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  • James Houser

May 16, 1943 - The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 16, 1943. The smouldering ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto are finally silent after a month of resistance. The Jews of Warsaw have made their final doomed stand: the largest act of Jewish defiance to the Holocaust. Unwilling to go quietly to the death camp, they cast forth their final defiance.

After their invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis immediately took measures to otherize and separate the Jewish population. The Stars of David are among the most well-known stigmas, but they also had most property and money confiscated, were conscripted as forced labor, and denied public services. In 1940, the Jews of Poland were forced into restricted sectors of a few major cities, known as "ghettos". The idea of a Jewish ghetto was old in Europe; the term itself is Italian and originates from the only district in Venice where Jews could live and do business.

For the Nazis, however, cordoning off the Jewish population was only one step. Almost 460,000 Jews ended up packed into the miniscule (1.3 square mile) Warsaw Ghetto, and for the next few years lived in wretched conditions. Poland was the first of the Reich's territories to get the real treatment of Nazi colonial policy, and unlike France, the Netherlands or Norway it was maintained as a permanently stateless zone where the Nazis could do as they pleased. The SS and the Party held sway in Warsaw.

The state of the Warsaw Ghetto was atrocious. Many Jews died from starvation, sickness, or exposure brought on by the degraded conditions, lack of food and constant maltreatment by German authorities. Due to the construction of 10 foot-high walls topped with barbed wire cordoning off the Ghetto from the rest of Warsaw, the residents found it nearly impossible to leave, and sympathetic Poles could only help through tunnels and smuggling. SS leadership limited food and medical supplies into the ghetto as a means of purposely annihilating the Jews of Warsaw through attrition. Daily food rations by 1941 were limited to 184 calories. Malnutrition made the Jews even more susceptible to disease, particularly typhus. Smuggling, usually done by children, was all that kept the Ghetto alive.

The Nazis set up Jewish leaders and a Jewish Ghetto Police to manage the ghetto, with Nazi-appointed "Eldest" Adam Czerniakow managing the Ghetto. The Jewish leadership believed that cooperation would reduce retaliation and save lives in the long run. They were wrong, and their collaboration ultimately made the Nazi policies more successful.

Despite the oppression, the Ghetto managed some semblance of daily life. There were hospitals, libraries and schools in the Ghetto; the Jews founded recreation facilities and even a symphony orchestra. Religious life went on as well, with rabbis maintaining synagogue services and religious instruction. Despite starvation, the Jews of the Ghetto held onto their identity and dignity.

All that came to a screeching halt in 1942. In January of that year, top SS and Nazi Party leaders at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin decided on the institutional framework of the Final Solution, whereby the Jews of Europe would be transported to Poland and murdered. The deportations would begin in the summer of 1942, with the initial targets being the ghettos of Poland. Even before the deportations began, almost 100,000 Jews had died of starvation or disease in the Warsaw Ghetto. There are other means of genocide besides gas or bullets.

In April 1942, the ghetto inhabitants began to gain some foreboding about what was to happen due to changes in the behavior of their German occupiers. By July, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler had instructed his subordinates to carry out the "resettlement" of the Ghetto no later than December 1942. The Jews were to be told that they were being "resettled" to the east to work as laborers in the conquered Soviet Union; their actual destination was Treblinka. Many Jews, even though they heard rumors of what awaited them, refused to believe it; some felt that outright resistance might give the Germans the excuse they needed to kill the Jews. Of course, the Germans needed no excuse.

On July 22, 1942, the SS launched "Grossaktion Warschau" - the mass deportation of the Ghetto. When they informed Czerniakow that all his brethren were to be "deported to the east," he understood exactly what this meant and killed himself. For the next two months, the Nazis launched lightning raids that deported around 300,000 of the Warsaw Jews to Treblinka where almost all - man, woman, child - were immediately murdered in gas chambers disguised as showers. This is the action depicted in the harrowing scene in "Schindler's List." The helpless, starving and confused Jews at first had no means of resistance.

When the deportations began, however, word soon spread of where they were really headed. A number of Jewish paramilitary organizations - some preexisting, some not - began to secretly organize within the Ghetto. The Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB), a left-wing Zionist socialist group, grew out of multiple youth organizations; its leader was Mordechai Anielwicz, a radical Zionist who had tried earlier in the war to smuggle Jews from Poland to Palestine. The right-wing Jewish Military Union (ZZW), associated with the Polish Underground, also made ready to resist.

By 1943, most of the Warsaw Ghetto's Jews had already died in Treblinka or Majdanek. The Germans prepared for a second round of deportations on January 18, but there was a surprise waiting for them.

When the Germans entered the Ghetto on January 18, they discovered that the Jews had built bunkers throughout the sector to hide families and civilians, while the ZOB and ZZW engaged Germans in direct fighting. Usually the fighters were armed with pistols and molotov cocktails, along with homemade bombs and even wooden guns. While both groups suffered heavily, and the Germans did deport 5,000 Jews, this fell short of their target.

The last occupants of the Ghetto knew the Germans would return. It was clear to most that they had no hope of survival in the long term, but they would fight while they could. The ZOB and ZZW took control of the ghetto from the Jewish puppet leaders, executing spies and collaborators. They fortified their tiny speck of city and brought in as many guns as they could, many supplied by Polish resistance groups.

On April 19, the Germans moved in to liquidate the Ghetto once and for all. Under the leadership of SS-Brigadefuhrer Jurgen Stroop, the Germans demanded that the Ghetto surrender, and the Jews refused. Almost 2600 German troops descended on the Ghetto with armored vehicles and artillery to face 1000 Jewish fighters who had pistols, homemade bombs, and a smattering of larger weapons. The end had begun.

An action that was supposed to take a few days spiraled into a month-long siege. The Ghetto Uprising was fought by men, women and children with nothing to lose and who had no real hope of survival. One leader stated that their motivation was "to pick the time and place of our deaths." As the German steamroller closed in, the Jews of Warsaw fought for their honor and dignity, not their lives.

The heaviest fighting took place around the stronghold of the ZZW in Muranowski Square, where its leader David Appelbaum aka "Blacksmith" was killed. From these buildings a Jewish and Polish flag fluttered briefly before being cut down. Frustrated at the slow progress, Stroop's men set fire to the Ghetto with flamethrowers, and more Jews began to die from smoke inhalation than from combat as SS Panzergrenadiers prowled the streets in gas masks.

The Poles tried to help by blasting through the walls, but by late April resistance began to crumble. The Germans broke into one bunker after another; the remnants of the ZZW evacuated through a tunnel on April 29. By May 8, the Germans surrounded ZOB's leadership; Anielewicz and his staff committed suicide by cyanide rather than risk capture. A small cadre of ZOB escaped through the tunnels a few days later, including future anti-Communist Polish leader Marek Edelman, who would help lead the Solidarity movement in the 1980s.

With over 600 bunkers cleared and with the liquidation of the Ghetto completed, Stroop pressed the button that blew up the Warsaw Synagogue on May 16, 1943. He reported to his superiors, "The Jews, bandits and subhumans have been destroyed. The former Jewish quarter is no longer in existence." The Ghetto Uprising was over.

Over 13,000 Jews died in the Uprising itself, half from smoke inhalation, while the remaining 55,000 Ghetto residents died in Treblinka and Majdanek. A mere handful escaped to tell the tale, and several hundred of these surviving Jews fought in the much larger Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

The surviving remnant of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters founded a small farming community in Israel in 1949 known as Lohamei Ha'Getot - literally "Ghetto fighters." Its founders included Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of Anielewicz' ZOB lieutenants, and his wife Zivia Lubetkin who had led a platoon of fighters. Their testimonies of survival are all that remain of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; against all odds, they lived to tell the tale. Lohamei Ha'Getot is the home of the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters' museum, and shares close ties with another village farther south named Hai Mordechai after Anielewicz.

The Ghetto Uprising did not stop the Holocaust. It saved very few lives, and could not prevent what was coming. The notions of some 2A folks that private gun ownership was going to stop the German steamroller from brutalizing the Jews is frankly foolish, and the Uprising could not have stopped the Germans even if they had all carried AR-15s with unlimited ammo. The real lesson of the Ghetto Uprising is that even when there was no hope, the Jews of Europe refused to go quietly.

As Zuckerman remembered years later, "The important things were inherent in the force shown by Jewish youth after years of degradation, to rise up against their destroyers, and determine what death they would choose: Treblinka or Uprising."

The Jews, stripped of everything else, reclaimed the dignity and honor of choosing how they died. A courage borne not of hope, but the utter destruction of it: spitting in the face of fate.

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