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/9 sq. kilo­meters (2 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 crammed with 6 or 7 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” (natuer­liche Personal­redu­zierung) 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—coin­ci­den­tally the first day of Pass­over—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 German Army, or Wehr­macht). Under the com­mand of Reichs­fuehrer-SS Hein­rich Himm­ler, the Waffen-SS was noto­ri­ous for com­mitting “crimes against human­ity” and geno­cide, especially as directed toward Jews, whom they considered Untermenschen (racially inferior people).

The Germans and their Ukrainian auxiliaries initially with­drew from the ghetto after suffering 200 casual­ties. Despite impos­sible odds, ghetto resi­dents held out against the enemy for close to a month. SS-Brigade­fuehrer (Maj. 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.

As smoke and flames rose from the Warsaw Ghetto, a Polish woman watched from Krasinksi Square, desperate to save her Jewish friends. For many months, Irena Sendler had smuggled Jewish children from the ghetto, hiding them under new Christian identities. She spirited children out through secret passageways, in bags of potatoes, a carpenter’s tool box, and coffins.
­ ­ ­ ­ When I was offered the chance to adapt Irena’s story for children, I jumped on it. Irena’s choice to act, to resist power and evil at the risk of her life, not once, but day after day, made me want to be more courageous myself. Irena’s story proves we humans have great potential to put aside apathy and self-interest, to rise above hatred and fear, and to act with compassion in the darkest of days.
­ ­ ­ As the ghetto burned, she drew up a list of places throughout Warsaw, including her own apartment, where people agreed to hide Jews. With the Nazis hell-bent on destruction street-by-street, maybe Irena could sneak in once more, carrying the addresses of the safe houses. And if she could get in, surely she could get more children out.
­ ­ ­ The main thoroughfare to freedom was the sewer system. Irena mobilized her team of trusted men, women, and teenagers who had already rescued nearly 2,500 Jewish children. They scoured ghetto cellars convincing people to flee; they rushed into burning buildings and pulled out crying toddlers. Irena waited at sewer manholes sending escapees to safe addresses. The ruse worked for more than a week, families crawling through the sewers to safety. But when the German SS realized Jews were getting away, they shut off city utilities to the ghetto and pumped poison into the water and gas mains.
­ ­ ­ A short time later, Irena was betrayed to the Nazis. Arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death, she did not give up information. Irena’s Children: Young Readers Edition; A True Story of Courage tells how she escaped the firing squad moments before her execution.—Mary Cronk Farrell


Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 19 to May 16, 1943

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Warsaw ghetto captivesWarsaw Ghetto Uprising: Warsaw ghetto apartments burn

Left: Captioned “Forcibly pulled out of bunkers” (“Mit Gewalt aus Bunkern her­vor­geholt”), this black-and-white photo­graph is among 52 sub­mitted in an SS report by Juergen Stroop, Warsaw’s vir­u­lently anti-Semitic police chief, to Reichs­fuehrer-SS Hein­rich Himmler. Taken between April 19 and May 16, 1943, the photo is one of the best-known images from World War II. (Josef Blosche [far right, facing camera] earned the nick­name “Franken­stein” by ghetto inhab­i­tants due to his pen­chant for raping women and beating men.) Stroop kept a personal copy of the report (“Stroop-Bericht”), dis­covered at war’s end, in his home office in Wies­baden, Germany. Stroop surren­dered to the U.S. Army in May 1945, was extra­dited to Poland, tried in the Warsaw Crimi­nal Dis­trict Court in 1951, and hanged at Mokotów Prison on March 6, 1952.

Right: Guarded by troops armed with submachine guns, Stroop (center in field cap) and high-ranking SS officers watch ghetto apart­ments burn street by street. As Stroop put it in his report to Him­mler, the inten­tion of the blazes was to “smoke out the Jews and bandits.” About half of the 13,000 Jews who died in the Warsaw Up­rising were burned alive or suffo­cated in their under­ground cellars, bunkers, and tunnels. Facil­i­ta­ting their anni­hi­la­tion were one- and two-man port­able flame­throwers (German, Flammen­werfer), criti­cal in house-to-house fighting and as a means of imple­menting Germany’s “scorched earth” policy in the East, and for “repri­sals.” Some 70,000 Flammen­werfer were pro­duced during the war and dis­persed to units of the Wehrmacht, SS, and police.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Warsaw ghetto residents under armed escortWarsaw Ghetto Uprising: Soldiers stare past the bodies of Warsaw Jews

Left: This photo in the “Stroop-Bericht” 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 known as “Askaris” (Swahili, soldiers) 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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