Warsaw, Occupied Poland • April 19, 1943
In October 1940, a little over a year after Nazi Germany’s conquest of its eastern neighbor Poland, German Governor-General Hans Frank established a Jewish ghetto in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, moving some 90,000 Jews from all over Poland into the ghetto. (Poland’s Jewish community numbered 3.5 million at the time.) The largest of the ghettos in Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto occupied a tiny section of the city, just 3.5 sq. miles (two percent of the city’s area), but it contained 30 percent of the city’s population.
Initially gates allowing entry and exit were guarded by a mixed force of Germans, Poles, and Jews. Then on November 16, 1940, the Germans permanently sealed off the ghetto from the rest of the capital, first with barbed wire and wooden fences, then with 11‑ft-high brick walls topped with broken glass. No longer were residents allowed to leave the ghetto even for work. Hunger, disease (especially typhus), and overcrowding were endemic: each apartment building in the ghetto housed on average 400 people, and each room six to seven people. No fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, or milk were delivered from the outside. Food allocations, distributed through the ghetto’s Judenrat (Jewish Council) were roughly 200 calories per day per person. “Natural wastage” was the German euphemism for this hideously slow death.
Over several months, in a massive set of deportations known as Gross-Aktion Warschau (July 23 to September 12, 1942), some 300,000 out of 350,000 ghetto residents were sent 60 miles to the northeast of the capital, to the Treblinka death camp. (Treblinka was one of six death camps established on Polish soil. The others were Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chełmno (Kulmhof), Bełżec, Sobibór, and Majdanek.) In January 1943 Jewish resistance groups—principally Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa and Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy, whose weapons were supplied by the non-Jewish Polish underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa)—repulsed German troops sent to deport more ghetto residents. When the Germans entered the ghetto again on this date, April 19, 1943, resistance flowered into a full-scale rebellion—the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Poorly armed Jews fought 2,000 tank-supported SS troops, who, while having a manpower and firepower advantage, were nonetheless stunned by the ferocity of the Jewish fighters. (The SS, short for Schutzstaffel, was a major paramilitary organization separate from the Germany Army. Under the command of Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, it committed “crimes against humanity” and genocide, especially as directed toward Jews.)
The Germans initially withdrew from the ghetto after suffering 200 casualties. Despite impossible odds, ghetto residents held out against the Germans for close to a month. SS Brig. Gen. Juergen Stroop, the city’s police commander, ordered the systematic burning of the ghetto, house by house, street by street. Four weeks from the start of the uprising, Stroop was able to report to his superiors: “There is no more Jewish quarter in Warsaw.” Jewish survivors of the uprising were sent to either forced-labor camps or the Treblinka death camp. Treblinka is second only to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Jews murdered in Nazi death camps (900,000 vs. 1.5 million). Between deaths in camps and the uprising, at least 300,000 Warsaw Jews lost their lives during the Nazi period.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 19 to May 16, 1943
Above: Unveiled in Warsaw in 1948, the 36-ft-tall monument to the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising commemorates the largest single revolt by Jews in World War II. The central standing figure in the bronze frieze of men, women, and children is that of Mordechai Anielewicz (1919–May 8, 1943), who was the leader of the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB; the Jewish Combat Organization). The offshoot of Jewish youth groups, the ZOB fought alongside the Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy (ZZW; Jewish Military Union), which came into being in November 1939 and was a specifically Jewish group formed primarily of former officers of the defeated Polish armed services. Both the ZOB and the ZZW maintained close ties to the Armia Krajowa and the London-based Polish government-in-exile.
Left: Captioned “Forcibly pulled out of bunkers” (“Mit Gewalt aus Bunkern hervorgeholt”), this photograph, submitted in an SS report (Stroop-Bericht) to Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, is one of the best known of World War II. It was taken between April 19 and May 16, 1943.
Right: Guarded by troops armed with submachine guns, high-ranking SS officers watch ghetto apartments burn street by street. The intention of the blazes was to “smoke out the Jews and bandits,” as the author of the report to Himmler put it. About half of the 13,000 Jews who died in the uprising were burned alive or suffocated in their underground cellars, bunkers, and tunnels.
Left: This photo in the SS report shows ghetto residents being led from a bunker where they had been hiding and marched to a transfer point (Umschlagplatz). There they would be sealed in freight cars with little water and poor ventilation and deported to death or labor camps.
Right: Two ex-Soviet POWs in Hilfseinheiten (auxiliary units) used by the SS in suppressing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising stare past the bodies of Jews killed during the monthlong revolt. Jews who resisted forcible deportation by hiding were often killed on the spot when discovered.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943