Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto by Bernard Goldstein

“A nightmare without interruption.”

Bernard Goldstein, a Polish Jew, was a leader in the Jewish Labour Union known as the Bund. His background as a militant and dissident included fighting in the revolution against the Czar. Some of his teenage years were spent in jail for his pro-labour political activities against the state. He suffered multiple imprisonments and even survived a term in Siberia.

In his 40s, Goldstein was one of the more than 500,000 Jews shoved into the Warsaw ghetto. He managed to survive, and his memoir Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto chronicles events in the hellish conditions created by the Nazis. How can any human being survive such horror? Why Goldstein survived and thousands of others died is one of the facets of this book. Pure luck, unflagging determination, and strong political beliefs are at the root of Goldstein’s survival. Above all, this is a story of bravery and sacrifice, and Goldstein lists many names of those who died in the ghetto to save others from capture and death.

Goldstein chronicles the wave of anti-Semitism that swept over Poland with Hitler’s rise in power. This anti-Semitism was firmly in place when Warsaw fell to the Germans. Goldstein and his fellow Bund members all felt instinctively that they should fight to the death against the Nazis. Resistance was, Goldstein felt, the key. Under pressure, the decision was made to submit to the Germans. Prominent Jewish leaders felt that resistance to the Germans would create greater anti-Semitic feeling amongst the Poles. Forced labour of the Jews quickly degenerated into the establishment of a ghetto. Once the Jewish population was safely contained inside the ghetto, the Germans were free to carry out their horrific plans for extermination. Goldstein describes the establishment of viable social organizations within the ghetto–the underground press, secret schools for Jewish children, and an underground political organization. He also describes in detail the propaganda films made using the Jews as subjects. These propaganda films were then aired in German cinemas.

Goldstein describes in great detail how the Jewish population was controlled from within the Jewish community, and how the Nazis devised selections with devilish new twists. Goldstein was one of the final few left in the ghetto following massive deportations to death camps. He chronicles the struggles of the brave few who fought the Germans in the Ghetto uprising–a fight to the death. The Ghetto uprising–and its aftermath is covered in some depth. The book even covers living as a hunted Jew on the Aryan side of Warsaw, the collapse of the German army to the Soviet forces, and Goldstein’s attempts to live in post-German occupied Warsaw.

Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto is an stunning eyewitness account of one of the most heinous events in human history. Goldstein relates events in a matter-of-fact fashion, and doesn’t use emotional language as he describes the conditions faced. Since this is a first person account, the book lacks the dryness of an historical account, and there were pages when I simply couldn’t put the book down.

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