The Jews who fought back: the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

During the Second World War, Jews forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland had little choice: they could either fight their Nazi oppressors, or be transported to certain death at Treblinka extermination camp. Here, Alexandra Richie explores the events of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a remarkable act of Jewish resistance that began 75 years ago today

The Warsaw Ghetto, Poland, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to live before they were sent to concentration camps as part of Adolf Hitler’s ‘final solution’. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, one of the most significant and tragic events in the history of the Second World War. It was a demonstration of heroic resistance, when Jews decided to fight against their oppressors rather than be forced to die in a concentration camp. It has left a remarkable legacy, which reverberates to this day.

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By the outbreak of the Second World War, Jews had been living in Poland for more than a thousand years. Around 10 per cent of the country’s pre-war population was Jewish, but in some cities the proportion was much higher. Only New York had a higher number of Jewish residents than Warsaw, which was home to around 375,000 Jews – approximately 30 per cent of the city’s population. They had created a rich and diverse culture – something that the Germans were determined to destroy.

The Nazi persecution of the Jews in Poland began with the invasion of the country in 1939. Jews very quickly lost their rights; by October 1939 they were forced to register and have the word ‘Jude’ stamped on their identity papers. They were soon forbidden from many ordinary activities, such as walking on the pavement, or going to schools, libraries or museums. Synagogues were blown up, or turned into prisons or factories, and many Jews were abused and humiliated on the streets.

From October 1939, the Germans began to create a system of ghettos throughout Poland. The Warsaw Ghetto was created in November by the German Governor General Hans Frank. More than 140,000 Jews who lived outside the area – on the so-called ‘Aryan side’ – were forced to gather their belongings and move into the ghetto, while 110,000 non-Jewish Poles were made to move out. The Jews were then sealed off from the rest of the city by a gigantic brick wall, which was topped with barbed wire and patrolled night and day. Fragments of this wall still exist today, a shocking remnant of what was effectively a huge prison built in the middle of one of Europe’s great capital cities.

The suffering in the ghetto was extreme, and conditions deteriorated rapidly. At its height, more than 450,000 people were crammed into an area of 1.3 square miles, and in some buildings as many as 20 people were living to a single room. Around 100,000 people died of starvation, sickness and maltreatment. Anyone caught trying to leave was shot, and non-Jewish Poles caught helping Jews were killed along with their families.

POLAND - JANUARY 02: A group of Polish Jews from Warsaw's ghetto being interrogated by Nazi officers before departing to the death camp of Treblinka, in 1943. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
A group of Polish Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto being interrogated by Nazi officers. The suffering in the ghetto was extreme, and anyone caught trying to leave was shot, says Alexandra Richie. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

On 20 January 1942, the decision was taken in Berlin to begin the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish question’ using new camps built for no other purpose than the mass murder of human beings: Sobibor, Chelmno, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, and Treblinka.

In July 1942, the Nazis announced that all Jewish persons living in Warsaw, regardless of age and gender, were to be ‘resettled in the East’ – a euphemism for murder. As part of the so-called ‘Gross Aktion Warschau’ (Great Action Warsaw), they began to round up Jews at a collection point, or ‘Umschlagplatz’, on Stawki Street, and then pushing them onto trains heading for Treblinka. Within 10 weeks, 310,000 people were murdered at the concentration camp – and most victims were from the Warsaw Ghetto.

After the completion of the ‘Gross Aktion, around 70,000 Jews remained in Warsaw (many of whom had been temporarily spared because they were working in German enterprises). Despite German attempts at secrecy, information about the industrial killings at Treblinka leaked out. This prompted a group of young Jewish men and women to form a resistance, and in July 1942 they created two armed self-defence units: the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) and the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB). Through representatives like Arie Wilner, who was living outside the Warsaw Ghetto, ŻOB established contact with external Polish resistance forces who were able to provide some help and a small number of arms, including a few dozen pistols and grenades. Mordecai Anielewicz, a 23-year-old Zionist activist, was appointed ŻOB’s commander.

One of the first leaflets from ŻOB, which circulated in the ghetto in December 1942, read: ‘Jews! Citizens of the Warsaw ghetto, be alert!  Do not believe a single word, a single pretext of the SS criminals.  Mortal danger awaits… Let us defend our honour with courage and dignity! Let liberty live!’

Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS, was determined to make Warsaw ‘Judenrein’ – ‘cleansed of Jews’ – and on 16 February 1943 he gave the order to clear out the ghetto. Despite the grave danger, the Jews in ŻOB and ZZW prepared a massive revolt. The ghetto was transformed into a resistance area – tunnels were dug, the sewers were marked out to allow passage from one bunker to another without having to go above ground, rooftop passages were built and huge bunkers were created under existing buildings. Anielewicz’s headquarters were set up in a large bunker deep underground at 18 Miła Street.

The young men and women now prepared themselves to fight to the death. On 18 April 1943, the Jews noted Ukrainian-Latvian support units (the Germans frequently used auxiliary forces formed by either soldiers from collaborating countries or groups of ex-POWs) moving towards the ghetto along with large numbers of police. Rumours of a new German ‘Aktion’ spread and the Jewish combat groups posted sentries, who looked out for German activity and alerted the fighters. The population went to their prepared shelters in the cellars or attics, leaving their flats standing empty.

At daybreak on 19 April, 850 SS troops and 16 Waffen-SS officers, protected by tanks and armoured cars, marched into the ghetto intending to force people to report for ‘resettlement’. The Jewish residents refused to come out. Instead, and to their surprise, the Germans found themselves being shot at from all sides with rifles, pistols and automatic weapons. Grenades and Molotov cocktails were thrown from windows, and a handful of Germans were killed.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a Polish Catholic who served as a liaison between the Polish underground and the Jewish leaders in the ghetto, watched as ambulances carried the German dead and wounded from the ghetto. Jürgen Stroop, the SS and Police Leader in Warsaw, was particularly incensed by the fact that the Polish flag and the white and blue Star of David had been raised high on a house on Muranowski Square. “This was a summons to fight us,” he complained. He later had the flags ripped down by a special combat unit.

In 1943 the Warsaw Ghetto was burnt to the ground by Nazi troops and all its surviving inhabitants were sent to the concentration camp at Treblinka, and the Ghetto was blitzed to the ground. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
More than 7,000 of the Warsaw Ghetto’s inhabitants died during the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising. The remaining 57,000 were captured and murdered, either shot in the ghetto or sent to Treblinka concentration camp. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

On the third day of the revolt, Stroop decided that the only way to defeat the fighters would be to smoke and burn them out. He ordered his men to begin blowing up the ghetto one block at a time, setting fire to the buildings and pumping gas into the underground hiding places. The Jews forced to leave their shelters were shot. Black clouds of smoke hung over the city and fires lit the sky at night.

Although the Jews carried on the fight with great courage, they were vastly outnumbered. On 8 May 1943, the Germans reached Anielewicz’s bunker at 18 Miła Street and began to pump gas into the air ducts. Anielewicz had managed to smuggle one final letter out to the Aryan side: “Our last days are near, but as long as we still have weapons in our hands we will fight…” Realising all was lost, the resistance fighters used cyanide capsules to commit suicide rather than be taken alive. To this day, they are entombed underground at 18 Mila Street and a monument marks their graves.

Ten members of ŻOB escaped through the sewers, including Zivia Lubetkin, the only female leader of the Jewish Underground in Warsaw, who would later testify at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. More than 7,000 of the ghetto’s inhabitants died during the suppression of the uprising, and the remaining 57,000 were captured and murdered, either shot in the ghetto or sent to Treblinka.

General Stroop was delighted with his handiwork and wrote a now-infamous 125-page report – complete with pictures – entitled: ‘The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is No More!’ The photographs reflect the pitiless cruelty meted out to the victims: civilians being marched to their deaths past burning buildings or jumping out of windows in desperation to escape the flames. Stroop then destroyed the Great Synagogue on Tlomackie Street, a beautiful landmark built by the famous Italian architect Leandro Marconi. “What a wonderful sight,” he recounted later. “I called out ‘Heil Hitler’ and pressed the button. A terrific explosion brought flames right up to the clouds. The colours were unbelievable. An unforgettable allegory of the triumph over Jewry.” Himmler, too, celebrated the suppression by having all buildings in the ghetto razed to the ground in preparation for a giant park, which was to be named after himself.

Despite its tragic end, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising left a lasting legacy. It was the largest Jewish uprising in the Second World War and it inspired Jewish youth – in ghettos from Lvov to Będzin to Białystok, and in camps including Treblinka and Sobibor – to resist. It was an act of utmost courage – not least because the men and women fighting knew from the beginning that they had no hope of victory. They had been forced by the sheer inhumanity of the situation created by the occupying Germans to choose death in combat rather than in the camps.

They were rightly proud of their achievement. On the 25th anniversary of the uprising, former ŻOB commander Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the few survivor’s of the revolt, said: “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”. 75 years later, on 19 April 2018, we are right to pay homage to the bravery of these heroic fighters.

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Alexandra Richie is the author of the critically acclaimed Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin and Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising. She has lectured on international politics and history across the world, from Warsaw University to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.