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. 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, 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.

Over the months some 300,000 people from the ghetto were sent 60 miles to the north­east of the capital, to the Treb­linka death camp, one of six death camps estab­lished on Polish soil. (The six were Treb­linka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chełm­no (Kulm­hof), Beł­żec, Sobi­bór, and Majda­nek.) In January 1943 Jewish resis­tance groups repulsed German troops sent to deport more ghetto residents. When the Germans entered the ghetto again on this date in 1943, resis­tance flowered into a full-scale rebellion—the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Poorly armed Jews fought 2,000 tank-sup­ported SS troops, who were 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, resi­dents held out against the Germans for more than a month. Jews who sur­vived 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 ghetto monument

Above: Unveiled in Warsaw in 1948, the monu­ment to the heroes of the War­saw Ghetto Up­rising com­memo­rates the largest single revolt by Jews in World War II.

Warsaw ghetto captivesWarsaw 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. The intention of the blazes was to “smoke out the Jews and bandits,” as the author of the report to Himmler put it.

Warsaw ghetto residents under armed escortSoldiers 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