Mordecai Anielewicz, the commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, was born into a working-class family and attended a Hebrew academic secondary schools. After he completed his high school studies, he joined the “Hashomer Hatzair” youth movement. As a guide he excelled as a leader and organizer.
On September 7, 1939, a week after the war broke out, Anielewicz escaped with his youth movement friends from Warsaw to the east regions, assuming that the Polish army would restrain the German advance. On September 17, the Soviet army occupied the eastern regions of Poland. Anielewicz tried to cross the border to Romania to open a route for youngsters to Israel but was caught and put in a Soviet jail. After he was released, he returned to Warsaw ghetto passing through a lot of communities on his way.
Anielewicz stayed in Warsaw a short time and left for Vilna, Lithuania, where a lot of refugees, youth movement members, and political groups came from the west. The city was annexed to the USSR a short time before.
Anielewicz demanded that his colleagues send people to the occupied territories in Poland to continue the educational and political activities underground. He and his girlfriend, Mira Fukrer, were among the first volunteers that went back to Warsaw.
From January 1940, Anielewicz became a professional underground activist. As a leader of his youth movement, he organized cells and youth groups, provided instruction, participated in underground publications, organized meetings and seminars, and visited other groups in different cities.
Anielewicz dedicated part of his time learning Hebrew, reading and studying history, sociology and economics. He published articles and gave lectures.
His activities changed when the news about the mass killings of Jews in Eastern Europe became known. Immediately Anielewicz started organizing self-defense groups inside the ghetto. His first attempts to connect with Polish forces outside the ghetto, acting under orders of the Polish government in London, failed.
In March-April 1942, Anielewicz was one of the founders of the “Anti-fascist group.” The “group” did not fulfill the expectations of Zionist groups, however, and, after a wave of arrests of communist members the organization, it was dismantled.
When the major deportation to extermination camps started in the Warsaw ghetto during the summer of 1942, Anielewicz was visiting in the south-west region of Poland that was annexed to Germany, trying to organize armed defense. Upon his return, he found only 60,000 Jews left from the 350,000 that had been in the ghetto. Most had been sent to the newly established Treblinka death camp 50 miles away.
There was a small ineffective “Jews Fighter Organization” without any weapons. Most of the ghetto’s elders were opposed to the idea of armed resistance, fearing it would provoke German retribution. Anielewicz and other young activists, however, found more support for the idea of They were convinced the Jews had to show a willingness and ability to fight even if there was no hope of defeating the Germans.
Anielewicz started to reorganize the group, which became the Jewish Fighting Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa; ŻOB). In November 1942, Anielewicz was elected as chief commander.
Until January 1943, a few fighter groups of youth movement members were based in the ghetto. A connection with the Polish army commanded from London was made and weapons were supplied from the Polish side of the city. The Polish underground, however, did not have confidence Jews would use weapons and, after giving then a few revolvers, said no more would be provided.
On January 18, 1943, the Nazis planned the second big deportation of the Jews to the extermination camps from the Warsaw ghetto. The headquarters did not have enough time to discuss a possible response but the armed groups decided to revolt. Anielewicz commanded the battle in the main street. The fighters, armed with a small number of pistols and grenades, joined the deported and, when they got a signal between the streets Zamenhoff and Niska, they attacked the escort. The Jews escaped and dispersed. In four days of fighting, some 50 Germans and all of the ŻOB defenders except Anielewicz were killed. The Germans withdrew and stopped the deportations, which the Jews considered a victory.
The next three months – January to April 1943 – was a time of intensive preparation. The Germans tried unsuccessfully to convince the Jews to go peacefully to the deportation trains. On April 19, the eve of Passover (and Hitler’s birthday), the Germans returned with 2,000 troops and a convoy of tanks and met fierce resistance from fighters armed mainly with pistols. The Nazis greatly outnumbered the resistance and had superior firepower; nevertheless, the Nazis suffered many losses in the first days of fighting. Three long days of battles took place in the streets. The few hundred Jewish fighters refused to surrender. The Germans tried to lure them out of hiding places but, ultimately, decided to burn every house and possible shelter in the ghetto.
Anielewicz had moved his headquarters to a shelter on Mila 18 street. On May 8, the Germans found the bunker and gassed it. Some civilians surrendered but Anielewicz and about 100 of his comrades were killed. Those not killed in the fighting took their own lives to avoid capture.
Memorial at site of Mila 18 bunker
Obelisk with names of 51 Jewish fighters
The remaining fighters in the ghetto continued to resist. The uprising lasted a total of four weeks until May 16, 1943, when General Jurgen Stroop reported: “the former Ghetto has been completely destroyed.”
The Israeli kibbutz Yad Mordechai was named in memory of Anielewicz, and a monument is erected in his memory.
Statue at Yad Mordechai
*Note that his name is sometimes spelled differently.
Photos: © Mitchell Bard
Portrait: Public domain via Wikimedia.