ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 282

Holocaust survivor Halina Birenbaum, 93, prepares to leave for the March of the Living commemorative event in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, April 17, 2023. (Canaan Lidor)
Main image: Holocaust survivor Halina Birenbaum, 93, prepares to leave for the March of the Living commemorative event in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, April 17, 2023. (Canaan Lidor)
Interview'Silly children, that’s a death train. We’re not getting on it'

Halina Birenbaum survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. She saw heroism elsewhere

At 93, one of just a handful of living witnesses of the armed rebellion seeks to correct Jews’ understanding of bravery during the genocide

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Main image: Holocaust survivor Halina Birenbaum, 93, prepares to leave for the March of the Living commemorative event in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, April 17, 2023. (Canaan Lidor)

OŚWIĘCIM, Poland — Holed up in a makeshift bunker full of smoke and heat from fires raging overhead, Halina Birenbaum survived as a teenager the largest and deadliest act of armed resistance by Jews during the Holocaust: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Yet if there is bravery in her remarkable survival story, Birenbaum told The Times of Israel, it is not to be found in that act of defiance, whose 80th anniversary is on Wednesday. Instead, it appears in countless small acts of self-preservation and assistance that happened every day among her, her relatives and other victims, she said.

“Staying alive, and helping others do the same, was, in my opinion, far more courageous than a quick, fiery death,” Birenbaum, 93, said in Krakow as she prepared to leave for Auschwitz-Birkenau on Tuesday for the March of the Living commemorative walk. Taking place in the grounds of the former Nazi death camp in the small city of Oświęcim in southern Poland, it is held annually on Israel’s national day of mourning for the victims of the Holocaust.

Birenbaum’s view is illustrative of the slow and often painful evolution of how many Israelis and other Jews view the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and other acts of armed resistance. In Israel’s early years especially, those relatively rare events were highlighted and focused on disproportionately in an effort to address what some Israelis — including many Zionists who had never experienced the gradual dehumanization that preceded the genocide — perceived as shameful passivity by European Jewry.

Few documents reflect this attitude more pointedly than a letter that Yosef Weitz, a Jewish National Fund executive who immigrated to Israel in 1908 from what is today Ukraine, wrote to a friend who had just lost his son in Israel’s War of Independence. Holocaust victims died “a shameful death, whereas our dead are sacrificed in courageous battles, the birth of a people and land,” Weitz wrote.

This Zionist ambivalence toward victims is evidenced even in the very name of the national memorial day for the genocide, which in 1951 was titled “Holocaust Day and the Ghetto Uprisings,” suggesting an equivalence between a few dozen actions by several thousand Jews and the systemic slaughter of six million of them throughout World War II. In 1959, the Knesset gave the day its current name, Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (“Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”), which maintains the victimhood-defiance balance, but leaves more room for interpretation of what the latter means.

There was “cowardice, betrayal and selfishness also in the bunkers” of the rebels. “And there was unparalleled bravery also in the line for the gas chambers”

Historians see the 1961 trial in Israel of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, an eager and senior executor of Adolf Hitler’s so-called final solution for the Jews, as a turning point in how Israelis relate to the Holocaust and their ability to understand why so many Jews went to their deaths without armed resistance, or “as lambs to the slaughter,” as some unfeelingly have described it.

“The trial set in motion a process that no longer permitted criticizing European Jewry’s response to World War II,” Hanna Yablonka, a historian at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, wrote about this in 1998.

This process has been painful for Birenbaum, who had experienced both Jewish armed resistance and the Nazi dehumanization in the camps. “To this day my blood boils when I hear someone try to reduce either of these realities to some slogan, or neat package,” said Birenbaum. There was “cowardice, betrayal and selfishness also in the bunkers” of the rebels, she added. “And there was unparalleled bravery also in the line for the gas chambers.”

Halina Birenbaum leaves after delivering a speech in front of survivors and personalities at a tent erected in front of Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 2015 in Oswiecim, Poland. (Odd Andersen/AFP)

Birnbaum, a mother of two from Herzliya who has authored influential books about the Holocaust, experienced betrayal firsthand in her bunker, where she hid when she was 14 with her two brothers and her mother, who had brought them there for shelter in exchange for food that she provided to rebels.

“After three weeks in the bunker, whose entrance was well camouflaged, someone threw in a German grenade. We survived the blast but we had been found out, ratted out by someone who was in on the uprising. We saw the rat standing there, apparently unharmed, with the Germans after we climbed out at gunpoint,” she recalled.

A similar situation resulted in one of the most iconic images of World War II. It shows a group of Jews being taken out of a bunker after the uprising under the watchful eye of armed German troops. A young boy, his face wearing a terrified expression, is seen standing with his arms held up high in foregroung of the frame.

A Jewish boy surrenders in Warsaw — the most well-known photograph taken during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, in which a boy holds his hands over his head while SS-Rottenführer Josef Blösche points a submachine gun in his direction. (Wikipedia, public domain)

One of only a handful of people alive today of the hundreds of survivors from the uprising, Birenbaum recalls how debates about it divided her own family, who had managed to stay together until mid-1943 in the ghetto despite the daily deportations to death camps that gradually depleted its population.

“My brothers were involved in the preparations and in favor. My father was against, saying we must do everything to live another day. My mother was quiet about it,” Birenbaum recalled of the weeks that preceded the uprising, which ended with the utter destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the murder of the vast majority of its remaining population of about 50,000 Jews.

Before they were discovered, the Jews in Birenbaum’s so-called bunker – one of a few hundred dugouts cleared away by diggers around the foundations of ordinary residential buildings — initially did not share their food, medicines and other provisions with each other, she added.

“Only later, when things became desperate and we all thought we were going to die, did the sharing start. When it no longer mattered,” she recalled on Tuesday, as she marched with thousands of participants in the 35th International March of the Living, whose theme this year is “Honoring Jewish Heroism,” referencing the uprising’s 80th anniversary.

Visitors to the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp after the March of the Living annual observance, in Oswiecim, Poland, April 28, 2022. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

For Jewish heroism, Birenbaum need not look further than her late mother, Pola Grynsztajn, she said. In 1943, Grynsztajn saved the lives of her children by exploiting an oversight by the ghetto’s Jewish police and German guards. Grynsztajn led them away from a deportation train after the family had already been rounded up to be placed on it.

Birenbaum survived thanks to sheer luck – she was already inside a gas chamber in Majdanek with 200 other women when the Germans ran out of Zyklon B poison

“My brother and I begged her to go back and board the train, which everyone had told us was bound for a labor camp or resettlement,” recalls Birenbaum, whose number from Auschwitz, 48693, is tattooed into her arm. “We were scared of getting caught. I was crying for her to return. After more nagging, she turned to us and hissed: ‘You silly children, that’s a death train. We’re not getting on it.”

The family bribed their way back into the ghetto, where they were eventually caught after the uprising and sent to death camps. One of Birenbaum’s brothers, Hilek, and her parents, were murdered. Birenbaum survived thanks to sheer luck – she was already inside a gas chamber in Majdanek with 200 other women when the Germans ran out of Zyklon B poison – and the care of her sister-in-law.

Even after Israelis have broadened their definition of bravery during the Holocaust beyond the ghetto uprisings, “few people know what it looks like,” Birenbaum said. Bravery, she added, “is to lead your children to life through paralyzing fear. To fight tooth and nail for a bowl of soup for your sister-in-law – and to then go back and fight for another one for yourself.”

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