The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

April 19 - May 16, 1943

A picture of a young boy and others captured by the SS during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Jews captured by SS and SD troops during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are forced to leave their shelter and march to the Umschlagplatz for deportation. (Photo courtesy of the USHMM)

What Was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?

Beginning on April 19, 1943, Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland fought valiantly against the German soldiers who intended to round them up and send them to the Treblinka Death Camp. Despite overwhelming odds, the resistance fighters, known as the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization; ZOB) and led by Mordechai Chaim Anielewicz, used their small cache of weapons to resist the Nazis for 27 days. Ghetto residents without guns also resisted by building and then hiding within underground bunkers scattered throughout the Warsaw Ghetto.

On May 16, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising ended after the Nazis razed the entire ghetto in an attempt to flush out its residents. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was one of the most notable acts of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust and gave hope to others living in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The Warsaw Ghetto

The Warsaw Ghetto was established on October 12, 1940 and located in a 1.3 square mile section in northern Warsaw. At the time, Warsaw was not only the capital of Poland but also home to the largest Jewish community in Europe. Prior to the establishment of the ghetto, approximately 375,000 Jews resided in Warsaw, nearly 30% of the population of the entire city.

The Nazis ordered all Jews in Warsaw to leave their homes and the majority of their belongings and move into housing assigned in the ghetto district. Additionally, over 50,000 Jews from surrounding towns were also directed to move into the Warsaw Ghetto.

Multiple generations of families were often assigned to live in a single room within a home in the ghetto and, on average, nearly eight people lived in each small room. On November 16, 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed, cut off from the rest of Warsaw by a high wall that consisted mainly of brick and topped with barbed wire. (Map of the Warsaw Ghetto)

Conditions in the ghetto were difficult from the start. Food was severely rationed by German authorities and sanitary conditions due to overcrowding were deplorable. These conditions led to over 83,000 known deaths from starvation and disease within the first 18 months of the ghetto’s existence. Underground smuggling, done at great risk, was necessary for the survival of those within the ghetto’s walls.

Deportations in the Summer of 1942

During the Holocaust, ghettos were at first meant to be holding centers for the Jews, a place for them to work and die of disease and malnutrition away from the eyes of the general population. However, when the Nazis began constructing killing centers as part of their “Final Solution,” these ghettos, each in their turn, were liquidated as their residents were taken by the Nazis in mass deportations to be systematically killed in these newly built death camps. The first set of mass deportations from Warsaw took place in the summer of 1942.

From July 22 to September 12, 1942, the Nazis deported approximately 265,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the nearby Treblinka Death Camp. This Aktion killed approximately 80% of the ghetto’s population (counting both those that were deported and the tens of thousands more who were killed during the deportation process), leaving only about 55,000-60,000 Jews remaining within the Warsaw Ghetto.

Resistance Groups Form

The Jews that remained in the ghetto were the last of their families. They felt guilty for not having been able to save their loved ones. Although they had been left behind to work in the various ghetto industries that fueled the German war effort and also to perform forced labor in the area surrounding Warsaw, they realized that this was just a reprieve and that soon they too would be rounded up for deportation.

Thus, among the remaining Jews, several different groups formed armed resistance organizations with the intention of preventing future deportations such as those experienced during the summer of 1942.

The first group, the one that would ultimately lead the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was known as the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB) or Jewish Fighting Organization. The second, smaller group, the Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy (ZZW) or Jewish Military Union, was an outgrowth of the Revisionist Party, a right-wing Zionist organization that had members within the ghetto.

Realizing that they needed weapons to be able to resist the Nazis, both groups worked to contact the Polish military underground, known as the “Home Army,” in an attempt to procure arms. After a number of failed attempts, the ZOB succeeded in making contact in October 1942 and was able to “organize” a small cache of weapons. However, this cache of ten pistols and a few grenades was not enough and so the groups worked diligently and fervently to steal from the Germans or purchase from the black market to have more. Yet despite their best efforts, the uprising was limited by their lack of weapons.

First Test: January 1943

On January 18, 1943, the SS unit in charge of the Warsaw Ghetto acted on orders from SS Chief Heinrich Himmler to transfer up to 8,000 of the remaining ghetto residents to forced labor camps in eastern Poland. The residents in the Warsaw Ghetto, however, believed this to be the final liquidation of the ghetto. Thus, for the first time, they resisted.

During the attempted deportation, a group of resistance fighters openly attacked SS guards. Other residents hid in makeshift hiding places and did not line up at the assembly places. When the Nazis left the ghetto after only four days and having only deported approximately 5,000 Jews, many ghetto residents felt a wave of success. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Nazis wouldn’t deport them if they resisted.

This was a major change in thinking; most Jewish populations during the Holocaust believed they had a better chance of survival if they did not resist. Thus, for the first time, the whole population of a ghetto supported plans for resistance.

The leaders of the resistance, however, did not believe they could escape from the Nazis. They were fully aware that their 700-750 fighters (500 with the ZOB and 200-250 with the ZZW) were untrained, inexperienced, and under geared; while the Nazis were a powerful, trained, and experienced fighting force. Nevertheless, they weren’t going to go down without a fight.

Not knowing how long until the next deportation, the ZOB and ZZW redoubled their efforts and coordination, focusing on weapons procurement, planning, and training. They also worked on making homemade hand grenades and built tunnels and bunkers to aid in secret movement.

The civilian population also did not stand idly by during this lull in deportations. They dug and built underground bunkers for themselves. Scattered around the ghetto, these bunkers eventually were numerous enough to hold the entire ghetto population.

The remaining Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were all preparing to resist.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Begins

Somewhat surprised by the Jews’ resistance effort in January, the SS delayed plans for further deportation for several months. It was decided by Himmler that the final liquidation of the ghetto to Treblinka would commence on April 19, 1943 -- the eve of Passover, a date that was chosen for its implied cruelty. The leader of the liquidation effort, SS and Police General Jürgen Stroop, was specially chosen by Himmler as a result of his experience dealing with resistance forces.

The SS came into the Warsaw Ghetto around 3 am on April 19, 1943. The ghetto residents had been warned of the planned liquidation and had retreated to their underground bunkers; while resistance fighters had taken up their attack positions. The Nazis were prepared for resistance but were wholly surprised by the efforts mounted by both the uprising’s fighters and the general ghetto population.

The fighters were led by Mordechai Chaim Anielewicz, a 24-year-old Jewish man who was born and raised near Warsaw. In their initial assault on the German troops, at least one dozen German officials were killed. They threw Molotov cocktails at a German tank and an armored vehicle, disabling them.

For the first three days, the Nazis couldn’t catch the resistance fighters nor find many of the ghetto residents. Stroop thus decided to take a different approach -- razing the ghetto building by building, block by block, in an effort to flush out the resistance cells. With the ghetto being burned down, large-scale efforts by the resistance groups ended; however, many small groups continued to hide within the ghetto and made intermittent raids against the German troops.

Ghetto residents tried to stay in their bunkers but the heat from the fires above them became unbearable. And if they still didn’t get out, the Nazis would throw poison gas or a grenade into their bunker.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Ends

On May 8, SS troops raided the main ZOB bunker at 18 Mila Street. Anielewicz and an estimated 140 other Jews who were in hiding there were killed. Additional Jews remained in hiding for another week; however, on May 16, 1943, Stroop declared that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had officially been quelled. He celebrated its end by destroying the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, which had survived outside the ghetto walls.

By the Uprising’s end, Stroop officially reported that he had captured 56,065 Jews—7,000 of whom were killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and nearly an additional 7,000 whom he ordered deported to the Treblinka Death Camp. The remaining 42,000 Jews were sent to either the Majdanek Concentration Camp or one of four forced labor camps in the Lublin district. Many of them were later killed during the November 1943 mass-reprisal killing known as Aktion Erntefest (“Action Harvest Festival”).

The Impact of the Uprising

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the first and largest act of armed resistance during the Holocaust. It is credited with inspiring subsequent uprisings in Treblinka and the Sobibor Death Camp, as well as smaller uprisings in other ghettos.

Much information about the Warsaw Ghetto and the Uprising lives on through the Warsaw Ghetto Archives, a passive resistance effort organized by ghetto inhabitant and scholar, Emanuel Ringelblum. In March 1943, Ringelblum left the Warsaw Ghetto and went into hiding (he would be killed a year later); however, his archival efforts were continued until nearly the end by an assemblage of inhabitants determined to share their story with the world.

In 2013, the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews opened on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. Across from the museum is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, which was unveiled in 1948 in the location where the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began.

The Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, which was within the Warsaw Ghetto, also still stands and has memorials to its past.