Boruch Spiegel, Fighter in Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Dies at 93
Published: May 20, 2013
Boruch Spiegel, one of the last surviving fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, in which a vastly outgunned band of 750 young Jews held off German soldiers for more than a month with crude arms and Molotov cocktails, died on May 9 in Montreal. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his son, Julius, a retired parks commissioner of Brooklyn. Mr. Spiegel lived in Montreal.
The Warsaw ghetto uprising has been regarded as the signal episode of resistance to the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calls it the first armed urban rebellion in German-occupied Europe.
As a young man, Mr. Spiegel was active in the leftist Jewish Labor Bund, and when it became clear that the Germans were not just deporting Jews but systematically killing them in death camps like Treblinka, Bundists joined with other left-wing groups to form the Jewish Combat Organization, known by its Polish acronym ZOB.
In January 1943, when German soldiers entered the ghetto for another deportation — 300,000 Jews had already been sent to Treblinka or otherwise murdered in the summer of 1942 — ZOB fighters fought back for three days and killed or wounded several dozen Germans, seized weapons and forced the stunned Germans to retreat.
“We didn’t have enough weapons, we didn’t have enough bullets,” Mr. Spiegel once told an interviewer. “It was like fighting a well-equipped army with firecrackers.”
In the early morning of April 19, the eve of Passover, a German force, equipped with tanks and artillery, tried again, surrounding the ghetto walls. Mr. Spiegel was on guard duty and, according to his son-in-law, Eugene Orenstein, a retired professor of Jewish history at McGill University, gave the signal to launch the uprising. The scattered ZOB fighters, joined by a right-wing Zionist counterpart, peppered the Germans from attics and underground bunkers, sending the Germans into retreat once more. Changing tactics, the Germans began using flamethrowers to burn down the ghetto house by house and smoke out those in hiding. On May 8, ZOB’s headquarters, at 18 Mila Street, was destroyed. The group’s commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, is believed to have taken his own life, but scattered resistance continued for several more weeks in what was now rubble.
By then, Mr. Spiegel and 60 or so other fighters had spirited their way out of the ghetto through sewers. One was Chaike Belchatowska, whom he would marry. They joined up with Polish partisans in a forest.
“He was very modest, a reluctant hero,” his son Julius said. “He was given an opportunity and he took it. I don’t think he was braver or more resourceful than anyone else.”
Mr. Spiegel was born on Oct. 4, 1919, and reared in Warsaw, the son of an Orthodox woman and a leather worker who ran a small cottage industry that specialized in briefcases and spats. After the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, Mr. Spiegel and his brother Beryl made their way to Bialystok, in eastern Poland, which was newly occupied by the Soviets. When Beryl went back to Warsaw to get his parents and two sisters, he became involved in the Bundist underground. Mr. Spiegel joined him. While Jews all around them were taken for deportation, the family held out as long as it did because the Spiegel apartment had a steel door and the German police did not take the trouble to break it down.
Nevertheless, Mr. Spiegel’s father died of malnutrition and his mother, two sisters and Beryl perished in a manner that Mr. Spiegel never learned. Mr. Spiegel nearly died in a slave labor camp and was taken to the staging area for Treblinka, but managed to escape and return to the Warsaw ghetto.
Even after the ghetto uprising was crushed, he fought with partisans and went back to Warsaw for a revolt by Poles in August-September 1944. Warsaw was liberated on Jan. 17, 1945.
Ms. Belchatowska wanted to remain in Poland, but Mr. Orenstein said that Mr. Spiegel had “felt he could not live on the soil of the graves of his dear ones, and he didn’t believe there was a future for Jewish life in Poland.”
The couple went to Sweden, where they married and gave birth to Julius. Mrs. Spiegel died in 2002.
In addition to Julius, Mr. Spiegel is survived by a daughter, Mindy Spiegel, and four grandchildren.
In 1948, the Spiegels went to Montreal, where Mr. Spiegel took up his father’s leather craft, first as a worker making handbags, then establishing his own factory and finally serving as the foreman of a purse factory. In 2003, on the uprising’s 60th anniversary, Mr. Spiegel and the five other living ZOB fighters were honored by the Polish government. Dr. Orenstein said there were only two fighters left, Pnina Greenspan and Simcha Rotem, both in Israel.