April 19th marks the first day of the month long 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is one of the most symbolic and well-known acts of anti-fascist resistance ever to take place, an armed uprising against Nazi attempts to transport the Jews in the ghetto to death and labor camps.
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.
Within a few weeks of the Nazi consolidation of Poland, Governor Hans Frank ordered four hundred thousand Warsaw Jews to enter a ghetto. By November 1940, around five hundred thousand Jews from across Poland had been sealed behind its walls, severed from the outside world and plunged into social isolation. Surrounded by a ten-foot-high barrier, the creation of the ghetto meant the relocation of approximately 30 percent of Warsaw’s population into 2.6 percent of the city, the designated area being no more than two and a half miles long and having previously housed fewer than 160,000 people. Conditions inside the Ghetto were horrendous. Many families inhabited single rooms, and the dire lack of food meant that roughly one hundred thousand people survived on no more than a single bowl of soup per day. The sanitation system collapsed, and disease became rampant. After 18 months of incarceration some 63,000 Jews had died due to the hunger, disease, overcrowding and cold.
The Ghetto was internally controlled by the Judenrat – Jewish Council, which was set up by the Nazis to carry out their instructions. The Judenrat included people who tried to help Jews who were suffering from the harsh Ghetto conditions, but also had members who would attempt to save their own skin by any means, with little regard for their community. A Jewish police force, which was notoriously brutal, was used by the Judenrat to enforce Ghetto “law” internally. Antisemitic Polish “Blue” police guarded the Ghetto. There was also an independent police force that served to gather intelligence for the Gestapo, though this was later absorbed into the main force. The Judenrat came to be regarded with contempt by the populace, as the conditions in the Ghetto worsened, and was nicknamed the Judenverat (Jewish betrayal).
During November 1941 news reached the underground in Warsaw of mass killings of Jews following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in summer that year. Communal leaders also heard reports of an extermination camp at Chelmno, where Jews were being gassed to death. However, finding the information almost unbelievable and not wanting to destroy morale, they left the Ghetto inhabitants uninformed.
An Anti-Fascist Bloc was created in the spring of 1942 as the existence of death camps and the slaughter of thousands of Jews at isolated locations was confirmed. Consisting of left-wing Zionists and communists, the organisation had no arms, but set up combat units and distributed propaganda. The Anti-Fascist Bloc issued appeals calling on the population to reject the collaboration and compromises of the Judenrat. However, most Jews continued to listen to the passive advice of the Judenrat. The efforts of the Anti-Fascist Bloc were initially either ignored or rejected
Attitudes towards resistance changed dramatically in the summer of 1942, when, through the Judenrat, the Nazis decreed: “All Jewish persons living in Warsaw, regardless of age and sex, will be resettled in the East …”. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp that summer. In July 1942, at the initiative of the Zionist youth groups, a meeting was held which formed the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB – Jewish Combat Organisation). The ZOB’s political wing consisted of the various Zionist organisations and the communists. It was led by Jewish communists such as Mordechai Anielewicz and Zivia Lubetkin. In October the Bund (Jewish Socialist Party), Poland’s largest Jewish organisation, joined as well. Only the extreme Jewish nationalists did not participate; instead they decided to fight separately as the Irgun Zvai Leumi (Jewish Military Union).
Within a few weeks the ZOB had drawn up by-laws, describing the purpose of the organisation as being the defence of the Ghetto against further deportations and collaborators.
For ZOB militants, collaborators represented an auxiliary wing of fascism that was instrumental in facilitating the deportation of Polish Jewry. To demonstrate that this stance would not be accepted in the ghetto, ZOB militants chose to execute Jewish policeman Jacob Lejkin. For his “dedication” in deporting Jews to Auschwitz, Lejkin was shot, and his example triggered widespread panic in the collaborating establishment. This was followed by the execution of Alfred Nossig in February 1943. Józef Szeryński, the former head of the ghetto police, committed suicide to avoid his own fate.
These acts ensured ZOB’s centrality in the resistance movement, and also encouraged resistance from beyond their ranks. They aimed to prove that challenging collaboration was both possible and a moral duty, and within a short period of time had won many ghetto inhabitants to this position.
As the months progressed, the spectre of death became ever-present. Between June and September 1942, three hundred thousand Jews had been deported or murdered, a destruction of the Polish Jewish community. In these desperate circumstances, people lost everyone and many young people began to dispense with anxieties about protecting their families and commit instead to militant political activity. Simply put, the more Jews were murdered in the ghettos, the less personal obligations were felt by survivors, and the more the feeling of responsibility for causing further anguish from Nazi reprisals receded.
During the winter of 1942/3 underground bunkers and secret hiding holes were constructed throughout the Ghetto, while ZOB attempted the difficult task of securing weapons. Some were obtained from the black market and from German and Italian deserters, but at a high price. A small quantity of arms was acquired from the Polish resistance (Home Army), which operated under the instructions of the Polish government in exile, based in London. Supply from the Home Army was limited because of a combination of antisemitism and fear that the weapons might be used in the future on the Soviet side in the event of a war between Poland and the Soviet Union. More arms were delivered once ZOB had proven itself as effective, but in total they only ever made up 10% of the ZOB arsenal.
German troops surrounded the Ghetto on 18 January 1943 in an attempt to deport the last of Warsaw’s Jews. Even though they were taken by surprise, five ZOB units engaged the troops and killed or wounded some 50 Germans, seizing weapons in the mêlée. ZOB casualties were high, but after three days the deportations were halted.
Deportations were suspended until April, 1943, the eve of Passover, the Jewish festival of liberation when Heinnich Himmler,ordered the fascist forces were to carry out the final liquidation of the Ghetto. On 19 April 1943 2,000 men, including Waffen SS, Wehrmacht, Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian fascists, supported by units of the Polish “Blue” police, advanced on the Ghetto, the area of which was now less than 1,000 by 3,000 metres.
With the civilian population underground in prepared bunkers, the 22 ZOB combat units took their positions. Some were in the central Ghetto area and others in the factories. As the fighting proceeded they were joined by the Irgun and other unaffiliated units.
ZOB units attacked the fascists – who were led by SS Lt General Jurgen Stroop – with guns and homemade petrol bombs. Stroop had expected little resistance from those he had described previously as “this Jewish trash and subhumanity” who are “cowards by nature”.
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.
The next day, 20 April, Waffen SS reinforcements entered the Ghetto and were bombarded with grenades and explosives. In one incident alone an electric mine killed some 100 Germans. They responded with tanks and field artillery and began setting fire to Ghetto buildings. ZOB replied by burning down the warehouses of the agency in charge of expropriated Jewish property. Despite the fire and smoke, which began to envelop the Ghetto, morale was high. On one roof the Jewish blue and white banner flew alongside the red and white Polish flag. On another roof a banner stated, “We shall fight to the last”.
Flamethrowers were brought in on 22 April, to force out the tens of thousands of Jews still hidden underground. The Ghetto became engulfed in flames and thousands of Jews were burned alive. Stroop reported:
“They jumped from burning windows and balconies, abusing Germany and the Führer … over and over again, we observed that the Jews and bandits preferred to return to the flames rather than be caught by us.”
Marek Edelman succeeded Amielwicz when the Zionist leader and ZOB commander died in battle.The Ghetto held out into May. Zivia Lubetkin, one of the few ZOB survivors of the epic battle, recalled. “We sat in the dark, scores of Jewish fighters, still carrying our weapons, surrounded by thousands of eager and expectant Jews. Was it not May Day? … How grave the responsibility we felt as the last desperate Hebrew warriors! We could not hold out against the Germans’ consuming fire for long without water or food or weapons.”
It was a battle that the Jews could never have won, no matter how heroic the resistance. The ZOB headquarters was surrounded on 8 May, after three weeks of combat. Over 100 fighters were inside. The Germans blocked the entrances and sent gas into the bunker. The fighters decided to kill themselves rather than be taken alive. ZOB Commander Anielewicz was among them. During the revolt he wrote:
“It is now clear to me that what took place exceeded all expectations … The last wish of my life has been fulfilled. Jewish self-defence has become a fact. Jewish resistance and revenge have become actualities. I am happy to have been one of the first Jewish fighters in the Ghetto.”
Two days after the end of the battle, 75 ZOB survivors crawled through Warsaw’s sewers. They escaped with the help of comrades in the resistance on the outside of the Ghetto.By mid-May, the ghetto had been razed, and the Great Synagogue of Warsaw personally blown up by General Stroop on May 16 to celebrate the end of Jewish resistance. Of Warsaw’s 350,000 Jews, few were to survive the war. Of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews, only 50-70,000 were to remain alive.
On the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, it is important to remember this heroic act of resistance, when Jews decided to fight against their oppressors rather than be forced to die in a concentration camp. All too often, mainstream media and historians peddle the myth that “the Jews just walked into the camps.” Those brave souls who gave their lives in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising might beg to differ. On this day, we remember their sacrifices in the struggle against fascism.
Despite its tragic end, the Warsaw Uprising left a lasting legacy.It inspired Jewish youth, in ghettos from Lvov to Będzin to Białystok, and in camps including Treblinka and Sobibor ,to resist, and the bravery of the men, women and children involved has inspired a number of books, poetry, songs and films.
The ghetto fighters left us a universal message of humanism and hope in the face of barbarism. It was an inspiration understood by some of the leaders of the Polish resistance, one of whom commented that “the blood of the ghetto fighters was not shed in vain…it gave birth to an intensified struggle against the fascist invader”.
It is a message that we need to remember as we confront racism and fascism wherever and whenever it raises its head.