Holocaust Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
(April 19 - May 16, 1943)
In 1942, Hitler decided to liquidate the ghettos the Nazis had created. Within 18 months, more than two million Jews were deported to death camps.
The Germans ordered the Jewish “police” in the Warsaw ghetto to round up people for deportation. From July 22, 1942, until September 21, approximately 265,000 men, women, and children were packed in cattle cars and transported to the Treblinka death camp, where they were murdered. Another 35,000 Jews were killed inside the ghetto during this operation, which left a Jewish population of between 55,000 and 60,000 in the ghetto.
The Jews being deported had been told they were being resettled, but many of those left in the ghetto came to the realization that they were more likely to be sent to their death.
On July 28, 1942, a group of roughly 200 mostly young people from three Zionist youth movements (Hashomer Hatzair, Habonim Dror, and Bnei Akiva) formed an organization called the ŻOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, which means Jewish Fighting Organization). Other organizations later joined the ŻOB, which was led by 23-year-old Mordecai Anielewicz. The Revisionist Zionist youth movement Betar established its own fighting organization, the “Jewish Military Union” (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy - ŻZW).
Anielewicz issued a proclamation calling for the Jewish people to defy German orders to go to the railroad station and ordered the underground forces to respond to any Aktion with force.
On January 18, 1943, the Nazis surprised the Jewish fighters, by suddenly deporting 6,500 Jews. Using a small supply of weapons that had been smuggled into the ghetto, Jewish fighters fired upon German troops as they tried to round up another group for deportation. After a few days, the troops retreated. This small victory inspired the ghetto fighters to prepare for future resistance.
The impact on the ghetto residents is described in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust:
SS Major General Jürgen Stroop (center) watches houses burn
After the January battle, the Jews spent the following weeks training, acquiring weapons, constructing subterranean bunkers and shelters, and making plans to defend the ghetto.
Heinrich Himmler was infuriated when he learned what happened and ordered the liquidation of the ghetto. On the eve of the final deportation, he replaced the chief of the SS and police in the Warsaw district, Obergruppenfuhrer Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, with SS und Polizeifuhrer (SS and Police Leader) Jurgen Stroop, an officer who had experience fighting partisans.
In April 1943, the Jews learned the Germans planned to deport all the people who remained in the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka, and the entire Jewish population went into hiding. At 3 a.m. on April 19, the eve of Passover and Hitler’s birthday, the Nazis surrounded the ghetto. The uprising began after German troops and police entered the ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants. Seven hundred and fifty fighters (500 from the ŻOB and 250 from the ŻZW) armed with a handful of pistols, rifles, and Molotov cocktails faced more than 2,000 heavily armed and well-trained German troops supported by tanks and flamethrowers.
The intensity of the resistance forced the Germans to withdraw from the ghetto, and Stroop reported that 12 of his men had been killed. They had expected to deport 60,000 Jews in three days. They returned with more and more firepower. After several days without quelling the uprising, Stroop ordered the ghetto burned to the ground, building by building.
The New York Times buried much of its coverage of the Holocaust on the back pages, the uprising was no different. “Warsaw’s Ghetto Fights Deportation” made page 9 on April 23, 1943. The lede said, “Armored cars and tanks have moved into Warsaw, where the ghetto populace is resisting separation of the remaining 35,000 Jews.” It added, “The Polish underground movement has supplied arms and sent trained commanders for a last stand, which is said to be costing the Germans many lives.” The story said concentration camps had been established near Lodz, Sosnowiez, and other towns and that 1,300,000 Polish Jews had already been killed.
The Times did not report again until May 7 (page 7), “A battle has been raging for seventeen days in Warsaw’s ghetto, where Jews have converted their homes into forts and barricaded shops and stores for defense posts.” It said that weeks earlier, an underground Polish radio station had appealed for help, reporting that Warsaw’s remaining Jews had been sentenced to death and that “women and children were defending themselves ‘with their bare arms.’”
The Jews in Warsaw held out against the overwhelming force for 27 days. On May 8, the headquarters bunker of the ZOB at 18 Mila Street was captured. Anielewicz and many of his colleagues were killed in the fighting, some committed suicide, and several dozen fighters escaped through the sewers.
On May 16, Stroop announced the fighting was over. He said his forces had captured 56,065 Jews and announced that he was going to blow up the Great Synagogue on Tlomack Street (which was outside the ghetto) as a symbol of victory and of the fact that “the Jewish quarter of Warsaw no longer exists.”
The Times headline, this time on page 6, said, “All Warsaw Jews Held ‘Liquidated.’” The report said buildings were still burning and that “four members of the ghetto council, who had been taken hostage on April 17, were shot and that their bodies had been thrown on a refuse heap.”
Approximately 300 Germans and 7,000 Jews were killed in the uprising, and another 7,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka. Many others were shot or sent to forced-labor camps at Poniatowa and Trawniki, and to the Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp where most were murdered on November 3-4, 1943, during the Erntefest massacre. As many as 20,000 Jews remained in hiding on the Aryan side of Warsaw.
This was the first popular uprising in a city in Nazi-occupied Europe, and even though the outcome was preordained, the dramatic act of resistance inspired smaller uprisings in other ghettoes and helped raise the morale of Jews everywhere, if only briefly.
Only a small piece remains of the ghetto walls, which were about eleven miles long. A small monument marks the spot where the Jewish fighters built their command bunker on 18 Mila Street. The exact location of the bunker is unknown, but a monument was erected approximately where it stood. It reads: “Grave of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising built from the rubble of Mila Street, one of the liveliest streets of pre-war Jewish Warsaw. These ruins of the bunker at 18 Mila Street are the place of rest of the commanders and fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization, as well as some civilians. Among them lies Mordechai Anielewicz, the Commander in Chief.”
Nearby there is a plaque honoring the leader of the ŻZW, Paweł Frenkel. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens believed he was denigrated because of the group’s affiliation with the right-wing Betar group, while Anielewicz’s fighters were identified with the ruling party in Israel. Arens said, “Anielewicz’s people viewed them as fascists and refused to work in cooperation with them.”
In 1988, the Polish government erected a monument at the train station, the Umschlagplatz, where the Jews were forced to assemble before being packed into boxcars. It is a white stone structure with a black stripe representing the colors of a traditional tallit and resembles an open freight car. Etched on the walls are the first names of 400 Jews, each commemorating 1,000 victims, and the words, “Along this path of suffering and death over 300,000 Jews were driven in 1942-1943 from the Warsaw ghetto to the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps.”
In 2014, the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened on the grounds of the ghetto.
Sources: Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World War II, 3rd Edition, (NY: Alpha Books, 2010).
“Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Israel Gutman, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Vols. 1-4, (NY: Macmillan, 1995).
“The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” PBS.
Shmuley Boteach, Holocaust Holiday: One Family's Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, (NY: Wicked Son, 2021).
“Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” Yad Vashem.
“Warsaw’s Ghetto Fights Deportation,” New York Times, (April 23, 1943).
“Battle is Reported in Warsaw’s Ghetto,” New York Times, (May 7, 1943).
“All Warsaw Jews Held ‘Liquidated.’” New York Times, (May 15, 1943).
Photos: Anielewicz - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Stroop courtesy of USHMM.
Stroop report - National Archives and Records Administration.