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Mordecai Tenenbaum (Tamaroff)
 Mordecai Tenenbaum (Tamaroff)
From; The Terrible Choice
Some Contemporary Jewish Responses to the Holocaust

only twenty-seven years of age when he died, Mordecai
Tenenbaum, known as Jozef Tamaroff by members of the underground, had
become among the most important and inspirational leaders of Jewish
resistance to the Nazis. During his short lifetime he was a major
influence on the initiation and organisation of the armed struggle by
the Jews of eastern Europe against their oppressors.

He was born in Warsaw in 1916, the seventh child of a family of modest
means, and attended a Tarbut, a secular school where lessons were in
Hebrew. In 1936, he became a student at the Warsaw Oriental Institute.
His knowledge of Turkic languages and formidable intellect were to
subsequently prove of great value in occupied Poland. With the
outbreak of war, he was able to obtain forged documents that
identified him as Jozef Tamaroff, a Polish Tatar from the Vilna
region. With these papers, and the protection of the Karaite and Tatar
minorities, Tenenbaum was able to travel freely throughout
German-occupied Poland.

Tenenbaum became politically active from an early age. He was a member
of the Ha-Shomer ha-Le'ummi (National Guard) movement, before joining
the Freiheit youth organisation (subsequently re-named Dror) in 1937.
He trained for life on a kibbutz in Baranovichi, attending a course
for teachers of Hebrew in Vilna as well as a military training course
in Zielonka. In late 1938, Tenenbaum was summoned to the head office
of the Warsaw Hehalutz, a worldwide federation of Zionist youth that
encouraged young people to settle in Palestine and trained them for
rural life there. The Hehalutz movement was to provide much of the
active core of fighters in ghetto uprisings and Jewish partisan units.

In September 1939, Tenenbaum and his colleagues left Warsaw before the
Germans occupied the city. They made their way to Kovel and Vilna,
with the intention of eventually reaching Palestine. However, there
were few immigration documents available. Tenenbaum provided forged
papers for others, but chose to remain in Vilna himself. Once part of
the Russian Empire, on 16 February 1918 the Lithuanian Council in
Vilna had proclaimed an independent Lithuanian Republic. In the autumn
of 1920, Vilna and the region to which it belonged were occupied by
Poland. On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Lithuania,
originally to be occupied by Germany as part of the secret protocol
attached to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, was ceded to the Soviet Union
in exchange for German occupation of central Poland, which had
initially been allocated to the USSR. The Red Army occupied Vilna on
19 September 1939. Lithuania and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of
mutual aid, in accordance with which Vilna and the Vilna region were
returned to Lithuania. In 1940, Vilna became the capital of Soviet

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Vilna fell to the
Nazis on 26 June 1941. The killing began in the city almost
immediately. Tenenbaum wrote: "The first Aktion began in Vilna… From
that day it was one Aktion after another. We still had no inkling that
this would be the fate of all Polish Jewry…" Tenenbaum attempted to
help many of his comrades by providing them with forged work permits,
but he was only partially successful, and few escaped the clutches of
the Germans. He sent his girlfriend, Tamara Sznaiderman, to Warsaw,
where it was decided that the survivors of the Hehalutz kibbutz that
had been organised in Vilna be transferred to Bialystok and Warsaw,
where life was relatively peaceful. Tenenbaum was in no doubt
concerning the necessity of the transfer:

"We are living without knowing what will happen tomorrow, what we can
expect. If we stay here and struggle for existence from day to day, we
shall face the eradication of the movement. Our aim and duty is to
preserve it for future work… We must begin evacuation at once."
The relocation was arranged by Tenenbaum with the assistance of Anton
Schmid, a remarkable anti-Nazi Wehrmacht sergeant. Schmid had been an
electrician who owned a small radio shop in Vienna; he had been
drafted into the German army after the Anschluss of 1938. Schmid was
in charge of a section called the Versprengten Sammelstelle,
responsible for collecting German soldiers who had been separated from
their units. The section's headquarters were located in three
buildings near the Vilna railroad station. In the basements of the
buildings were workshops where dozens of Jews were employed at
repairing beds and mattresses and in tailoring shops, as well as in
other trades. Schmid was appalled by the mass murders at Ponary, and
determined to do whatever he could to help Jews to survive. In a
letter to his wife, Stefi, Schmid described his horror at the sight of
mass murder and of "children being beaten on the way". He went on:"You
know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help
them." During the notorious Gelbschein (Yellow Permit) Aktionen,
Schmid hid many Jewish workmen in the basements beneath his
headquarters. Subsequently, liaising with Tenenbaum, he arranged for
Jews to be sent in military vehicles, not only to Bialystok and
Warsaw, but to other ghettos in Voronovo, Lida, and Grodno, all at
that time considered less hazardous than Vilna. Schmid arranged for
the release of Jews incarcerated in the Lukiszki prison, smuggled some
people out of the ghetto and supplied provisions and forged papers to
other ghetto inmates. He had saved more than 250 Jews prior to his
arrest in January 1942, when Jews from Vilna were discovered in the
newly formed ghetto of Lida, and under duress, named Schmid as their
saviour. He was tried before a military tribunal on 25 February and
executed on 13 April 1942. His counsel had attempted to save Schmid's
life by entering the defence that he had arranged for the
transportation of Jews from Vilna to other ghettos because he wanted
to preserve the workers for the Wehrmacht. Schmid completely rejected
this supposed justification, unashamedly stating that he had smuggled
Jews out of Vilna solely to save them from death. In 1967 Schmid was
recognized by Yad Vashem as a 'Righteous Among the Nations'.

Even as this transfer of personnel took place, the idea of armed
resistance began to take shape in Vilna. Tenenbaum knew that there was
no hope of victory, but nonetheless the battle had to be fought. He
wrote: "The force that has overcome Europe and destroyed entire states
could cope with us, a handful of youngsters. It was an act of
desperation… We aspired to only one thing: to sell our lives for the
highest possible price." But he was realistic enough to see that the
remaining Jews of Vilna possessed neither the strength nor the will to
fight. The resistance would have to be organized elsewhere. In early
January 1942, the Hehalutz group left Vilna for Bialystok. Tenenbaum
joined them after a brief visit to the Grodno ghetto, where his
positive attitude revitalized the city's youth. Bronia
Winitzki-Klibanski, a Dror activist in Grodno, related: "We were
captivated by his personality, his courage, and his words, which
already then emphasized the demand for resistance and struggle."
Meeting with the Grodno Judenrat, Tenenbaum made it clear that they
had to prepare for a revolt against the oppressors. Those who believed
that Jews were safe so long as they provided a source of cheap labour
for the Germans were deluding themselves.

That March, Tenenbaum returned to Warsaw and reported on conditions in
the ghettos he had visited. In particular, he pointed to Vilna as
clear evidence that Nazi policy was to exterminate every Jew that they
could find. Not all of his listeners agreed with his evaluation, but
as news filtered through of the murder of Jews in the Lublin region
and the establishment of the death camp at Chelmno, any doubts were
dispelled. The numerous political parties in the Warsaw Ghetto agreed
to put their differences aside and form a united underground movement.
Tenenbaum became one of the founders of the short-lived Anti-Fascist
Bloc, which on its effective dissolution in June 1942, evolved, at
least to some extent, into the Jewish Fighting Organisation (Zydowska
Organizacja Bojowa: ZOB), formed on 28 July 1942. Needless to say,
Tenenbaum had been a prime mover in establishing this organisation

In November 1942, Tenenbaum was ordered to return to Bialystok in
order to organize a resistance movement in that city. On arrival, he
found the ghetto sealed and surrounded. Tenenbaum decided to detour to
Grodno, but was stopped on his way by Germans, who discovered that his
papers were false. Although shot in the leg in the resulting skirmish,
Tenenbaum escaped and after sheltering with a peasant woman, was
eventually smuggled into the remaining Grodno ghetto (the other having
been liquidated). Despite his injury, Tenenbaum tried hard to recruit
Jews for the underground. Then he set out once more for Bialystok, by
that time the only other ghetto remaining in the region. His aim was
to unite the various underground factions there and to acquire arms in
readiness for the struggle he was certain was imminent. In this he was
supported by the chairman of the Bialystok Judenrat, Efraim Barasz,
who helped Tenenbaum raise funds and provided information, as well as
assisting with the manufacture of arms.

In an amazing display of energy and determination, Tenenbaum was
instrumental in establishing an underground archive in Bialystok. Zvi
Mersik supervised the collection of testimony and personally
interviewed the refugees from the Jewish communities of the Bialystok
district that had been liquidated by the Germans in November 1942.
Inspired by the activities of Emanuel Ringelblum and Oneg Shabbat in
Warsaw, Tenenbaum and Mersik were determined to preserve a record of
the suffering of the Jews of the region under the heel of their Nazi
persecutors. German documents, minutes of Judenrat meetings, details
concerning events in the region, even poems and songs composed in the
ghetto were collected. Tenenbaum personally contributed a number of
his own writings, including his diary, written in Hebrew. Known as the
Tenenbaum–Mersik Archives, the collection is considered amongst the
most important Shoah related documentary resources. In Tenenbaum's
words, the archive was intended to serve as "a testimony for future
generations." Most of the archive is kept by Yad Vashem. Parts are
also held by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and by the
Ghetto Fighters' House.

In January 1943, Tenenbaum dispatched Tamara Sznaiderman to Warsaw
once again to report to the ZOB on the situation in Bialystok. Her
arrival coincided with the initial Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She never
returned to Bialystok. With her disappearance, contact between Warsaw
and the city ceased. In the final letter left for his sister in
Palestine, Tenenbaum described Tamara's bravery and resourcefulness:

"… She crossed the border into Ostland – formerly Lithuania – a number
of times, into White Russia, and into the Reich in Bendzin, to the
Ukraine (Kowel and Luck), the district of Bialystok (more than a dozen
times!). She was familiar with every ghetto in Poland (wall and barbed
wire), every Judenrat… She absorbed all the scenes of tragedy, sorrow,
and suffering… She was a living encyclopaedia of the catastrophe and
martyrdom of the Jews of Poland…"
A few weeks later, the deportation of the Jews of Bialystok began.
Tenenbaum intensified his attempts to organize the resistance, saying:
"Let us fall as heroes, and though we die, we shall live." The archive
contains the minutes of a meeting of Dror activists which took place
on 27 February 1943, and involved a heated debate concerning whether
it was better to fight in the ghetto or to join the partisans in the
forests. Tenenbaum put the alternatives to those gathered:

"… This meeting may be historic, if you like, tragic if you like, but
certainly sad. That you people sitting here are the last halutzim in
Poland; around us are the dead. You know what happened in Warsaw, not
one survived, and it was the same in Bendzin and in Czestochowa, and
probably everywhere else. We are the last. It is not a particularly
pleasant feeling to be the last: it involves a special responsibility.
We must decide today what to do tomorrow. There is no sense in sitting
together in a warm atmosphere of memories, nor in waiting together,
collectively, for death. Then what shall we do? We can do two things:
decide that when the first Jew is taken away from Bialystok now, we
start our counter-action… Everybody will be mobilized for the job. We
can see to it that not one German leaves the ghetto, that not one
factory remains whole. It is not impossible that after we have
completed our task someone may by chance still be alive. But we will
fight to the last, till we fall. We can also decide to get out into
the forest. The possibilities must be considered realistically… We
must decide for ourselves now. Our daddies will not take care of us.
This is an orphanage… Anyone who wishes, or believes or hopes that he
has a real chance of staying alive and wants to make use of it, well
and good. We will help him any way we can. Let everyone decide for
himself whether to live or die. But together we must find a collective
answer to our common question."
None of those present had any illusions about the eventual outcome,
whatever the choice. "We can expect nothing but death down to the last
Jew," said one. "We have before us two possibilities of death. The
forest will not save us, and the counter-action will certainly not
save us. The choice that is left us is to die with dignity. The
outlook for our resistance is poor. I don't know whether we have the
necessary means for combat. It is the fault of all of us that our
means are so small, but that is in the past, we must make do with what
we have. Bialystok will be liquidated completely like all the other
Jewish cities…" In the end, following Tenenbaum's lead, the meeting
decided that the underground would first fight in the ghetto. Those
left alive after their inevitable defeat would continue to resist from
the shelter of the forests.

In July 1943, Tenenbaum finally succeeded in organizing a unified
underground in Bialystok, with himself as commander and Daniel
Moszkowicz as his deputy. By this time, however, they no longer
enjoyed Barasz's support. Like the chairmen of other Judenräte, Barasz
believed in the strategy of "work to live." He thought that because of
their usefulness as a source of virtually cost-free labour, the
remaining Jews of Bialystok could be saved. On 21 June 1942, he had
explained his philosophy to a mass meeting of Bialystok Jews:"We have
transformed all our inhabitants into useful elements. Our security is
in direct proportion to our labour productivity... Steps have to be
taken so that the existence of the ghetto will achieve justification,
so that we may be tolerated." In Barasz's eyes, German awareness of
the existence and aggressive intent of the underground threatened the
future survival of the ghetto. On 11 October 1942, by which time
knowledge of Aktion Reinhard was sensed, if scarcely believed, Barasz
had addressed fellow council members and the heads of ghetto
workshops, saying:"It is imperative that we find means to postpone the
danger, or at least reduce its scope." Given their diametrically
opposed views concerning Nazi intentions and the manner in which to
respond to them, it was inevitable that Barasz and Tenenbaum would
part company.

On 16 August 1943, anticipating the liquidation of the ghetto,
Tenenbaum ordered the uprising to begin. At 10 a.m. the various cells
of the underground took up their positions and were issued with arms.
The plan was to break out of the ghetto and escape to the forest. For
the ensuing five days the poorly armed and heavily outnumbered members
of the resistance fought against overwhelming German firepower, which
included armoured cars and tanks. Unable to break out of the ghetto,
the fighters retreated into a bunker, which the Germans discovered on
19 August. All but one of the 72 fighters in the bunker was shot. The
next day, as the last resistance positions fell, Tenenbaum and
Moszkowicz died, probably by their own hand. A few of the ghetto
fighters held out for another month, continuing to harass German
forces at night.

The deportation of the remnant of the Jews of Bialystok began on 18
August and continued for 3 days. 7,600 Jews were transported to
Treblinka; thousands more were sent to Majdanek, where a selection
took place. Those found fit were transferred from to the camps at
Poniatowa, Blizyn, or Auschwitz. More than 1,200 children aged between
6 and 15 were deported to Theresienstadt. Many died there. The sick
were taken to the Small Fortress section of the ghetto and beaten to
death. A few weeks later, the surviving children were deported again,
this time to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where all of them were gassed on 7
October, together with the 53 adults who had volunteered to accompany
them. In Bialystok itself a "Small Ghetto" was left, containing 2,000
Jews. After three weeks, it too was liquidated and its occupants sent
to Majdanek. Among them was Barasz who, together with the few
remaining Bialystok Jews, was murdered there on 3 November 1943 in the
so-called Aktion Erntefest. Tenenbaum would have taken no comfort from
the accuracy of his prognosis.

There is little doubt that, had he survived, Mordecai Tenenbaum would
have become a prominent and influential figure in post-war Jewish
political life. Israel Gutman described him as "a colourful,
energetic, audacious young man." He was not only a courageous fighter
and skilful organizer, but also a talented and sensitive writer. In
letters written to a friend in the last months of his life, he
portrayed his acceptance of an inevitable fate in moving terms:

"… It is certain that I am the only living creature left of our
family. Why this is so only God knows… The worst thing is to sit here
and to know: I am death's messenger… When you come, I'll show you some
beautiful things. Not just poems, I have stories, poems, long poems.
For I am the only representative of the future left…"


Sources and Further Reference:
Arad, Yitzhak. Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the
Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust, Holocaust Library, New York, 1982

Arad Yitzhak, Gutman Israel and Margaliot Abraham, eds. Documents On
The Holocaust, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1999

Gutman, Yisrael, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan
Publishing Company, New York, 1990

Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943, Indiana University
Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989

Gutman, Yisrael. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Houghton
Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1994

Cedars of Lebanon: Three Letters from Bialystok. Commentary Magazine,
Vol. 20, December 1955, No. 6