The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Spy author Alex Gerlis writes about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that partly inspired his novel Agent in Peril.
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The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

In all my novels, there are a number of plot lines which converge at the end of the book, but in my new book, Agent in Peril the core plot is based around the Battle of the Ruhr in 1943, the RAF’s bombing campaign from March-July that year targeting Germany’s industrial heartland. Agent in Peril actually opens a long way from the Ruhr: much of the early part of the book is set in Poland, though by 1943 Poland had ceased to exist as a separate entity of that name – part of the Nazi policy of undermining the identity of the Occupied countries. As a consequence Poland came under the General Government.

By the time I came to planning this, my tenth novel, I felt that writing about Poland was long overdue. The bare facts of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the scale of suffering are astonishing and difficult to grasp, even within the horrendous context of the Second World War. From the country’s invasion in September 1939 to its liberation by the Red Army in early 1945 the country suffered unimaginable losses. The estimates of how many Polish citizens died vary, but the consensus seems to be three million. In addition, three million of Poland’s pre-war population of 3.3million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust: most in the six death camps the Nazis established on Polish soil, others in the ghettos or at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, the so-called death squads.

The resistance in Poland against the Nazi occupation was on a different level to every other occupied country. At its height, the Armia Krajowa – the Home Army – had around 400,000 active members. There were a number of other smaller resistance groups, including the Soviet-backed Armia Ludowa, the People’s Army.

But I was especially interested in weaving into the plot the story of the Warsaw Ghetto and especially the remarkable role of the Jewish Resistance. And it was on a research trip to Poland in 2019 that I came across information that revealed a very personal connection to this.

My father’s family had fled Poland in the 1890s and emigrated to the United Kingdom. It was always assumed that there must have been distant family who remained and who would have been murdered in the Holocaust, but we knew no details. Fortunately, a cousin had done some excellent research which established the names and stories of family who lived in Poland up and during the war. And the story of one member of it in particular is a quite remarkable one, deserving of its own place in history.

At the time of the Nazi invasion, 400,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, a third of the city’s population. Soon that population increased to half a million as other Jews were brought in from surrounding towns.  They were all crammed in a ghetto in the centre of the city.

Among them were members of the Suknik family, close cousins of my paternal grandmother. Their fate mirrors that of the population of the ghetto: some died of typhus (90,000 were killed by this disease) and others were among the more than 300,000 sent from the Warsaw ghetto to the death camp at Treblinka once the Nazis started to implement the ‘Final Solution’ in 1942.

Jewish women and children forcibly deported to camps by SS

By January 1943 the population of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was between 50,000 and 60,000. Most of them remained there because they were effectively working as slave labour for the Nazis, but they knew the German operation to annihilate what remained of the ghetto was imminent.

And it was then that the seeds were sown of what was arguably the single most audacious act of civilian resistance during the war. In the wake of the mass deportations of the summer of 1942, what was to become the main the Jewish resistance organisation was formed.

The ZOB – the Jewish Fighting Organisation – was an amalgamation of left-wing Zionist groups and the secular, socialist Bund organisation. Its aim was to resist the Nazis for as long as possible, even though the odds were significantly stacked against them.

The Germans entered the ghetto on the 18th January 1943 with the aim of resuming the deportations. They were thwarted by an attack on them by the ZOB. In the fighting that morning one unit was commanded by Mordechai Anielewicz, the man who was to become the overall commander of the resistance. According to The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt (Reuben Ainsztein) Anielewicz ‘s unit was armed with “five revolvers, five grenades, Molotov cocktails, crowbars and clubs.”  According to this account, the unit was soon surrounded by Germans and “was only saved by Suknik, one of his comrades.”

The Suknik referred to in this account is my cousin, Yitzhak Suknik, otherwise known by his nom de guerre, Koza (Polish for goat). By 1943 he was the sole surviving member of the Suknik family, just twenty-three years of age and a skilled sharp-shooter from his service in the Polish Army.

When the Germans returned to clear out the ghetto on 19th April, they did so with a force of more than two thousand men, including two Waffen SS units.

Koza’s role in the subsequent fighting is well documented. On 22nd April he was part of a unit fighting out of Mila 17 (Mila 18 was the headquarters of the resistance and the title of Leon Uris’s novel of 1961).  In Out of the Flames, Chaim Primer describes an ambush that day on German troops.

“This time Koza was with me, my first shooting instructor, and a terrific shot. Koza’s post was just in front of the gate. And indeed, when the Germans came, Koza lived up to our expectations and shot two of them dead with one bullet, something which raised his reputation amongst the fighters. A few more Germans were killed in the yard.”

On 1st May Koza played a prominent role in another ambush of Germans. Two sources – Primer (above) and Tuvia Borzykowski (Between Tumbling Walls) describe Koza’s central role in this ambush, which took place around 43 Nalewki Street. Significantly – and unusually – this ambush took place during the day, the most likely reason being a wish by the left-wing ZOB to mark May Day

In Primer’s account: “Koza, the best shooter in the Organization, came with us and so did four more fighters … we were seven people, each carrying a pistol. Koza was the only one with a rifle.”

 According to Borzykowski: “When the right moment came we attacked. Yitzhak Suknik (Koza), a member of Hashomer Hatzair sent a burst of fire at the Germans, felling three of them.”

But the resistance was ill-fated from the outset. They were heavily outnumbered in terms of troops, weapons and ammunition. By 7th May fighters were beginning to attempt to flee the ghetto. Koza was part of a group of eleven – including guides – which attempted to escape from the bunker on Franciskanska in the heart of the Ghetto. They entered the sewers and early on the morning of the 8th May they emerged in Deluga Street, on the other side of the ghetto wall.

One member of the group – Hela Schupper – survived and what happened next is described in her book, Farewell Mila 18 (translated from Hebrew). According to Schupper, as they climbed out of the sewers they were surrounded by Polish policemen. There seems to have been an attempt to bribe them, but at that moment German troops appeared. She wrote:I heard gunshots. Koza, that’s Yitzhak Suknik, who was probably one of the best shooters (in the ZOB), ran towards the German to shoot him with his gun. As he was shooting, the others dispersed.”

 Koza and all the other escapees were killed. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising ended on 16th May, with the ghetto in ruins. The hundred or so fighters who managed to escape were involved in the Warsaw Uprising the following year.

That fewer than a thousand poorly armed fighters (almost as many women as men) managed to hold off the Germans for a month was quite remarkable. In the words of The Holocaust Encyclopaedia: “Even while the war was still in progress, the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising became a legend that was passed on, with awe and emotion, as an event of rare historical significance.”

As a writer of modern historical fiction, I take pride in basing my work on real events, while at the same time remaining aware that what I’m writing is fiction. I spend a good deal of time researching the actual events referred to in the books and around which the plots are based. I find the detail I strive for not just helps establish an authentic and credible feel for the reader, but also opens up plot lines and characters for me as the writer.

It’s important to be sensitive to the subject matter, taking care not to invent an alternative reality, certainly not one which distorts real events. I’m not a fan of imagined fiction. One can argue of course that writing fiction set in the Second World War always runs the risk of sensationalising and even the trivialising the war and I have to admit that this is a constant challenge for me as a writer, how to strike the balance with a story that has to be gripping for the reader.

And having discovered such a personal connection to the subject matter, I found writing Agent in Peril even more of a real challenge and an emotional experience than writing Second World War fiction normally is. My approach was to avoid writing a direct account of the Ghetto Uprising and not making Koza a character.

But they’re there in the book, there is no question of that: the ghosts of the Ghetto which still haunts Warsaw even though all that remains are a few walls and the odd building or two. And while Koza isn’t in the book, the spirit of resistance as symbolised by him and his comrades is, I hope. And the Ghetto Uprising is there, though in the background.

I think that’s what writers of historical fiction should aspire to, to be true to the spirit of the times we choose to write about.

Alex Gerlis is the bestselling and acclaimed author of the Richard Prince spy thrillers, and his new Wolf Pack series starting with Agent in Berlin and his latest, Agent in the Shadows. You can listen to Alex being interviewed on the Aspects of History podcast.