Warsaw Ghetto uprising survivor honoured on 80th anniversary

- Advertisement -

Tova Gutstein was born in Warsaw the year Adolf Hitler took power in Germany and was 10 when the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto launched the first act of collective defiance against the Nazis in Europe.

Now 90, she is among the few remaining witnesses of the ghetto uprising, and a vanishing generation of Holocaust survivors, as Israel marks the 80th anniversary of a revolt that has shaped its national consciousness.

On Monday Ms Gutstein will be one of six Holocaust survivors honoured by Israel as torchlighters in its annual ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. She said the horrors are still seared in her mind.

“Over 80 years have passed, and I can’t forget it,” she told The Associated Press at her home in central Israel.

Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, marked with solemn ceremonies in schools and workplaces nationwide, begins at sundown on Monday.

Theatres, concerts, cafes and restaurants close and television and radio broadcast Holocaust commemorations.

A two-minute siren brings the country to a standstill, traffic freezes as people leave their cars and stand silently in the streets to commemorate the six million Jews killed by Nazi Germany and its allies.

A year after occupying Poland in 1939, Nazi Germany confined hundreds of thousands of Jews, 30% of Warsaw’s population, into just 2.4% of the city’s area in what became known as the Warsaw Ghetto.

David Silberklang, a senior historian at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, said that at the height of the ghetto’s horrors in 1941, one Jew died on average, every nine minutes from infectious diseases, starvation or Nazi violence.

Ms Gutstein grew up in the ghetto. Her father was forced into a labour camp by the Nazis and never seen again.

Fenced in by electrified barbed wire, she and other Jewish children would crawl through the sewers to scavenge for food. Some children fell into the sewage and were swept away to their deaths, she recalled.

“We only thought about bread, food, how to obtain food,” she said. “We had no other thoughts.”

About two-thirds of the Warsaw Ghetto, some 265,000 people, were deported to the Majdanek and Treblinka death camps in the summer of 1942.

The following spring, the Nazis began preparing to deport the ghetto’s remaining 60,000 Jews to their deaths.

Holocaust Remembrance
Tova Gutstein lived in the Warsaw Ghetto as a child (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

Ms Gutstein was outside the ghetto when the uprising began.

“German planes and tanks were bombing the ghetto. I was terribly afraid,” she said. “The skies were red with fire. I saw buildings suddenly collapsing.”

Returning to the ghetto through the sewers, she discovered that her house, along with many others, was destroyed.

“I wandered about and looked for my mother and my siblings but couldn’t find anyone,” Ms Gutstein said.

The Warsaw Ghetto fighters fought for their lives in bunkers they made inside the ghetto’s buildings. Many were killed in the streets or deported to the death camps. After a month of fighting, the Great Synagogue was destroyed.

“The goal of the uprising was not rescue,” said Mr Silberklang. He said it was last-ditch resistance against inevitable death.

The aim was “to go down fighting and influence when and how they die — and hopefully somebody will survive”.

She reunited with her mother and siblings in 1946, before moving to the nascent state of Israel in 1948.

Now a mother of three, grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of 13, she remains haunted by the memory of a man shot in the head outside her house in the ghetto, she said.

“I go to sleep with this image, and I wake up with it. It’s very hard for me to forget it,” she said.

The ghetto uprising remains a potent national symbol for Israel. In addition to remembering the victims of the Holocaust, memorial day also is meant to remember acts of courage and heroism.

At last year’s Holocaust remembrance ceremony, then prime minister Naftali Bennett described the uprising as “the pinnacle of Jewish heroism”.

Yet with each passing year, the number of those who saw it first-hand continues to dwindle, and with it the living link to the trauma.

Israel is today home to about 150,600 survivors, according to government figures, a drop of more than 15,000 from last year. Many of those still alive now were just young children during the war.

Many survivors continue to struggle. Between a quarter and a third live in poverty, survivor advocacy groups report.

Mr Silberklang said Yad Vashem and similar institutions are already planning for a time when there are no Holocaust survivors left, documenting and promoting awareness of their stories.

“By the year 2035, there will no longer be any Holocaust survivors to tell their stories,” the organisation says on its website. “We are their voice.”

Ms Gutstein said she has dedicated the past decade to telling her story, so that others may bear witness.

That way, she said, “it will remain,” even when she is gone.

- Advertisement -
- Advertisement -

Latest Stories

- Advertisement -

UK News

- Advertisement -
- Advertisement -

Read the latest free supplements

Read the Town Crier, Le Rocher and a whole host of other subjects like mortgage advice, business, cycling, travel and property.