Voices from the Archive

One Youth Group, An Army, and Two Uprisings—The Resistance of Joseph Greenblatt

On the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, we remember a hero

Tue, 04/18/2023 - 2:51pm

Joseph Greenblatt believes it was the antisemitic taunts he endured throughout his childhood in Warsaw that led him to a life of resistance. He was a key player in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and then took on the Germans again, this time with the Polish Home Army in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 — for which he later received a medal.

Greenblatt’s testimony, recorded in New York City in 1996, is contained in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

Greenblatt was born in Warsaw in 1915, the youngest of three siblings. His family belonged to the Great Synagogue of Warsaw and his father had been a distinguished soldier in the Polish military. As a teen, Greenblatt became a leader in Betar, a Zionist youth group rooted in the belief in a Jewish homeland and dedicated to Jewish self-defense.

In 1937, after completing law school at Warsaw University, Greenblatt joined the Polish army. He was stationed 3 kilometers from the German border when Germany attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The German’s army’s massive land and air bombardment forced an almost immediate retreat by the Polish army.

Greenblatt was badly wounded in an ambush and taken prisoner in the third week of the war. After seven months in a prison camp in Amitz, Germany, he and a group of Polish captains escaped with the help of the Polish Home Army, a resistance group.

In March 1940, Greenblatt snuck back into Warsaw. He learned that his brother-in-law had been killed and was handed by his parents a white armband with a blue star that all Jews had to wear.

Shortly after his return to the capital, Greenblatt’s friend from the Betar youth organization, Pawel Frenkel, sought him out. He took Greenblatt through a maze of connected attics to a hidden apartment in which a bookcase opened into a secret room.

“My eyes didn’t want to believe what was there. Heavy machine guns. Grenades. Rifles. Guns. Sabers. Bayonets. You name it,” Greenblatt said. Frenkel explained that the arms were collected from the retreating Polish army and would be sent to Palestine to arm Jewish fighters.

On November 15, 1940, the Nazis closed off the Warsaw Ghetto from the rest of the city. Every Jew in Warsaw — some 400,000 people — was rounded up and sent to live within its walls.

“The conditions were starvation, typhus. People were laying in the street,” he recalled. Every day, people were killed or deported to destinations unknown.

In the family’s cramped and overcrowded apartment building, Greenblatt struck up a romance with Irene Csan, the sister of a neighbor. They attended underground theater and concert performances, and, while out walking one night, saw an SS officer shoot a pregnant woman in the belly and then shoot her husband in the head. Joseph swore to Irene that he would protect her.

He had, in fact, already been appointed as an instructor for the Jewish Military Union, a resistance group associated with Betar that was led by Frenkel. Greenblatt used his military expertise and connections to help smuggle in weapons and train fighters. The weapons that had been collected for Palestine became part of their growing arsenal.

In April 1942, the Jewish Military Union learned from a spy that the Ghetto’s Jewish police had been ordered to find and kill 70 Jewish leaders. Greenblatt and his fellow resistors defied curfew to notify the people on the list, helping 58 of the 70 assassination targets escape.

In July of the same year, two brothers escaped from a deportation train and managed to return to Warsaw. Through them, Greenblatt and his fellow resistors were able to confirm that deportees from Poland had not been sent to labor assignments, as they had been told, but to Treblinka, a death camp with execution sites and crematoria.

Various resistance groups prepared to take action, increasing their smuggling activity and banding together, even as massive deportations and brutality continued throughout the summer. By September 1942, the area of the Ghetto had been further constricted.

On January 10, 1943, Joseph and Irene were married in her mother’s apartment under a chuppah and the watch of armed guards. Among the guests were Frenkel and Mordechai Anielwicz, leader of the rival Jewish Combat Organization.

One week later, on January 18, 1943, a united band of Jewish resistors infiltrated a column of Jews that was being deported. On signal, they opened fire on stunned SS officers. Many fighters were killed, but many of the Jews enroute to being deported managed to disperse amid the chaos. Over the next few days, Jews throughout the Ghetto hid or defied Gestapo orders. Deportations were suspended.

The resistance was emboldened and began further ramping up its efforts.

In his testimony, Greenblatt describes entrapping SS and Gestapo officers to poison or ambush them in order to steal their guns and uniforms. He arranged for Irene to be smuggled to a hiding place outside the Ghetto walls.

The Jewish Military Union put Greenblatt in charge of the shops, where Jews were forced to work and where much of the resistance’s smuggling and organizing occurred. In mid-April, the German overseer announced that the shops would be “relocated” the following day.

The Jewish resistance understood this to mean that the final liquidation was imminent.

“An hour later they gave the order. Tomorrow, we fight,” Greenblatt said.

When the SS entered the Ghetto on April 19, 1943, they were greeted by a hail of bullets. Some 700 Jewish fighters, armed with pistols, homemade grenades, and a few automatic weapons, forced the German troops to retreat outside the Ghetto walls. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had begun.

“I lost quite a number of very close friends,” Greenblatt said.

He and his troops from the shops were positioned in an area away from the central Ghetto.

“We were left alone for three days before they came to us,” he said. They threw Molotov cocktails onto the cobblestone streets. “The tar started to burn together with the wooden paving. … Then the next time they came, we aimed the bottles directly at them.”

The fighters held the German troops at bay for nearly a month. The Jews in the Ghetto refused to heed orders to assemble during that time, even as German troops began burning down buildings to smoke out anyone who was hiding or resisting.

As the situation grew more and more desperate, Greenblatt received information about an underground sewer channel that could be used as an escape route. More than 20 men entered the sewer, and after five hours of marching through muck, fending off rats and poison gas, only six emerged alive. Greenblatt resurfaced on the outskirts of Warsaw, where the Polish Home Army, a resistance group, brought him and his fellow survivors to a forest. After some time, he went back to Warsaw to look for Irene and his parents, but he found no one in the ruins of the Ghetto.

On May 8, 1943, the Germans captured the resistance headquarters and a week later blew up Warsaw’s Great Synagogue. They then declared the Ghetto liquidated. Some 7,000 residents had died fighting or hiding in the Warsaw Ghetto, and a further 50,000 were deported after the uprising to the Treblinka and Majdanek death camps or to forced labor camps. Most of the resistance fighters who had fought the Nazis were killed or committed suicide.

Greenblatt was among the few who had managed to escape. He assumed the false name of Jan Bednarczyk and, with the Home Army, was involved in the assassination of Franz Kutschera, leader of the SS in Warsaw. He later fought with the Polish Home Army during the August 1944 Warsaw Uprising, and when the Polish resistance surrendered in late September, he went into hiding until Warsaw was liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945.

When Joseph emerged he was able to find Irene in hiding with a Polish family. His sister, who had survived Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz, managed to find Joseph and told him that their father and brother had been killed in Treblinka and that their mother had died in Auschwitz.

After the war Greenblatt rejoined the Polish Army as Jan Bednarczyk and oversaw POW camps. He later received a medal for his bravery with the Home Army.

Greenblatt spent the next few years living in Belgium, smuggling arms for the nascent Israeli army. In 1950, Joseph and Irene immigrated to the United States and settled in New York. He worked at various jobs before opening a travel agency. He and Irene had one daughter and two grandchildren.

His 1997 memoirs, Round Trip To Hell, are held in various archives. Joseph Greenblatt died in 2003.

Watch Joseph Greenblatt's full testimony on our YouTube channel.

This article was originally published on April 27, 2022. 

Eli Gruen