Beginning in 1940, the Nazis began the ghettoization of Poland’s more than three million Jews.
The Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto in Poland, concentrated 300,000-400,000 Jews and others. 30% of Warsaw’s population was now effectively sequestered in 2.4% of Warsaw’s total area (Einwohner, 652).
In the densely packed ghetto quarters, diseases like typhus spread rapidly and kept the ghetto population from expanding.
Food rations were meager, sanitation was poor, and space was limited. Despite these limitations, Jews carried on an active and involved society life within the walls of the ghetto (Marrus, 85).
Before deportations even began, 100,000 ghetto residents died from disease, starvation and Nazi brutality (Leven).
Map of the Warsaw Ghetto
Life in the Ghetto Life in the Ghetto
Wide-scale deportations began from July to September of 1942. The “Resettlement Commissioner” Hermann Holfe politely described the deportations as “resettlement to the East.”
Adam Czerniakow, head of the Jewish Council in the ghetto, was order to provide lists of Jews and maps of their residences. After the Nazi authorities refused to grant exemption from deportation for the children of an orphanage, Czerniakow committed suicide on July 23, 1942 by swallowing a cyanide capsule. He left a note that read: “They demand me to kill children of my nation with my own hands. I have nothing to do but to die.”
Anywhere from 254,000-300,000 Jews were killed at the Treblinka concentration camp as a result of the Warsaw Ghetto mass deportation (Marrus, 91).
At the onset of the deportation, Jewish resistance leaders decided not to militarily resist, believing that Jews were being sent to work camps (Einwohner, 655). However, by the end of that year it became apparent that deportees were being sent to their deaths. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began.
Adam Czerniakow (1880-1942) (1880-1942)
In January of 1943, the Nazis initiated the second round of deportations.
Members of the Jewish Military League, joined by the Jewish Combat Organization, engaged the Nazis in direct combat. Despite attacks, the Nazis still managed to carry out deportations, but at a significantly reduced capacity.
The Jewish Military League and Jewish Combat Organization began constructing fighting posts and executing Nazi collaborators (Marrus, 91). The resistance fighters prepared themselves for a long, arduous and hopeless struggle against their persecutors.
By January, the ghetto fighters numbered around 400. Their numbers would swell to 1,000 fighters by April of 1943 (Marrus, 93).
Resources of the Resistance
Jewish insurgents typically fought with pistols and revolvers, which were ineffective in combat and virtually useless at long range (Einwohner, 661).
Rifles and automatic weapons were sometimes smuggled into the ghetto by members of the Polish Resistance, but in small quantities.
Ammunition and weapons were a constant scarcity, but resistance fighters carried on with the little they had.
Insurgents relied heavily on improvised explosive devices and “incendiary bottles”, i.e. Molotov cocktails (bottles filled with petrol fuel and then lit on fire).
The Polish Resistance
Besides smuggling weapons into the ghetto for Jewish resistance fighters, members of the Polish Resistance aided in other ways.
Some Polish Resistance units fought inside the ghetto alongside Jewish resistance fighters (Marrus, 90).
Polish fighters engaged Nazi forces outside of the walls of the ghetto and attempted to breach the walls with explosives.
The Polish Resistance appealed to Allied forces through radio transmissions to assist the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto.
In 1944, the Polish Resistance staged an uprising against the Nazi occupation of Warsaw known as the Warsaw Uprising.
Resources of the Nazis
The Nazis committed an average daily force of 2,090 well-armed soldiers to oppose the Uprising. This included 363 Polish policemen who were stationed around the perimeter the ghetto.
The German force includes army battalions, the Warsaw Gestapo, anti-aircraft artillery, a Ukrainian battalion from a Final Solution training camp, and a group of criminals and executioners from a nearby prison who volunteered to “hunt the Jews” (Einwohner, 670).
Jewish policemen working under the Gestapo were either executed outright, or used in the offensive and then subsequently executed.
On the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943, Nazi forces entered the ghetto with the intention of crushing the uprising within three days. However, Jewish resistance fighters managed to ambush Nazi forces, launch Molotov cocktails against advancing troops, and curtail the offensive. This led to the replacement of the SS police commander of Warsaw and the appointment of Jurgen Stroop, who rejected his predecessor’s call to bomb the ghetto from the air. Instead, Stroop advanced plans for a better coordinated ground assault.
From April 19th to end of April, Jewish fighters defended a stronghold against aggressive Nazi retribution. In a famous incident, two boys climbed to the roof of the headquarters of the Jewish Resistance and raised two flags - a Polish flag and the blue and white banner of the Jewish Military League (Marrus, 96).
Follow this link to watch a clip from the TV miniseries “Uprising.” In this scene, Resistance fighters engage unsuspecting Nazi troops marching through the Ghetto. (Watch up to 2:20).
The Ghetto in the midst of combat
The Burning of the Warsaw Ghetto
After Jewish resistance fighters destroyed a German armored vehicle in a counterattack and rejected an ultimatum to surrender, the Nazis embarked on a plan to systematically burn the ghetto to the ground using flame-throwers and explosives. The failure of their ground offenses to eliminate the resistance movement led them to indiscriminately destroy the ghetto, in the way that you drain a pond to kill the fish.
The Jewish military league lost all of its leaders, and some of its remaining members escaped through a sewage tunnel into a forest outside of Warsaw (Leven).
Others in the ghetto, resistance fighters and civilians alike, hid in bunker dugouts amidst the ruins of the ghetto. Nazi troops used dogs to seek out these hideouts. Smoke grenades, tear gas and poison gas forced them out from hiding.
The Ghetto in Ruins
End of the Uprising
On May 8, 1943, Nazi troops discovered the last remaining resistance command post. All remaining leaders and a few dozen remaining fighters were killed. Others, refusing to be killed or captured by the Nazis, committed suicide by taking cyanide.
The Uprising officially ended on May 16, 1943.
The Human Toll
Approximately 13,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto during the uprising.
6,000 Jews were burnt alive or died from smoke inhalation during the burning of the ghetto.
The remaining 50,000 residents were captured and shipped to concentration camps. Most were sent to Treblinka.
Anywhere from 100 to 300 Nazi soldiers were said to have been killed in combat.
Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Warsaw
Einwohner, Rachel L. "Opportunity, Honor, and Action in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943." The American Journal of Sociology 109, no. 3 (2003): 650-675.
Leven, Shachar L. "Self-Defense and Struggle: Revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto." Yad Vashem Magazine , 2004
Marrus, Michael R. "Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust." Journal of Contemporary History 30, no. 1 (1995): 83-110.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Warsaw Ghetto Uprising."