The Warsaw Ghetto uprising: a desperate last stand against the Nazis

Submitted by Anon on 22 April, 2003 - 5:49 Author: Joan Trevor

Sixty-seven years ago this month the Nazis began their final assault on the Warsaw Ghetto, where 40,000 Jews were making a last desperate, heroic stand against Nazi barbarians determined to annihilate them. A mere remnant of Warsaw's once-large Jewish population, they had decided that it is better to die on your feet, fighting, than to die on your knees, unresisting. The Warsaw Ghetto was the first instance of an uprising by "civilians" in occupied Europe during the Second World War. Joan Trevor tells the story.

In September 1939, Hitler's troops captured Warsaw, the capital of Poland. The Nazis now ruled the biggest centre of Jewry in Europe. A third of Warsaw's population were Jews - around 350,000.

Three million Jews lived in Poland as a whole. Ultimately the Nazis would try to kill them all. To begin with they herded the Jews into medieval-style ghettoes - smaller and smaller areas in 45 separate ghetto towns across Poland.

There the Jews worked for German war industries. Some died of malnutrition, which cost the Germans less than a bullet; all awaited the preparation of the more efficient, modern, Nazi method of extermination - the death camps.

Each ghetto had a Jewish Council appointed by the Nazis from among community leaders. The Councils administered the ghettos, compiled statistics for the Nazis, conveyed their orders to the community. By setting up such structures the Nazis hoped to persuade the Jews that, though it would be a miserable one, they could expect some sort of future under Nazism.

The Jewish Councils hoped that this would prove true. Perhaps, the leaders probably reasoned, if they were useful and compliant the Nazis would not think it necessary to go further. One ghetto leader, Rumkowski of Lodz, took great pride in the fact that "his" ghetto was self-sufficient and economically useful to the Germans. Gradually the Councils became centres for the richest Jews.

In November 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was officially set up. By the summer of 1941 it was sealed behind a 10 foot wall. It was 2.7% of the area of Warsaw - for over a third of Warsaw's population. Eighty thousand non-Jews had been ordered to leave the Ghetto - to make way for the arrival of 140,000 refugees. By January 1941 380,000 Jews were living there - the population density was thus nine times greater than in the city as a whole. In May of the following year there were 430,000 living in the Ghetto. Inevitably, conditions were appalling.

Twelve people lived in each room. They had a ration of 800 calories each per day - half of what an adult needs to stay healthy. The refugees had nowhere to live and slept on the streets. The native Warsaw Jews resented them and the Jewish Council provided no relief to them. Only youth organisations would help them and recruited from among them.

Sixty-six per cent died in the streets of the Ghetto from cold, starvation and disease.

Every day was a battle to find enough to eat. People turned in on themselves concerned only to save their own family, or just themselves. In spite of this, many tried to keep up the sense of human dignity the Nazis were ripping from them.

They held concerts; academic and religious life continued. Dr Korzchak, who ran the orphanage, sealed it against the Ghetto and through three years protected his children from knowledge of life outside. People were dying in the streets - but this pretence of normality was the only form of resistance they had.

This desperate desire not to believe the worst was one of the reasons why those who from the beginning wanted the Ghetto to fight could not gain the influence they needed.

The Council members were torn between shame at their assistance to the Nazis, their sense of impotent responsibility, and the knowledge that they could still provide some relief for the Jews. So they rationalised their role.

It was all revealed for a sham when the order came in August 1942 that the Jews were to be deported to camps in the East.

They were told they would be settled and allowed to redeem themselves by work. In fact they were going to the death camps.

No-one could know the full horror of the camps, but the Council had some eye-witness accounts of the deaths there. Nonetheless, they encouraged Jews to volunteer for deportation with the promise of better food. At the embarkation point loaves of bread were provided, and jam. When political activists in the ghetto - left-wingers and Bundists and Zionists - put out leaflets telling the truth about the death camps that awaited those who left the ghetto, people just did not believe them. It was too incredible, too terrible for these defenceless, peaceful human beings to take in.

Between July and October 1942, 310,000 people were deported to camps, principally Treblinka, where life expectancy was one hour.

In this situation, what could the middle-class leaders of the Council do? They could have told the people the truth, or as much of it as they had.

Throughout the Ghetto's history criminals thrived and the rich - like the rich of all peoples - were able to secure privileges for themselves. They bribed councillors and police.

When taxes had to be raised to pay the Nazis, or police wages, a 10% tax was levied on basic foodstuffs - the poor paid as much as the rich. In January 1942 the Council voted down a proposal to "take from the rich the means with which to feed the poor".

The ghetto police, on pain of death, were ordered to bring five people each for deportation. They dragged people off the streets, separating families.

The role of the rich in the Ghetto was shameful, and they were rewarded with the hatred of the people. But the Nazis themselves made vile propaganda from it to show in Germany. They photographed rich Jews enjoying their privileges, while, nearby, emaciated Jews died in the streets ignored. As if it were only rich Jews who would behave like this and not the rich of any people! As if the Nazis were not themselves responsible for ghetto conditions.

They do not know it, but those - for example the late Jim Allen, socialist author of the play Perdition - on the left who have made "anti-Zionism" and anti-Israeli propaganda out of the behaviour of the bourgeois Jewish puppet councils, have stood in the direct line of descent from this vile Nazi propaganda.

Until January 1943 the Ghetto was a cohesive society, massively oppressed and terrorised, but a society nonetheless, with its classes and structures intact. Attempts had been made when the first deportations took place to form a fighting organisation but its preparations had little effect. Nonetheless a small organisation - the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organisation, ZOB) - had been formed under the leadership of Mordecai Anielewicz. They were passive in the face of these first deportations, which ended in September 1942 when around 300,000 Jews had been removed from the Ghetto.

When the final round of deportations was planned, those who wanted to resist felt too bitter to be stopped by any circumstance. The futility of passive hope had long since been put aside. But - most significantly - the Jewish underground had begun to obtain arms (from the Polish military underground). Now the Ghetto went to war against the Nazis.

The essential element in making resistance possible was the presence of organised leftists, militant Zionists, Bundists and Communists, and young people who came together in a more or less united fighting force.

By January 1943 the middle class leadership was so discredited that the SS itself had assumed direct control of the Ghetto. The left won the leadership of the tiny - 10% -remnant - 40,000 people - of the Ghetto and led a genuine popular uprising.

It was far too late, and yet it was magnificent.

Why did the Ghetto opposition not fight earlier? Several reasons. They knew what the Nazis were doing. Their printers worked day and night producing an amazing range of publications, warning the Jews of the danger. In spite of the isolation of the Ghetto from outside they were able to keep in contact with the Polish underground and with their comrades outside.

But, until 1943, they had no arms and they did not have the trust of the people. Until then, they set themselves the job of relief work, organising young people, holding meetings. They exposed the hypocrisies of the Council. Slowly they gained the respect of the masses who remained.

And the oppositionists were themselves divided. Socialist Bund leaders warned the youth against making premature attacks on the Nazis. They were suspicious of the militant Zionists, some of whom were very right wing. They still looked to their links with the remnants of the Communists and Socialists outside. Then early in January when the Nazis came to clear out the Ghetto the opposition set aside their differences, realising that it was now or never for the Jews.

The years of underground organisation meant that they were able to make the best use of the few opportunities open to them to inflict damage on the Nazis, to save Jewish lives and to set an example to the resistance outside the Ghetto.

They killed police informers. They demanded money off the rich to buy more arms. They organised the 40,000 Ghetto dwellers, readying them for the Nazis' final assault.

In January they were able to thwart the Nazis for a few days and to persuade the remaining Jews that it was better to fight even against impossible odds than to give themselves up for deportation. When the German's retreated on the fourth day, five to six thousand Jews had been caught. But the fighters interpreted the Germans' retreat as a sign of weakness and were determined to prepare themselves for another battle.

Between January and April 22 fighting units were formed, based on the political groups to which their members belonged. Positions for attack inside the maze of ghetto buildings were also prepared. A real expansion of the force was only precluded by the lack of arms. The total fighting forces numbered about 700 to 750.

On 19 April Nazi trucks arrived to start the final deportation, taking people to Treblinka. The Nazis and their trucks were attacked. Nazi tanks which guarded them were set on fire. For three days the fighters held running battles with the Nazis, forcing them to retreat. The uprising lasted for some 27 days. On 8 May the headquarters of the ZOB fell. The fighters had not made plans to retreat. They had decided that the battle would go on until the last fighter had fallen.

Finally the Nazis won simply by dint of setting fire to the whole Ghetto, burning the hidden Jews out of their cellars. By mid-May the Ghetto did not exist, either in terms of buildings or people.

Seven thousand Jews had died in the fighting, 30,000 were captured and sent to Treblinka. Hundreds of "rubble fighters" remained to carry out random attacks on the Nazis for months to come. A few hundred Jews crawled for twenty hours through the sewers to join resistance groups in the forests around Warsaw.

The persistence of the Ghetto opposition, in spite of their almost unbearable fear and depression, their isolation, the indifference with which for years their warnings were met, is one of the most remarkable things in this story.

And that they fought knowing that most of them would die; not that they fought so late.

It is easy to tell the story of the uprising; understanding the full horror of Nazi genocide and appreciating the courage of those who fought them takes an enormous leap of the imagination.

Seeing pictures of the Holocaust for the first time is a shattering experience for most people. But in time the horror fades to a vague memory of the numbers involved - 150,000 from this ghetto here, 200,000 from that one there - with no understanding of the violence behind it all.

The Ghetto fighters' first priority was a violent act: to assassinate Josef Szerynski, the leader of the Jewish police, and other police and informers.

This small-scale act of violence by people and on people whose names we know is somehow shocking. It stands out from the anonymous horror and prompts us to look again at the real human experiences behind the statistics in the history books.

We are used to reading about the Jewish people having been treated as one homogeneous lump of expendable humanity. The killing of the policemen reminds us that the Jews, like every other people, had their classes and their divisions too.

That the people who led the uprising were driven to killing these brutes, where most of us can scarcely pluck up the courage to be rude to a policeman on a demonstration, is the other lesson we must learn - the effects of fascism on the lives of ordinary people, and the need to crush it early so that no-one need ever fall victim to it again.

We must organise the mass of people to fight for their own lives now. So that we will never - as the Ghetto fighters did - have to organise people whose one remaining choice is to choose the manner of their deaths.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.