'The Holocaust is inside you': Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on Yom HaShoah

ByMaggie Green WABC logo
Monday, May 6, 2024
Holocaust survivor remembers the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on Yom HaShoah
81 years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Pinchas Gutter is one of a few Holocaust survivors still alive to recount the horrors endured there.

Eighty-one years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, few survivors are still alive to recount the horrors endured there.

Pinchas Gutter was just seven years old when Nazi officers came to his childhood home in Lodz, Poland, in 1939. He says he has a photographic memory, and though he's 91 now, he remembers it all as if it happened yesterday.

Gutter is part of a shrinking group of survivors of the Holocaust, known in Hebrew as the Shoah.

Eleven million people died during the Holocaust, including six million Jews. Yom HaShoah (In Hebrew, the Day of the Holocaust/Catastrophe), falls on the 27th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, which coincides with May 6 in the Gregorian calendar this year. It honors the six million Jews and commemorates the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest Jewish armed resistance movement against the Nazi military throughout the second World War.

Gutter is one of a handful of living survivors who can recount the construction of the Warsaw ghetto, as well as the events of the uprising.

According to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the organization that facilitates the collection and distribution of reparations and other funds for living Holocaust survivors, approximately 245,000 survivors are alive today.

READ MORE: Holocaust survivors share memories to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day

In a 2020 survey by the Claims Conference, 48% of US millennial and Gen Z respondents couldn't name a single concentration camp or ghetto established during World War II. Nearly two-thirds didn't know that six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and more than a third thought that fewer than two million Jews died. As survivors age, their stories become increasingly more important as first-person accounts to the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Gutter is part of the Claims Conference campaign Cancel Hate, which attempts to combat Holocaust denial and distortion with survivor stories, like his own.

"I see everything in pictures," Gutter said. "When I'm talking to you, I actually see those pictures."

The Warsaw Ghetto: 'An apocalyptic hell'

Gutter grew up in a small Orthodox Jewish family with his twin sister in Lodz, Poland. When the schutzstaffel (SS), the Nazi paramilitary forces, came to his home in 1939, they were looking for notable men in the community, among them, his grandfather. When they learned his grandfather was very ill, the Nazi officers beat Gutter's father and destroyed his 70-year-old winemaking business.

His family moved to Warsaw, into a small apartment in a bombed-out building that eventually became part of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, sealed in November 1940 from the rest of the city.

The ghetto system was part of Nazi Germany's strategy to confine, dehumanize, and destroy the Jewish population of Europe. Jews from all over Poland-and soon all over Eastern Europe-were transported to the walled confines of the ghetto. They lived under the rule of Nazi guards, Polish Blue Police and even Jewish police-Jewish people tasked with upholding the order of the Nazi government and breaking up any signs of Jewish opposition. Many of those Jewish police were still exterminated by Nazi forces.

At its height, the Warsaw ghetto, just 2% of Warsaw's land, held nearly half a million Jews. Gutter remembered seeing people collapsing in the street from hunger, disease and bullets. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, approximately 80,000 people died in the ghetto because of the dire living conditions.

"They started dying in the streets," Gutter said. "(The burial society) had wooden carts, and they would collect people from the street. Some of them were lying naked because people used to take off their clothes to sell for food. Some of them were covered with newspapers, and they were collected, like you collect garbage."

Gutter said he can still see the scenes of death play out in his mind.

"One day I saw a scene which I've never forgotten," he said. "The burial society didn't have enough people with carts to take everybody away-all the bodies." Gutter remembered men piling the bodies into wheelbarrows and throwing them into a large pit in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. "They used to just throw them in, just like you throw in garbage."

Gutter described the Warsaw ghetto as an apocalyptic hell and said it would take years to recount the horrors of what he saw there. But while he can still see the images of the devastation, he cannot remember how he felt during that time.

"The only answer I can tell you is that I existed," Gutter said. "I existed in the Warsaw ghetto without any feelings, any emotions." He was only 10 years old.

"When I saw the dead bodies, it was something that you had to fight. You didn't want to die."

But still, the Jews of Warsaw survived. Gutter said his father immediately started making wine, buying grapes on the black market and sending young Pinchas out to collect bottles from cafes and other shops in the ghetto. His father would wash the bottles out and fill them with Kosher wine for families to drink on Shabbat every Friday. His mother made and sold challah bread.

"There were Jews who could afford to pay, and on Fridays I would get my rucksack, and I would put only what I could carry-which was maybe half a dozen bottles," Gutter said. "This is how my father kept the family alive."

Gutter said, miraculously, he never remembers being hungry while in the Warsaw ghetto because his parents made sure that they stayed out of the way of the Germans and had enough to eat.

"They did everything in their power to keep their children, my twin sister and I alive," he said.

But then, as Gutter said, one "apocalyptic hell" turned even worse. On July 22, 1942, he remembered placards being placed on the walls that said because people were dying of disease and overcrowding, they had the option to relocate.

"They didn't use the word 'deportation,'" he remembered. "We will relocate you to the East, and you'll get three kilos of bread, you will get jam for the journey, you can take 15 kilos (33 lbs) of goods with you, each person, and you'll be much happier. And that's when the new hell started."

The Uprising

The placards were the beginning of the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination center outside of Warsaw. According to the United States Holocaust Museum, Nazi officers deported an estimated 265,000 Jews to Treblinka from the Warsaw ghetto in less than a year. Nazis killed another 35,000 Jews inside the ghetto during this operation.

"I saw German officers driving through the ghetto with their girlfriends, with their convertible motor cars," Gutter remembered. "They used to take out their revolvers, because officers had revolvers, and they would start shooting people like you hunt animals."

Gutter said his father hid him, his twin sister and his mother in the attic of their home, in the store rooms of factories, and eventually in an underground bunker to keep them from the Nazi soldiers.

But the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto weren't going to Treblinka lying down.

Gutter remembers at the end of September, after the High Holy Days, there was a pause in the Nazi's campaign. "When there was a lull, people started thinking, what are we going to do? They started a resistance and they started arming themselves." About a thousand young residents of the ghetto gathered ammunition while others built bunkers.

On April 19, 1943, a few hundred Jewish rebels took on several thousand Nazi soldiers. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, this was the largest uprising by Jews during the war, and the first significant revolt against German occupation in Europe. During the uprising, the young resistance fighters used pistols, molotov cocktails, and even hand-to-hand combat to fight off the Nazi soldiers.

After three weeks, Gutter said, the soldiers found their bunker and threatened to fill it with gas bombs. As they went from building to building, the Nazis burned the ghetto down.

"We were walking between two walls of fire," Gutter remembered.

'You will outlive Hitler'

Gutter and his family were brought to the cattle cars, where his father made sure they were situated near a window and could breathe.

"My father was the one who was the angel, the guardian. I kind of imagined him being, like, with wings, and caring for my mother and for my twin sister," Gutter said.

He doesn't remember how long the journey was, but instead of going to the extermination center at Treblinka, his group was brought to the Majdanek concentration camp.

"As we arrived there, there were dogs, and shootings, and they separated men from women, women from children, and children with women, I mean, it was just-you can't imagine what kind of another hell this was," Gutter said.

At 11 years old, he saw his twin sister, his mother and his father for the last time on the day they arrived at the camp.

He remembered seeing his sister run to his mother, ignoring the shouts and bullets of the Nazi forces. But after that moment, all Gutter said he can remember of his sister is her long, beautiful braided hair. "This photographic memory of mine shut off everything," he said. "I can't remember, can't see her. The first time I told this, I actually broke down. I was really in such a bad state, you can't imagine, because I've been grieving my twin sister for all these years since 1943."

His mother, father, and sister all died in gas chambers that day. Though Gutter said he expected the same fate, his story was different.

"I thought, yeah, I'm going to die now," he said, recalling the shower heads that he thought would release gas into the room. "I started saying my prayers, because that's what you do when you're going to die. And water came out in my case."

During the next two years, Gutter said he attempted to remain invisible and unfeeling.

"I put myself in a cocoon and I made myself, or tried to make myself invisible," Gutter said. He remembered being beaten very badly, and though he was bleeding and severely injured, he didn't ask for help. "In my mind, I tried to be in that cocoon, and hopefully that I would come out as a butterfly one day and be saved."

After three and a half months in Majdanek, he was sent to forced labor camps. At the second labor camp, Jewish tradition prevailed.

At the second labor camp, he encountered an old friend of his father's, who recognized him and decided he should have his bar mitzvah. The family friend, Rav Godel Eisner, gathered ten men for the ceremony, and had somehow smuggled in a Siddur, the Jewish prayer book.

"And he made me bar mitzvah, and he blessed me," Gutter remembered. "And he said, 'with Gd's* help, you will outlive Hitler.'"

As the Russian army closed in on the labor camp, Gutter and other Jews were sent to the Colditz subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp-the largest concentration camp in Germany. Fortunately, while in Colditz, he was assigned to work in the SS kitchen and could feed himself during the day.

From Colditz, Gutter was taken on a death march to the former Czechoslovakia. According to his book of remembrances, Memories in Focus, of 1,500 people who started on the march, only half survived.

'The Holocaust is inside you'

To this day, Gutter carries the pain of these memories, and many others.

"You don't run away from the Holocaust. The Holocaust is inside you. It's always there," he said.

Gutter, now living in Toronto, shares his story often, even though it drains him physically and emotionally.

"Remembrance is the secret of redemption," he said, quoting Israel ben Eliezer, aka Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement in the 1700s. "Forgetting leads to exile."

But Gutter also knows that remembering is not enough.

"It's more important to remember, but to do something about it," he said, adding that he has had the opportunity to address the United Nations and call on the ambassadors of the world to fight for peace.

Gutter knows all too well that peace is fragile, and said he's disappointed in the events at universities all over the world.

"People have not learned," he said. "They know nothing about the situation. They don't know the history of the Jews. They don't know the history of Palestine. They don't know anything, but they climb in, and they do it like sheep. So this is terribly dangerous."

He knows that all it takes is for a demagogue to take advantage of the climate and create another atrocity.

"If you don't learn from memory, then you are lost," Gutter said.

Antisemitic incidents are reaching historic highs across the United States. The Anti-Defamation League, the organization that tracks incidents of antisemitism nationwide, recorded a 2.4x increase in antisemitic incidents in 2023 compared to 2022-the highest number on record since 1979 and more than the prior three years combined.

"All Holocaust survivors that (tell their story), do it for that very same reason: they want to allay what is happening," Gutter said. "They want to make the world a place where every human being, whether he's a Christian, whether he's a Muslim, whether he's a Jew, whether he's a Buddhist, whether he's a non-believer or atheist, a resurrectionist or whatever he is, he's the same human being."

Despite the growing antisemitism, Gutter remains proudly Jewish.

"For me, it is a great privilege, with all the suffering that we had, having gone through the Shoah, being brought up in a way where all my sinews, and all my blood, and everything is part of the Jewish history, of the Jewish existence over thousands of years."

*In this story, the name of the Lord is spelled incompletely to honor the religious practices of the reporter. You can learn more here.