MONTREAL — What is seared into Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman’s memory 70 years later is how the carousel went around in the amusement park and the music played as the Warsaw Ghetto went up in flames nearby.
Skotnicka-Zajdman was 14 on April 19, 1943, when German forces met unexpected and sustained armed resistance from hundreds of Jewish fighters as the liquidation of the ghetto was about to begin.
The fighting continued for a month, despite the insurgents being vastly outmanned and outgunned by the Germans.
Warned by her older brother, who was a fighter, to get out, she escaped the ghetto through the fetid sewers the day before the uprising began.
As she watched the conflagration from the other side of the ghetto wall, Skotnicka-Zajdman was struck by the “indifference of bystanders.”
After surviving on the streets, she was eventually rescued by Zegota, the Polish underground organization, and cared for by the head of its children’s section, Irena Sendler.
Skotnicka-Zajdman, who has lived in Montreal since after the war, and Mindy Spiegel, the Montreal-born daughter of Baruch Bronek Spiegel, one of the last surviving ghetto combatants, and Chajka Halina Belchatowska, who also fought in the uprising, were guest speakers at a commemoration of the uprising’s 70th anniversary, at the Polish consulate.
The April 17 event was held with the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, Montreal chapter, which seeks to foster dialogue and raise awareness of the history of Jews in Poland.
Guests were invited to follow a custom in Warsaw on the anniversary that was begun by the revolt’s last surviving commander Marek Edelman, who died in 2009. As a show of solidarity, people pin yellow paper ornaments fashioned into daffodils – reminiscent of the stars Jews were forced to wear – to their lapels.
A few Jewish participants hesitated to put them on, until Polish Consul General Andrzej Szydlo explained its origin. Also present were diplomats representing Germany, Russia, Hungary and Israel.
Szydlo paid tribute to the heroism of the Jewish fighters.
“As they said, they were not fighting for themselves. They did not think they would get out alive. They were fighting to save human dignity.”
Also recalled were the hundreds of thousands of Jews who died in the ghetto, or in the Treblinka death camp, to which most were deported, as well as the fact that Warsaw was home to the largest and most thriving Jewish community in Europe before 1939.
“We think also of those who helped Jews, some of whom are recognized by Yad Vashem, some of whom will remain anonymous forever,” Szydlo said.
The evening began with the film The Warsaw Ghetto 1940-1943, made by the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw entirely from Polish and German archival materials. The brutality of life and banality of death in the ghetto’s 912 days are unsparingly portrayed in the grainy black-and-white footage.
Terror and hunger were the constants in the ghetto, Skotnicka-Zajdman recalled, but she also remembers how her education continued in clandestine classrooms.
Her cover was that she was in a workshop mending hosiery, but in reality she was being taught by dedicated, brave teachers.
“I get angry when I hear the phrase ‘like sheep to the slaughter,’” she said. “Resistance takes different shapes… We hungered for knowledge, there were no discipline problems… Books [which had to be hidden] became our weapon against despair.”
For 30 years, Skotnicka-Zajdman never spoke about her experiences. In 1973, she returned reluctantly to Poland for the first time, and “my process of healing started. I stopped having nightmares, I stopped feeling guilty. I decided to do something with my life.”
She has been back 37 times since, working with the remnant of the Jewish community, but mostly sharing her story with students and teachers.
Spiegels’ parents, who were both 24 at the time, had been youth activists in the socialist Bund.
“My parents believed in social justice and hoped to achieve it. But all their choices were taken away by the murderous Nazis,” said Spiegel, a teacher. “The only choice they did have was how to die. They chose to die as resisters.
“They didn’t think they would survive. They went into battle expecting to not win anything, but to save human dignity, and to take as many Nazis with them as they could.”
While Spiegel is not sure exactly how her parents’ lives influenced her, Skotnicka-Zajdman concluded: “I am a victim of hate, therefore I cannot hate. I taught my children not to hate, to commemorate peace, not war.”
Asked by Szydlo, who noted he was born long after the war, how her parents’ love could have taken root under such conditions, Spiegel replied: “There was a necessity, a need to be with another human being – there was no choice, people had to fall in love, be in love, be close to each other.”
Spiegel said she does not believe it is constructive to ruminate on where the world was when the Holocaust was unfolding. “But when I hear of atrocities today, I ask ‘Has the world learned nothing’?” I leave it to others to question. I am an upbeat, optimistic person.”