They were young and wanted to die a brave death. Six hundred men was their strength; several revolvers and machine guns made up for their entire arsenal. Almost every single one of them would be killed in the upcoming days, but their goal was achieved: the world realized that the Jews were fighting. Sixty-five years ago, on April 19, 1943, an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto broke out.
In prewar Warsaw, there were around 300,000 Jews who constituted one fourth of the entire citizenry. When the Nazi forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, people from all over the country fled to the capital, hoping that it would defend itself until France and Great Britain attacked Germany, just as they had promised on many occasions. But the help never came and after three weeks of heroic struggle, Warsaw fell. What followed the surrender was nothing like any previous occupation that the city had experienced in great numbers before.
Imagine almost 500,000 people squeezed on a few square miles. Men, women, children – people of all ages and social statuses – were told to leave the houses and apartments they had lived in for years and move to dilapidating buildings, often with no electricity or running water. Imagine a young lawyer who had to give up his successful career and friends, just because he had a Jewish name. Imagine a woman separated by the wall from her sweetheart who was luckier and found shelter with his Polish relatives. Such tragic stories were hundreds of thousands.
The Warsaw Ghetto was established in October 1940. Surrounded by a brick wall and guarded by hundreds of German soldiers, it was the biggest such an area in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Jews from Warsaw and nearby villages were soon joined by Jews from all over Poland who had not found place in numerous local ghettos that had mushroomed the beaten country in 1940. Approximately 450,000 Jews lived behind the wall in Warsaw. Most of the inhabitants were jobless, with only a few allowed to work in German factories and stores. The rest had to count on the scarce help from the outside or try to sell their belongings on the black market. But the sparse resources ended soon.
By the order of Governor-General Hans Frank – one of the cruelest people in Hitler’s army – each Jew was to receive 253 calories of food supplies a day. It was ten times less than an ordinary Pole consumed and twenty times less than a German soldier. In comparison, in Zimbabwe, which is now considered one of the poorest countries in the world with millions of malnourished people, the average daily consumption exceeds 2,000 calories. The ghetto population was quickly decreasing; by the time the Germans began to transport Jews to concentration camps, some 100,000 had died of starvation and of various diseases that, under the horrible conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto, spread fast. Medicine and food from the outside were not allowed and smuggling resulted in instant execution.
Transports to the Treblinka concentration camp began in July 1942. During Operation Reinhard – named after Reinhard Heydrich, a major architect of the Final Solution – trains with the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto left several times a day until the ghetto population fell to around 70,000. Over 250,000 men, women and children were sent in freight wagons to be stripped of clothes and dignity, gassed, and later burned in the camp’s crematoriums. According to witnesses, for several months Treblinka’s chimneys never ceased to gush out smoke, day or night.
Although the Germans kept Operation Reinhard a secret – the Jews were told they were going to labor camps – the first news about the horrifying truth slipped through the ghetto walls in early fall of 1942. What many found hard to believe at first became obvious several months later, when none of the Jews who had left in the transports ever returned. But then fewer and fewer trains arrived and people hoped the worst was over. As it turned out, the reason was purely business-like: the concentration camps faced shortages of the lethal gas and the crematoriums were overheated. A short break was needed to replenish stocks. With the beginning of 1943, Hitler ordered the ghetto emptied.
On January 18, 1943, the first shots were fired in the Warsaw Ghetto. Far from an organized insurgency, the uncoordinated attack by several armed young people was the most visible sign yet that the remaining Jews would not be lambs willingly going to the slaughterhouse. Surprised Germans withdrew from the ghetto and halted the transports to the concentration camps for three months. The little time that they had, the Jews spent on obtaining weapons and food, often provided by the Polish resistance. When the uprising ended, again it would be the Polish underground that smuggled the survivors to safety.
Against some four hundred poorly equipped and trained Jews, the Germans sent over 2,000 soldiers, including 800 of the elite SS. But April 19 and the following days turned out to be extremely successful for the insurgents. True, the Germans, supported by the air force, obliterated dozens of buildings and killed several Jewish fighters, but the core of the uprising remained intact. What is more, the Poles effectively sabotaged the supplies for the Germans outside the ghetto, forcing them to slow down their march. The fate of the uprising, however, was already decided.
Jurgen Stroop who commanded the German forces in Warsaw said: “What a wonderful sight! I called out Heil Hitler! and pressed the button. A terrific explosion brought flames right up to the clouds. The colors were unbelievable. An unforgotten allegory of the triumph over Jewry.” The ghetto was being leveled block by block; insurgents and civilians died either under debris or in flames. At the end of May, when the uprising was crushed, Stroop officially reported on the German side 16 dead and 85 wounded. Polish sources spoke of some 1,300 Germans and collaborators killed. On the other hand, the entire ghetto population, save but a few, was annihilated. Seventy thousand people perished.
Only two leaders of the uprising survived. One of them, Marek Edelman, 86, still lives in Poland but hardly ever speaks publicly. Some of his friends and colleagues were killed, their bodies later taken to nearby crematoriums and burned. Still others, like Mordecai Anielewicz, chose to take their own lives rather than let the hateful enemy gas them. With them, disappeared the ghetto that once had been home for almost 500,000 people. “The former Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no longer in existence,” wrote Stroop. The Nazi commander soon left Poland for Greece and, after his brutality proved too rampant to handle, the SS sent him to Germany where he served until the end of the war. Caught by American soldiers in 1945, Stroop was detained and sentenced to death at the Dachau International Military Tribunal. In 1947 he was handed to Polish authorities who carried out the verdict on March 6, 1952.
The Warsaw Ghetto was no more. One year later, in August 1945, the Poles stood against the occupancy. Like the Jews, hardly anyone thought of the victory; instead they wanted to show the world that Poland had never surrendered, that it was still fighting. The Red Army stationed only miles away from the Polish capital, due to Stalin’s personal decision, did not move an inch to help its ally. Over 220,000 people were killed; almost every single building in Warsaw was destroyed.
For many, the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto was a senseless waste of lives. But the Jewish insurgents could not choose between life and death; instead, the only choice they had was to die as slaves or to die as heroes. They chose the latter and for this we remember them as those who did not fear to face the greatest evil of the 20th century. Six hundred Jews began their fight sixty-five years ago – and won.
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