The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Historical information
On 19 April 1943, the Jews of Warsaw took up armed struggle against the Germans. The insurgents had no hope for victory. They were driven by a desire to seek revenge and to incur the greatest possible losses on their perpetrators. First and foremost, however, they chose to die with dignity, with guns in their hands. Facing an impending annihilation, they did not want to die without a fight. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest and most heroic act of armed resistance taken up by the Jews during World War Two. It was also the first civic uprising in occupied Europe.
Germans squeezed over 400,000 Jews within the walled-in area of the Warsaw ghetto they had established in 1940. In the ghetto, tens of thousands of people died of starvation and disease. On 22 July 1942, the so-called Great Deportation Aktion began—within the period of two months, the Germans deported nearly 300,000 ghetto residents to their deaths in the Treblinka extermination camp. In the autumn of 1942, mere 60,000 Jews remained in the so-called Restgetto (Ger.: the remnants of a ghetto, also referred to as ‘residual ghetto’). They were mostly young and strong, with no family ties, often employed at the German shops (i.e. small factories or workshops). It was in these circumstances, with nothing left to lose, that the idea of armed resistance against the Nazis was born amongst the Jewish youth in the Warsaw ghetto.
The Jewish Combat Organisation
The Jewish Combat Organisation (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB in short) was established as early as 28 July 1942, in the course of the Great Liquidation Action; its members included activists of the left-oriented Zionist youth movements. Later communists and socialists joined in, too. Mordechai Anielewicz of the Hashomer hatsair organization became the leader, and amongst the most famous commanders were Marek Edelman (member of the Bund) and Yitzhak Cukierman (member of Dror). Another underground organisation brought to life in the early 1943 was the Jewish Military Union (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy, ŻZW in short), led by Leon Rodal and Paweł Frenkel.
Another deportation Aktion, launched by the Germans on 18 January 1943, was met with an armed resistance of the ŻOB militants.
“To the Jews! The occupying force has instigated the second act of your genocide! Do not give in! Defend yourselves!” reads the ŻOB leaflet issued at the time.
The 4-day long self-defence delayed the final liquidation of the ghetto and provided some time for the preparations for armed uprising. After January 1943, a frantic construction of bunkers and other forms of shelters began. The authority of the Jewish Combat Organisation rose, too.
The outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
When the 2,000-soldier strong German units, supported by tanks and armoured vehicles, entered the ghetto on 19 April 1943—the eve of the Passover holiday—they were faced by 300-500 ŻOB members divided into 22 militant groups led by Anielewicz, along with 250 militants of the Jewish Military Union. There were also other armed groups, unaffiliated with the two main underground organisations. On the German side, over one thousand Waffen-SS soldiers and policemen took part in the armed combat each day.
The first street skirmishes instigated by the ŻOB fighters took place at the intersections of Gęsia and Nalewski Streets, and Miła and Zamenhofa Streets, with insurgents on the upper floors of buildings throwing grenades and bottles with petrol at the German units. In the afternoon of 19 April, skirmishes at the Muranowski Square began— ŻZW unit led by Paweł Frenkel fiercely resisted German attacks. The struggle continued for the following three days. Jewish and Polish flags, hung on a tall tenement house at Muranowski Square, became a symbol of the Uprising. On 20 April, the ŻOB militants led by Marek Edelman engaged in a heavy combat on the location of the so-called brushmakers' shop. They managed to stop the Germans for some time by detonating a special mine near the gate to the workshop area. On the first day of the Uprising, a Home Army unit made an unsuccessful attempt at blowing up the Ghetto wall along Bonifraterska Street. In the course of the Uprising, several more attempts at combating the Germans who continued to shell the insurgents’ positions were carried out along the Ghetto wall by the Home Army and People’s Guard units.
Regular armed struggle continued in the ghetto only in the first few days of the Uprising. The shortage of munition combined with the fires deliberately started by the Germans which drove the insurgents to the bunkers and basements made it impossible to continue armed resistance. The fighters hid in shelters together with the civilians, organising frequent raids and ambushes on the Germans who continued to penetrate the ghetto area. Clashes were becoming increasingly irregular. From the end of April, the insurgents spent days hidden in the bunkers. They would go out at night, and that is when fire exchanges with German patrols took place. Fights with the Germans also took place in defence of the discovered bunkers. One of the largest such battles was fought on 1-3 May by fighters from Marek Edelman's unit.
Several hundred armed insurgents were only a fraction of the Warsaw ghetto population which amounted to 45-50,000 in April 1943. It was precisely due to the attitude of the civilian population (who refused to obey the German orders for eviction and remained hidden in bunkers and other hiding places) that the German liquidation action lasted as long as four weeks.
The Germans' goal was to deport the Jews employed at the shops to the forced labour camps in the Lublin region, and to send the 'wild' (i.e. unemployed) Jews to their death in Treblinka. The Nazis were taken aback by the widespread passive resistance of the ghetto population. They were forced to systematically search one block after another, setting fire to each building they had searched and plundered in order to make the Jews hiding inside come out. They threw smoke candles, grenades or explosive materials to every bunker they had discovered, regardless of the fact that—aside from the insurgents—there were civilians hiding in them. The civilians who came out of the bunkers were led to Umschlagplatz, and from there sent to the death camps (from 12 May onwards only to Treblinka). The insurgents—and many civilians, too—were killed on the spot.
Hiding in underground bunkers was an extreme experience—overcrowding, lack of air, fresh water and food, high temperatures and smoke from the fires raging on the surface, constant tension and, finally, the necessity to remain still in order not to be heard by the German patrols cruising above. People stuck in the bunkers often had no contact with the outside world for many days. The fate of people hiding in the shelters on the upper floors of tenement houses that were set on fire was even worse. Many of those chose a suicidal jump from the window—Stroop's report contains photographs documenting people falling several floors down to meet their death on the pavement. Thousands of people perished in the fire, under the ruins of the demolished buildings, or in the bunkers—blown up or buried under the rubble.
Jürgen Stroop who led the German units during the Uprising wrote in his report on the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto that his soldiers had captured or killed over 56,000 Jews and located 631 bunkers. According to the Stroop’s report, 36,000 people were deported to labour camps in the Lublin province, the rest were killed on the spot or in the gas chambers of Treblinka. The data provided in the report are most likely exaggerated, yet there is no other data to refer to. Simultaneously, the Germans continued a painstaking search for Jews in hiding on the ‘Aryan side’, offering financial rewards for assistance in capturing them.
The end of the Uprising and the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto
Mere several dozen of the insurgents managed to flee the burning ghetto through the sewers or underground tunnels. Many of the survivors were later killed as a result of denunciations; some fought in the Warsaw Uprising. On 8 May 1943, the Germans surrounded the bunker of the ŻOB headquarters at 18 Miła Street. Over a hundred of militants, including Mordechai Anielewicz, suffocated to death or swallowed poison in order to avoid being captured by the Germans.
However, several small groups of insurgents continued to resist. On 16 May, in light of the decreasing numbers of captured Jews, Stroop decided on finalising his action. In the evening of that day, to mark their victory, the Germans blew up the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street, the area beyond the residual ghetto borders. Stroop jotted down in his report:
“The Jewish district in Warsaw is no more.”
In the aftermath of the Uprising, the Germans razed the area of the former Warsaw ghetto to the ground. And yet there were people, both civilians and few surviving fighters, still hiding inside the ghetto—in the burnt down houses and in the bunkers undiscovered by the Germans. Both German police dispatches and Polish underground press reported that gunshots could be heard in the area of the ghetto as late as June. Some 'rubblers' hid in the ruins of the ghetto until the end of 1943.
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