19 April 2023 marks the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first civilian rebellion against the German occupier.
“A battle is being fought for both your freedom and ours. For your and our – human, social and national – honour and dignity.”
.This is an excerpt from the proclamation of the Jewish Combat Organisation (“ŻOB”), published a few days after the outbreak of the uprising and distributed to the Poles on the Aryan side. The Jewish combatants did not want to be slaughtered by the Germans without putting up a fight, even though they knew it would be to the death.
Poland, home to 3.5 million Jews (10% of the country’s population), was attacked by the Germans and Soviets in September 1939. Warsaw fell within the German occupation zone. As there was no organisation in Poland willing to form a puppet government in the German service, the occupiers decided to rule themselves. They annexed the western parts of the country to the Reich and turned the rest of the occupied territories into the General Governorate, headed by Hans Frank. They took over the entire economy and redirected it to their benefit. According to Hitler, the Poles and Jews who were not allied to or otherwise useful to Germany should not survive. The occupation of Poland was therefore marked by brutality unprecedented in Europe.
Germans wanted to isolate the Jews from the rest of the population. To that end, in 1940 they created a ghetto, to which they moved Jews from Warsaw and the surrounding area. Before the war, the capital was home to more than 350,000 Jews – a third of the city’s population. Warsaw was one of the largest centres of Judaism in the world and the largest in Europe. In November 1940, there were 450,000 Jews crammed within the walls of the ghetto, a 300-hectare area in the centre of Warsaw. Starvation, disease and summary executions served to gradually dehumanise the Jews, as the Germans desired.
On 19 April 1943, the day the uprising against the occupying forces broke out, the shrunken ghetto counted only 60,000 inhabitants. In the summer of 1942, the Germans deported the vast majority of Warsaw’s Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp (Grossaktion Warschau). The deportation scheme spared only those who had managed to secure jobs in workshops and factories of use to the Germans.
They planned to liquidate the ghetto completely at the beginning of 1943, after the final wave of transports to the death camps. The first armed operation by the Jews in January took the Germans by surprise. Two armed organisations had successfully organised themselves in the previous months: The Jewish Combat Organisation (“ŻOB”) and the Jewish Military Union (“ŻZW”).
The ŻOB was formed in 1942 from a number of Zionist, Labour and Bundist youth organisations. The ŻZW was founded in 1939 by Polish army officers of Jewish origin and consisted of many Betar fighters and revisionist Zionists. From the beginning, both organisations sought to establish contact with the Polish resistance movement, in particular the Home Army, in order to coordinate activities and acquire weapons and ammunition. The ideologically different ŻOB and ŻZW did not manage to ally themselves but eventually established a form of cooperation by assigning each other the ghetto zones to defend. Thus, a few hundred exhausted and poorly armed Jewish resistance fighters decided to challenge the German war machine in a battle that was doomed from the start but whose symbol would remain forever etched in their minds.
Heinrich Himmler gave the order to liquidate the ghetto on 19 April 1943, the Jewish holiday of Passover. The operation was meant to last two days and be completed on Hitler’s birthday, 20 April. The Germans wanted to turn the horror of Warsaw Jew’s ultimate annihilation into a holiday of their own.
The Jewish organisations put up fierce resistance from the start of the action. In the first few days, the ŻZW were engaged in fierce fighting on the outskirts of Muranowski Square. The insurgents hung a white and blue Jewish flag and a Polish flag from the tallest building near the square to symbolise the solidarity of the two tormented nations in their struggle for freedom, honour and dignity.
The Polish resistance movement also participated in the fights, such as by organising armed operations against the Germans on the Aryan side, supplying weapons and ammunition to the insurgents and helping to hide those who managed to escape from the ghetto. Polish Prime Minister in exile Władyslaw Sikorski appealed to his nation to stand in solidarity with the Jewish insurgents and help them as much as they could.
The disparity of power sealed the fate of the uprising. The Germans deployed thousands of soldiers supported by armoured vehicles, artillery, poison gas and flamethrowers. Meanwhile, the ŻOB had only 500 men, a few dozen pistols and grenades, and some Molotov cocktails. The ŻZW had only 300 men; they were, however, somewhat better-armed thanks to the help of the Home Army. Yet, the power imbalance did not prevent the Jewish warriors from fighting for what the Nazi occupiers lacked – honour and dignity.
The German army commander, Jürgen Stroop, infuriated by this stronger-than-expected resistance, increased the number of soldiers engaged in putting it down. Their brutality was unthinkable: they set fire to the cellars where Jews were hiding, shot the resistance fighters on the spot and systematically burned and demolished every building in the ghetto along with their inhabitants. It was also partially intended to warn the Polish population not to help the Jews.
After a week of heavy fighting, Muranowski Square fell. The Germans removed both flags, Jewish and Polish, which flew over Warsaw. The surviving members of the ŻZW escaped the ghetto through the sewers and continued fighting on the Aryan side. This is how the group’s commanders, Paweł Frenkel and Leon Rodal, died.
On 8 May, the Germans surrounded the bunker on Miła Street, where the headquarters of the ŻOB were located. The insurgents, led by Mordechai Anielewicz, chose to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of the occupiers. Fighting continued in some parts of the ghetto but was no longer as intense. On 16 May, the Germans blew up the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street as the crowning moment of liquidating the ghetto. All captured Jews were deported to extermination camps, and the remains of the ghetto were razed to the ground. All traces of the Jewish presence in the city were to be wiped out forever.
Several hundred surviving Jews went into hiding on the Aryan side and took part in the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. Let us recall here Marek Edelman, the last commander of the ŻOB, who after the war became the most prominent figure among the survivors. The last living combatant of the Ghetto Uprising was Leon Kopelman, who died in 2021 at the age of 97.
It should be noted that uprisings later took place also in other ghettos: in Bialystok, Sosnowiec and Częstochowa.
.There are still many lessons we can learn from this momentous event in the history of Poland and the Jewish people. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the first civilian and urban rebellion against the Germans during the Second World War and the largest armed operation of the Jewish resistance against the threat of total extermination. These have later become a constitutive element of Jewish and Israeli identity, a counter-argument to those who claim that all Jews docilely let themselves be slaughtered. The uprising was a slap in the face for the Germans, who had not expected such large-scale resistance and had to spend a month liquidating the ghetto instead of the two days they had initially planned. This last bastion of the Jewish world in Central and Eastern Europe has become a symbol of the common struggle and brotherhood of arms between Jews and Poles – the two nations the Germans intended to obliterate. It has become a symbol of the struggle for honour, dignity and freedom – a symbol of moral victory amidst a sea of darkness and destruction. A glimmer of hope in a Europe crushed by Nazi and Communist totalitarianisms. Finally, it has become an inspiration for future insurgencies, such as the Warsaw Uprising a year later.
“|Long live the brotherhood of arms and blood of fighting Poland! Long live Freedom!” (quotation from the end of the ŻOB proclamation).