Warsaw Ghetto Uprisingthe first civilian, urban uprising in German-occupied Europe, the heroic revolt begun by the Jewish Fighting Organization was joined by the remaining ghetto population. It was the longest lasting Jewish uprising lasting from April 19 through May 16, 1943. Of negligible military value, the revolt became a symbol of the indomitableness of the human spirit.
In response to the July 1942 deportations from the Warsaw ghetto and to reports of mass murder in Lithuania the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization, henceforth ZOB) was founded. When the first wave of deportations ended in September 300,000 Jews had been removed leaving a ghetto population of around 60,000, most of them young people. The survivors blamed themselves for not having offered armed resistance.
The leader of the ZOB was Modecai Anielewicz. Historian of the Warsaw ghetto Emmanuel Ringelblum wrote that Anielewicz was driven by the need to make the Germans pay dearly for Jewish blood. It was not a question of saving Jewish lives; this was hopeless. It was a question of what kind of death the Polish Jews would select for themselves.
When the deportations resumed in January 1943 Modecai Anielewicz led an attack on a group of Jews who were being marched to the Umschlagplatz. This was the first attack on Germans in the ghetto and when the deportations ceased 4 days later it was attributed to Jewish resistance. This led to a decisive change in the attitude of ghetto population: from submission and compliance to resistance--both passive (noncompliance) and active (fighting).
The German security forces knew that they faced an active Jewish underground. Himmler therefore decided to liquidate the ghetto as soon as possible. April 19, 1943 was chosen; the plan was to liquidate the ghetto in 3 days and give Hitler a birthday present (his birthday was April 20).
The Germans assembled a force of 2,842 men to enter the ghetto and brought 7,000 security forces into Warsaw. Their greatest fear was that the rebellion would spread to the Polish side of the city.
At the outbreak the ZOB consisted of about 600 members. However, thousands of Jews spontaneously joined the uprising once it had started. The Germans had the most modern military weapons, including tanks. The ghetto fighters had a few guns, mainly pistols which turned out to be useless, some hand grenades and most effectively Molotov cocktails (glass bottles filed with gasoline).The fighters had been severely hampered by lack of arms. They had tried with very limited success to obtain weapons from the Polish underground, the Armia Krajowa (AK, Home Army).
The leadership of the uprising realized that to attack the Germans directly would be suicide; therefore it was decided to attack at the crossings of ghetto streets from the rooftops and attics of surrounding houses. Underground bunkers were prepared and stocked with provisions.
The ghetto was surrounded with a guard armed with a machine gun placed every 25 feet. The main German forces entered the ghetto. At two places they were attacked by the Jewish fighters and retreated. Tanks were brought in but these were hit with Molotov cocktails and set on fire. The fact that the enemy retreated at the first encounter evoked jubilation among the Jews.
With this ignominious defeat the head of the operation was replaced by General Jurgen Stroop, who was experience in partisan warfare. General Stroop restored order in the ranks. He changed the tactics from an outright assault on the ghetto to concentrated attacks on one point at a time in order to drive the Jews into a narrow area. He used artillery fire as he would on a regular battlefield and had his men move under cover like snipers.
The minimal weapons of the Jews were no match for artillery and their supply of ammunition was giving out. The fighting advanced house by house, street by street. The Jews started burning the warehouses of the ghetto factories that held German valuables. The Germans entered the ghetto hospital and slaughtered those they found there.
The second day of uprising, April 20, was like the first-heavy German attacks and stubborn Jewish resistance. A mine had been set in the area of the brush factory at the gate of Wolowa Street Number 6. When the SS reached the gate it was detonated; the ZOB reported that 22 Germans were killed.
On the third day of the uprising Stroop decided to avoid direct contact with the Jewish fighters as much as possible; he decided to set the ghetto on fire. Thousands were burned alive or suffocated in the underground bunkers. People leapt from burning buildings.
The bunker war-the burning of the bunkers was the German's most difficult task. The leaders of the ZOB were hidden in a bunker at Mila Street Number 18. It is not known how the Germans discovered its location. There were 5 exits; the Germans blew up all five and sent gas into the bunker. The fighters who were still alive decided to commit suicide, including Mordecai Anielewicz. A group of fighters escaped from the ghetto through the sewers and reached the Lomianki forest.
Mordecai Anielewicz had written to his comrade Yitzhak Zuckerman who was hiding outside the ghetto: I feel that great things are happening, that what we have undertaken is of tremendous significance...Peace be with you, my dear friend. Perhaps we will see each other again. The main thing is that my life's dream has been realized. The Jewish self defense in the Warsaw ghetto has become a reality. The armed Jewish struggle and the revenge became a reality. I am a witness to this grand, heroic battle of the Jewish fighters.
The battle raged for 27 days. When it was over General Stroop claimed to have destroyed 6,065 Jews. As a "celebration" Himmler ordered the Great Synagogue on Tlomacka Street (which was outside the ghetto) blown up as a symbol of the fact that "the Jewish quarter of Warsaw no longer exists."
After May 16 there were still hundreds of Jews living in the ruins of the ghetto. Many succeeded in making contact with Poles in other parts of the city. As late as the second Warsaw uprising, when the Poles rose up against the Germans in anticipation of the entry of the Soviet Army, there were still a few Jews eking out an existence in the ruins of the former ghetto.
General Stroop compiled an illustrated report (The Stroop Report) which described the uprising and the efforts to suppress it. He was tried and executed in Warsaw in 1951.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising became one of the most celebrated events of the Holocaust. It gave encouragement to Jews elsewhere as news of the brave stand taken by the Warsaw fighters spread. In Vilna Hirsh Glick wrote the song, Zog nit keyn mol, which became the partisan fighters anthem. The worldwide day of remembrance of the Holocaust, Yom Hashoah, was chosen to be as close as religious custom allowed to actual date of the beginning of the uprising. The uprising took place on April 19, 1943 which corresponds to the 15 th day of the month Nissan in the Hebrew calendar, which is the first day of Passover; Yom Hashoah occurs every year on the 27 th day of Nissan.
Sources: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; Young, The Texture of Memory; Suhl, They Fought Back pgs. 85-127 (a memoir by Emmanuel Ringelblum on Mordecai Anielewicz and an article by historian Ber Mark on the Warsaw Uprising).