Warsaw Ghetto Uprising survivor honored on 80th anniversary

JERUSALEM (AP) – Tova Gutstein was born in Warsaw the year Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. She was 10 years old when the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto launched the first act of collective resistance against the Nazis in Europe.

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

On Monday evening, Gutstein will be one of six Holocaust survivors to be honored by Israel as the torchlighter at its annual ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. She said the horrors were still burned into her mind.

“More than 80 years have passed and I cannot forget it,” Gutstein told The Associated Press at her home in central Israel.

Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked with solemn ceremonies in schools and workplaces across the country, begins at sundown on Monday. Theaters, concerts, cafes and restaurants close, and TV and radio broadcasts break into Holocaust commemoration.

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A two-minute siren brings the country to a standstill; Traffic freezes as people get out of their cars and stand in silence on the streets to commemorate the 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany and its allies.

A year after the occupation of Poland in 1939, Nazi Germany imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Jews – 30% of Warsaw’s population – in just 2.4% of the city’s area in the so-called Warsaw Ghetto.

At the height of the ghetto horrors in 1941, an average Jew died every nine minutes from infectious diseases, starvation or Nazi violence, said David Silberklang, a senior historian at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Gutstein grew up in the ghetto. Her father was forced into a labor camp by the Nazis and was never seen again. Enclosed by electrified barbed wire, she and other Jewish children crawled through the sewers to look for food. Some children fell into the sewers and were washed to their deaths, she recalled.

“We were just thinking about bread, food, how to get food,” she said. “We had no other thoughts.”

Around two-thirds of the Warsaw ghetto, around 265,000 people, were deported to the Majdanek and Treblinka extermination camps in the summer of 1942. The following spring, the Nazis began preparations for the deportation of the ghetto’s remaining 60,000 Jews to their deaths.

The Nazis stationed an army around the ghetto on April 18, 1943. The German troops moved in the following day, on the eve of the Jewish Passover. Jewish resistance groups fought back.

Gutstein was outside the ghetto when the uprising began.

“German planes and tanks bombed the ghetto. I was terrified,” she said. “The sky was red with fire. I suddenly saw buildings collapsing.”

When she returned to the ghetto through the sewers, she found that her house had been destroyed along with many others.

“I’ve been running around looking for my mom and siblings but couldn’t find anyone,” Gutstein said.

The fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for their lives in bunkers that they built in the buildings of the ghetto. Many were killed on the streets or deported to the death camps. After a month of fighting, the Germans destroyed the Great Synagogue.

“The aim of the uprising was not salvation,” said historian Silberklang. He said it was the last desperate stand against inevitable death.

The goal was “to go down fighting and to influence when and how they die – and hopefully someone will survive,” said Silberklang.

Gutstein fled the ghetto and, against all odds, reached a forest far outside the Polish capital, where she met a group of partisans. She hid with them until the end of the war, two years later. Gutstein reunited with her mother and siblings in 1946 before immigrating to the burgeoning state of Israel in 1948.

As a mother of three, grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of 13, the memory of a man who was shot in the head outside her home in the ghetto continues to haunt her, she said.

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

The ghetto uprising remains a powerful national symbol for Israel. In addition to commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, the day of remembrance is also intended to commemorate courageous and heroic deeds.

At last year’s Holocaust memorial 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 have seen it firsthand dwindles, and with it the vivid connection to the trauma.

Israel, which was founded after the Holocaust as a haven for Jews, is now home to about 150,600 survivors, according to the government. That is over 15,000 fewer than in the previous year. Many of those still alive today were just small children during the war.

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

“I get (financial) support from the government, but very little,” said Gutstein, who worked as a nurse in Israeli hospitals for over five decades until she retired at the age of 77.

“Today they generally don’t care about citizens and in particular disregard Holocaust survivors,” she said of the authorities. “We are nothing to them.”

According to Silberklang, Yad Vashem and similar institutions are already planning for a time when there will be no more Holocaust survivors, and are documenting and promoting awareness of their stories.

They had to get creative – one group developed an artificial intelligence chatbot for Holocaust survivors. A new project called Life, Story connects survivors with volunteers who help pass their stories on to future generations.

The organization behind the initiative, dubbed Zikaron BaSalon — or “Memory in the Living Room” — says it’s racing against time.

“By 2035, there will be no more Holocaust survivors to tell their stories,” the organization’s website reads. “We are their voice.”

Gutstein said she has devoted the past decade to telling her story so others can bear witness.

That way, she said, “it will stay” even after she’s gone.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.

Brian Ashcraft

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