On 19 April 1943, the Jews interned in the Warsaw Ghetto revolted against their Nazi oppressors. They fought determinedly with limited resources for almost a month, before their resistance was finally quelled and the vast majority were deported to extermination camps. Seventy-five years on, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising remains symbolic of collective Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.
Forced Resettlement and Ghettoization
The internment of Polish Jews in ghettos began in October 1939, mere weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland and consequent outbreak of World War Two. Hitler’s regime had been implementing anti-Semitic policies in Germany since its rise to power in early 1933 and as the Third Reich expanded, discriminatory measures were steadily instigated against Jews living in the other areas of Europe that came under Nazi rule.
Poland was home to around two million Jews in 1939 and following the Nazi invasion, large parts of the country were immediately incorporated into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles from these areas were then forcibly moved from their homes so that Lebensraum (living space) would become available for ethnic Germans.
The initial destination of these displaced people was the Generalgouvernement, an area under civil administration situated between the Soviet and Nazi occupied zones, which included the Polish capital city of Warsaw. Jews were subsequently crowded into designated areas of towns and cities where they were segregated from non-Jewish society and could be contained and controlled: ghettos.
The Warsaw ghetto became the largest in Poland, where at its fullest over 400,000 Jews were crammed into an area of just 1.36 square miles. Such overcrowding was a common feature of ghetto life in any city, with several generations of the same family often living in one small room. A lack of basic amenities resulted in filthy conditions both in houses and on the streets, which led to the inevitable spread of lice and of diseases such as typhus. Malnutrition was the norm and many people starved to death.
Whilst some ghettos were open, permitting residents to move beyond the boundaries during hours when a curfew was not in place, the majority were closed, with high walls, barbed wire and armed soldiers preventing anyone from leaving. As the war progressed and the Nazi campaign against the Jews twisted brutally towards a policy of annihilation, many ghettos that had previously been open were sealed.
This was the case in Warsaw, which was closed in mid-November 1940 and from which deportations began in earnest in the summer of 1942. Between July and September, an estimated 265,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to the Treblinka extermination camp and upwards of 11,000 more were sent to labour camps. Between 55,000 and 60,000 Jews remained in the ghetto.
Although the Jews taken away during the summer months were told they were being resettled for work purposes, few people who remained in the Warsaw ghetto were under any illusion as to the true fate of the deportees. In the autumn of 1942, members of numerous self-defence groups and political factions decided to try and resist future deportations.
Two such groups determined to oppose the Nazis were the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW). They managed to smuggle some weapons into the ghetto via links with the Polish underground and when the SS began a surprise deportation on 18 January 1943, ZOB and ZZW members launched an attack, taking the soldiers by surprise.
Fighting lasted for several days until the SS eventually withdrew. It was a significant victory for the resisters in the ghetto, who perceived that their actions had prevented a mass deportation. The Nazis, however, were furious. Under orders from Heinrich Himmler, preparations began for the complete destruction of the ghetto.
On the morning of 19 April 1943, the eve of Passover and also of Hitler’s birthday, SS forces closed in to commence liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. Since January, the resistant factions in the ghetto had amassed more weapons and dug underground bunkers, where many Jews now took shelter.
Upon entering the ghetto the SS found the streets largely deserted, rendering round ups impossible. Around 750 Jews who were not in hiding attacked the soldiers with pistols, hand grenades and homemade explosives, though their weapons were rudimentary compared to the German machine guns, tanks and flamethrowers.
Realising that the ZOB, ZZW and other armed factions were not going to surrender despite being vastly outnumbered, within a few days the SS set fire to the ghetto. Buildings were systematically burned to the ground and as Jews were forced from their hiding places by the smoke and flames, they were rounded up by Nazi soldiers and subsequently deported en masse to extermination and labour camps.
The Nazis had aimed to empty the ghetto within three days but incredibly, the resisters held out for almost a month, until 16 May 1943. On this day the fighting came to an end and the central Tlomacki Synagogue was blown up by the SS. All buildings had been razed to the ground, effectively obliterating what had once been Warsaw’s Jewish quarter.
Over 7,000 Jews lost their lives in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, compared to an estimated 300 Nazi soldiers. Whilst a few Jews were able to avoid deportation by escaping through the sewers, of the thousands who were captured and deported to the death camps, only a minority were still alive at the end of the war.
An ongoing legacy
The Warsaw ghetto uprising was the first sustained armed resistance to the Nazis and inspired subsequent rebellions in other ghettos and even in extermination camps. The resisters knew that their position was weak and never anticipated a victory, yet they still chose to fight.
A Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, unveiled on the fifth anniversary of the start of the uprising, in 1948, stands in the area which was once the Warsaw ghetto; and in Israel, the National Day of Holocaust Remembrance corresponds with the anniversary of the uprising. A Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened in Warsaw in 2013, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of what remains, on the 75th anniversary, one of the most significant Jewish resistance efforts of World War Two.
Learn more: The Holocaust: History in an Hour
An earlier version of this article was originally published on the History in an Hour blog: http://www.historyinanhour.com/2013/04/19/the-warsaw-ghetto-uprising-summary/