Brief History of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

On the night of 18-19 April 1943, on Passover eve, the Warsaw Ghetto was surrounded by German military police and Blue Police. The next morning, several hundred soldiers of the army and police as well as formations consisting of Ukrainians and Latvians under the command of Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, supported by combat vehicles, entered the ghetto with the intention of its final liquidation. Members of Jewish armed organisations put up an unexpectedly strong resistance. The first metropolitan uprising in occupied Europe began.

January civil defence

As a result of the Grossaktion of 22 July 1942, the majority of Jews confined in the ghetto established in the northern part of downtown Warsaw were transported to the extermination camp in Treblinka. In the ghetto, there remained approx. 50-60 thousand people, mostly young people, officially employed in the so-called shops, factories producing for the needs of the Third Reich, as well as people who were “squatting” in this area. On 18 January 1943, the second deportation action began, as a result of which those who did not have permission to stay in the ghetto were to be sent to Treblinka, while the workers, together with the shop equipment, were to be evacuated to the Lublin region. Surprised Jews, members of resistance groups and residents of evacuated buildings put up active and passive resistance. Several thousand people were deported but the action was stopped after a few days.

The January events caused that the two Jewish armed organisations operating in the ghetto, the Jewish Combat Organisation (ŻOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW), although they did not manage to form a single combat structure, decided to jointly attempt to resist the expected liquidation of the ghetto. After the deportations were suspended in the entire ghetto, the construction of bunkers was accelerated and contacts were intensified with the Polish underground, which warned about the Germans’ intentions. In April 1943, when Gendarmerie and police forces surrounded the ghetto, most of the inhabitants remained in hiding. Among them were several hundred poorly armed female and male fighters of the ŻOB and ŻZW.

Outbreak of an uprising and unequal fight

Although the Germans were aware of the existence of Jewish armed groups in the ghetto, they did not know their numbers or capabilities. The troops which entered the ghetto in two columns on 19 April consisted of approx. 850 soldiers and armed SS men (250 more officers joined them the next day). Auxiliary forces deployed outside the ghetto, the Ukrainian Trawniki men (Trawnikimänner), and the Blue Police also participated in the operation.

The first battles fought by the ŻOB units took place at the intersection of Gęsia and Wildstrasse (former Zamenhofa, Dzika), from where the surprised Germans had to retreat. On the same day, German troops entered the ghetto again, this time under the command of Jürgen Stroop, who was already “famous” for his part in the murders of the Polish population in Wielkopolska, fighting partisans in Ukraine and the Caucasus, as well as organising the mass extermination of Jews in the Galicia district. Fights took place at the intersection of Nalewki and Gęsia Streets, where ŻOB members fought, and in the area of Muranowski Square, where the ŻZW fought.

The attitude of the Jews surprised the German command. “It was the first time I had seen Germans fleeing from Jews,” recalled ŻOB liaison officer Symcha Rotem (Szymon Ratajzer), the legendary “Kazik.” Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was unpleasantly surprised by the attitude of the “subhumans.” He noted in his diary that: “The Jews are putting up a desperate resistance. It will be a few more days before this resistance is finally broken. The reason for such desperate defence is probably that the Jews are well aware of what awaits them […]. They are deprived of the opportunity to capitulate.”

Fierce battles were also waged by the ŻOB and the ŻZW on 20-22 April at the Brush shop located in the area of Świętojerska, Wałowa, Franciszkańska and Bonifraterska Streets, where Marek Edelman and Chaim Łopata were in command, and at the Toebbens’ and Schultz’s shops on Leszno Street. Despite the huge disproportion of forces, differences in armaments and combat experience, Jews took up arms in isolated points still in May.

One of the major clashes took place at Muranowski Square, where the headquarters of the ŻZW was located. According to some accounts, it was there that the fighters displayed two flags: the blue-and-white (Zionist) and the white-and-red, and it was this symbol of solidarity that was said to have caused euphoria among the defenders and irritation among the Germans. The fights in the Square began as early as 19 April and continued on and off until 25 April, when some soldiers of the ŻZW exited the ghetto through a tunnel in order to evacuate outside of Warsaw with the help of the Polish underground. The betrayal of one of the guides thwarted these plans… Most of the remaining members of the ŻZW died in battle.

Warsaw Masada. Miła 18

After heavy fights, ŻOB fighters gathered in a bunker at 18 Miła Street, where they were cornered by the Germans on 8 May. Placed in a no-win situation, deprived of ammunition, not wanting to surrender to the enemy, several dozen of them committed suicide. The commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, was probably killed in battle; researchers report various circumstances of his death. About 30 people managed to exit through the only undiscovered exit. Many of them lost their lives in the following months, only a few dozen ŻOB fighters managed to survive the ghetto uprising. Among the rescued were Marek Edelman and Szymon Ratajzer, who fought in the area of the “brush shop”. They joined the group that left the ghetto on 29 April in the forest in Łomianki. Many died later in the forests or fighting in the Warsaw Uprising. The fighters from the bunker on Miła Street are compared to the defenders of the ancient Masada in 73 CE, where several hundred Jews and their families resisted the Romans, only to commit suicide in the face of inevitable defeat. The fall of Masada also marked the end of the Jewish uprising…

It must be remembered that the uprising was not only about fighters but also about tens of thousands of Jews, including women and children, for whom remaining in hiding, living in inhuman conditions, refusal to obey German orders and not giving in to “evacuation” plans were also a form of resistance. The new tactics used by the Germans, who did not want to risk further armed confrontation with the hiding Jews, included setting fire to subsequent buildings. The horror of the situation presented the Jews with a terrible dilemma: should they continue to endure the cruel reality in the face of the threat of suffocation by smoke and burning alive, or should they surrender, leave their hiding places, die by a bullet in the street, or be sent to their deaths? There was no good answer to such questions.

The Jewish residential quarter in Warsaw no longer exists!

The German command considered the blowing up of the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street on 16 May as the symbolic end of the uprising. It was officially recognised that Warsaw had become Judenrein. In fact, in the following weeks, the German troops were still carrying out the liquidation of the “Jewish quarter”. Some Poles also took part in the “hunt” for those who managed to survive in the rubble or were hiding outside the ghetto… The possibility of keeping half of the property found on a captured Jew proved to be an irresistible temptation for some civilians and policemen. Others risked their lives to hide fugitives from the ghetto. From the very beginning, the fights in the ghetto were observed by the Polish underground, and a few units of the Home Army and the People’s Guard took part in the fights. The admiration for the fighters and indignation against the Germans was declared by the Polish underground press, regardless of political and ideological options, but the majority of Warsaw inhabitants, living in the shadow of the burning ghetto and deportation of the Jewish population, remained preoccupied with their own, everyday matters.

Balance of the uprising

In mid-May 1943, the uprising collapsed, although there was still sporadic fighting in June. Most of the fighters died. On “Germany’s triumph over Jewry,” the Stroop report states as follows: “There were approx. 56 thousand Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during this period; from among those who resisted, approx. 6 thousand Jews died, approx. 7 thousand civilians were killed on the spot, 631 bunkers were detected and liquidated.” The Germans estimated their own casualties at 16 soldiers and several dozen wounded, which seems to be an underestimation. The Stroop Report, which is one of the most important testimonies of the Holocaust, should be treated with caution when it comes to its statistical and factual parts: it was in some sense meant to justify the relatively long period of fighting.

After the uprising, the ghetto was razed to the ground. The surviving captured civilians were deported to extermination and concentration camps. The few who managed to hide lived in the ruins, shelters and basements until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising and the end of the German occupation of Warsaw. Perhaps the most famous of these “Robinsons of Warsaw” was Władysław Szpilman, whose story was told by Roman Polański in The Pianist. On 12 May, in London, the Bund’s representative on the National Council of Poland in London, Szmul Zygielbojm, committed suicide. It was supposed to be a protest against the world’s indifference to the crimes committed against Jews. Stroop, the nominal author of the cited report and executioner of the Warsaw Ghetto, was executed in Warsaw in 1952.

The ghetto uprising was a desperate attempt to save a few people, a retaliation against the Germans and a desperate cry for a dignified death. It was also, though it is sometimes forgotten, the first Polish uprising against Nazi Germany and the first metropolitan uprising in occupied Europe, and the ghetto fighters made their contribution to defeating the Third Reich. Although the outcome of this uneven fight was a foregone conclusion, for generations of Polish Jews but also for a part of Polish society and Warsaw residents who would take up arms in the following year, the heroism of the ghetto fighters became a symbol of supreme valour and sacrifice.

Prof. Konrad Zieliński