Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Written by Yahali Beinart

Yad Vashem: Denkmal für Mordechaj Anielewicz auf dem Warschauer-Ghetto-Platz

„No act of jewish resistance during the Holocaust fired the imagination quite as much as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. It was an event of epic proportions, pitting a few poorly armed, starving Jews against the might of Nazi power.“

Thus, the historian Israel Gutman, and himself a survivor of the battle, opens his extensive book on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. (Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1994).

This year will be marked the 77th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, one of the most significant and tragic events in the history of the Second World War. The uprising of the Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto was an attempt to prevent the Nazis from sending the remaining ghetto population to the Treblinka extermination camp, or at least to die during the fighting. The uprising broke out on Passover Eve, April 19, 1943, and lasted until mid-May.

On the eve of World War II, Warsaw was a metropolis, the capital of the Polish Republic, and a major center of Jewish life and culture. The Warsaw Jewish community was the largest in Europe. With a population of more than 375,000 it constituted about 30 percent of the city’s total population. The German entrance to Warsaw ended an era; the diversity, intensity, and distinctness of the pre-war city were gone.

The Warsaw ghetto was sealed between October and November 16, 1940 , with the announcement that all Jews living in Warsaw were to be segregated in a designated area. As the directives of the occupation were put into force, hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews were forced into the ghetto, inflating its population to almost half a million. The ghetto was enclosed by a wall that was over 10 feet high, topped with barbed wire, and closely guarded to prevent movement between the ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. The Conditions became intolerable and in the course of 1941 the ghetto pupolation decimated by disease and malnutrition. Early the following year however, with Hitler’s decision to implement the Endlösung to “the Jewish question“, plans were put in place to liquidate the ghetto and its remaining occupants entirely.

In summer and fall 1942, more than 300,000 Jews including older people and children had either been murdered locally or deported. By that time, only 60,000 Jews lived in the ghetto. When reports of mass murder by gassig filtered back to the ghetto, surviving members of separate underground groups, who blamed themselves for not having saved their families by standing up to the Nazis, joined together in armed resistance.

Two major Jewish underground organizations, which led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising are the left-wing Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) and right-wing Jewish Military Union (ZZW). Although at first there was tension between these two organizations, both groups decided to work together, in order to resist the Germans‘ attempts to transport the remaining ghetto population to concentration camps. In October and November 1942, most underground political parties and movements in the ghetto – the Zionists, the Bund and the Communists – joined the ZOB. Its members began preparations for a serious confrontation with the Nazis in the case of more deportations. The ZOB found new ways of obtaining weapons through contacts with the Polish underground and produced Molotov cocktails in the ghetto itself.

In addition, they proclaimed, in a public manifesto:

Jewish masses, the hour is drawing near.
You must be prepared to resist.
Not a single Jew should go to the railroad cars.
Those who are unable to put up active resistance should resist passively, should go into hiding…
Our slogan must be: All are ready to die as human beings.

(Israel Gutman- Resistance- The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1994, p. xviii)

On January 18, 1943, after almost four months without deportations, the Germans suddenly entered the Warsaw Ghetto intent upon further roundups. This time, however, the Germans were not able to carry out their plans unchallenged. Within hours, the ZOB and ZZW, which had not yet finished preparing for battle, and with small supply of weapons, under 23-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz’s leadership, decided to resist. For the first time street fighting took place. After a few days, the German troops retreated. Though the ZOB and ZZW suffered heavy losses, the small victory inspired the ghetto fighters and the civilian population to prepare for future resistance. Zivia Lubetkin, one of the veterans of the fighting organiza­tion, wrote in her memoirs:

The action in January continued only for four days. The Germans intended to do away with the entire Jewish population of Warsaw this time, but when they were confronted with armed and unex­pected opposition, they stopped the „action.“ Evidently it did not seem to them befitting for Germans to pay with their lives for the death of the Jews of the ghetto. They decided to gain time to achieve this end by finding a new method of annihilation. They did not know that time was also working to our advantage, that in our second confrontation they would have to pay a heavier price. 

By the time the German forces marched into the Ghetto, protected by tanks and armoured cars on the morning of April 19, the streets were empty. The entire Jewish population was ready and waiting. The German troops did not find one Jew on the streets; they had all taken to their bunkers and hiding places. Meanwhile, the fighters awaited the enemy in well-fortified and camouflaged posts.

Simha Ratajzer-Rotem, who was in the brushmakers‘ area, wrote:

At 4 in the morning, we saw a transport of Nazis moving toward the central ghetto on the Nalewki level. Some thousands were marching without end. After that, some tanks go by, armored vehicles, light cannons and hundreds of people of the SS units on bicycles. „They move as if they are going to war,“ I said to Zippora, a comrade on the post, and I suddenly felt how weak we were. What am I, and what is our strength against this armed and well-equipped army, against tanks and armored cars, and we merely have pistols and at best, hand grenades. 

(Israel Gutman- Resistance- The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1994, p.205)

The 750 Jewish fighters had split into small groups, each armed with a few submachine guns, a small number of rifles and pistols, and some handmade Molotov cocktails and hand grenades, while the German troops and their Ukrainian auxiliaries were more than 2,000, armed with heavy machine guns, hand-held machine and submachine guns, several howitzers, and hundreds of rifles.

However, the ghetto fighters fought with all their strength, using a network of cellars, bunkers, and roofs. The Germans found themselves being shot at from all sides, and a handful of them were killed. The commander of the operation, General Jürgen Stroop, reported to his superiors a week after his troops first entered the ghetto: “The resistance put up by the Jews and bandits could be broken only by relentlessly using all our force and energy by day and night.” The Jewish Fighting Organization remarkably held out for nearly a month. However, gradually, their ability to resist or hide declined.

Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising recalled:

“We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning, we fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths. We knew we were going to die. Just like all the others who were sent to Treblinka.“

(The Telegraph, 04 Oct 2009)

On May 8th, the headquarters bunker at 18 Mila Street fell to the Germans, and with it the ZOB commander Mordechai Anielewicz and a large group of his fighters and commanders. The ZOB fighters had not made any plans for a retreat from the ghetto; their assumption was that the battle would continue inside the ghetto until the last fighter had fallen. Thanks to a rescue mission arranged by ZOB men on the Polish side, several dozen fighters were saved by escaping from the ghetto through the town sewer from the ghetto. They reached the forest of Wyszków, where they tried to join there the partisan units.

By May 16, 1943, the Germans recaptured and destroyed the ghetto. Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured, about 7,000 were shot; the rest were deported to killing centers or concentration camps. Others committed suicide rather than be captured. Stroop then ordered the ghetto set on fire, block by block, to force out anyone left hiding in the ruins. 

„The war ended in May 1945. […] those who came to Warsaw did not find a city or a house, or a relative. They climbed onto the heaps of ruins. Nothing was recognizable. One could not tell where a certain street had been or where a house had stood. However, they discovered the spot, the hole where the house on Mila 18 had stood. They took a great black stone, a mass of dull rock, and placed it there. In simple lettering, in three languages, the following was etched on the stone: Here on the 8th day of May 1943, Mordecai Aniele­wicz, the commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising together with the staff of the Jewish Fighting Organization and dozens of fighters, fell in the campaign against the Nazi enemy.“

(Israel Gutman- Resistance- The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1994, pp. 258-259)


Stephan Lehnstaedt

Stephan Lehnstaedt ist seit 2016 Professor für Holocaust-Studien und Jüdische Studien am Touro College Berlin. Er unterrichtet im Masterstudiengang "Holocaust Communication and Tolerance".

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