The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
April 19 - May 16, 1943
Two events made April 19, 1943, an especially tragic day in the history of the Holocaust: In an exclusive resort on the island of Bermuda, British and American delegates began a 12-day conference supposedly to consider what their countries could do to help the Jews of Europe. Very little, they concluded. At the very same time, on the other side of the world in Poland, the Nazis moved to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto. In a desperate last stand, the remaining Jewish inhabitants of the walled-in enclave began a hopeless month-long battle against the Nazis. It was the first time during the war that resistance fighters in an area under German control had staged an uprising. It would end in the complete destruction of the ghetto.
The Nazis had established the ghetto two and a half years earlier. In mid-November of 1940, after ordering all Jews in Warsaw to collect in a designated part of the city, they sealed it off from the rest of the city with a medieval-like 10-foot high wall. Moving to the ghetto was a ghastly experience; it was like moving to prison. One inhabitant wrote, "we are segregated and separated from the world and the fullness thereof, driven out of the society of the human race." Jews weren't allowed out. In November 1941 the Nazis went so far as to institute the death penalty for any Jew found beyond the ghetto walls. And very little information was allowed in. Earlier in the occupation, the Nazis had already taken away radios. Now they also removed telephone lines, censored mail and frequently confiscated incoming packages.
Conditions in the ghetto were appalling. At one point, more than 400,000 Jews were crowded inside its walls. Typically several families lived in one apartment. Unable to buy food on the open market, they had to rely on the Nazis to supply the ghetto, and the Germans made it their policy to keep the inhabitants on the verge of starvation. The Nazi occupation authorities had instructions to provide Jews with half the weekly maximum food allowance needed by a "population which does no work worth mentioning." Within months, the hunger, overcrowding, lack of medical supplies and fuel shortages had a devastating effect. In 1941, typhus epidemics, which started in the synagogues and institutional buildings housing the homeless, decimated the ghetto. Matters were made worse when the sewage pipes froze and human excrement was dumped onto the street. By the end of the year, disease had killed more than 43,000 people or ten percent of the ghetto population.
In the spring of 1941, German industries set up workshops in the ghetto, which operated with the use of forced Jewish labor. For the most part, these small factory operations were created to support the German war effort. For that reason, Jews employed in them were saved from the first deportations to the death centers. The Nazis began transporting Jews in the summer of 1942. On July 20th, they issued an order for "non-productive" elements to prepare for a "resettlement" program that would begin two days later. The order provoked widespread panic throughout the ghetto. Jews who didn't have work cards frantically tried to get them. Ordered to organize the deportations, the head of the Jewish council committed suicide. The very same day, a group of Jewish leaders met to discuss whether or not to resist the orders. The majority decided not to. It was thought the Germans would take no more than 60,000 people and it was agreed that resistance would simply hasten the end of the ghetto.
Between that meeting and mid-September, the Nazis actually deported more than 300,000 Jews from the ghetto. Most of them were taken to the Treblinka death camp. In the fall of 1942, almost all the factions in the ghetto decided to resist future deportations. Each political group formed its own "battle group" which came under the central command of a 24-year-old named Mordecai Anielewicz. The armed resistance prepared for the conflict by building bunkers and shelters. In January 1943 the Nazis surprised the Jewish fighters, by suddenly deporting 6500 Jews. A struggle ensued in which a German police officer was badly injured and the planned mass deportation came to a halt. Enraged by the incident, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the ghetto. The emptied district was then to be razed to the ground.
At 3am on the morning of April 19, the Nazis surrounded the ghetto and the battle began. Between 2000 Germans armed with a tank, two armored cars, three light-anti-aircraft guns, one medium howitzer, heavy and light machine guns, flame throwers, rifles, pistols and grenades faced off against 700-750 Jewish resistance fighters. The Jews had managed to stockpile a few thousand grenades, as well as a few hundred rifles, revolvers and pistols. But they possessed only two or three light machine guns. The Germans planned to clear the ghetto of 60,000 Jews in three days. The Jews hoped to hold out as long as possible.
By April 22, fire was devouring several sections of the ghetto, forcing many Jews to leap from burning buildings. In the next few days, the Germans began capturing and killing more and more of the ghetto inhabitants some of whom reported that the resistance fighters in the bunkers had become "insane from the heat, the smoke, and the explosions." Some Jews tried to escape through the sewers. The Germans responded by blowing up the manholes and using poison gas. On May 8, Anielewicz was killed. By May 15th, the shooting had become so intermittent that it was clear the ghetto fighters had been defeated. As a sign of the German victory, the Nazi commander blew up the great Tlomacki Synagogue.
All in all, several thousand Jews had been buried in the debris, and more than 56,000 had been captured. About 30,000 of them were either immediately shot or transported to death camps. The remainder were sent to labor camps. Though the Nazis did raze the ghetto as Himmler had ordered, the resistance fighters had achieved at least one of their goals. Their commander Anielewicz articulated what this was in a letter to a friend shortly before his death. "My life's dream has been realized," he said. "I have lived to see Jewish defense in the ghetto rally its greatness and glory." By the end of the year, with very little left of Jewish life in Poland, the task for the Jewish resistance had become, in the words of one member of the underground, to "keep alive the remnants who have survived...so there will be some reserve for the future and witnesses to this crime."