Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

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Editor: Israel Gutman
Date: 1990
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 3,249 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first urban uprising in German-occupied Europe, and, among the Jewish uprisings, the one that lasted the longest, from April 19 to May 16, 1943. In the spring of 1942 some members of the Jewish underground of the Warsaw ghetto, especially those in the Zionist pioneering movements, under the impact of the reports of a mass murder campaign in the east had come to the conclusion that a defense force had to be formed that would go into action if an attempt were made to deport the Jews from the ghetto. Efforts to organize such a force met with resistance from various groups in the underground, and by the time the mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto were launched on July 22, 1942, no unified Jewish resistance force had come into being. A resistance organization called the Antifascist Bloc had been formed in April 1942 and operated for a while, but it included only some of the underground elements, and failed to attain the goals it had set for itself.

When the deportations began, renewed efforts were made to establish a fighting organization, consisting of the various underground factions operating in the ghetto; but this attempt too was quashed by some of the ghetto leaders, who believed that armed resistance posed an intolerable threat and could lead to the end of the entire Jewish ghetto population, including those who might otherwise be saved. Nevertheless, the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization; ZOB) was founded on July 28, on a more modest scale, consisting only of the three Zionist pioneering movements, Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir, Dror, and Akiva. The operational plans of the new organization in the summer of 1942 had little effect, and initial attempts to establish contact with the Polish military underground Armia Krajowa (Home Army) were also unsuccessful. Indeed, in that early period of its existence the ZOB suffered serious debacles, and lost many of its fighters and leaders in the deportations. The deportations came to a halt in mid-September, by which time about 300,000 Jews had been removed from the ghetto, 265,000 of them deported to the Treblinka extermination camp. This left a Jewish population of 55,000 to 60,000 in the ghetto.

These survivors felt isolated and bitter. Most of them were young people who now blamed themselves for not having offered armed resistance against the deportation of their families. They were also well aware that having survived that first wave of deportations, they had not yet been saved, and that they were experiencing merely a temporary lull between one wave of deportations and the next.

This mood was shared by the factions in the ghetto underground. In October more of them joined the ZOB, which now represented all the active forces in the underground, with the exception of Betar and the Revisionists, who set up a fighting organization of their own, the Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy (Jewish Military Union; ZZW). At that point the ZOB emissaries finally succeeded in establishing contact with the Armia Krajowa, the major element in the Polish military underground, gaining its recognition and obtaining from it a very small quantity of arms--ten pistols and some explosive charges. This was a far cry from what the ZOB needed to equip its members, but it was an important boost to morale. A headquarters was established for the ZOB, under the command of Mordecai Anielewicz; it embarked upon the training of the fighters and laid plans for resistance.

On Monday, January 18, 1943, before the ZOB had completed its preparations, the Germans launched the second wave of deportations, the "January Aktion." It was this second Aktion in the ghetto by the German police and SS that became the ZOB's first military test. Judging by what it had experienced in the first wave of deportations, which had taken 83 percent of the Jews in the ghetto, the surviving Jewish population assumed that the second Aktion was to be the final deportation of Warsaw's Jews. German documents that have since come to light reveal that this was not so, and that the second Aktion was planned to remove from the ghetto no more than 8,000 Jews. The Aktion came as a surprise, and the ZOB leadership was unable to meet and decide on a coordinated reaction. Even so, the Aktion did not proceed as the Germans had planned and expected. The two companies that were equipped with arms--Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir and Dror--went into action. The main operation, commanded by Mordecai Anielewicz, took place in the street. A group of Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir men, armed with pistols, deliberately broke into a column of Jews that were being marched to the Umschlagplatz (assembly point), and when the agreed sign was given they confronted the German escorts in a face-to-face battle. That fight was the first in which Germans were attacked in the ghetto. Most of the Jewish fighters fell in the battle, although Anielewicz was able to overcome the German soldier with whom he was struggling and was saved. The long column of Jews scattered in all directions. News of the battle soon reached the rest of the beleaguered Jews; in one place, a building on Zamenhof Street, a squad of Dror men, commanded by Yitzhak Zuckerman, lay in waiting, and when the Germans appeared on the scene they were met by a hail of fire.

That day, January 18, 1943, was not only the ZOB's baptism of fire. In the course of the Aktion that the Germans launched that day and which lasted for four days, there was a decisive change in the ghetto population's pattern of behavior. When the first column had dispersed, the Germans were no longer able to set up another one, since the Jews refused to respond to the shouts ordering them to get out of their houses and report to the assembly points. The majority of the ghetto Jews were concealed in improvised hiding places. The Germans also acted in a different manner, desisting from their usual ear-splitting cries, moving quietly, and keeping away from places where Jews might be hiding. When the Aktion ended, on the fourth day, five thousand to six thousand Jews had been caught. The Jews interpreted the early discontinuation of the Aktion by the Germans as a sign of weakness and a retreat before the force that had confronted them; the Polish underground also assumed that the Jewish resistance had compelled the Germans to interrupt the Aktion.

These events in January had a decisive impact on the preparations that were being made for the next uprising; the three months from January to April were utilized for feverish activities to put the ZOB in a state of readiness for the forthcoming test on the field of battle. One of the lessons that the ZOB had learned from the January events was that the ghetto might once again be taken by surprise with an Aktion and that therefore the ZOB and all its fighters had to be on a permanent alert. A total of twenty-two fighting units were formed in that period, based on the movements to which their members belonged. They were each assigned to apartments controlled by the ZOB, located in the immediate vicinity of the positions that the ZOB planned to occupy when the time came. Another "January lesson" was that the enemy had to be taken unaware by the attacks and that these had to be launched from well-prepared positions in the maze of the ghetto buildings and roof attics. Accordingly, the ghetto, or parts thereof, was divided into fighting sectors with designated positions, with a fighting unit attached to each. Anielewicz was in overall command of the ZOB and the ghetto; Israel Kanal commanded the central area, Yitzhak Zuckerman (followed by Eliezer Geller) the factory units (the "shops"), and Marek Edelman the units in the area of the brushmakers' stores. A ZZW force, commanded by Pawel Frenkiel, entrenched itself in the Muranowski Square area.

The weapons in the hands of the fighting organizations were mostly pistols--the personal weapon of the individual fighter; some of them had been obtained from Polish organizations, but for the most part they had had to be purchased. The ZOB also had automatic weapons and rifles that its men had seized from the Germans, and the ZZW had obtained weapons from Polish sources. In addition, hand grenades were manufactured in the ghetto, and these were to play an important role in the fighting during the uprising. In this waiting period between January and April, the ZOB could have recruited many new members to its ranks, but a real expansion of the force was precluded by the lack of arms. Shortly before the uprising was launched, the ZOB's armed and organized force consisted of twenty-two fighting platoons, with a total of 500 fighters. The ZZW had 200 to 250 fighters, and the total Jewish fighting forces in the ghetto numbered 700 to 750.

The civilian population of the ghetto also underwent a transformation that was to have a decisive impact on the course of events during the uprising. The Jews in the ghetto believed that what had happened in January was proof that by offering resistance it was possible to force the Germans to desist from their plans. Many thought that the Germans would persist in unrestrained mass deportations only so long as the Jews were passive, but that in the face of resistance and armed confrontation they would think twice before embarking upon yet another Aktion. The Germans would also have to take into account the possibility that the outbreak of fighting in the ghetto might lead to the rebellion spreading to the Polish population and might create a state of insecurity in all of occupied Poland. These considerations led the civilian population of the ghetto, in the final phase of its existence, to approve of resistance and give its support to the preparations for the uprising. The population also used the interval to prepare and equip a network of subterranean refuges and hiding places, where they could hold out for an extended period even if they were cut off from one another. In the end, every Jew in the ghetto had his own spot in one of the shelters set up in the central part of the ghetto. Many of these civilian shelters also had a cache of defensive weapons. The civilian population and the fighters now shared a common interest based on the hope that, under the existing circumstances, fighting the Germans might be a way to rescue.

The ZOB command did not share the optimistic appraisal that armed resistance might deter the Germans from carrying out their plans, but it encouraged the digging of bunkers and their being equipped for a long stay. The ways in which preparations proceeded for the forthcoming crucial test--the military measures undertaken by the fighting organizations, the attitude of the general population, and the network of bunkers that it prepared--turned the uprising on April 19, coinciding with the last Aktion, which was launched on that day, into a widespread popular revolt, with far-reaching consequences.

The three months between January and April were used for intensively training the fighting forces, acquiring weapons, and drawing up a strategic plan for the defense of the ghetto. The last Aktion and the resistance campaign that came to be known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising began on April 19, 1943, which was the eve of Passover. The ghetto fighters had been warned and had advance knowledge of the timing of what was to be the final deportation. There is no doubt that the chief of the SS and police in the Warsaw district, Obergruppenführer Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, was aware of the existence of a Jewish defense formation, but he apparently did not dare admit to his superiors in Kraków that a significant Jewish fighting force had been established in the ghetto. Heinrich Himmler did not rely on Sammern-Frankenegg, and on the eve of the final deportation he replaced him with a man who had had experience in fighting partisans, SS- und Polizeiführer (SS and Police Leader) Jürgen Stroop, whose task it became to suppress the uprising and bring the ghetto to its knees.

In the twenty-seven days that the uprising lasted, the Nazis deployed a considerable military force, including tanks, that in the first days of the fighting consisted, on the average, of 2,054 soldiers and policemen and 36 officers. Facing them were 700 to 750 young Jewish fighters who had had no military training or battle experience and who for all practical purposes were armed with no more than pistols.

On the morning of April 19, when the German forces entered the ghetto they did not find a living soul in the central part, except for a group of policemen. The entire Jewish population had taken to the hiding places and bunkers, and by refusing to comply with the Germans' orders they became part of the uprising. That day, following the first clash, the Germans were forced to withdraw from the ghetto. They lost a tank and an armored vehicle that had been hit by Molotov cocktails, and they were unable to capture the ZOB and ZZW position on Muranowska Square, where two flags were raised on top of a building--the flag of Poland and a blue-and-white Jewish national flag. In the first of his daily reports on the fighting in the ghetto, Stroop stated: "As soon as the units were deployed they were attacked by coordinated fire from the Jewish bandits; the tank that had been sent into battle and the two armored vehicles had Molotov cocktails thrown at them. The tank caught fire twice. This enemy assault at first compelled our forces to withdraw. Our losses in this first operation were twelve (six SS men and six Trawniki men)."

The face-to-face fighting lasted for several days. The Germans were not able to capture or hit the Jewish fighters, who after every clash managed to get away and retreat by way of the roofs; nor could the Germans lay hands on the Jews hiding in the bunkers. The Germans therefore decided to burn the ghetto systematically, building by building; this forced the fighters to take to the bunkers themselves and to resort to partisan tactics by staging sporadic raids. The flames and the heat turned life in the bunkers into hell, the very air was afire, the food that had been stored up spoiled, and the water was no longer fit to drink. Despite everything, the bunker dwellers refused to leave their hideouts.

Stroop's report for April 22 contains the following passage:

The fire set during the night forced the Jews who, despite all the search operations, were still hiding--under the roofs, in cellars, and other secret places--to appear in front of the housing blocks in an attempt to find some way of escaping the flames; large numbers of Jews, entire families at a time, their clothes afire, jumped from the windows or tried to climb down on bed sheets that they had tied together, or in some other fashion. We made sure that these Jews, like all the others, were liquidated on the spot.

The bunker war--the burning of the bunkers--turned out to be the Germans' most difficult and troublesome task. Time and again Stroop claimed in his daily reports that he had overcome resistance and that the uprising was dying out, only to report the next day that there was no end to the attacks and the losses suffered by his troops.

Gradually, however, the Jews' power of resistance declined. On April 23 Mordecai Anielewicz wrote to Yitzhak Zuckerman, the member of the ZOB command who was on the "Aryan" side:

I cannot describe to you the conditions in which the Jews are living. Only the chosen few will hold out; all the others will perish, sooner or later. The die is cast. In the bunkers where our comrades are hiding out no candle can be lit at night because of the lack of air. ... From all the companies in the ghetto, only one person was killed, Yehiel; that, too, is a victory of sorts. ... Peace be with you, my dear friend; perhaps we shall still meet again. The main thing is that my life's dream has been realized: I have lived to see Jewish defense in the ghetto in all its greatness and glory.

One of the fighters' most vulnerable points was their lack of arms, both qualitatively and quantitively. The small-caliber pistols in their possession were not suitable for street fighting, and, in spite of the fighters' stubborn persistence and daring, the losses they inflicted on the Germans were quite small. The people in the bunkers put up a desperate fight, but their cause was hopeless from the outset when the entire ghetto was in flames and all inside were trapped. The Poles reported that units of the Polish military underground undertook to rally to the help of the Jews; some of these fighters fell in the attempt, but not a single group was able to penetrate the wall and get into the ghetto.

On May 8 the headquarters bunker of the ZOB at 18 Mila Street fell, and with it also Mordecai Anielewicz and a large group of fighters and commanders. The ZOB fighters had not made any plans for a retreat from the ghetto, their assumption being that the battle would go on inside the ghetto until the last fighter had fallen. Thanks to a rescue mission arranged by the ZOB men on the Polish side that made its way through the sewers of the city, several dozen fighters were saved.

The fighting in the ghetto lasted nearly a month. The Jews in the bunkers who were not discovered by the Germans' dogs or by means of special search instruments the Germans used kept up their resistance as long as they were alive. The Nazis also threw gas grenades into the bunkers, when the Jews inside refused to leave even after they had been forced open.

On May 16 Stroop announced that the fighting was over and that "we succeeded in capturing altogether 56,065 Jews, that is, definitely destroying them." He stated that he was going to blow up the Great Synogogue on Tlomacka Street (which was outside the ghetto and the scene of the fighting) as a symbol of victory and of the fact that "the Jewish quarter of Warsaw no longer exists."

Even after May 16 there were still hundreds of Jews in the subterranean bunkers of the ghetto, which was now a heap of ruins. They sneaked out of the bunkers during the night in search of food and water and kept in touch with one another. The last survivors among these fighters succeeded in establishing contact with the Poles and escaping to the "Aryan" side. Only a handful held out in the bunkers until the Warsaw Polish Uprising in August 1944.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising was the first instance in occupied Europe of an uprising by an urban population. Its unique feature was the fact that it was a general rebellion, in which armed fighters took part together with masses of Jews hiding out in bunkers and refuges. The common fate that the fighters and "civilians" knew they shared and their utter determination made the Warsaw ghetto, starved and humiliated though it was, a bastion of resistance and fighting that battled the forces of Nazi Germany and stood up against them for a longer period than some independent countries in Europe had held out.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2339204176