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How the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Inspired Rebellion in a Nazi Death Camp

How the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Inspired Rebellion in a Nazi Death Camp


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Rudolf Masaryk didn’t have long to live, but for now he was fighting with all of his life. As he stood on top of a roof in the burning Treblinka concentration camp, he yelled down toward the Nazi guards he was shooting at.

“This is for my wife and my child who never saw the world!,” he yelled.

Hours later, Masaryk was dead along with most of the other prisoners of the Treblinka death camp who rose up against their Nazi captors in August 1943. And if Masaryk’s story sounds like it could have come out of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising a few months earlier, that’s not by mistake. The uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto helped inspire Treblinka’s lesser-known revolt—a brave final stand that, like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, had deadly consequences for its fighters.

As news of the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto revolt made its way across Europe, it inspired resistance in the Holocaust’s second deadliest camp, Treblinka. Though the two uprisings were not planned by the same group of conspirators, they were connected—and both represent the wave of hope and resistance that spread through occupied Poland during the height of the Holocaust.

Located just 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, Treblinka had been in operation since 1941, first as a forced labor camp and then as a death camp. In just three months in 1942,around 265,000 Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto were taken to Treblinka and killed in gas chambers there. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was planned in part as a response to this wave of transports and murders.

Treblinka was different than most other Nazi camps. Its purpose wasn’t to enslave Jews and others on behalf of the German war machine—its purpose was to kill. However, about 1,000 Jews were kept alive to run Treblinka’s terrible machinery of death.

By the time the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on April 19, 1943, the Germans were on the run throughout Europe. A long string of defeats, most notably the loss of theBattle of Stalingrad, had weakened the Third Reich’s army and made it clear that the Nazis would soon be forced to flee Poland. The inmates of Treblinka worried that they’d be caught up in a German retreat from Poland and murdered as the Nazis tried to cover up all traces of their crimes.

As news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—and prisoners swept up in the Nazis’ dragnet in Warsaw—arrived at the camp, hope began to surge. A small group of prisoners that called themselves “The Organizing Committee” had been considering a rebellion for over a year, but they were thwarted when Julian Chorazycki, a Jewish doctor who helped run an infirmary for SS officers at Treblinka, was discovered with a large sum of money he planned to use to purchase weapons for a revolt inside the camp. Rather than give up the names of his co-conspirators, Chorazycki swallowed poison and died.

The conspirators’ cover had almost been blown, so they decided to lay low. Meanwhile, about 7,000 Jews who had been captured by the Nazis during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising were taken to Treblinka and murdered upon arrival. The conspirators, buoyed by news of the Warsaw Ghetto’s resistance to the Nazis, found a new leader: Berek Lajher, a Jewish doctor and retired Polish Army officer who was put in charge of the SS infirmary after Chorazycki’s death.

It now looked as if it would be impossible to get arms from outside the camp. The prisoners were isolated, under careful watch by Nazi guards, and entirely cut off from the outside world. But the Organizing Committee had an ace up its sleeve: a clandestine imprint of a key to the camp arsenal.

They had another weapon—their determination. “[Their] task was to avenge at least to some extent the millions of innocent people executed,”testified Samuel Rajzman, one of the camp’s few survivors, after the war. “They dreamed of setting fire to the whole camp and exterminating at least the cruelest engines at the price of their own lives.”

On August 2, 1943—a day without gas chamber operations—the rebellion began. The conspirators took advantage of construction work near the arsenal to sneak inside and steal 20 hand grenades, 20 rifles, and a few handguns. Then they awaited the signal: a single gunshot.

Their plan was almost ruined when a German guard discovered that two of the conspirators were carrying money they planned to use once they escaped the camp. He stripped off their clothing and began to beat them. Worried that the men would reveal the names of the conspirators, another prisonershot the guard with one of the stolen guns.

Thinking the signal had been fired, the conspirators sprang into action. They turned against the Nazi guards, lobbing grenades and shooting SS officers. A man usually assigned to spread disinfectant around the camp had used a hose to douse a large portion of the camp with gasoline. As chaos erupted throughout the camp, Treblinka burst into flames.

Up to 300 people are thought to have escaped Treblinka in the pandemonium that ensued. As fire engulfed the camp, blowing up the arsenal and consuming almost everything but the gas chambers, people swarmed over and through barbed wire fences and ran for their lives.

Most of the members of the Organizing Committee died that day, but not before killing about 40 guards. The prisoners who escaped were largely hunted down by the Nazis, who chased them in cars and on horses. Escapees hid in nearby forests and nursed their wounds.

One of them was Samuel Willenberg, whoyelled “Hell has been burnt!” as he stood, shell shocked, in a nearby forest after escaping. Willenbergdied in 2016—the last living survivor of Treblinka.

Others weren’t that lucky. Only about 70 of the 300 or so people who escaped Treblinka survived the war. The others were punished along with those who did not try to run. The Nazis forced them to tear down the remainder of the camp, then murdered them all.

The Treblinka revolt wasn’t the only death camp uprising: a similar rebellion in nearby Sobibor—also inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—led to that camp’s destruction and closure, too. These revolts weren’t just symbolic. The survivors were able to provide critical information about the camps, from their layout to who worked there to how they functioned, the Times of Israelnotes. The few who survived Treblinka spent the rest of their lives telling their stories—and reliving their trauma so that others might never go through a similar experience.


Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising [a] was the 1943 act of Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto in German-occupied Poland during World War II to oppose Nazi Germany's final effort to transport the remaining ghetto population to Majdanek and Treblinka death camps.

  • Germany , Orpo, SD, Waffen-SS, Wehrmacht
  • Jewish resistance
  • ŻOB
  • ŻZW[1]
  • Polish resistance
  • AK (Home Army) [2]
  • GL (People's Guard) [citation needed]
  • Mordechai Anielewicz
  • Yitzhak Zuckerman
  • Zivia Lubetkin
  • Maurycy Orzech
  • Marek Edelman
  • Paweł Frenkiel
  • Leon Rodal
  • Dawid Wdowiński
  • Henryk Iwański

After the Grossaktion Warsaw of summer 1942, in which more than a quarter of a million Jews were deported from the ghetto to Treblinka and murdered, the remaining Jews began to build bunkers and smuggle weapons and explosives into the ghetto. The left-wing Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) and right-wing Jewish Military Union (ŻZW) formed and began to train. A small resistance effort to another roundup in January 1943 was partially successful and spurred Polish resistance groups to support the Jews in earnest.

The uprising started on 19 April when the ghetto refused to surrender to the police commander SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, who ordered the burning of the ghetto, block by block, ending on 16 May. A total of 13,000 Jews died, about half of them burnt alive or suffocated. German casualties were probably fewer than 150, [ citation needed ] with Stroop reporting 110 casualties [16 killed + 1 dead/93 wounded]. [5]

It was the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II. The Jews knew that the uprising was doomed and their survival was unlikely. Marek Edelman, the only surviving ŻOB commander, said their inspiration to fight was "to pick the time and place of our deaths". According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the uprising was "one of the most significant occurrences in the history of the Jewish people". [7]


The Holocaust: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Warsaw Ghetto
The effects of living in the Warsaw Ghetto were cruel, it is a surprise that some Jews even survived, but the Jews never lost hope and fought back against the Nazis. It’s a wonder that most of the Jews were able to keep hope throughout the entire war. Especially with what they went through at various camps.
The Warsaw Ghetto was one of the largest ghettos in Poland. (“Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” History) A lot of the Jewish people there were being told on the way to Warsaw that they were going to various work camps, but in reality they were being sent to their death. More Jews were added to Warsaw shortly after the German invasion of Poland, in September 1939. More than 400,000 Jews were in the Warsaw Ghetto now. (“Holocaust Resistance.

It was on August 21st of 1943. About 1,000 Jewish prisoners at Treblinka, which was a death camp, seized weapons from the camp’s arsenal, and started attacking. Several inmates were able to escape, but many of those escapees were recaptured and executed.
Again, more attacks after that followed. Another event that occurred was the start of what will become known as, “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” There were many Jewish fighters that were forced to stay at the ghetto, and they attacked the Germans that were occupied at Warsaw. The ghetto fighters held out for a month with attacks on the Germans, but then the revolt came to an end. This all occurred in 1943, as well. (“The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising”USHMM)
Reverse the time a bit, the daily life at Warsaw was hazardous to normal, regular health conditions. There was little to no freedom allowed, just as it was allowed in any other concentration, work, or death camp. In the beginning days, of course, the Jews had to be humiliated by wearing the Star of David upon their chest, to show everyone what they.

The Jewish at Warsaw also faced more forms of humiliation, such as public beatings, or to be executed for ridiculous reasons. The Warsaw Jews lived their slave-ridden lives in fear every single day. (“The Warsaw Ghetto”Local Life)
Warsaw was also one of the few camps to be surrounded by a wall. This was to prevent the captivated Jewish to escape. The wall that was surrounding the ghetto was about 9.8 feet tall, and it was topped with barbed wire.
The treatment of the Jewish at Warsaw worsened over time. Some of the wealthier Jews still got to live their life in different small comforts, rather than the poor Jews that resided at the camp. There were still normal luxuries, such as open cafes, publishing newspapers, and school lessons for the children still took place.
About 10,000 Jewish kids were enrolled in those ghetto schools, which was circa 20% of the Jewish children who resided at the Warsaw Ghetto. The Germans kept trying to put more and more restrictions on the Jewish at Warsaw, so the German banned private and public praying services. Angered, the Jewish continued with their daily praying services but in more private, and hidden.


Culture in the Warsaw Ghetto

The Warsaw Ghetto had several bars where inhabitants could, if they had spare time and money, go to momentarily escape their circumstances. This picture was taken in a bar in 1940.

The Warsaw Ghetto had several bars where inhabitants could, if they had spare time and money, go to momentarily escape their circumstances. This picture was taken in a bar in 1940.

Whilst conditions in the ghetto were extremely difficult, some inhabitants were determined to continue cultural aspects of their previous life.

There were also several theatres which showed plays, as well as artists, musicians, bands and writers, who published covertly.

From 15 January 1941, inhabitants of the ghetto could also send and receive post through the Warsaw Post Office based in the ghetto. Post was unreliable and could be temporarily suspended. It was also censored and could only be sent to neutral countries not at war with Germany. Despite these challenges, the postal service meant that inhabitants could receive food packages from relatives in Poland or abroad, and spread the word about the poor conditions there, albeit using indirect language or drawings.


How the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Inspired Rebellion in a Nazi Death Camp - HISTORY

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An unidentified Jewish boy raises his hands at gunpoint after Nazi SS soldiers forcibly removed him and other ghetto residents from the bunker in which they'd taken refuge.

The Nazi pointing the gun in the direction of the boy has been identified as SS soldier Josef Blösche. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

Nazi SS General Jürgen Stroop (second from left in foreground wearing field cap) stands with some of his junior staff near the ghetto wall (visible in background).

Stroop commanded the Nazi counterattack against the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and wrote the Stroop Report, an account of the event.

Standing at far right is SS soldier Josef Blösche. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

A Jewish man leaps to his death from the top story window of a burning apartment block rather than face capture on April 22.

Original German caption: "The bandits escape arrest by jumping." National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

SS troops capture two Jewish resistance fighters pulled from a bunker.

Original German caption: "Bandits." National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

Jewish rebels of the HeHalutz Zionist youth movement line up following capture by the Nazis.

"We girls used to carry arms into the ghetto we hid them in our boots," recalled Małka Zdrojewicz Horenstein (right), who survived internment in the Majdanek camp and moved to Palestine in 1946. "During the ghetto uprising, we hurled Molotov cocktails at the Germans." National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

SS troops stand near the bodies of Jews who committed suicide by jumping from a fourth story window rather than be captured. Photo taken on Niska Street on April 22.

Original German caption: "Bandits who jumped." National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

SS troops arrest the Jewish workers of the Brauer helmet factory on April 24.

After the start of the uprising on April 19, the workers at this factory (which made helmets for the German army) were given special privileges to continue to work and move freely about the ghetto. Five days later, the SS instead decided to arrest and deport the workers then burn the factory. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

The bodies of murdered Jews lie amid the ruins.

Original German caption: "Bandits destroyed in battle." National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

An officer questions two Jewish resistance fighters as Jürgen Stroop (rear, center) observes.

Original German caption: "Jewish traitors." National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

Jews surrender to Nazi soldiers, most likely on Wałową Street.

Original German caption: "Smoking out the Jews and Bandits." National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

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On April 18, 1943, the eve of Passover, the Nazis stormed the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. After sending between 250,000 and 300,000 of Warsaw's Jews to their deaths at the Treblinka extermination camp the previous summer, the Nazis had returned to finally empty the largest ghetto in Europe for good.

This time, however, the Jewish resistance fought back like never before. With approximately 1,000 Jewish fighters battling against approximately 2,000 Nazis over the course of four weeks, this clash was far more intense than any such battle yet fought.

It would come to be known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the largest act of Jewish resistance in the entirety of the Holocaust.

Such an unprecedented act of resistance was undoubtedly spurred on by the fact that Warsaw's Jews realized that this was their last stand. Yet, the Nazis' scorched-earth approach would quickly test their resolve.

Indeed, after the resistance used guns, hand grenades, and Molotov cocktails to kill and injure dozens of Nazis, destroy several vehicles, and even plant their flags atop the resistance headquarters in the central Muranowski Square, the Nazis responded by systematically burning the ghetto to the ground, block by block.

"We were beaten by the flames, not the Germans," recalled surviving resistance commander Marek Edelman decades later.

Throughout late April and early May, these flames drove out the resistance, turned the sky black, and ended the Warsaw ghetto uprising with the deaths of some 13,000 Jews and the deportation of approximately 56,000 others — ultimately destroying this once great center of Jewish culture in Europe.

More than anything, it was this utter elimination of an entire culture, city, and population — and the outside world's lack of intervention — that Szmul Zygielbojm, for one, could not abide.

A Jewish member of the Polish government in exile then living in London, Zygielbojm refused to remain silent as the Allied nations of the world ignored the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the larger genocide that the Nazis had been carrying out across Europe for more than a year already.

When the Allies failed to sufficiently acknowledge this problem at the Bermuda Conference, held just as the Warsaw ghetto uprising was actually taking place — and taking the lives of Zygielbojm's own wife and daughter, who'd not made it out of Warsaw — Zygielbojm had had enough.

On May 10, he took a fatal overdose of sodium amytal, ending his life in hopes that this last-ditch act would, if nothing else, call attention to a tragedy that most of the world was still ignoring.

In his suicide letter, he wrote:

The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime. I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave. By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

Thankfully, the Allies wouldn't ignore the genocide for much longer. And while the world may have largely ignored the Warsaw ghetto uprising at the time, today it remains an eminently stirring tale of perseverance — as well as a tragic reminder of the perils of inaction.

See images from the Warsaw ghetto uprising, as compiled by the Nazis in the Stroop Report, in the gallery above.

After this survey of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, have a look at 44 heartrending Holocaust photos that reveal the tragedy and perseverance of history's worst genocide. Then, read up on feared female Nazi Ilse Koch, "The Bitch of Buchenwald" and one of the Holocaust's greatest monsters.


Resistance in Camps

Under the most adverse conditions, Jewish prisoners succeeded in initiating resistance and uprisings in some Nazi camps. The surviving Jewish workers launched uprisings even in the killing centers of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

About 1,000 Jewish prisoners participated in the revolt in Treblinka. On August 2, 1943, Jews seized what weapons they could find—picks, axes, and some firearms stolen from the camp armory—and set fire to the camp. About 200 managed to escape. The Germans recaptured and killed about half of them.

On October 14, 1943, prisoners in Sobibor killed 11 SS guards and police auxiliaries and set the camp on fire. About 300 prisoners escaped, breaking through the barbed wire and risking their lives in the minefield surrounding the camp. Over 100 were recaptured and later shot.

On October 7, 1944, prisoners assigned to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after learning that they were going to be killed. The Germans crushed the revolt and murdered almost all of the several hundred prisoners involved in the rebellion.

Other camp uprisings took place in the Kruszyna (1942), Minsk-Mazowiecki (1943), and Janowska (1943) camps. In several dozen camps prisoners organized escapes to join partisan units. Successful escapes were made, for example, from the Lipowa Street labor camp in Lublin.

Despite being vastly outgunned and outnumbered, some Jews in ghettos and camps did resist the Germans with force. The spirit of these efforts transcends their failure to halt the genocidal policies of the Nazis.


This post originally appeared on the USC Shoah Foundation blog

The Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Vilna had a resistance leader &ndash the poet Abba Kovner &ndash who famously shouted the true intentions of the Nazis before anybody really knew.

In the Warsaw ghetto, a group of Jewish inhabitants were initially leaderless and in no position to fight. Early on in their efforts to organize, they took stock of their arsenal: one pistol.

And yet it was the Warsaw Ghetto where a legendary uprising would erupt on April 19, 1943 &ndash on the eve of Passover.

In his lecture Tuesday evening, titled &ldquoWhat was unique about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?&rdquo Samuel Kassow, history professor at Trinity College, asked the central question: Why did this massive rebellion occur in the Warsaw Ghetto, and not in other places where armed resistance was perhaps more feasible?

Presented by Doheny Memorial Library and co-sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, the lecture was part of the series "Hidden Archives - Public Struggles: Events Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising," which will be commemorated on April 19.

Even after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jewish leaders in the Vilna and Bialystok ghettos opted against following suit.

&ldquoInstead of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising serving as a clarion call as an example, in fact it was respected but it was not emulated,&rdquo said Kassow, who was born in 1946 at a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany.

Drawing from his book, &ldquoWho Will Write Our History,&rdquo Kassow laid out at least three conditions that made Warsaw unique.

First was a vacuum of Jewish authority in the Warsaw ghetto. Jewish ghettos in Vilna and Bialystok, for instance, were partly overseen by Judenrat with head administrators who were able to maintain some semblance of stability and convince their fellow Jewish civilians not to join the resistance efforts.

In the Warsaw ghetto, the leadership structure broke down in July of 1942, when the SS barged into the office of Judenrat President Adam Czerniaków and told him of a plan to deport Jews en masse. Refusing to participate in the murder of his people, Czerniaków committed suicide.

The Jewish police in Warsaw, meanwhile, &ldquoturned into bloodhounds.&rdquo They aggressively followed Nazi orders to meet the deportation quota of five Jewish people per day, and often took the opportunity to extort their fellow Jews.

Second was the massive support of the Jewish community. Ordinary families in the ghetto became invested in the effort, and established more than 750 secret bunkers in their homes for resistance fighters.

Third was the fact that the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto had, even before the war, been more a part of Polish culture than Jews of other Polish ghettos, and Polish culture put a high premium on honor.

In a six-week span the ended in September of 1942, the mass deportations to the gas chambers of Treblinka death camp had shrunk the Jewish population of the ghetto from 360,000 to 60,000.

It left the survivors shell shocked.

&ldquoAnd what did the ghetto look like? Empty buildings,&rdquo he said. &ldquoThe streets littered with books, mattresses, feathers from pillows, children&rsquos toys &ndash everything empty, everything a reminder how, in five weeks, or six weeks, 300,000 people had been taken away.&rdquo

As the shock wore off, surviving inhabitants began to express regrets about not putting up more of a fight.

&ldquoPeople were literally tearing their hair out: why didn&rsquot we resist? Why didn&rsquot we at least attack them with knives?&rdquo

In Poland, the young generation of Jews born around World War I was uniquely cohesive. Prior to World War II many had joined politically active youth movements for socialists, communists, Zionists, and others.

In the wake of the great deportation, the youth of the Warsaw Ghetto decided to fight back, despite their lack of arms. The youth ultimately joined forces with more experienced hands to form several groups, including the ZZW and the ZOB.

Through an envoy, the rebels sought help from a more established group of resistance fighters: the Polish Home Army. The Poles had little interest in the Jewish group, but ultimately donated 10 pistols.

In the Warsaw Ghetto, the resistance fighters made use of the pistols, killing Jewish Nazi collaborators and taking hostages for ransom. In this manner they raised enough money to purchase more weapons and bombs on the black market.

Next came a misunderstanding that significantly altered the course of history.

On Jan. 18, 1943, German soldiers stormed the ghetto, taking the inhabitants by surprise. They&rsquod come on orders to deport up to 10,000 people to work camps, but the resistance fighters assumed they&rsquod come to wipe out the ghetto, and fought fiercely. The SS called it quits and retreated after putting maybe 6,000 people on trains.

&ldquoThe Jews thought that they had foiled a German plan to eliminate the ghetto,&rdquo Kassow said.

Word of their bravery spread, and their &ldquoprestige of the ZOB went to the sky.&rdquo

The Poles were &ldquofinally impressed,&rdquo Kassow said, and donated more weapons. Eventually, on April 19, the SS and auxiliary troops did in fact arrive in force to liquidate the ghetto.

They were &ldquomet with a hail of fire&rdquo and Molotov cocktails. The resistance famously raised two flags &ndash one Jewish, one Polish &ndash which could be seen waving from a long distance.

After suffering heavy casualties, the SS changed tactics and began torching the ghetto building by building. On May 8, the Germans discovered the ZOB headquarters bunker, known as Mila 18 &ndash built by Jewish underworld smugglers &ndash and attacked it with poison gas. Most died, but some ZOB escaped to safety through the sewers.

The bodies of the fallen remain on Mila 18, which is the site of a memorial mound.

Kassow expressed misgivings about lionizing the few fighters at the expense of the many ordinary Jews who were not in a position to take up arms.

&ldquoThe fact is that Jewish society as a whole and especially in Poland showed massive powers of resistance &hellip. in many different forms,&rdquo he said.

This included: smuggling food to curb starvation, collecting archives to ensure the atrocities wouldn&rsquot be forgotten, and establishing soup kitchens and refugee centers for the dispossessed, among others.

&ldquoWithout the ordinary Jews who didn&rsquot have weapons, their fight could not have taken place,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIn between the martyrs and the fighters there was a Jewish people. And a Jewish people that resisted in massive and varied ways.&rdquo

Read more about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from the USC Shoah Foundation.

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Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The idea of organizing armed resistance was first raised among the members of the Zionist Halutz youth movements in Vilna, Poland. Jewish Vilna, &ldquoThe Jerusalem of Lithuania,&rdquo numbered 60,000 people before the war and had been notable for its internal unity and strong attachment to Jewish culture, religion, and Zionism.

Report from Ponary

From July 1941 to the end of the year, two-thirds of the Jewish community was uprooted and taken to unknown destinations. A few survivors, who were wounded and shaken to the core, managed to make their way back to the ghetto, where they spread the shocking news that all the deportees had been taken to Ponary, located near Vilna, where they all were shot.

In the first poster issued by the Vilna Halutz movement to the Jews of the city in January 1942, it was stated:

All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponary.
And Ponary is death!
Doubters! Cast off all illusions. Your children, your husbands, and your wives are no longer alive.
Ponary is not a camp&ndashall are shot there.
Hitler aims to destroy all the Jews of Europe.
The Jews of Lithuania are fated to be the first in line.
Let us not go as sheep to slaughter!
It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but resistance is the only reply to the enemy!
Brothers! It is better to fall as free fighters than to live by the grace of the murderers.
Resist! To the last breath.

This appeal stated that the events in Vilna were not local, but that Vilna was merely the first step in implementing the plan &ldquoto kill all the Jews of Europe.&rdquo This was the first time that a Jewish source, which did not have any information from either German or other sources, mentioned the total annihilation of the Jewish people.

Moreover, this was the first appeal to call for revolt. For the first time, the demand for Jewish armed resistance was openly stated. In January 1942, the FPO (Fareinikte Partizaner Organizatziye, Yiddish for United Partisans Organization) was established in Vilna.

Organizing in Warsaw

The Jewish communal leadership in Poland, and especially in Warsaw, did not accept the dire prediction that all Jews under Nazi rule were doomed. Only the members of the Halutz youth movement initially accepted this, whereas other members of the community very slowly came to the realization of the truth under the impact of the deportations.

From the beginning of 1942, there were attempts in the Warsaw ghetto to establish a fighting force. The major organization, the ZOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, Polish for Jewish Fighting Organization) was only established in July 1942, in the midst of the great deportations from the city. The smaller fighting organization, the ZZW (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy, Polish for Jewish Military Union), which also took part in the Warsaw ghetto revolt and was founded by members of the Betar movement (the activist Zionist youth movement), was organized only at the end of that year (1942).

The Jews who were sealed off in the ghetto did not have the means, the links, and the experience to build an armed force that would be ready for battle. They did not possess arms, an intelligence network, or links with allies outside the country. In addition, they did not have any military training, especially in urban guerrilla warfare.

They were forced to appeal to the Poles, who had a strong underground military organization. Despite their considerable opposition to the Nazis, the Poles, who were generally anti-Semitic, were not willing to aid the Jews.

Only in Warsaw was there established contact between the Jewish Fighting Organization and the Polish underground. The Jews received a small number of arms and help in transmitting information from abroad sometimes, they were given other types of assistance. The Jewish fighters were also aided by a number of individual Poles and certain factions within the underground, who disobeyed the orders of the central underground organization.

Most of the arms that were gathered in the ghetto, however, were acquired from other sources. Thus, some weapons were stolen from factories or arsenals belonging to the enemy by Jews and members of the underground who were employed there. Components of weapons were smuggled into the ghetto, where they were subsequently assembled. Weapons&ndashmostly handguns, which were inefficient for street fighting&ndashwere also purchased from merchants or soldiers through intermediaries. Furthermore, a small factory was established in the Warsaw ghetto to manufacture hand grenades there were very important when the revolt began.

The Jewish Masses

Another problem was the manner in which the ghetto fighters were regarded by the civilian Jewish population. In general, fighters use arms when continued existence through negotiation has failed. The struggle by the ghetto fighters could not end with victory over the enemy or with the achievement of security, succor, or even a postponement of their fate.

The battle of the ghetto was a desperate cry to future generations, and was not regarded as a realistic struggle to ensure the future survival of the fighters. Mordecai Anielewicz, the commander of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, expressed the significance of this battle:

&ldquoThe dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts.&rdquo

A battle of this sort, which does not alleviate present misery or offer any hope for the future, is an extremely rare phenomenon in history, and by its very nature cannot involve the masses. Most people grasped at the slightest excuse for not gelling involved in this futile struggle, hoping thereby to save themselves and their loved ones. In many ghettos, the fighters were without broad support and were, therefore, isolated from the masses.

Despite the many difficulties, revolts did break out in several ghettos. In Bialystok, Vilna, Czestochowa, Sosnowiec, and elsewhere, the fighters resisted or attacked. The one revolt that attained the dimensions of a mass, stubborn, and protracted rebellion took place in the Warsaw ghetto. This lasted from April 19 to May 16, 1943.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Jews of Warsaw were able to organize a resistance which cost the Nazis prestige, materials, and casualties. Moreover, Warsaw was the first rebellion in any occupied city in Europe. It tied down sizable forces of the enemy for a longer period of time than did many sovereign countries overrun by the Germans in World War II.

The Warsaw ghetto revolt was unique for two other reasons. In Warsaw, the tens of thousands of Jews who had remained behind after the two great deportations of the summer of 1942 and January 1943 supported the idea of resistance and rebellion. Ghetto residents did not heed the calls of the Germans, did not report for selections (for deportation to the concentration camps), and hid in bunkers underneath the ground.

These underground hiding places and bunkers were built over months: their locations and entrances were well concealed. Food and medical supplies were stored in there for prolonged hiding. Many bunkers also had arms. In actuality, most of the Warsaw ghetto in its last stages was an underground city that accommodated tens of thousands of Jews.

When the Nazi soldiers came in to carry out the final deportation on April 19, 1943, they found a deserted city, with the way barred by hundreds of armed fighters. The two fighting organizations&ndashZOB and ZZW&ndashnumbered about 750 fighters in various positions, with a plan of action worked out to the finest detail.

The rest of the civilian population had taken refuge in the bunkers and assisted the fighters in whatever way possible. Thus, all of the central ghetto of Warsaw became a partisan battle zone. The Nazis needed days of street fighting to capture each bunker individually, with the inhabitants of each bunker refusing to leave and sometimes answering calls to come out and surrender with gunfire.

Secondly, the resisters in the Warsaw ghetto did not prepare a path of retreat or plan any action other than fighting in the ghetto. The Poles tried to persuade the fighters to desert the ghetto a short while before the revolt and to hide in the forests. The answer of the fighters was unequivocal: &ldquoThis is where the battle will take place.&rdquo

Impact of the Revolt

The revolt in the Warsaw ghetto had broad implications. The Poles were impressed with the revolt and realized that even a handful of people, with a minimal amount of weapons, could cause great damage to the enemy in city fighting, and could tie down large forces.

For the Jews, the revolt in the Warsaw ghetto motivated the underground cells and fighting organizations in other areas&ndashBialystok, Vilna, Cracow, Czestochowa, Bendin&ndashto fight and maybe die rather than fall into the hands of the Nazi conquerors. It also inspired others to escape to the forests, where they joined the partisans.

The Nazis learned a lesson from Warsaw as well. If they believed that the Jews would not resist, they were suddenly aware that the Jews could organize and fight with great valor and sacrifice. This was one of the reasons why they took steps to prevent further large-scale revolts in the deportations of Jews from other ghettos.

The revolt in the Warsaw ghetto, and the revolts in the ghettos in general, became a symbol for those who fought for the independence of Israel, as well as a beacon for all of humanity. It has taught us how a small handful of people, without hope, in complete isolation, and in a depressed physical and mental state, could overcome all obstacles and embark on a heroic struggle.

Reprinted with permission from Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust (Rossel Books & Behrman House).


What was unique about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?

The Jewish ghetto in Bialystok had easy access to weaponry.

The Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Vilna had a resistance leader – the poet Abba Kovner – who famously shouted the true intentions of the Nazis before anybody really knew.

In the Warsaw ghetto, a group of Jewish inhabitants were initially leaderless and in no position to fight. Early on in their efforts to organize, they took stock of their arsenal: one pistol.

And yet it was the Warsaw Ghetto where a legendary uprising would erupt on April 19, 1943 – on the eve of Passover.

In his lecture Tuesday evening, titled “What was unique about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?” Samuel Kassow, history professor at Trinity College, asked the central question: Why did this massive rebellion occur in the Warsaw Ghetto, and not in other places where armed resistance was perhaps more feasible?

Presented by Doheny Memorial Library and co-sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, the lecture was part of the series "Hidden Archives - Public Struggles: Events Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising," which will be commemorated on April 19.

Even after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jewish leaders in the Vilna and Bialystok ghettos opted against following suit.

“Instead of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising serving as a clarion call as an example, in fact it was respected but it was not emulated,” said Kassow, who was born in 1946 at a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany.

Drawing from his book, “Who Will Write Our History,” Kassow laid out at least three conditions that made Warsaw unique.

First was a vacuum of Jewish authority in the Warsaw ghetto. Jewish ghettos in Vilna and Bialystok, for instance, were partly overseen by Judenrat with head administrators who were able to maintain some semblance of stability and convince their fellow Jewish civilians not to join the resistance efforts.

In the Warsaw ghetto, the leadership structure broke down in July of 1942, when the SS barged into the office of Judenrat President Adam Czerniaków and told him of a plan to deport Jews en masse. Refusing to participate in the murder of his people, Czerniaków committed suicide.

The Jewish police in Warsaw, meanwhile, “turned into bloodhounds.” They aggressively followed Nazi orders to meet the deportation quota of five Jewish people per day, and often took the opportunity to extort their fellow Jews.

Second was the massive support of the Jewish community. Ordinary families in the ghetto became invested in the effort, and established more than 750 secret bunkers in their homes for resistance fighters.

Third was the fact that the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto had, even before the war, been more a part of Polish culture than Jews of other Polish ghettos, and Polish culture put a high premium on honor.

In a six-week span the ended in September of 1942, the mass deportations to the gas chambers of Treblinka death camp had shrunk the Jewish population of the ghetto from 360,000 to 60,000.

It left the survivors shell shocked.

“And what did the ghetto look like? Empty buildings,” he said. “The streets littered with books, mattresses, feathers from pillows, children’s toys – everything empty, everything a reminder how, in five weeks, or six weeks, 300,000 people had been taken away.”

As the shock wore off, surviving inhabitants began to express regrets about not putting up more of a fight.

“People were literally tearing their hair out: why didn’t we resist? Why didn’t we at least attack them with knives?”

In Poland, the young generation of Jews born around World War I was uniquely cohesive. Prior to World War II many had joined politically active youth movements for socialists, communists, Zionists, and others.

In the wake of the great deportation, the youth of the Warsaw Ghetto decided to fight back, despite their lack of arms. The youth ultimately joined forces with more experienced hands to form several groups, including the ZZW and the ZOB.

Through an envoy, the rebels sought help from a more established group of resistance fighters: the Polish Home Army. The Poles had little interest in the Jewish group, but ultimately donated 10 pistols.

In the Warsaw Ghetto, the resistance fighters made use of the pistols, killing Jewish Nazi collaborators and taking hostages for ransom. In this manner they raised enough money to purchase more weapons and bombs on the black market.

Next came a misunderstanding that significantly altered the course of history.

On Jan. 18, 1943, German soldiers stormed the ghetto, taking the inhabitants by surprise. They’d come on orders to deport up to 10,000 people to work camps, but the resistance fighters assumed they’d come to wipe out the ghetto, and fought fiercely. The SS called it quits and retreated after putting maybe 6,000 people on trains.

“The Jews thought that they had foiled a German plan to eliminate the ghetto,” Kassow said.

Word of their bravery spread, and their “prestige of the ZOB went to the sky.”

The Poles were “finally impressed,” Kassow said, and donated more weapons. Eventually, on April 19, the SS and auxiliary troops did in fact arrive in force to liquidate the ghetto.

They were “met with a hail of fire” and Molotov cocktails. The resistance famously raised two flags – one Jewish, one Polish – which could be seen waving from a long distance.

After suffering heavy casualties, the SS changed tactics and began torching the ghetto building by building. On May 8, the Germans discovered the ZOB headquarters bunker, known as Mila 18 – built by Jewish underworld smugglers – and attacked it with poison gas. Most died, but some ZOB escaped to safety through the sewers.

The bodies of the fallen remain on Mila 18, which is the site of a memorial mound.

Kassow expressed misgivings about lionizing the few fighters at the expense of the many ordinary Jews who were not in a position to take up arms.

“The fact is that Jewish society as a whole and especially in Poland showed massive powers of resistance …. in many different forms,” he said.

This included: smuggling food to curb starvation, collecting archives to ensure the atrocities wouldn’t be forgotten, and establishing soup kitchens and refugee centers for the dispossessed, among others.

“Without the ordinary Jews who didn’t have weapons, their fight could not have taken place,” he said. “In between the martyrs and the fighters there was a Jewish people. And a Jewish people that resisted in massive and varied ways.”

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The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Inside the Ghetto ragged, barefooted, emaciated children wandered aimlessly about the streets. Orphans held the hands of their younger siblings, searching for shreds of life lost after the Nazis herded them into a nightmare. Their frostbitten hands, a by-product of the brutal Polish winter, groped feebly for morsels of food. Catatonic youngsters snuggled up to their mothers hoping for warmth from what had become just another corpse on the streets of Warsaw. Mothers, begging for food, traipsed the carcass-laden sidewalks clutching their dead babies which they refused to surrender for burial.

Hopeless skeletal adults looked away from these helpless children as they scrounged the streets to feed their hapless aging parents. Those who had collapsed from hunger were sprawled unconscious on the streets and sidewalks. By the winter of 1941, tens of thousands had perished from starvation and raging infectious diseases.

Shootings, hangings, beatings, and deception indiscriminately administered by German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler&rsquos storm troopers daily increased the toll. Fooled by SS promises of better living conditions, food, and work, many of the Jews in the Ghetto had volunteered to go &ldquoeast.&rdquo By the following summer, 80 percent of them had gone &ldquoeast&rdquo to death camps. &ldquoThe camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of half a year,&rdquo SS Death Head Group officer and Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoess frankly testified at the Nuremberg Trials. &ldquoHe was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto.&rdquo Terror led to madness and suicide as the doomed Ghetto dwellers heard about abattoirs at the end of some railway lines bearing names like Treblinka, Chelmno, and Auschwitz.

Some Jews decided to act, instead of going quietly into the night on the Treblinka express. Small groups of young Jews organized &mdash among them the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB) and the Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy (ZZW). They recognized that their situation was dismal. They knew they were disarmed and surrounded, and that the mighty Nazi army they faced had subjugated much of Europe. Yet, without any realistic hope of success, they fought back. In so doing, they demonstrated once again that tyrants cannot stamp out man&rsquos yearning for freedom &mdash a yearning that resides in the inner kingdom of the soul, beyond the reach of murderous dictatorships.

The Jewish Army Strikes

With an arsenal of only two pistols, the underground&rsquos first and most important order of business was to procure guns. Jews operating covertly in &ldquoAryan&rdquo Warsaw made use of relationships cultivated with the Polish underground, the Polish government in exile, and Jews in London, Palestine, and the United States in order to obtain weapons. Guns purchased through the black market and money from abroad to buy additional weapons were smuggled into the Ghetto. Women and children were taught to shoot.

As wild rumors of imminent mass roundups set off panic during the summer of &rsquo42, the Jewish army of the Warsaw Ghetto razed a warehouse filled with confiscated Jewish property. &ldquoWe collected mattresses and furniture,&rdquo Zivia Lubetkin proudly recalled. &ldquoAnything inflammable, [we] piled them together and set them on fire. Success! The flames swept into a great blaze and crackled in the night, dancing and twisting in the air. We rejoiced as we saw the reflection of the revenge that was burning inside us, the symbol of the Jewish armed resistance that we had yearned for, for so long.&rdquo

Meanwhile, the SS increased the transports &ldquoeast.&rdquo Barbarous raids escalated day and night. Jews were shot at random for no apparent reason. Hysteria intensified as word came back to the Ghetto about deportations from other ghettos to the death camps at Belzec and Sobibor.

By the winter of 1942-43, nearly 300,000 Jews had been packed into cattle cars destined primarily for the gas chambers at Treblinka. In September 1942, an escapee from the death camp returned to the Ghetto with his horrid eyewitness testimony. It mirrored precisely what the other escapees revealed about the mass gassing and killing of Jews in Chelmno.

Jewish resisters distributed leaflets throughout the Ghetto to inform the 50,000 remaining Jews about Treblinka and specifically alert them about SS deceit. &ldquoToday every Jew should know the fate of those resettled,&rdquo the leaflets warned. &ldquoThe same fate awaits the remaining few left in Warsaw. The conclusion then is: Don&rsquot let yourself be caught! Hide, don&rsquot let yourself be taken away. Run away, don&rsquot be fooled by registrations, selections, numbers and roll calls! Jews, help one another! Take care of the children!&rdquo

The Jews went underground. They feverishly constructed bunkers and hideouts in anticipation of the final liquidation. The configuration was ingenious. Camouflaged entrances led to bunkers, secret rooms, attics, and basements that were inter-connected by newly constructed passageways. Through a maze of underground tunnels and sewers, the ZZW connected the Ghetto with &ldquoAryan&rdquo Warsaw. Electricity was adroitly diverted from the Warsaw power grids. The resisters set up illegal radios to communicate with the various underground units. Food and supplies acquired from warehouses were cleverly stored. An extraordinary subterranean defense was erected in days.

Guns, however, remained the most important life and death priority. The Jewish underground did not get much help from the Polish Home Army. &ldquoAs a trial I gave them a few pistols,&rdquo Commander in Chief Stefan Rowecki radioed his superiors in London in January 1943, &ldquoI am not sure they will use the weapons altogether. More weapons I will not give.&rdquo Weapons purchased at extravagant costs were smuggled in by couriers, oftentimes by children. And after exhaustive meetings with the Polish Home Army, the underground negotiated for some 60 revolvers, dozens of hand grenades and various explosives.

The Ghetto Jews Go to War

On January 18, 1943, the SS, as well as Latvian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Polish forces, looking to sweep up thousands for transport to the &ldquoeast,&rdquo came face to face with the Ghetto Jewish resistance. &ldquoNo one believed we would survive. Me neither,&rdquo recalled Shalom Stefan Grayek. &ldquoBut I just wanted one thing. I wanted to avenge myself and those who murdered my family, my friends and my people.&rdquo

Many SS fell in battle as Jews struck first with grenades, Molotov cocktails, and incendiary devices, and then picked them off with ease when the SS forces were caught in a crossfire while making their retreat. Lacking weaponry, the Jewish resistance used every means at their disposal to expel the enemy, even deploying boiling water from above.

Amidst the explosions, whizzing bullets, and blinding smoke, underground members dashed onto the streets to retrieve weapons, grenades, and ammunition from the dead and wounded. Every grenade, gun and bullet had great value! The valiant resistance from rooftops, bunkers, attics and makeshift defensive positions forced the SS and their friendly &ldquovolunteers&rdquo to evacuate.

The mighty German army was stunned and confused. &ldquoSS agents who stood some distance away and many gendarmes who fled in confusion cried out: &lsquoThe Jews are shooting!&rsquo&rdquo remembered Yitzhak Katznelson. &ldquoI, myself, heard these astonished cries from the lips of a vile loathsome German as he ran down the stairs of the house which he had entered for the deliberate purpose of killing us. &lsquoThe Jews are shooting!&rsquo he cried out in utter bewilderment. Something unheard of! Jews firing! &lsquoThey have guns!&rsquo&rdquo Estimates placed Third Reich casualties at nearly 200. More than 600 Jews died, and an additional 5,000 were grabbed and sent on to their deaths.

The Jewish victory electrified the insurgents and those in hiding. Morale energized the Ghetto Jews as they celebrated their Homeric victory over Hitler&rsquos forces. In Berlin, however, the mood was quite different. The German retreat terrified the Nazi high command, including Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. &ldquoThe Jews have actually succeeded in making a defensive position of the Ghetto,&rdquo complained Goebbels. &ldquoHeavy engagements are being fought there which led even to the Jewish Supreme Command issuing daily communiques. Of course this fun won&rsquot last long.&rdquo Little did Goebbels realize that the operation, which the experienced SS expected to complete in several days, would instead drag on for months. &ldquoIt shows what is to be expected of the Jews when they are in possession of arms,&rdquo he warned.

Fighting to the End

While Jews worldwide commemorated the Exodus of Hebrews from Pharaoh&rsquos enslavement in Egypt, Hitler&rsquos SS was poised to carry out their Fuhrer&rsquos order at daybreak &mdash the hellish deportation of all Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to death camps in the &ldquoeast.&rdquo In the parlance of the Supreme Leader&rsquos new world order, this was known as &ldquoresettlement.&rdquo

On hand this time was the experienced 48-year-old SS General Juergen Stroop. Seasoned in crushing partisan resistance and massacring civilians, the general was ready to assume direct command if anything like the January fiasco occurred.

The underground, meanwhile, readied itself for the assault. Its leader, Mordechai Anielewicz, who was half Stroop&rsquos age, gave the command. &ldquoHe who has arms will fight. He who has no arms &mdash women and children &mdash will go down into the bunkers.&rdquo

Jews rushed about the Ghetto in a frenzy, finding places to hide. Some descended into sewers. Others scrambled into prepared hiding places in cellars and attics. They squeezed into vaults, behind and inside furniture, and below floor openings. Unimaginably, some even sought refuge in latrines.

At 6:00 a.m. on April 9, 1943, more than 2,000 SS soldiers, along with additional Latvian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian volunteers, advanced onto the silent, eerie and deserted streets of the Warsaw Ghetto. This time they brought tanks. Armed with heavy and hand-held machine guns, howitzers, and rifles, the nervous invading army hugged the sides of buildings as it carefully made its way through the ghost town. Artillery support was ready. An underground lookout with his pistol and hand grenades spotted the skull and crossbones and alerted his commander.

Overwhelmingly outnumbered, overmatched and outgunned, the resistance struck first with grenades, Molotov cocktails, and incendiary bottles. Then it attacked with machine gun, rifle and pistol fire. A tank burst into flames. Mangled, burned, and bullet-riddled German assault forces lay dead on the bloody streets. After fierce fighting, Colonel von Sammern-Frankenegg&rsquos troops hastily retreated.

&ldquoWhen the Germans came up to our posts and marched by and we threw those hand grenades and bombs, and saw German blood pouring over the streets of Warsaw, after we saw so much Jewish blood running in the streets of Warsaw before that, there was rejoicing,&rdquo boasted a proud Zivia Lubetkin. &ldquoAnd after an hour we saw the officer hastening his soldiers to retreat, to collect their dead and their wounded. But they did not move, they did not collect their dead and their wounded. We took their arms later. And thus on the first day, we the few with our poor arms drove the Germans away from the ghetto.&rdquo The Germans left behind some 20 casualties.

SS General Stroop was stunned and embarrassed. He was especially incensed by a blue and white Hebrew flag hoisted from a window. With the blessings of his boss, Heinrich Himmler, Stroop took command. He initially ordered his troops, with assistance from petrified Jewish prisoners, to lure Jews out of hiding with promises of food, jobs, and housing if they peacefully resettled east. The Ghetto Jews did not bite. Recognizing the deception, and ignoring the subsequent order to surrender, the resistance fought back with hand grenades and explosives. Stroop called for artillery. The resistance withstood the barrage and heavy gunfire exchanges. After hours of brutal fighting, Stroop saw his troops pull back again.

As the latest Nazi offensive collapsed, Stroop realized he had underestimated Jewish resolve and courage. As he acknowledged in his final report to Berlin, &ldquoIt became apparent that the Jews no longer had any intention to resettle voluntarily, but were determined to resist evacuation…. Over and over again new battle groups consisting of 20 to 30 Jewish men, accompanied by a corresponding number of women, kindled new resistance.&rdquo

In the ensuing days, the Nazis set buildings ablaze in order to drive the fighters out. Electricity, gas, and water were cut off. The SS attacked the Jewish hospital and killed the wounded and infirm in their beds. Those who tried to escape the carnage by hiding were burned alive when the SS torched the building. Yet again, Stroop&rsquos men were repulsed, unable to carry out his orders to remove and destroy the Hebrew flag. The presence of the flag nauseated Stroop, as it was a symbolic reminder that a rag-tag Jewish military unit was holding its own against the vaunted Master Race.

As Jews celebrated the SS retreat, pride swelled and reached all the way to Vilna where poet Shmerl Kaczerginski, who learned about the events from illegal radio, responded: &ldquoWe know of no other particulars yet…. We suddenly saw clearly the flames of the Warsaw ghetto and Jews fighting with arms for their dignity and self-respect.&rdquo

The news also reached Berlin. A furious Heinrich Himmler commanded Stroop to crush the resistance &ldquowith ruthless and murderous tenacity.&rdquo SS General Stroop ordered his forces to burn down the entire Ghetto.

Bewildered, scared, and embarrassed Nazi units once again assaulted the Ghetto, flamethrowers in hand to burn down every building and bunker in sight. &ldquoOur brave defenders are holding out at their posts,&rdquo Leon Najberg reported. &ldquoGermans &mdash in spite of everything &mdash have to fight for access to each house. Gates of houses are barricaded, each house in the Ghetto is a defensive fortress, each flat is a citadel &mdash Jewish defenders are showering missiles from flats&rsquo windows and throwing shells at bandits.&rdquo

The Ghetto was ablaze. Jews were burned alive in their bunkers and hiding places. Some were blasted and tear-gassed out of their defensive positions. &ldquoJews usually left their hideouts, but frequently remained in the burning buildings and jumped out of the windows only when the heat became unbearable. They then tried to crawl with broken bones across the street into buildings which were not afire,&rdquo Stroop recorded in his report. Many of the victims became running torches.

During these days of vicious combat, the Jews&rsquo bunkers and resistance positions were systematically destroyed. Running out of grenades and incendiary bombs, the resistance adopted a different strategy &mdash guerrilla warfare. Armed mostly with pistols, they used hit and retreat tactics to repel the onslaught. Many in the invading army were killed and their weapons were retrieved. Jews suffered heavy losses as well. A number of captured Jews were shot on the spot. Others were sent to crowded, filthy holding pens to join deportees awaiting &ldquoresettlement.&rdquo

The sky over Warsaw was red for many days from the flames of the burning Ghetto, the smoke so thick that fighters fleeing the inferno could not see ahead. Yet the carnage was quite visible to all on the other side of the wall. &ldquoOn the balcony of the second floor a woman stood wringing her hands,&rdquo observed Feigele Peltel, who was hiding in &ldquoAryan&rdquo Warsaw. &ldquoShe disappeared into the building but returned a moment later, carrying a child and dragging a featherbed, which she flung to the pavement to break her fall. Clutching her child, she started to climb over the railing. A spray of bullets caught her midway &mdash the child dropped to the street &mdash the woman&rsquos body dangled lifeless from the railing.&rdquo

With the German forces and Jewish fighters engaged in savage street-to-street and house-to-house fighting, Stroop&rsquos strategy of divide and conquer seemed to be working. The underground units became more isolated and splintered after the SS released gas into the bunkers. As Jews emerged for air, many were immediately shot. Those who escaped through the mazes of underground tunnels, passageways, and sewers tried to get word to their comrades. Many of the freedom fighters, cut off in the mayhem, were buried under the collapsing walls and masonry of their bunkers. For the wounded, there was no medication. A doctor did his best without anesthesia. Supplies dwindled and were difficult to obtain.

Meanwhile, Commander Anielewicz desperately awaited a response from a note sent to associates operating in &ldquoAryan&rdquo Warsaw: &ldquoA revolver has no value for us its use is limited. We have urgent need of hand grenades, submachine guns and explosives.&rdquo He did not get what he needed. Yet in spite of the growing awareness that the end of their rebellion was imminent, Anielewicz was proud to have served with the Ghetto Jews. &ldquoThe dream of my life has become a reality,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI lived to see Jewish defense in the ghetto in all its greatness and splendor.&rdquo

When the SS discovered that Jews were escaping to the &ldquoAryan&rdquo side through the sewer system, they released more gas into the sewers. They also deployed dogs and sound-detection devices in order to locate any Jews still hiding in the rubble. In spite of the great danger to his troops, Stroop even sent his men into the Ghetto at night to surprise the holdouts.

Eventually, the Nazi forces succeeded in battling their way to the resistance bunker headquarters on Mila Street. The remaining 120 underground fighters realized that all was lost. They could no longer halt the Nazi onslaught. Many committed suicide. Others took their commander&rsquos advice to escape into &ldquoAryan&rdquo Warsaw. Some, with help from the Polish underground, were able to reach the forests. Many died from the gas which the Germans discharged into the command post. Among the dead was the valiant Commander Anielewicz. Those who surrendered were either shot or transported to the death camps. By May 8, 1943, the Ghetto had been destroyed and the uprising was over.

According to SS General Stroop, more than 56,000 Jews were liquidated during the uprising. Jews mutilated in explosions, incinerated by fires, and buried under the rubble remain forever unaccounted for. Ultimately, Stroop&rsquos SS burned down the Warsaw synagogue, reducing to ashes some 900 years of Jewish heritage in Poland. The military victory over the Warsaw Ghetto resisters was boastfully described in detail in Stroop&rsquos leather-bound report sent to Berlin, entitled Es gibt keinen judischen wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr! (&ldquoThere is no longer a Jewish district in Warsaw!&rdquo)

A Personal Reflection

Perhaps the meaning of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Jewish uprising is best conveyed by those who survived Hitler&rsquos &ldquoFinal Solution.&rdquo Lola, who escaped from the Stolpce Ghetto in Byelorussia (White Russia) on the eve of its liquidation, and who took up arms as a partisan during the remainder of the war, reminds us: &ldquoBe on alert for government. Big government. There will always be incidents in which people will be killed by gangs or thugs. Twenty, thirty, a hundred maybe. A tragedy for sure. But only a big government can organize to murder millions. And very important! Listen to what people say. They will let you know in advance what they have in mind.&rdquo

Lola&rsquos husband Yehuda, who was a partisan commander in the Byelorussian forest of Naliboki during WWII, and who later served as an officer in the Israeli Defense Force, recalls a 1941 rescue effort: &ldquoWe went into a ghetto to rescue some family and friends…. Some very religious Jews, who were praying, refused to come. They said that God will take care of them. I showed them my gun and told them, &lsquoWith all respect to God, this is the only thing that will save you here.&rsquo&rdquo The partisans and the escapees survived the war. Those who stayed behind were shot. Yehuda and Lola became American citizens in 1957. They are my parents and taught me well.

This article originally appeared in the January 14, 2002 issue of The New American.

Y. Eric Bellis a graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a television producer/director. He is the son of the late Lola and Yehuda Bell (formerly Bielski). See also the author’s article "The Bielski Forest" about his parents’ fight for survival in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.


Watch the video: Ο Στέλιος Καζαντζίδης μιλάει για τον Γιώργο Νταλάρα (June 2022).


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