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Flee the trains: Warsaw Ghetto fighter’s early warning to Western European Jews

Marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Ghetto Fighters’ House publishes for 1st time document broadcast on radio in 1943 warning Jewish communities to escape Nazis

A group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers, during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter, in 1943. (AP Photo)
A group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers, during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter, in 1943. (AP Photo)

The contents of a letter, penned by the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto and broadcast in 1943 urging Jews in Western Europe to flee Nazi trains taking them to death camps, was revealed for the first time on Thursday.

The text of the document, published by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper,  was released by the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The letter was written by Adolf Avraham Berman, who headed Zegota, the Polish underground movement which worked to save Jews from the Holocaust, as well as the children’s aid society CENTOS that cared for thousands of children in the Warsaw Ghetto.

“The extermination sites in Treblinka, Auschwitz, Belzec and Sobibor have recently received, constantly, deportations of Jews from Western Europe, especially from France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Within 24 hours of arrival, they are destroyed in the steam and gas chambers,” Berman wrote according to a Hebrew translation of the original Polish, provided in the report.

“It is said that a large proportion of convicts do not believe they are going to work,” he said, an apparent reference to the Nazi depiction of the extermination sites as “labor camps.”

“It is said that the carriages in which passengers travel are not guarded all the time, and yet the deportees do not flee en masse from the carriages,” Berman lamented. “The populations of the Netherlands, Belgium, France and all the countries of Western Europe must be called upon to call and warn the Jews living there about the danger of death that threatens them — so that they hide before traveling east, flee en masse from the trains, save themselves from certain destruction.”

Berman managed to smuggle the letter out of the ghetto to the Polish resistance, which brought it to London from where it was broadcast on April 16, 1943, three days before the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Noam Rachmilevitch, head of archives at the museum, said the letter showed that the Jewish underground tried to prevent the deaths of their fellow Jews thousands of kilometers away, “people they never met and they never knew.”

The underground gathered information about mass murder which was then sent through underground channels “in a last attempt to cause the Jews of Western Europe to hide and not present themselves for the deportations eastward to the death camps,” he said.

Another important aspect of the letter is that it was broadcast in Polish, which, Rachmilevitch said, was intended to provoke local opposition to the Nazi oppressors and to publicly demonstrate opposition to the murder of the Jews.

After the war, the letter was sent with hundreds of other documents to the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum, located in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, which was established by Holocaust survivors.

The Warsaw Ghetto in Poland was set up by invading Nazi Germany in 1940 and at one point housed more than 460,000 Jews. From there, residents were deported to Nazi concentration and death camps. Many died of starvation inside the ghetto.

An uprising against the Nazis between April and May 1943 was eventually overcome by thousands of German soldiers. Almost all of the remaining residents were either killed in the ghetto or deported to death camps and the ghetto was destroyed.

Berman survived the war and became a member of the Polish parliament as well as chairman of the Central Committee of Polish Jews. In 1950, he immigrated to Israel and was elected to the Knesset in the 1951 elections.

He was one of the witnesses to testify during the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Israel. He died in 1978 at the age of 71.

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