Today marks 77 years since the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto unexpectedly fought back against Nazis in what would later become one of the most legendary uprisings of WWII – The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
By the Spring of 1943, the Poles as a people had been tortured, starved to death, executed, or trucked off to death camps for four years. In a war that would go on to be responsible for the deaths of 6 million of them, they were hopelessly outmatched by the Germans. In the Fall of 1939, just months after Germany’s invasion of Poland, over 450,000 Polish Jews had been confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, and only a year later, that Ghetto was sealed off by bricked walls, barbed wire, broken glass and armed guards with a bullet for anyone who tried to leave.
As the years drug on, things got worse. And fast. The Ghetto quickly became a waiting room for death where the options were to starve to death, be shot, or hauled off to a death camp in a cattle truck. In his memoirs, Marek Stok described the Warsaw ghetto in the winter of 1941:
“Thousands of paupers, beggars are constantly camping on the street. They are not people. Ghost characters in dirty rags, rags, emaciated faces with feverish eyes and swollen legs. (…) You can not walk a long section down the streets to avoid meeting human corpses. The corpse lies in rags on the pavement, and people hurry, trying not to look, pass by, until some merciful soul covers him with newspapers. Dead bodies of men, women and children. On all streets.”
Because of the controlled walls, heavy security, and immediate execution of anyone who disobeyed in the slightest – the residents of the Ghetto had no control over food availability. Long lines waiting hours for one loaf of bread with one jar of jam to last your family an entire week was a regular occurrence, and shortages were even more common. Germans strategically starved them by limiting food supply and forcing families to live off tiny rations, often surviving on only 200-300 calories per person a day. Children would often sneak into the Aryan side to steal scraps and die in the process. This led to the deaths of nearly 100,000 people within the Ghetto caused by starvation or disease alone.
With an average of 9 people per room and nearly half a million people in just one square mile, disease and famine spread like wildfire. Typhus and spotted fever, in particular, ravaged from house to house and took around 300 to sometimes even 700 lives per day. With no access to medical care and limited medical supplies, typhus, which has around a 30% mortality rate with treatment, became a death sentence. If the disease didn’t kill the afflicted, they were typically rounded up and exterminated to prevent the spread.
*Of these deaths caused by disease or starvation between 1940-1942, 83,000 thousand of them were Jewish, which averages around 110 Jewish starvation deaths in the Ghetto per day, every day, for two years straight.
Morning Funeral Carts
When a resident passed, which was often, their families were forced to place their bodies in the street. Each morning, around 4–5 am, carts would roll through the streets to collect the dozens or sometimes even 100s corpses from the previous night. The SS tossed them in wheelbarrows like hay or manure before cremating them in deep pits. Reduced to ashes with no proper burial, mourning period, or dignity.
Treblinka Death Camp
Starting in July of 1942, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), gave the order that mass waves of Warsaw Jews be ‘resettled’ to camps in Treblinka. They were told they’d be transported to ‘work centers’ and given the opportunity to prove themselves when in fact they were being sent to death camps and made to work until they collapsed from starvation, were shot for any reason, or gassed in one of Treblinka’s six chambers once they’d been deemed unusable for labor. New arrivals of workers were quickly divided with pregnant women, elderly, children, and anyone outside their prime crammed into a chamber and gassed before being dumped into a pit and burned with the same wood cut by their fellow inmates. Of the two million Jews deported to various death camps in Hitler’s first wave, 300,000 of them were from the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Polish Underground State
The Polish Underground State was formed in the fall of 1939 and went on to become the largest secret organization against the Nazis and later, the Soviets. The Underground State splintered through the Ghetto and inspired the creation of resistance groups within – namely, Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa.The Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa or Jewish Combat Organization was an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto. It was founded by 23-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz, who became the face of Jewish hope, resistance, and freedom in World War II. The group organized countless strategies and resistance activities in the Ghetto and otherwise. They were a true testament of the spirit of good and the determination to fight, no matter how scary, trying, or ill-fated it may be. They, along with several other Ghetto underground networks such as Żydowski Związek Wojskowy or the Jewish Military Union, a resistance group made up mainly of Polish Army Officers, risked their lives countless times slowly smuggling in weapons from the Aryan side, organizing communication networks in and out of the Ghetto and pulling off real-life James Bond stunts all under the noses of the SS.
The Ghetto Uprising
It was April 19, 1943, when Heinrich Himmler sent a band of SS forces with tanks and heavy artillery to the Warsaw Ghetto. In honor of Hitler’s birthday, which would be on April 20, Himmler set out to completely ‘liquidate’ the Ghetto. His three-day plan was to eliminate all remaining residents in the Ghetto before destroying it, and the rest of Warsaw entirely.
Tragically and poetically, April 19 was also the first day of Passover, the Jewish holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery in Egypt. Nonetheless, on April 19, 1943, before the sun had even come up, 2,000 SS troops made their way into what remained of the prison city. ŹOB commander, Mordechai Anielewics, had been warned by underground communication of the German’s plans to liquidate the Ghetto. After four years of rampant unforgiving genocide, the Ghetto had dwindled down from 470,000 to 60,000. But the remaining 60,000 were a mighty few. Mordechai called all of the underground fighters, ordered the rest of the Ghetto to go into hiding, and organized a revolt. It was time.
And at 3 am, around 1,000 resistance fighters armed with smuggled weapons, hid in the shadows and waited. As the 2,000 Nazi soldiers equipped with a tank, armored cars, howitzers, machine guns, rifles, pistols, and grenades rolled through the Ghetto, the resistance fighters readied themselves. They were scared. Hearts were racing, sweat beading, but that didn’t matter. All 1,000 of them stood in place with their motley weapons – grenades, homemade bombs of every kind, smuggled pistols and revolvers, Molotov cocktails, simple bats, you name it.
At 3 am, the Jews took the Nazis by surprise. Their homemade bombs and stolen pistols were no match for Nazi howitzers and flame throwers. They knew this. And they fought anyway. They fought so hard, in fact, that the Germans withdrew that same night. The next day, the Germans came back. And the day after that, and the day after that.
The Nazis were happy to wait out what they considered a foolish and pitiful fight from the Poles. Every day, the fighters, the heroes, the revolutionaries, came out screaming at the tops of their lungs – guns a blazing – ready to defend themselves and their families to the very end. They knew their fate. They’d done the math. But they planned to delay it as long as possible. No matter how inevitable. And delay they did. The resistance fighters managed to postpone the Nazis for 27 whole days until May 8. No matter how small or short-lived, this was a victory. And it tasted so, so good.
General Jürgen Stroop decided he was done with the charade and ordered the Ghetto be burned to the ground, building by building until every last Jew was charred to a crisp. Those caught would be sent to a death camp or shot on site. So on May 8, starting with the main hideout, a bunker on 18 Mila Street that held Mordechai and the bravest of the brave was gone in minutes.
And then just like that, they took the Ghetto building by building until every last one – even the babies, even the withering old grandmothers, were captured or killed. As the buildings were set on fire or raided, many jumped to their death to avoid capture. Any sewers, manholes, or remaining tunnels were filled with gas, and barricaded closets shot through like swiss cheese. Stroop, proud of himself, said in his report of the events, “The Warsaw Ghetto Is No More.”
And that was that. By May 16, all remaining Jews had been killed or captured. 7,000 of them were murdered, and the more than 30,000 who survived were sent to death camps where they’d have the same fate, just slower. In a symbolic act of hate, General Stroop had the Great Synagogue of Warsaw bombed to oblivion. By May 17, the entire Ghetto and any last semblance of it was gone entirely. The nearly half a million people – mothers, grandpas, babies, brothers, nieces who perished, seemingly vanished.
The Treblinka Rebellion
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was no failure – it was a sacrifice. Because of this act of heroism, only a few months later, Jewish prisoners at Treblinka took over the camp seizing weapons from the armory and staged a revolt of their own. Many of them died. But several hundred escaped. It continued in Sobibor and in cities like Minsk and Bialystok. The following summer of 1944 was full of revolts and rebellions throughout the country as Poles and Jews grew inspired by the likes of Mordechai and the ŹOB. Mordechai once wrote:
We saw ourselves as a Jewish underground whose fate was a tragic one, the first to fight. For our hour had come without any sign of hope or rescue.
And that was true. The Ghetto could no longer wait for rescue; they knew their fate was short-lived and tragic. Those hours and days between April 19 and May 16, 1943, must have been the worst and best of their lives. They’d seen their children, their mothers, fathers, rabbis, priests, grandparents, everyone they knew or loved reduced to literal ashes. But then, in those few weeks, they tasted revenge and created a turning point for Jews across Europe. One of the only surviving fighters and few to escape, was a man named Simcha Rotem who fought alongside the ŹOB – months later he went on to fight in the larger Warsaw Uprising and continued to eliminate as many Nazis as possible until the war was over. He passed away in Jerusalem in 2018.
May we always remember the bravery, courage, and absolute sacrifice it took to bring about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the revolts that followed. The Ghetto fighters were rebels, heroes, and warriors – all the way to the bitter end.