The Warsaw Ghetto (1940-1943) in Poland was the largest Jewish ghetto under Hitler. Nearly a half million lived there. Some were Romani (Gypsies). Some were Roman Catholics with Jewish roots. Most were sent to Treblinka. But for four glorious weeks in 1943 they held off the Nazi war machine in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Under German rule Jews no longer had protection of the law:
- Crime against them went unpunished.
- Germans took all the money from their bank accounts.
- They took some of their homes and businesses.
- They threw many out of work.
- German soldiers would beat up or rob them in broad daylight.
Germans blamed Jews for crime and disease.
And then it got worse:
In 1940, to help fight crime and disease, the Germans sent every Jew they could find in the city and nearby regions to the ghetto. They walled them in and posted armed guards at the exits. An open-air prison.
There were 10 to 15 to a room. There was no electricity. There was not enough heat, food or water. A third did not have warm winter clothes. Disease tore through the ghetto – especially typhus. Close to 100,000 died of hunger and disease.
On July 22nd 1942 Germans started sending people out of the ghetto. Day after day thousands were put on trains and sent to Treblinka out in the country, to what Germans called a labour camp. They sent 265,000 in two months, leaving 70,000.
And then it got even worse:
Once people were sent to Treblinka no one ever heard from them again. Like they were dead or something. They sent spies: Treblinka was not a labour camp at all. Everyone was being killed!
You must be prepared to resist, not to give yourselves up like sheep to slaughter.
The ghetto was deeply divided – Hasidim, communists, Zionists, assimilated Poles, etc – but enough forgot their differences to fight with Anielewicz. They smuggled in guns and set up hideouts.
In January 1943 the Germans came to send more people to Treblinka. No one wanted to get on the trains. Four days of street fighting followed. It took Hitler by surprise. He thought Jews were cowards.
On April 19th, on Passover eve, the day before Hitler’s birthday, Himmler sent in the SS, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. He thought it would take three days.
The Jews fought a hit-and-run guerrilla war. The Germans fought back by burning down the whole ghetto, block by block. The Jews held out till they ran out of bullets 28 days later.
Some escaped through the sewers. The 56,000 who remained were rounded up (pictured above and at top) and either shot dead or sent to Treblinka.
Hitler then had the ghetto levelled.
Uprisings spread to other ghettos. There was even one at Treblinka itself later that summer, ending the mass killings there.
After the war they found tin boxes and milk cans buried under the ghetto. Inside was the history of the Warsaw Ghetto written down so that one day the world would know the truth.
- Emanuel Ringelblum: “Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto” – some of what was buried in those tin boxes and milk cans!
- Mary Berg: “The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto” – she lived through it all, even the uprising, and made it out alive, making it to New York.
- Leon Uris: “Mila 18” (1961) – fictionalized account of the ghetto from 1939 onwards, particularly the uprising. Uris is thorough and faithful to the facts known at the time of writing. The huge advantage of this book is that he presents events from different points of view: Zionist, assimilated Jew, German Pole, Nazi, American journalist, etc. It also sets up “Exodus” (1958), his novel about the founding of Israel.
- “The Pianist” (2002) – a true story of the ghetto from the point of view of pianist Władysław Szpilman. He escaped but saw some of the uprising. Directed by Roman Polanski, who was sent to the Cracow Ghetto during that time. As far as I can tell, it is pretty faithful to the facts.
See also on this blog:
- The Holocaust
- guerrilla warfare
- The Herero and Nama genocide – the genocide in Africa carried out by the Germans some 40 years before
- Japanese American internment – at the time of the Warsaw Ghetto, America was going down the same road with Japanese Americans
- Madison Grant – made anti-Semitism seem like the latest science. Hitler was a fan! Grant’s anti-immigration laws kept most Jews from coming to America after the 1920s
- If the Holocaust was black history – since White Americans are way less racist against Jews than blacks, their history is seen differently.