In the grim history of the Bialystok ghetto, an act of resistance that occurred right before its eventual destruction by the Germans in August of 1943 places it among only a handful of such incidents during the war. Inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jewish resistance fighters in the Bialystok ghetto fought the Nazis during the last days of the ghetto's existence, after the Germans commenced with their plans to liquidate its entire population. The conditions of the Bialystok ghetto were different from that of other ghettos in Poland, and this ultimately decided the outcome of events.
Bialystok was a city in northern Poland, annexed by the Soviets in 1939. The city was surrounded by deep forests, its houses made mostly of wood. The Jewish population – which made up a large fraction of the mill and skilled workers in the city - was an essential element of the city's economy. This fact would prove integral to the ghetto leadership's survival strategies.
The Soviet occupation ended when Nazi troops entered the city on June 27, 1941. Immediately, the soldiers forced hundreds of Jews into a synagogue and lit it on fire. Only few survived1 while most were burned to death. The next week, more than 5,000 Jews were shot in the streets. After these initial killings, 50,000 Jews were forced to move into the small confines of the Bialystok ghetto.
Conditions in this ghetto were somewhat unique to their situation. The community had limited access to the outside world, as many of the ghetto's residents had access to work in factories located in other parts of the city. The main body of the population also had a positive relationship with the Judenrat, which was headed by Ephraim Barasz. He was a well-respected man who worked hard to stress the economic importance of the Jews dwelling in the ghetto. Because of their economic importance, he and many of his comrades were convinced that the Jews of the Bialystok ghetto were immune to the fate of other ghettos. As a result, Barasz saw no reason to organize a resistance effort.
Having fled Vilna with a handful of resistance fighters, a man named Mordechai Tenenboim-Tamarof organized Bialystok's resistance movement, establishing the Anti-Fascist Fighting Bloc with his remaining followers. There were large disagreements within the fighting group about what should be done to effectively resist the Nazis. Some people, such as Judith Nowogrodzka, argued that the Jews should put all effort into escaping to the nearby forests and joining the liberation front, while others such as Teneboim believed that fighting the Nazis was the most effective. Ultimately, the group decided to the support resistance both with partisan groups and within the ghetto.
Teneboim and his organization faced many challenges when planning the Bialystok uprising. Acquiring weapons was extremely difficult. Ultimately, they were only able to gather one machine gun, and approximately two dozen hand-guns and several dozen grenades. However, an even greater obstacle was the lack of cooperation from the Judenrat under Barasz who believed that its Jews were in no risk of death therefore resistance was unnecessary. Tenenboim, considering the massacres at Ponary, believed the case to be otherwise.
On August 15, 1943, Barasz was notified by the Nazi gestapo of their plans to liquidate the Bialysok ghetto. He told nobody. When the resistance movement noticed the increase of German troops surrounding the Ghetto's border, they knew something was afoot. Caught by surprise and with little time, the rebels had no time to organize an effective strategy, and made do with what they could. Furthermore, the rest of the ghetto population had little reason to join the resistance, as most still had doubts about their ultimate fate, and did not wish to perish in an uneven struggle.
On August 16, 1943, with the majority of the ghetto's residence lined up outside to board the train to the camps, the Nazi troops were met with bombs dropped from windows of houses. However, Warsaw provided the Germans with experience, and they were well-prepared for a counter-attack. Furthermore, the low-rise wooden buildings and fences provided much less shelter for the rebels than the large brick edifices of Warsaw. As a result, the uprising only lasted a short time – the last handful fighters were unearthed from their bunker hideout five days later.
Although the uprising may not have been as successful as its leaders would have hoped, the actions of these brave men and women displayed courage and pride even when it seemed as if all hope had disappeared. Though most of the fighters perished – and the rest of the inhabitants were sent to meet their fate in the camps – a few fighters managed to break through the ghetto fence and flee to the countryside, joining partisan units that would eventually see these lands liberated from the bloody grip of the cruel occupiers.
–By Mandy Losk
1. A Polish cobbler named Winicki managed to make an opening into the burning building from the outside.