On September 8, 1939, Nazi forces arrived at the gates of Warsaw, a hub of Eastern Europe's Jewish community. Months later, those forces enclosed the city within a barbed wire-topped wall, ushering out its existing occupants to bring in hundreds of thousands of Jews. The Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, a prison spanning 1.3 square miles.
Even before the establishment of the ghetto, the prejudices of Warsaw had led to de facto segregation, with Jewish people making up nearly 90% of the residents in merchant districts. Meanwhile, over 90% of the Catholic population lived outside the cramped city center. Once Warsaw fell to the 20-day siege by German armies, de facto segregation quickly transformed into ghettoization.
Not only were Warsaw residents forced into closer and closer ranks, Jewish people who made their homes in the suburbs of Warsaw were also moved into the city. By 1940, the Jewish population of the ghetto had risen from 270,000 to 400,000 thanks to these forced relocations.
Life inside the ghetto was marked by starvation, thirst, disease, and hard labor. Mass deportations to Treblinka drained morale in the summer of 1942, exacerbating an already-oppressive sense of hopelessness. Even so, there were whispers of underground rebellion: Secret youth groups formed, keeping culture and religion alive. Fighting organizations, though fictitious at first, came into existence, and began to plan.
January of 1943 was a major turning point for the remaining Warsaw residents. When the Germans arrived one morning, bent on more death camp round ups, the inmates unexpectedly rose up. Battles ensued, with casualties on both sides, but it was enough to rouse the Jews to further action. Three months later, on April 19, the eve of Passover, this spark of resistance would catch fire—and lead to one of the most notable acts of resistance during World War II: the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Read on for an excerpt of Resistance, by Israel Gutman, which describes the months leading up to the April 1943 uprising.
The action began when convoys of Jews from the Placowka outpost outside the ghetto were stopped at the exit gates and not permitted to leave the closed-off area. This was taken as a bad omen, and information concerning the barred gates and concentrations of Germans who were preparing to execute the action quickly spread throughout the ghetto.
At 6:00 A.M. the expulsions began. Armed Germans and Ukrainians, who were certain that it would be an easy job, tried to repeat the system they had used in the previous expulsion: they called out for Jews to come out of their houses and concentrate in the courtyards. But they soon learned that the ruse would not work. Jews were not prepared to obey their orders as in the past, and many work places were unoccupied.
The expulsion started in the central ghetto. Among those who were killed by indiscriminate and random shooting on the first day was Yitzhak Giterman, one of the heads of the Joint Distribution Committee in Poland, a leading figure in the public underground and an active member of the Jewish National Committee.
Bernard Goldstein, an activist of the Bund in the underground, described the first moves of the January action in his memoir, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto:
“Suddenly, on the 18th of January, 1943, at 6 A.M., some of the streets in which the forced laborers of the workshops and factories still lived were filled with the sound of vile shouting, bursts of gunfire, and the noise of motorcycles and trucks. The wild beasts thrust their way into the courtyards and began to drag out, to brutally maul and fire on anyone who would not hurry to obey the order to go out into the street and form lines leading to the Umschlagplatz.
The workers who were gathered at the assembly points in order to go out to workshops and factories were also taken to the Umschlagplatz, accompanied by shouting, blows and a rain of bullets. Neither documents nor permits were acknowledged.”
Among those Who turned up for work that day were members of the Judenrat, and some of them were also taken to the transports together with their families.
Some pursuers managed to surprise inhabitants of the houses and lay their hands on workers. Most of the people of the ghetto, however, escaped to hiding places that they had prepared in advance. Some were in improvised corners of their cellars, in attics, and in rooms disguised by cupboards or wooden walls.
Dr. Lensky wrote in his memoirs that:
“On the days of the expulsion, the 18th to the 21st of January, 1943, a group of Jewish doctors from the hospital, together with their families, sat hidden in a room behind a clothes closet. Thirty people were in that room. It was in a part of the hospital situated at Gesia Street 6–8. Ukrainians entered the place. Their colleagues had already taken the sick and some of the staff to Treblinka. When they saw that there was no one in the place, the Ukrainians hurried to fill their pockets with whatever they could lay their hands on. They sought watches, jewelry, gold and similar items. Approaching the closet behind which the people were hidden, they extracted drawers and took various items away with them.
The people in hiding behind the closet could hear the Ukrainians’ voices and their every movement during their search. Fear penetrated deeply into the hearts of individuals hiding there, for there were some old people and little children in the place. The slightest movement, sneeze or cough could have given them away. But the Ukrainians who were busy plundering the place did not suspect that in the hideaway behind the closet the hearts of 30 Jews were beating madly. . . . Of course, camouflage of this kind was inadequate and insecure.”
The surprise German move against the ghetto had prevented the national commirtee from meeting and discussing whether the time was ripe for resistance action. Armed companies could not coordinate their steps. So they sprang into action independently.
The first shot was fired by Arieh Wilner when the pursuers penetrated a dwelling of members of the Jewish Fighting Organization in the vicinity of the OBW on Mila Street; the first battle in the ghetto was led by Mordecai Anielewicz. His plan was a simple one. Anielewicz chose a dozen fighters with pistols and stood prepared for the struggle. The fighters were to join the lines going to the Umschlagplatz, and at a certain point on the way and at a given signal, they were to burst out of the lines and attack the German guards escorting the queue.
Thus, members of the group entered the long line of hundreds concentrated on Mila Street, and at the corner of Zamenhof and Niska, near the transports, the signal was given and the battle began. Each Jewish fighter assaulted the nearest German. Even on a one-to-one basis, this was not a battle between equals. The Jews were armed with a few pistols and limited ammunition, while the Germans had semiautomatic rifles and ample ammunition.
The Jews had the momentary advantage of surprise and exploited it fully. After a few minutes, the Germans recovered from the shock of being attacked, and the initial forces were soon augmented by reserves. Most of the Jewish fighters fell in battle.
The battle was a decisive one. The hundreds of Jews who had been standing in the lines dispersed; the Germans saw that they were facing Jewish resistance, and the first Germans fell in the streets of the ghetto. At the same time, the Jews drew encouragement from the dust of the battle, and many ghetto dwellers adopted whatever means of passive resistance possible in the circumstances—that is, not to obey the German orders, to hide, and to evade deportation.
Two days after the battle, Berlinski wrote a few brief sentences on his meeting with Anielewicz in Mila Street:
“Today I am again with the people of Hashomer. Mordecai showed me the weapons that were taken. . . . They had disarmed the Germans, taken their weapons, and already know how to use them. Mordecai described the battle on the corner of Zamenhof and Niska, when he and a group of those who were being pursued initiated the struggle. Some of the SS members were killed and wounded; others fled, leaving behind their caps and some weapons. Then the Germans set fire to the building where Mordecai and his group were concentrated. He managed to escape. I congratulate him on his victory.”
Another group led by Yitzhak Zuckerman defended themselves from a house in Zamenhof Street. They had entrenched themselves in an apartment, and when the Germans entered to search, the fighters opened fire. The bravery of Zechariah Artstein and Hanoch Gutman in this attack was particularly notable. According to some of the participants, two Germans were wounded. At the end of this defensive action, in which a Jewish fighter was killed, the group retreated to a house on Muranowska Street. A conflict on a smaller scale also took place in the workshop district.
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January 18 marked a turning point in the existence of the Jewish Fighting Organization. The Germans had anticipated a smooth and simple process, but they encountered opposition and paid for it with casualties. For the first time, the Jew was no longer seen as a submissive victim.
Moreover, from that day onward, the Germans refrained from searching the dwellings and from climbing up to attics and down to cellars. The ease with which they had taken Jews was a thing of the past, and as they witnessed, to their amazement, one could lose one’s life not only on the battlefield at the front but also in the narrow lanes of the Warsaw ghetto.
Jews were no longer passive; they could fight back.
One cannot wholly understand the change that took place in the Jewish public’s attitude without appreciating the impression made by the events of January 1943. Jews were no longer passive; they could fight back. Yitzhak Zuckerman concluded that “the revolt in January is what made possible the April rebellion.” Without the initiative taken in January, the subsequent widespread revolt three months later would not have occurred. The mute acceptance of their fate and the sense of hopelessness that accompanied the mass expulsions in the summer of 1942 gave way to more defiant attitudes. Evading the Germans proved possible. The crisis and frustration experienced by the fighters in September finally disappeared. When a company of fighters met in Mila Street after the battle, mourning for fallen friends did not diminish the sense of excitement and achievement in battle. They realized that their mission was no longer an impossible dream.
The Jewish Fighting Organization now appeared openly in the streets of the ghetto in January and freed those who were being led to the railway carriages, thus proving that its struggle was directed toward aiding all the persecuted Jews. On that day, the Jews in the ghetto and the Jewish Fighting Organization became blood brothers.
A Jewish poet living in the ghetto, who had previously contributed light verse for public entertainment in clubs and cafes, wrote a poem entitled “Counterattack” about the impact of the events of January. The following are a few lines from the poem:
Let us see, before the throat
Stifles the last cry of woe.
Their arrogant hands, their whip-holding fists
Hold our tense fear—fear of man.
From Niska, Mila and Muranow,
Like a bouquet of blood-flowers
The heart cries out from the gun-barrels
This is our spring—our counterattack.
The second expulsion, the January action, was over in four days. From the second day, the Germans were obliged to invest enormous effort in catching the Jews. They succeeded only in catching the sick and the feeble, or those they happened upon accidentally. During those four days, some 5,000–6,500 people were taken from the ghetto or murdered. Taking part in the action were some two hundred German police and eight hundred auxiliaries from the Ukraine and the Baltic states.
On the last day, there was mass slaughter. In a hail of bullets the Nazis murdered a thousand Jews in the streets of the ghetto in apparent retaliation for the fact that the ghetto was no longer silent and submissive. SS Senior Colonel Ferdinand von Sammern–Frankenegg, police commandant of the Warsaw district, evidently did not report to his superiors on the dead and wounded among his soldiers resulting from the resistance in the Warsaw ghetto.
There is no precise information on the German casualties during the January resistance. The Poles spoke of dozens, but this is certainly an exaggeration. At any rate, ambulances were heard racing in and out of the ghetto. One can assume that on the eve of the last action in April von Sammern did not dare to enlighten his superiors as to the true situation in the ghetto and was not eager to reveal the events of January and the existence of the armed Jewish force in the area under his supervision. The mere fact that the Jews were capable of fighting and that the Jewish people could be considered an active enemy rather than a subhuman group ready for extermination was perhaps beyond the Nazis’ comprehension.
Notwithstanding the mass murders and the thousands hunted down in January, the Jews assumed that the Germans were deflected from carrying out their plans and forced to stop the action midway. Jewish resistance, they felt, had led to the failure of the mass expulsion and the withdrawal of German troops from the ghetto. This perception was also shared by the members of the military forces of the Polish underground. Neither Jews nor Poles had any reliable information stemming from German or other sources. The Jews responded to what was happening around them, and thus they assumed that the second expulsion would be total. After the Germans managed to uproot some 300,000 people in one concentrated sweep, it followed that during the second round they would complete the process by removing all the Jews of Warsaw.
Zivia Lubetkin, one of the veterans of the fighting organization, wrote in her memoirs:
“The action in January continued only for four days. The Germans intended to do away with the entire Jewish population of Warsaw this time, but when they were confronted with armed and unexpected opposition, they stopped the “action.” Evidently it did not seem to them befitting for Germans to pay with their lives for the death of the Jews of the ghetto.
Now they decided to gain time to achieve this end by finding a new method of annihilation. They did not know that time was also working to our advantage, that in our second confrontation they would have to pay a heavier price.”
Want to keep reading? Download Resistance, by Israel Gutman.
Despite the bravery of the Jewish people who came together to free themselves from Nazi Germany’s reign, the Warsaw Ghetto remained a site of catastrophic death and deprivation. As one survivor of the Uprising and the Holocaust said, it was not a matter of living or dying—rather, the members of the Uprising sought to “pick the time and place of our deaths”. Some 13,000 Jews died in the Uprising. The remaining 50,000 were shipped to major concentration camps, although a few managed to escape. After the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, the area was turned into an additional concentration camp, where another 5,000 people were killed.
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Featured photo of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Wikimedia Commons