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

Warsaw’s Ghetto Heroes Monument

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.

Warsaw ghetto captives Warsaw ghetto apartments burn

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.

Warsaw ghetto residents under armed escort Soldiers stare past the bodies of Warsaw Jews

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

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WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on Amazon.com. Con­taining a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site, the ebook brings the story of this tumul­tu­ous era to life in a com­pelling, author­i­ta­tive, and suc­cinct man­ner. Fea­turing inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to dif­fer­ent dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.