB’s existence as an organized resistance group and was treating ZOB members as if they merely part of a “gang of Jews”. This brought about several complications in the beginning of ZOB/AK relations and was only resolved after Kazik met with the AK intelligence (Rotem 93-94). Nevertheless, one must set aside some of these events and look at the end outcome to the Polish/Jewish relationship and the success they found by saving thousands of Jews as well as aiding in the overall removal of Nazis from Poland.


Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/21/08)

Book Reviews:

  • Amazon.com, “User Reviews”. 2008, January 30. (amazon.com).
    This website contains 7 user reviews and a summary of Rotem’s book on the life of a Jewish resistance fighter during the Holocaust. This gave me a look at the book itself and helped me get a firsthand look at other peoples’ reaction to the story.
  • “Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter”. 2008. Yale University Press.
    http://yalepress .yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300057973.
    This website provided a summary of the book Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter and was my first real look at the content of the book itself. This led me to choose the book and helped me formulate an initial argument.
  • Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum, “ Deconstructing Memory and History: The Jewish Military Union (ZZW) and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising”. 2006.
    http://www.jcpa. org/JCPA/ID=1014.
    This source gave an in depth look at the Jewish Reistance movement from the standpoint of the ZZW. Although I did not talk about the ZZW in the paper, the book gave a significant amount of material on the movement itself and allowed me to compare the various groups.
  • Hist 133D review by Justin Dougherty

Web Sites:

  • Holocaust Encyclopedia, “Jewish Resistance”. 2008. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?Id=10005213.
    This website offers a strong interpretation of the lives of those who decided to fight back against the Nazis inside and outside of Warsaw during the Holocaust. It gives an excellent summary about the extent to which the Jewish fought against their captors.
  • Ian McCollum, “ An Inquiry into the General Lack of Violent Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust”. http://www.a-human-right.com/jewsfight.html.
    Before writing the paper, I became interested in why, when looking back at World War II and the Holocaust, there seems to be a lack of Jewish resistance to their Nazi captors. This gave me a brief overview on the risks those who decided to fight were forced to take and why ordinary Jews tried to “wait it out” instead of participating in the resistance.

Books and Articles:

  • Gutman, Israel, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
    This book offers an overwhelming amount of data on the overall treatment of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and helps guide readers through the different events portrayed in Rotem’s book.
  • Ainsztein, Reuben, Jewish Resistance in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe: With a Historial Survey of the Jew as Fighter and Soldier in the Diaspora. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1974.
    This book gives a great depiction of life in the Warsaw ghetto and provides some of the main reasons that led to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Jewish Fighting Organization’s participation in the Polish Uprising. Not only did this serve as an encyclopedia of resistance events and movements, but it also helpsguide readers through the time period presented in Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/20/08; last updated:
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