Encyclopedia

Warsaw Ghetto

was the largest ghetto containing at its height more than 400,000 people. It was the site of the first urban uprising in occupied Europe.

The Warsaw shared many characteristics with other ghettos: Conditions worsened over time as did accompanying mortality from starvation and disease; social welfare organizations ministered to the needy; there was a rich cultural life; the ghetto was administered internally by a Judenrat and policed by the Jewish Police; many residents were employed in workshops virtually as slave laborers; there was an underground resistance organization; deportations ultimately decimated the population; the ghetto was merely a way station in the Nazi plan to destroy the Jewish people.

Because of its size the ghetto evolved slowly, only being sealed on November 16, 1940. The construction of the wall took many months. It was 11.5 feet high; the Judenrat was forced to pay the costs of its construction.

Initially, some 30% of Warsaw's population was being crammed into 2.4% of the city's area. This resulted in 6 to 7 people per room. The population increased as Jews from outlying areas were relocated there.

The daily food ration was 181 calories. Some could supplement this by purchasing food from smugglers. The workers in the factories received a meal at work. One of the diarists of the ghetto, Stefan Ernst, wrote that 20,000 to 30,000 people, the social elite, have enough to eat, 250,000 people who are all beggars, completely bereft of everything, wage a daily struggle to postpone death by starvation, and in between are about 200,000 people who somehow manage.

Smuggling goods across the wall was a risky occupation; everyday people were caught and lost their lives. Children aged 7 or 8 gathered near the ghetto gates to look for a smuggling opportunity. Smuggling took place through buildings that were connected with buildings on the Polish side, across the wall, through openings in the wall and through the sewers.

The head of the Judenrat was Adam Czerniakow. Czerniakow tried to manage the affairs of the ghetto without the direct involvement of the German authorities. He was in daily contact with German civil and police administration and attempted to ameliorate the conditions in the ghetto.

He was deceived by ghetto commissar, Heinz Auerswald, regarding the mass deportations. He refused to help roundup Jews and committed suicide on July 23, 1942. According to one version he left a note to his wife that said, "They are demanding that I kill the children of my people with my own hands. There is nothing for me to do but to die." He was buried in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery which survived the war intact. Czerniakow's diary was found and published.

The mass deportations began on July 22, 1942 and continued until September 12. The goal was to deliver 7,000 Jews a day to the Umschlagplatz, and from there to trains heading to Treblinka. Jews tried to buy their way into the ghetto workshops where they felt they would be exempt from deportation.

At first the Jewish police, numbering some 2,000 men, took charge of rounding up the deportees. Later, after their had been days when the quota was not met SS, German police and their Ukrainian and Latvian helpers took charge grabbing people despite any permits they might have.

In August in an march observed by many 200 orphans were sent from Dr. Janusz Korczak's orphanage to the Umschlagplatz. Refusing efforts to save him the elderly educator and his team of assistants went with the children. Before the first wave of mass deportations ended they took on the character of a manhunt. Anyone who could be caught was seized. The Jewish policemen were compelled to bring in 5 Jews a day or their families would be taken.

In response to the deportations an underground resistance movement flourished. The major group was the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB,Jewish Fighting Organization). Mordecai Anielewicz was to be the commander. One of its first missions was to distribute leaflets describing the fate awaiting the deportees at Treblinka. The ZOB passed a death sentence on the Jewish police commander, but he was only wounded. The ZOB began the difficult task of acquiring arms. The Armia Krajowa (AK, Home Army), the Polish military underground organization, was contacted but they gave little help.

The second wave of deportations began on January 18, 1943. The Jews were ordered to assemble in the courtyards of their apartment houses; many went into hiding. The group of 1000 that the Germans rounded up were marched in the direction of the Umschlagplatz. A group of fighters belonging to the resistance including Mordecai Anielewicz infiltrated the column. At a signal the fighters engaged the German guards in hand-to-hand fighting. The group of 1000 disbursed.

The deportation continued for a few more days during which 6,000 were deported; then it was abandoned. The fact that it was halted in response to Jewish resistance had a tremendous impact on the ghetto and was instrumental in unifying support for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which took place in April. It was not known that the goal of the January deportations was the limited to removing 8,000 Jews from the ghetto.

The final liquidation of the ghetto began on the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943. The Germans were expecting resistance. When the German forces entered the ghetto they were met with Molotov cocktails, hand grenades and bullets. This was the beginning of the heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising resulted in the physical destruction of the ghetto and the deportation or escape of the survivors. It is estimated some 20,000 Jews left the ghetto to seek refuge on the Polish side.

Our knowledge of the Warsaw ghetto is immeasurably enhanced by the chronicles of historian Emanuel Ringelblum and his group of clandestine archivists. Their documents, known as the Oneg Shabat Archive, were buried in milk cans and found after the war under the ruins of the ghetto.

When the war ended some 20,000 to 30,000 Jews settled in Warsaw, but the overwhelming majority of these left during one of the 3 waves of emigration prior to 1968.

There was a second uprising in Warsaw, the Warsaw Polish Uprising. The general population revolted against the Germans in anticipation of the Soviet entry into the city. The Soviet Army delayed coming into Warsaw, and in a brutal campaign the Germans killed 150,000 civilians, including some Jews who were hiding in the general population. As an act of revenge the Germans razed 85% of the city.

Only a few sites of Jewish interest remain, they include the Nozik synagogue and the historic Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street. The Zydowski Instytut Historyczny (Jewish Historical Institute) is located in the former library of the Great Synagogue. In 1948 an heroic monument designed by sculptor Nathan Rapaport was dedicated on the site of the former ghetto.


Sources: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; Historical Atlas of the Holocasut; various survivor memoirs.


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