78th Anniversary of Heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
April 19-May 16, 1943
Defiance and Organized Resistance Against Nazism During the Darkest Hour
During World War II, resistance against the Nazis was organized in many ghettos across eastern Europe as the people armed themselves with smuggled and homemade weapons and fought to the death for freedom. Reports indicate that between 1941 and 1943, underground resistance movements were formed by about 100 Jewish groups, with the most famous attempt by Jews to resist the Nazis in armed fighting being the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This uprising took place from April 19 to May 16, 1943, when residents of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in Nazi-occupied Poland staged an armed revolt against deportations to extermination camps.
caption: A commemorative memorial dedicated after the war which stands upon the remains of the bunker at 18 Mila Street in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Nazis established ghettos in cities throughout Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. The Warsaw ghetto was the largest in Poland, established shortly after the Germans invaded in September 1939. More than 400,000 Jews in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, were confined to an area of the city that was little more than 2.5 square kilometres. In November 1940, this ghetto was enclosed by a wall that was more than three metres high, topped with barbed wire, and closely guarded to prevent movement between the ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. The Nazis controlled the amount of food that was brought into the ghetto, and disease and starvation killed thousands each month.
During the Nazi occupation of Poland, more than 250,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto alone were deported or killed.
In July 1942, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi paramilitary corps known as the Schutzstaffel (SS), ordered that Jews be “resettled” to extermination camps. The Jews were told they were being transported to work camps; however, word soon reached the ghetto that deportation to the camps meant death. Two months later, some 265,000 Jews had been deported from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp, while more than 20,000 others were sent to a forced-labour camp or killed during the deportation process.
An estimated 55,000 to 60,000 Jews remained in the Warsaw ghetto. When reports of mass murder in the Treblinka killing centre leaked back to them, a surviving group of mostly young people formed an organization known in Polish as the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB), which means Jewish Fighting Organization. The ZOB issued a proclamation calling for the Jewish people to resist going to the railroad cars. On January 18, 1943, when the Nazis entered the ghetto to prepare a group for transfer to a camp, with a small number of weapons smuggled in by the anti-Nazi Polish Resistance, a ZOB unit ambushed them. After a few days, the troops retreated and the Nazis suspended deportations from the Warsaw ghetto for the next few months. This small victory inspired the ghetto fighters to prepare for future resistance. The ZOB expanded to incorporate members of underground political organizations. The Polish resistance forces provided training, armaments and explosives. Mordecai Anielewicz, 23 years old, was appointed commander. The fighting organization was unified, strategies were planned, underground bunkers and tunnels were built, and roof-top passages were constructed. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto prepared to fight to the death.
On April 19, 1943, Himmler sent in SS forces under the command of SS General Juergen Stroop to continue the deportations. The ghetto population, however, did not report for deportations. Instead, the ghetto fighting organizations had barricaded themselves inside buildings and bunkers, ready to resist the Germans while the rest of the population, targeted deportees, refused to present themselves for deportation. Seven hundred and fifty fighters, far outnumbered in terms of manpower and weapons, fought the heavily armed and well-trained Nazis. After three days, German forces began burning the ghetto, building by building, to force Jews out of hiding. Resistance continued as the Germans, with their collaborators, tanks and heavy artillery, reduced the ghetto to rubble, block by block, destroying the bunkers where many residents had hidden. Not until May 16 was the revolt crushed and the ghetto brought firmly under Nazi control. On that day, as an ultimate act of revenge, the Germans blew up Warsaw’s Great Synagogue.
General Stroop reported after the destruction of the ghetto that 56,065 Jews had been captured; of those, 7,000 were deported to the Treblinka killing centre, and the remainder sent to forced-labour camps and the Majdanek camp. It is believed that the Germans lost several hundred men in the uprising. Some of the resistance fighters succeed in escaping from the ghetto and joined partisan groups in the forests around Warsaw.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising inspired revolts in extermination camps and ghettos throughout Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. On August 2, 1943, some 1,000 Jewish prisoners at Treblinka seized weapons from the camp’s armoury and staged a revolt. Even though many were recaptured and executed, several hundred inmates escaped.
Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, later said of its significance, “I don’t think there’s any real need to analyze the Uprising in military terms. This was a war of less than a thousand people against a mighty army and no one doubted how it was likely to turn out. This isn’t a subject for study in a military school. Not the weapons, not the operations, not the tactics. If there’s a school to study the human spirit, there it should be a major subject. The really important things were inherent in the force shown by Jewish youth, after years of degradation, to rise up against their destroyers, and determine what death they would choose: Treblinka or Uprising. I don’t know if there’s a standard to measure that.”
1. Barbara Harshav, ed., trans., A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1993), p. xiii.
(TML Archives. Photos: Yad Vashem Archive, Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation)