Monday

Apr. 19, 2004

The Day the Tree Fell Down

by Jack LaZebnik

MONDAY, 19 APRIL, 2004
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Poem: "The Day the Tree Fell Down," by Jack LaZebnik (reprinted by permission of the author).

The Day the Tree Fell Down

crumbling. It died of old age,
I tell you, like a man. We wept.
We had worn our time upon it, put
our arms around to touch fingertips
and we measured ourselves, our feelings
on the years. We made our calculations
pay, then. Now, the fears, age,
daily mathematics. The tree held
the green. Birds, squirrels, coons
made memory there until the day it fell.
They got out. It groaned for twenty minutes.
I tell you, it sighed as it bent,
its branches catching the dull fall,
the soft turning in wet dissolution.
The body lay exposed: a gut of grubs,
a lust of hollowness. We wept,
as I say, more than it was called for.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1943 that the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto began. Hitler's army had invaded Poland in September of 1939. Warsaw was the last city in Poland to submit to the Nazis, but on September 27, after three weeks of resistance, the city finally surrendered. One Warsaw man wrote in his diary, "All about us buildings lie in ruins. . . . If there is a Hell, this is it. [The] hospital was set afire. . . . The shrieks of those trapped in the flames could be heard for blocks around, even above the crash of shells and bombs."

Conditions only got worse. There were about 300,000 Jews in Warsaw to begin with, but thousands more Jewish refugees streamed in from smaller towns, and there wasn't enough space for them all. Tiny apartments held three or four families, some people lived in schools and synagogues, and many people had to live on the street. Dead bodies lay decomposing all around the city. Dirty water came rushing out of broken mains and sewers; people had to boil water from the river to drink, but many didn't have working stoves and a typhus epidemic began. Every morning, people waited in line outside Nazi distribution centers for their daily rations—a little bit of bread, cheese and potatoes.

On October 3, 1940, about a year after the invasion, the Nazis officially announced the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto. They built a wall around a section of the city measuring about twenty blocks by six blocks. Jews were given a month to move into the ghetto, and all non-Jews were ordered to leave. Jews had to leave almost all of their possessions in their homes, and many of the Poles who left the ghetto area moved into their old apartments.

Almost all of the Jews in Warsaw lost their jobs, and many of them went around collecting rags, bones, tin and paper to sell to the Germans. Some worked in factories and shops set up by the Nazis. Others started trading on the black market. They brought in canned food, flour, sugar, bread, even live cows--but anyone who was caught smuggling was shot on sight. Almost all of the city's windows had been broken in the siege, so some men set about repairing them. At first they boarded them up with wood, but this blocked the light, so they started picking up shards of glass and pasting them together with putty.

In the winter, there were often fuel shortages, and not much gas and electricity. Pneumonia, influenza, bronchitis and other diseases were common. Many people got frostbite, and some elderly people and children froze to death in their beds. The ground was so hard that graves had to be blasted out with dynamite. Fur coats, wood and coal were smuggled in to keep people warm.

Eventually, small resistance groups began to pop up in the ghetto. One socialist group formed cells of five members each, so that the member only knew of the other four people in their cell. Underground newspapers were published in both Polish and Yiddish. The Nazis had confiscated almost all of the printing presses in the city, but people reconstructed presses from discarded machinery and printed the newspapers on paper they found in the trash. All the official schools were closed down, but secret schools were formed in basements and abandoned buildings.

In the summer of 1942, the Nazis began Operation Reinhard—the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the concentration camp in Treblinka. From July to September, over 300,000 were deported, leaving only about 50,000 people in the ghetto. When reports of mass murder leaked back to the ghetto, a group of people, mostly young men, formed a resistance group called the Z.O.B.—which in Polish stood for Jewish Fighting Organization. Members of the group began ambushing Nazi officials and stealing their weapons, and they got more weapons by smuggling them in from outside the ghetto. The leader of the group, a twenty-three-year old man named Mordecai Anielewicz, organized several underground factories for making grenades, bombs and mines. He also supervised the creation of a chain of tunnels, trenches and bunkers for people to hide out in.

In January of 1943, ghetto fighters opened fire on German troops as they tried to round up more people for deportation. The Nazis were forced to retreat, and the Jewish fighters gained the confidence to go ahead with a bigger revolt. The Z.O.B. started recruiting people in the ghetto; they passed out leaflets that said, "You have no chance for survival but to fight!" After the Z.O.B. killed a few more guards, the Nazis became so wary of the fighters that they stopped trying to deport people and started drawing up plans to destroy the ghetto.

Then, on this day, April 19, 1943, the first day of Passover, hundreds of German soldiers entered the ghetto in rows of tanks, planning to destroy the ghetto in three days. But resistance fighters fought back with the guns and grenades they had been storing. Fighting went on for days; when they ran out of grenades and bullets the Jews fought with kitchen knives, chair legs—whatever they could get their hands on. They hid in their trenches and tunnels and in the sewers. They held out for almost a month, but on May 16 the revolt ended. Nazis burned down buildings, shot many of the remaining Jews, and sent the rest of them to concentration camps.

On the forty-fifth anniversary of the uprising, a survivor named Irena Klepfisz said, "What we grieve for is not the loss of a grand vision, but rather the loss of common things, events and gestures. . . . Ordinariness is the most precious thing we struggle for, what the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for. Not noble causes or abstract theories. But the right to go on living with a sense of purpose and a sense of self-worth--an ordinary life."

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