Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
|Warsaw Ghetto Uprising|
|Part of World War II and the Holocaust|
Photo from Jürgen Stroop's report to Heinrich Himmler from May 1943 and one of the best-known pictures of World War II.
The original German caption reads: "Forcibly pulled out of dug-outs."
|Commanders and leaders|
|Daily average of 2,090 including 821 Waffen-SS||About 600 ŻOB and about 400 ŻZW fighters, plus a number of Polish fighters|
|Casualties and losses|
|At least 17 killed, 93 wounded (German figures)||About 13,000 killed, 56,885 deported, mostly civilians (German estimate)|
|According to Stroop's unofficial account, 71,000 people in all were killed or deported. The 16 killed on the German side do not include Jewish forced collaborators.|
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Yiddish: אױפֿשטאַנד אין װאַרשעװער געטאָ; Polish: powstanie w getcie warszawskim; German: Aufstand im Warschauer Ghetto) was the 1943 act of Jewish resistance that arose within the Warsaw Ghetto in German-occupied Poland during World War II, and which opposed Nazi Germany's final effort to transport the remaining Ghetto population to Treblinka extermination camp. The most significant portion of the rebellion took place beginning on 19 April, but ended when the poorly supplied resistance was defeated by the German soldiers. This officially finished their operation to liquidate the Ghetto on 16 May. It was the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II.
In 1939, German occupational authorities began to concentrate Poland's population of over three million Jews into a number of extremely crowded ghettos located in large Polish cities. The largest of these, the Warsaw Ghetto, concentrated approximately 300,000–400,000 people into a densely packed, 3.3 km² central area of Warsaw. Thousands of Jews died due to rampant disease and starvation under SS-und-Polizeiführer Odilo Globocnik and SS-Standartenführer Ludwig Hahn, even before the mass deportations from the Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp began.
The SS conducted many of the deportations during the operation code-named Grossaktion Warschau, between 23 July and 21 September 1942. Just before the operation began, the German "Resettlement Commissioner" SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle called a meeting of the Ghetto Jewish Council Judenrat and informed its leader, Adam Czerniaków, that he would require 7,000 Jews a day for the "resettlement to the East". Czerniaków committed suicide once he became aware of the true goal of the "resettlement" plan. Approximately 254,000–300,000 Ghetto residents met their deaths at Treblinka during the two-month-long operation. The Grossaktion was directed by SS-Oberführer Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, the SS and police commander of the Warsaw area since 1941. He was relieved of duty by SS-und-Polizeiführer Jürgen Stroop, sent to Warsaw by Heinrich Himmler on 17 April 1943. Stroop took over from von Sammern-Frankenegg following the failure of the latter to pacify the Ghetto resistance.
When the deportations first began, members of the Jewish resistance movement met and decided not to fight the SS directives, believing that the Jews were being sent to labour camps and not to their deaths. By the end of 1942, Ghetto inhabitants learned that the deportations were part of an extermination process. Many of the remaining Jews decided to revolt. The first armed resistance in the ghetto occurred in January 1943. On the 19th of April 1943, Passover eve, the Germans entered the ghetto. The remaining Jews knew that the Germans would murder them and they decided to resist to the last man. While the uprising was underway, the Bermuda Conference was held from April 19–29, 1943 to discuss the current Jewish refugee problem. Discussions included the question of Jewish refugees who had been liberated by Allied forces and those who still remained within German-occupied Europe.
Hanna Krall, who interviewed the only surviving uprising commander, Marek Edelman (from the left-wing Jewish Combat Organization, Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB), stated that the ŻOB had 220 fighters and each was armed with a handgun, grenades, and Molotov cocktails. His organization had three rifles in each area, as well as two land mines and one submachine gun in the whole Ghetto. The insurgents had little ammunition; more weapons were supplied throughout the uprising, and some were captured from the Germans. Some weapons were handmade by the resistance; sometimes such weapons worked, other times they jammed repeatedly.
Shortly before the uprising, Polish-Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum (who managed to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto, but was later discovered and executed in 1944) visited a ŻZW armoury hidden in the basement at 7 Muranowska Street. In his notes, which form part of Oyneg Shabbos archives, he reported: "They were armed with revolvers stuck in their belts. Different kinds of weapons were hung in the large rooms: light machine guns, rifles, revolvers of different kinds, hand grenades, bags of ammunition, German uniforms, etc., all of which were utilized to the full in the April "action". (...) While I was there, a purchase of arms was made from a former Polish Army officer, amounting to a quarter of a million złoty; a sum of 50,000 złoty was paid on account. Two machine guns were bought at 40,000 złoty each, and a large amount of hand grenades and bombs."
Support from outside the Ghetto was limited, but Polish Resistance units from the mainstream Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK) and the communist Polish Workers' Party's militia People's Guard (Gwardia Ludowa, GL) attacked German units near the Ghetto walls and attempted to smuggle weapons, ammunition, supplies, and instructions into the Ghetto. Polish resistance provided the insurgents with a limited number of badly needed weapons and ammunitions from its meager stocks. Jewish right-wing resistance in the Jewish Military Union (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy, ŻZW) received large quantities of armament, including several automatic weapons, from the AK-affiliated National Security Corps (Państwowy Korpus Bezpieczeństwa, PKB). AK disseminated information and appeals to help the Jews in the Ghetto, both in Poland and by way of radio transmissions to the Allies. Several ŻOB commanders and fighters later escaped through the sewers with assistance from the Poles and joined Polish underground. A PKB unit commanded by Henryk Iwański ("Bystry") reportedly fought even inside the Ghetto along with ŻZW and subsequently both groups retreated together (including 34 Jewish fighters) to the so-called Aryan side. Although Iwański's action is the most well-known rescue mission, it was only one of many actions undertaken by the Polish resistance to help the Jewish fighters.
"When we invaded the Ghetto for the first time, the Jews and the Polish bandits succeeded in repelling the participating units, including tanks and armored cars, by a well-prepared concentration of fire. (...) The main Jewish battle group, mixed with Polish bandits, had already retired during the first and second day to the so-called Muranowski Square. There, it was reinforced by a considerable number of Polish bandits. Its plan was to hold the Ghetto by every means in order to prevent us from invading it. (...) Time and again Polish bandits found refuge in the Ghetto and remained there undisturbed, since we had no forces at our disposal to comb out this maze. (...) One such battle group succeeded in mounting a truck by ascending from a sewer in the so-called Prosta [Street], and in escaping with it (about 30 to 35 bandits). (...) The bandits and Jews – there were Polish bandits among these gangs armed with carbines, small arms, and in one case a light machine gun – mounted the truck and drove away in an unknown direction."—Jürgen Stroop, 1943
Commemorative pennant of ŻZW - Jewish Military Union.
Page 5 of Stroop Report describing German fight against "Juden mit Polnischen Banditen" - "Jews with Polish bandits".
Continuation 27 April 1943 describing fight against "judische-polnischen wehrformation" ("Jewish-Polish armed formation").
A poster published by the ŻOB. Translation: "All people are equal brothers; Brown, White, Black and Yellow. To separate peoples, colors, races – Is but an act of cheating!"
On the other hand, despite German evidence of Polish fighters joining the struggle, some survivors have reported different experiences. In her book On Both Sides of the Wall, Vladka Meed, who was a member of the Warsaw Ghetto underground, devoted a chapter to the lack of support from the Polish resistance, writing, "We knew that the Polish underground had secret caches of weapons. Mikolai was in touch with the leaders of the Polish underground, ‘They keep making promises!’ he told me again and again. We are urged to be patient. (...) Often, we wondered why, in spite of our willingness to pay generously, the underground refused to help us. However, our contacts with the Poles were tenuous and often came to grief; many times we were sold out."
Ultimately, the efforts of the Jewish resistance fighters proved insufficient against the German occupation system. According to Hanna Krall, the German task force dispatched to put down the revolt and complete the deportation action numbered 2,090 men armed with a number of minethrowers and other light and medium artillery pieces, several armored vehicles, and more than 200 machine and submachine guns. Its backbone consisted of 821 Waffen-SS paramilitary soldiers from five SS Panzergrenadier reserve and training battalions and one SS cavalry reserve and training battalion. The other forces were drawn from the Ordnungspolizei (Orpo) order police (battalions from the 22nd and 23rd regiments), Warsaw personnel of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) intelligence service, one battalion each from two Wehrmacht (Heer) railroad combat engineers regiments, a Wehrmacht battery of anti-aircraft artillery, a detachment of multinational (commonly but inaccurately referred to by the Germans and Jews alike as 'Ukrainians') ex-Soviet POW "Trawniki-Männer" auxiliary camp guards trained by the SS-Totenkopfverbände at Trawniki concentration camp, and technical emergency corps. Several Gestapo jailers from the nearby political prison Pawiak, led by Franz Bürkl, volunteered to join the "hunt" for the Jews. A force of 363 officers from the Polish Police of the General Government (so-called Blue Police) was ordered by the Germans to cordon the walls of the Ghetto. Warsaw fire department personnel were also forced to help in the operation. Jewish policemen were used in the first phase of the Ghetto's liquidation and subsequently summarily executed by the Gestapo.
Stroop's report listed the forces at his disposal as 36 officers and 2,054 men:
- Staff of the SS- and Police Leader: 6/5
- SS Police Regiment 22 1st Battalion: 3/94
- SS Police Regiment 23 3rd Battalion: 3/134
- Technical personnel: 1/6
- Polish Police: 4/363
- Polish fire fighters: /166
- SD: 3/32
- The foreign races guard troops:
- Trawniki 1st Battalion: 2/335
January to April 1943
On 18 January 1943, the Germans began their second deportation of the Jews, which led to the first instance of armed insurgency within the Ghetto. While Jewish families hid in their so-called "bunkers", fighters of the ŻZW, joined by elements of the ŻOB, resisted, engaging the Germans in direct clashes. Though the ŻZW and ŻOB suffered heavy losses (including some of their leaders), the Germans also took casualties, and the deportation was halted within a few days. Only 5,000 Jews were removed, instead of the 8,000 planned by Globocnik. Hundreds of people in the Warsaw ghetto were ready to fight, adults and children, sparsely armed with handguns, gasoline bottles, and a few other weapons that had been smuggled into the Ghetto by resistance fighters. Most of the Jewish fighters did not view their actions as an effective measure by which to save themselves, but rather as a battle for the honor of the Jewish people, and a protest against the world's silence.
Two resistance organizations, the ŻZW and ŻOB, took control of the Ghetto. They built dozens of fighting posts and executed a number of Nazi collaborators, including Jewish Police officers, members of the fake (German-sponsored and controlled) resistance organization Żagiew, as well as Gestapo and Abwehr agents (such as Judenrat member Dr Alfred Nossig, executed on 22 February 1943). The ŻOB established a prison to hold and execute traitors and collaborators. Józef Szeryński, former head of the Jewish Ghetto Police, committed suicide.
April to May 1943
On 19 April 1943, on the eve of Passover, the police and SS auxiliary forces entered the Ghetto. They were planning to complete the deportation action within three days, but were ambushed by Jewish insurgents firing and tossing Molotov cocktails and hand grenades from alleyways, sewers, and windows. The Germans suffered casualties and their advance bogged down. Two of their combat vehicles (an armed conversion of a French-made Lorraine 37L light armored vehicle and an armored car) were set on fire by insurgent petrol bombs. Following von Sammern-Frankenegg's failure to contain the revolt, he lost his post as the SS and police commander of Warsaw. He was replaced by SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, who rejected von Sammern-Frankenegg's proposal to call in bomber aircraft from Kraków and proceeded to lead a better-organized and reinforced ground attack.
The longest-lasting defense of a position took place around the ŻZW stronghold at Muranowski Square, where the ŻZW chief leader, Dawid Moryc Apfelbaum, was killed in combat. On the afternoon of 19 April, a symbolic event took place when two boys climbed up on the roof of a building on the square and raised two flags, the red-and-white Polish flag and the blue-and-white banner of the ŻZW. These flags remained there, highly visible from the Warsaw streets, for four days. After the war, Stroop recalled:
"The matter of the flags was of great political and moral importance. It reminded hundreds of thousands of the Polish cause, it excited them and unified the population of the General Government, but especially Jews and Poles. Flags and national colours are a means of combat exactly like a rapid-fire weapon, like thousands of such weapons. We all knew that – Heinrich Himmler, Krüger, and Hahn. The Reichsfuehrer [Himmler] bellowed into the phone: 'Stroop, you must at all costs bring down those two flags!'"—Jürgen Stroop, 1949
During this fight on April 22, SS officer Hans Dehmke was killed when gunfire detonated a hand grenade he was holding. When Stroop's ultimatum to surrender was rejected by the defenders, his forces resorted to systematically burning houses block by block using flamethrowers and fire bottles, and blowing up basements and sewers. "We were beaten by the flames, not the Germans," Edelman said in 2007. In 2003, he recalled: "The sea of flames flooded houses and courtyards. ... There was no air, only black, choking smoke and heavy burning heat radiating from the red-hot walls, from the glowing stone stairs." The "bunker wars" lasted an entire month, during which German progress was slowed.
While the battle continued inside the Ghetto, Polish resistance groups AK and GL engaged the Germans between 19 and 23 April at six different locations outside the Ghetto walls, firing at German sentries and positions. In one attack, three units of the AK under the command of Captain Józef Pszenny ("Chwacki") joined up in a failed attempt to breach the Ghetto walls with explosives. Eventually, the ŻZW lost all of its commanders and, on 29 April, the remaining fighters from the organization escaped the Ghetto through the Muranowski tunnel and relocated to the Michalin forest. This event marked the end of significant fighting.
At this point, organized defense collapsed. Surviving fighters and thousands of remaining Jewish civilians took cover in the sewer system and in the many dugout hiding places hidden among the ruins of the Ghetto, referred to as "bunkers" by Germans and Jews alike. The Germans used dogs to look for such hideouts, then usually dropped smoke bombs down to force people out. Sometimes they flooded these so-called bunkers or destroyed them with explosives. On occasions, shootouts occurred. A number of captured fighters—especially the women—lobbed hidden grenades or fired concealed handguns after surrendering. There were also clashes between small groups of insurgents and German patrols at night.
On May 8, the Germans discovered a large dugout located at Miła 18 Street, which served as ŻOB's main command post. Most of the organization's remaining leadership and dozens of others committed a mass suicide by ingesting cyanide. They included the chief commander of ŻOB, Mordechaj Anielewicz. His deputy Marek Edelman escaped the Ghetto through the sewers with a handful of comrades two days later.
On May 10, a Bundist member of the Polish government in exile, Szmul Zygielbojm, committed suicide in London to protest the lack of reaction from the Allied governments. In his farewell note, he wrote:
"I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave. By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people."
The suppression of the uprising officially ended on 16 May 1943, when Stroop personally pushed a detonator button to demolish the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. Sporadic resistance continued and the last skirmish took place on 5 June 1943 between Germans and a holdout group of armed Jews without connections to the resistance organizations.
13,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto during the uprising (some 6,000 among them were burnt alive or died from smoke inhalation). Of the remaining 50,000 residents, most were captured and shipped to concentration and extermination camps, in particular to Treblinka.
Jürgen Stroop's internal SS daily report for Friedrich Krüger, written on 16 May 1943, stated:
"180 Jews, bandits and sub-humans, were destroyed. The former Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no longer in existence. The large-scale action was terminated at 20:15 hours by blowing up the Warsaw Synagogue. ... Total number of Jews dealt with 56,065, including both Jews caught and Jews whose extermination can be proved. ... Apart from 8 buildings (police barracks, hospital, and accommodations for housing working-parties) the former Ghetto is completely destroyed. Only the dividing walls are left standing where no explosions were carried out."
According to the casualty lists in Stroop's report, German forces suffered a total of 110 casualties - 17 dead (of whom 16 were killed in action) and 93 injured - of whom 101 are listed by name, including over 60 members of the Waffen-SS. These figures did not include Jewish collaborators, but did include the "Trawniki men" and Polish police under his command. The real number of German losses, however, may be well higher (the Germans suffered about 300 casualties by Edelman's estimate). For propaganda purposes, the official announcement claimed the German casualties to be only a few wounded, while propaganda bulletins of the Polish Underground State announced that hundreds of occupiers had been killed in the fighting.
German daily losses and the official figures for killed or captured Jews and "bandits", according to the Stroop report:
According to Israel Gutman, "the number cited by Stroop (16 dead, 85 wounded) cannot be rejected out of hand, but it is likely that his list was neither complete, free of errors, nor indicative of the German losses throughout the entire period of resistance, until the absolute liquidation of Jewish life in the ghetto. All the same, the German casualty figures cited by the various Jewish sources are probably highly exaggerated." Other historians such as Raul Hilberg and French L. MacLean endorse the accuracy of official German casualty figures. On the other hand, Stroop report vastly exaggerated actual losses (and strength) of the resistance.
After the uprising was over, most of the incinerated houses were razed, and the Warsaw concentration camp complex was established in their place. Thousands of people died in the camp or were executed in the ruins of the Ghetto. At the same time, the SS were hunting down the remaining Jews still hiding in the ruins. On 19 April 1943, the first day of the most significant period of the resistance, 7,000 Jews were transported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka extermination camp, where, purportedly, they developed again into resistance groups, and then helped to plan and execute the revolt and mass escape of 2 August 1943.
In October 1943, Bürkl was tried and condemned to death in absentia by the Polish Resistance's Special Courts, and shot dead by the AK in Warsaw, a part of Operation Heads targeting notorious SS officers. That same month, von Sammern-Frankenegg was killed by Yugoslav Partisans in an ambush in Croatia. Himmler, Globocnik and Krüger all committed suicide at the end of the war in Europe in May 1945. Stroop was captured by Americans in Germany, convicted of war crimes in two different trials (U.S. military and Polish) and executed by hanging in Poland in 1952 along with Warsaw Ghetto SS administrator Franz Konrad. Stroop's aide, Erich Steidtmann, was exonerated for "minimal involvement"; he died in 2010 while under investigation for war crimes. Hahn went into hiding until 1975, when he was apprehended and sentenced to life for crimes against humanity; he died in prison in 1986. Walter Bellwidt, who commanded a Waffen-SS battalion among Stroop forces, died on October 13, 1965.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 took place over a year before the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The Ghetto had been totally destroyed by the time of the general uprising in the city, which was part of the Operation Tempest, a nationwide insurrection plan. During the Warsaw Uprising, the AK's Battalion Zośka was able to rescue 380 Jewish prisoners (mostly foreign) held in the concentration camp "Gęsiówka" set up by the Germans in an area adjacent to the ruins of former Ghetto. These prisoners had been brought from Auschwitz and forced to clear the remains of the ghetto. A few small groups of Ghetto residents also managed to survive in the undetected "bunkers" and to eventually reach the "Aryan side". In all, several hundred survivors from the first uprising took part in the later uprising (mostly in non-combat roles such as logistics and maintenance, due to their physical state and general shortage of arms), joining the ranks of the AK and the AL. According to Samuel Krakowski from the Jewish Historical Institute, "The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had a real influence ... in encouraging the activity of the Polish underground."
A number of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, known as the "Ghetto Fighters," went on to found the kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta'ot (literally: "Ghetto Fighters'"), which is located north of Acre, Israel. The founding members of the kibbutz include Yitzhak Zuckerman (Icchak Cukierman), who represented the ŻOB on the 'Aryan' side, and his wife Zivia Lubetkin, who commanded a fighting unit. In 1984, members of the kibbutz published Daphei Edut ("Testimonies of Survival"), four volumes of personal testimonies from 96 kibbutz members. The settlement features a museum and archives dedicated to remembering the Holocaust. Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz just north of the Gaza Strip, was named after Mordechaj Anielewicz. In 2008, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi led a group of IDF officials to the site of the uprising and spoke about the event's "importance for IDF combat soldiers."
On 7 December 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt spontaneously knelt while visiting the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes memorial in the People's Republic of Poland. At the time, the action surprised many and was the focus of controversy, but it has since been credited with helping improve relations between the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries.
In 1968, the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Zuckerman was asked what military lessons could be learned from the uprising. He replied:
"I don’t think there’s any real need to analyze the Uprising in military terms. This was a war of less than a thousand people against a mighty army and no one doubted how it was likely to turn out. This isn’t a subject for study in military school. (...) If there’s a school to study the human spirit, there it should be a major subject. The important things were inherent in the force shown by Jewish youth after years of degradation, to rise up against their destroyers, and determine what death they would choose: Treblinka or Uprising."
In recent years, a new research by historians Dariusz Libionka (Poland) and Laurence Weinbaum (Israel) on the ŻZW has called into question the validity of what has been written on the Revisionist Zionist underground that fought in the ghetto. Their monograph (Bohaterowie, hochsztaplerzy, opisywacze) cast new light on some of the Polish and Jewish accounts retold by those who wrote about the revolt. Over the years these testimonies found their way into many secondary sources – both popular and scholarly works by other authors – as well as reference books. The research by Libionka and Weinbaum attempted to deconstruct and discredit the testimony of Henryk Iwański and two others who claimed to have fought in the ranks of the organization or aided it. Libionka and Weinbaum maintain that Dawid Moryc Apfelbaum, who is often credited with having played a commanding role in the ŻZW, and for whom a square was named in Warsaw, was in all likelihood an entirely fictitious figure, a product of fałszywka (political forgery).
Nevertheless, the stories of Apfelbaum and Iwański as heroic combatants of the Ghetto, continue to be the focus of commemorations. In Israel, on the 70th anniversary of the uprising, a new edition of the 1963 book on the ŻZW written by Chaim Lazar-Litai was published, and retold the story of Iwański's and Apfelbaum's commanding role in the ŻZW. The retired Israeli politician Moshe Arens, who has also written widely on the ŻZW and the Warsaw Ghetto, contributed a foreword to the new edition.
In popular culture
The uprising was the subject of Aleksander Ford's 1948 film Border Street, 1950 novel The Wall by John Hersey, Leon Uris's 1961 novel Mila 18, Andrzej Wajda's films A Generation (1955), Samson (1961) and Holy Week (1995), and Jon Avnet's 2001 film Uprising. It was also portrayed in the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust by Marvin J. Chomsky and the 2002 film The Pianist by Roman Polanski. The revolt was briefly featured in the 1986 fantasy film Highlander (as well as in the 1997 novel Highlander: Zealot) and the 2009 video game Velvet Assassin. Songs about the uprising include Hirsh Glick's "Zog Nit Keynmol" (a song written in 1943), Johnny Clegg's "Warsaw 1943" and David Rovics' "I Remember Warsaw".
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Original in Polish: PDF 1.86 MB.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.|
- Voices From the Inferno: Holocaust Survivors Describe the Last Months in the Warsaw Ghetto, an online exhibition by Yad Vashem
- Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on the Yad Vashem website
- The Warsaw Ghetto archive (including The Stroop Report) at Jewish Virtual Library
- Stroop Report online in German and English
- The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Marek Edelman