Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
The Warsaw Ghetto
Introduction to the Ghettos of the Holocaust
Interview with Dr Franz Grassler -Deputy to Dr Auerswald
Nazi Commissioner of the Warsaw Ghetto
Interview with Claude Lanzmann
You don’t remember those days?
Not much. I recall more clearly my pre-war mountaineering trips than the entire war period and those days in Warsaw. All, in all, those were bad times. It’s a fact we tend to forget, thank god, the bad times more easily than the good. The bad times are repressed.
I’ll help you remember. In Warsaw you were Dr Auerswald’s deputy
Dr Auerswald was…..
Commissar of the Jewish district of Warsaw
Dr Grassler, this is Czerniakow’s diary. You’re mentioned in it
It’s been printed, it exists?
He kept a diary that was recently published. He wrote on July 7 1941 ….
July 7 1941? That’s the first time I’ve relearned a date. May I take notes? After all, it interests me too. So in July I was already there!
He wrote on July 7 1941 …. morning at the Community, that is at the Jewish Council headquarters and later with Auerswald, Schlosser…
Schlosser was….. and Grassler on routine matters. That’s the first time…..
that my name is mentioned?
Yes, but there were three of us. Schlosser was in the economics department. I think he had to do with economics.
And the second time was on July 22
He wrote every day?
Yes, every day. It’s quite amazing…..
That the diary was saved. It’s amazing that it was saved.
Did you go into the ghetto?
Seldom. When I had to visit Czerniakow
What were the conditions like?
Awful. Yes, appalling. I never went back when I saw what it was like. Unless I had to. In the whole period I think I only went once or twice. We at the Commission tried to maintain the ghetto for its labour force, and especially to prevent epidemics, like typhus. That was the big danger.
Yes. Can you tell us about typhus?
I’m not a doctor. I only know that typhus is a very dangerous epidemic that wipes people out like the plague, and that it cant be confined to a ghetto. If typhus had broken out – I don’t think it did, but there was fear that it might – it would have hit the Poles and the Germans.
Why was there typhus in the ghetto?
I don’t know if there was, but there was a danger, because of the famine. People didn’t get enough to eat. That’s what was so awful. We at the Commission did our best to feed the ghetto, so it wouldn’t become an incubator of epidemics.
Aside from humanitarian factors, that’s what mattered. If typhus had broken out – and it didn’t – it wouldn’t have stopped at the ghetto.
Czerniakow also wrote that one of the reasons the ghetto was walled –in was because of this German fear.
Yes, absolutely! Fear of typhus.
He says Germans always associated Jews with typhus
Maybe. I’m not sure if there were grounds for it. But imagine that mass of people packed in the ghetto. There weren’t only the Warsaw Jews, but others who came later. The danger kept on growing.
The Germans had a policy on the Warsaw ghetto. What was that policy?
You’re asking more than I know. The policy that wound up with extermination, the “final solution” – we knew nothing about it, of course. Our job was to maintain the ghetto and try to preserve the Jews as a work force.
The Commissariats goal in fact, was very different from the one that later led to extermination.
Yes, but do you know how many people died in the ghetto each month in 1941?
I don’t know now, if I ever knew.
But you did know. There are exact figures.
I probably knew…
Yes. Five thousand a month
Five thousand a month? Yes, well…………
That’s a lot
That’s a lot, of course. But there were far too many people in the ghetto. That was it.
Far too many
Far too many
My question is philosophical. What does a ghetto mean, in your opinion?
History is full of ghettos going back centuries, for all I know. Persecution of the Jews wasn’t a German invention, and it didn’t start with World War II.
The Poles persecuted them too.
But a ghetto like Warsaw’s, in a great capital, in the heart of the city…..
That was unusual
You say you wanted to maintain the ghetto?
Our mission wasn’t to annihilate the ghetto, but to keep it alive, to maintain it.
What does “alive” mean in such conditions?
That was the problem. That was the whole problem.
But people were dying in the streets. There were bodies everywhere?
Exactly. That was the paradox.
You see it as a paradox?
I’m sure of it.
Why? Can you explain?
Explain what? But the fact is…..
That wasn’t maintaining! Jews were being exterminated daily in the ghetto wrote …..
To maintain it properly we’d have needed more substantial rations and less crowding.
Why weren’t the rations more humane? Why weren’t they? That was a German decision wasn’t it?
There was no real decision to starve the ghetto. The big decision to exterminate came much later.
That’s right, later. In 1942
A year later
Our mission, as I recall it, was to manage the ghetto, and naturally with those inadequate rations and the over-crowding, a high, even excessive death rate was inevitable.
Yes. What does “maintain” the ghetto mean in such conditions, the food, sanitation, etcetera?
What could the Jews do against such measures?
They couldn’t do anything
Why did Czerniakow commit suicide?
Because he realised there was no future for the ghetto. He probably saw before I did that the Jews would be killed. I suppose the Jews already had their excellent secret services. They were too well informed, better than we were.
Yes I do.
The Jews knew more than you?
I’m convinced of it
It’s hard to believe
The German administration was never informed of what would happen to the Jews
When was the first deportation to Treblinka?
Before Auerswald’s suicide, I think
I mean Czerniakow’s sorry
Those are dates…. So the deportations began July 22 1942
And Czerniakow killed himself July 23
Yes, that is the next day. So, that was it, he’d realised that his idea – it was his idea , I think – of working in good faith with the Germans, in the Jews’ best interests- he’d realised this idea, this dream, was destroyed.
That the idea was a dream
Yes. And when the dream faded, he took the logical way out.
Did you think this idea of a ghetto was a good one?
A sort of self-management
It worked well
But it was self-management for death, wasn’t it?
We know that now. But at the time….
Czerniakow wrote: “Were puppets, we have no power.”
Sure……. that was…
You Germans were the overlords
The overlords. The masters
Czerniakow was merely a tool
Yes, but a good tool. Jewish self-management worked well, I can tell you.
It worked well for three years 1941, 1942, 1943 … two and a half years. And in the end….
In the end…..
Worked well, for what? To what end?
No! For death!
Self –management, self-preservation for death!
That’s easy to say now
You’ve admitted the conditions were inhuman. Atrocious…. horrible!
So it was clear even then…..
No! Extermination wasn’t clear. Now we see the results
Extermination isn’t so simple. One step was taken, then another, and another, and another.
But to understand the process, one must ………….
I repeat extermination did not take place in the ghetto, not at first. Only with the evacuations
The evacuations to Treblinka. The ghetto could have been wiped out with weapons, as was finally done after the rebellion. After I’d left. But at the start…. Mr Lanzmann, this is getting us nowhere. We’re reaching no new conclusions.
I don’t think we can
I didn’t know then what I know now.
You weren’t a nonentity
But I was
You were important
You overestimate my role
No. You were second to the commissioner of the Warsaw “Jewish district.”
But no power
It was something. You were part of the vast German power structure
Correct. But a small part. You overestimate the authority of a deputy of twenty-eight then.
You were thirty
At thirty you were mature
Yes, but for a lawyer who got his degree at twenty-seven, it’s just a beginning.
You had a doctorate
The title proves nothing.
Did Auerswald have one too?
No. But the title’s irrelevant
Doctor of Law…. What did you do after the war?
I was with a mountaineering publishing house. I wrote and published mountain guide books. I published a mountain climbers’ magazine.
Is climbing your main interest?
The mountains, the air……….
The sun, the pure air…….
Not like the ghetto air
Shoah – An Oral History of the Holocaust – The Complete Text of the Film Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. Pantheon Books New York 1985
Extract from Krakauer Zeitung – Holocaust Historical Society
Ghetto Fighters House
Stanislaw Adler - In the Warsaw Ghetto -
Copyright Chris Webb H.E.A.R.T 2009