Prior to the Second World War, Poland was the largest Jewish population centre in Europe. In contrast to the country’s general population, most Polish Jews lived in urban areas. Warsaw was the hub of Jewish social, cultural, political and religious life. In 1939, on the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, Warsaw’s Jewish population numbered nearly 370,000. Jews represented nearly 30 per cent of its general population.

Immediately after the outbreak of the Second World War, Germany began enacting repressive racial laws in the areas it occupied. The requirement of forced labour was imposed on Jews. The Jewish ritual slaughter of animals was forbidden and synagogues were closed down. From December 1939, the Jews living in the General Government were forced to wear an armband with the star of David on their right forearm. Before long, they were barred from using various public institutions, such as libraries, railways and even parks. Restrictions included the work of Jews in the professions, such as doctors and lawyers. The process of displacing Jews from lands annexed to the Third Reich to the General Government also began. By October 1940, nearly 90,000 of them arrived in Warsaw.

That same autumn, the Germans began confining the Jewish population to ghettos, ‘Jewish residential districts’ in their parlance. In the course of the war a total of about 600 ghettos were created in Poland. The first of those was established in October 1939 in Piotrków Trybunalski. In the spring of 1940 initial plans were drafted for creating a ghetto in the Praga district of Warsaw. The official reason given for this was to control the epidemic of typhoid fever, which was supposedly spreading through the sections of the city largely inhabited by Jews. The implementation of these plans was preceded by a process of isolating the Jewish residents from the rest of the city’s population. From March 1940, Warsaw Jews were no longer allowed to enter ‘Aryan’ restaurants and cafes. During the Easter holidays, between March 22 and 27 of 1940, Warsaw was the scene of an anti-Jewish pogrom, condoned and most likely inspired by the German authorities, and subsequently used by them to justify the formation of the ghetto. The pogrom perpetrators were primarily school youth inspired by activists from the National Radical Organisation.

In April 1940, at the order of the German authorities, institutions representing the Jewish community began erecting a wall around the part of the city most densely inhabited by Jews, the Northern District (today’s Muranów), where the ghetto was to be established. The decision defining the ghetto area was issued on 2 October 1940 by the General Government’s Warsaw District Head Dr. Ludwig Fischer. As a result, 138,000 Jews and 113,000 Poles were forced to change their place of residence. The Warsaw ghetto was ultimately closed on 16 November 1940. At that point, around 400,000 Jews found themselves confined behind the ghetto walls. In April 1941, when those displaced from the small towns of the Warsaw District and expelled from Germany reached the ghetto, the number increased to 450,000. Under the 15 October 1941 regulation of the Governor-General of Poland Hans Frank, any attempt on the part of Jews to leave a “district designated for them” was punishable by death as was assistance to Jews outside the ghettos, on the so-called ‘Aryan side.’

The Warsaw ghetto was theoretically self-governed by the collegial Jewish Council (Judenrat) established by the Germans as early as in October 1939, replacing the existing Jewish Religious Community administration. Its appointed chairman was the engineer Adam Czerniaków. In fact, the Judenrat operated under German supervision and was forced to comply with all the regulations of the occupation authorities. Organisation of the lives of nearly half a million people existing under conditions of enormous overpopulation, rampant unemployment and shortage of food was a daunting task. From the very beginning, the Warsaw ghetto struggled with such vital problems as hunger, infectious diseases, poor sanitary conditions, slave labour and ransom extorted by the German authorities. Tragically deteriorating living conditions led to a dramatic increase in mortality. As many as 92,000 inhabitants of the ghetto died by July 1942. People sought to maintain some semblance of normal life under inhuman conditions. Charitable, educational, religious and cultural institutions continued to operate, overtly and covertly. The district was abuzz with clandestine political activity, which included publication of dozens of papers. In the spring of 1942, at the formation of the Anti-Fascist Alliance, an underground resistance movement became active. It failed to undertake coordinated operations for the lack of a clear vision, weapons and the arrest of the organisation’s the commander Pinkus Kartin (alias Andrzej Szmidt) on 20 May 1942.

After initial successes on the Eastern Front as a result of Operation Barbarossa, launched in June 1941, the Nazi Third Reich moved to implement their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” through systematic murder. Jews were killed in mass executions and subsequently in specially created extermination centres, the first of which was established in December 1941 in Kulmhof (Chełmno on the Ner), in the part of Poland incorporated into the Third Reich. Further centres with the same function were created in the General Government in Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. In the spring of 1942, the Germans initiated Operation Reinhardt, with the aim of liquidating the ghettos in the General Government and murdering the Jews confined to them.

On 22 July 1942, the Great Deportation of the Warsaw ghetto Jewish population to the extermination centre in Treblinka began. In a matter of two months, i.e. until the 21st of September 1942, when the last of the transports departed the city, nearly 300,000 Jews of Warsaw had been killed there. Only 60,000 remained within the confines of the now reduced ghetto; these were employed in enterprises producing for the Third Reich, or were living in the ghetto illegally.

On the morning of the 19th of April 1943, as the Germans initiated the final liquidation of the ghetto and another wave of displacements, they were fired upon by detachments of Jewish resistance groups: the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW), whose members came from various left-wing factions and the Zionist right, respectively. The heaviest encounters with the Germans took place around Muranowski Square, in the vicinity of the ŻZW command post, and in the area of Zamenhofa and Franciszkańska Streets, where ŻOB engaged the enemy.

On the 8th of May 1943, the Germans discovered a hidden shelter at 18 Miła Street, in which the ŻOB command were hiding. The organisation’s commander Mordechai Anielewicz fell there. That date came to symbolise the end of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. For the Germans, their blowing up on the 16th of May 1943 of the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street was the marking event. Juergen Stroop, the commanding officer responsible for suppression of the uprising and liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote in his report to Heinrich Himmler: “There is no longer a Jewish residential district in Warsaw.”

Subsequently, some of the remaining ghetto inhabitants were deported to Treblinka and murdered there, while the majority were deported to slave labour camps in the Lublin region. They were ultimately murdered in early November 1943, in the course of mass executions known as “Operation Harvest Festival.” Many Warsaw Jews sought refuge on the ‘Aryan side.’ The majority of Jewish survivors from Warsaw were those who escaped to the Soviet Union in the early stages of the war.