Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Jewish Fighters Put Up Valiant Resistance Against Nazi Troops

photo of Jewish fighters captured in the Warsaw Ghetto
Jewish fighters captured by Nazi SS troops in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Keystone / Getty Images 

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was a desperate battle in the spring of 1943 between Jewish fighters in Warsaw, Poland, and their Nazi oppressors. The encircled Jews, armed only with pistols and improvised weapons, fought valiantly and were able to hold off the vastly better armed German troops for four weeks.

The uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto marked the largest act of resistance against the Nazis in occupied Europe. While many details of the fighting did not become known until after the end of World War II, the uprising became an enduring inspiration, a potent symbol of Jewish resistance against the brutality of Nazi rule.

Fast Facts: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

  • Significance: First open armed uprising against Nazi rule in occupied Europe
  • Participants: Approximately 700 Jewish fighters, lightly armed with pistols and homemade bombs, desperately fighting against more than 2,000 Nazi SS troops
  • Uprising Began: April 19, 1943
  • Uprising Ended: May 16, 1943
  • Casualties: SS commander who suppressed the uprising claimed more than 56,000 Jews were killed, and 16 German troops were killed (both questionable numbers)

The Warsaw Ghetto

In the years before World War II, Warsaw, the capital of Poland, was known as a center for Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The Jewish population of the metropolis was estimated at close to 400,000, about a third of Warsaw's overall population.

When Hitler invaded Poland and World War II began, the city's Jewish residents faced a dire crisis. The ruthlessly anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis arrived with the German troops who triumphantly marched through the city.

By December 1939, the Jews of Poland were required to wear the yellow star on their clothing. They had property, including radios, confiscated. And the Nazis began requiring them to perform forced labor.

Jews Captured By Nazi Troops In Warsaw
Captured Jewish civilians who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising are marched out of the city by Nazi troops, Warsaw, Poland, April 19, 1943. Frederic Lewis / Getty Images

In 1940, the Nazis began building a wall around an area of the city to be designated as the Jewish ghetto. The concept of ghettos—closed areas where Jews were forced to live—was centuries old, but the Nazis brought a ruthless and modern efficiency to it. The Jews of Warsaw were identified and any living in what the Nazis termed the "Aryan" section of the city were required to move into the ghetto.

On November 16, 1940, the ghetto was sealed. No one was allowed to leave. Approximately 400,000 people were packed into an area of 840 acres. Conditions were desperate. Food was in short supply, and many were forced to live in improvised quarters.

A diary kept by Mary Berg, a ghetto resident who, with her family, was eventually able to flee to the United States, described some of the conditions faced at the end of 1940:

"We are cut off from the world. There are no radios, no telephones, no newspapers. Only the hospitals and Polish police stations situated inside the ghetto are allowed to have telephones."

Conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto worsened. The Jews organized a police force that worked with the Nazis in an effort to cooperate and avoid more problems. Some residents believed that trying to get along with the Nazis was the safest course of action. Others urged protests, strikes, and even armed resistance.

In the spring of 1942, after 18 months of suffering, members of Jewish underground groups began to actively organize a defense force. But when deportations of Jews out of the ghetto to concentration camps began on July 22, 1942, no organized force existed to try to thwart the Nazis.

The Jewish Fighting Organization

Warsaw Uprising
WARSAW, POLAND: Picture taken in July 1944 shows insurgents fighting in the streets of Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising. AFP / Getty Images

Some leaders in the ghetto argued against fighting the Nazis, as they assumed it would lead to reprisals which would kill all the residents of the ghetto. Resisting the calls for caution, the Jewish Fighting Organization was founded on July 28, 1942. The organization became known as the ZOB, the acronym for its name in Polish.

The first wave of deportations from the ghetto ended in September 1942. Approximately 300,000 Jews had been removed from the ghetto, with 265,000 sent to the Treblinka death camp. Approximately 60,000 Jews remained trapped within the ghetto. Many of those left were young people who were angry that they hadn't been able to do anything to protect family members who had been sent to the camps.

Throughout late 1942, the ZOB became energized. Members were able to link up with the Polish underground movement and obtain some pistols and ammunition to augment the small number of pistols already in their possession.

The First Fighting

On January 18, 1943, while the ZOB was still trying to plan and organize, the Germans launched another wave of deportations. The ZOB saw a chance to strike at the Nazis. A number of fighters armed with pistols slipped into a group of Jews being marched to an embarkation point. When a signal was given, they fired on the German troops. It was the first time Jewish fighters had attacked the Germans inside the ghetto. Most of the Jewish fighters were shot and killed on the spot, but many of the Jews rounded up for deportation scattered in the chaos and went into hiding in the ghetto.

That action changed attitudes in the ghetto. Jews refused to listen to shouted orders to come out of their houses and scattered fighting continued for four days. At times Jewish fighters ambushed Germans in the narrow streets. The Germans were able to round up about 5,000 Jews for deportation before calling off the action.

The Uprising

Following the January battles, the Jewish fighters knew the Nazis might attack at any time. To meet the threat, they stayed on constant alert and organized 22 fighting units. They had learned in January to surprise the Nazis whenever possible, so ambush spots were located from which Nazi units could be attacked. A system of bunkers and hideouts for fighters was established.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on April 19, 1943. The local commander of the SS had become aware of the Jewish fighters organizing in the ghetto, but he was afraid to inform his superiors. He was removed from his job and replaced with an SS officer who had fought on the Eastern Front, Jurgen Stroop.

photo of SS Commander Jurgen Stroop in the Warsaw Ghetto
SS Commander Jurgen Stroop (center right) in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Getty Images

Stroop sent a force of about 2,000 battle-hardened SS soldiers into the ghetto. The Nazis were well-armed, and even employed tanks at times. They faced off against approximately 700 young Jewish fighters, who had no military experience and were armed with pistols or homemade gasoline bombs.

The fighting continued for 27 days. The action was brutal. The ZOB fighters would engage in ambushes, often using the cramped streets of the ghetto to their advantage. SS troops would be lured into alleys and attacked with Molotov cocktails, as the Jewish fighters disappeared into secret passages dug into cellars.

The Nazis employed a tactic of vicious annihilation, destroying the ghetto building by building using artillery and flamethrowers. Most of the Jewish fighters were eventually killed.

A key leader of the ZOB, Mordecai Anielewicz, was trapped, along with other fighters, in a command bunker at 18 Mila Street. On May 8, 1943, along with 80 other fighters, he killed himself rather than be taken alive by the Nazis.

A few fighters managed to escape the ghetto. A woman who fought in the uprising, Zivia Lubetkin, along with other fighters, traveled through the city's sewer system to safety. Led by one of the ZOB commanders, Yitzhak Zuckerman, they escaped to the countryside. After surviving the war, Lubetkin and Zuckerman married and lived in Israel.

Most of the Jewish fighters did not survive the fighting in the ghetto, which lasted for nearly a month. On May 16, 1943, Stroop announced that the fighting had ended and more than 56,000 Jews had been killed. According to Stroop's numbers, 16 Germans were killed and 85 wounded, but those numbers are believed to be very low. The ghetto was a ruin.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Troops of German SS General Jurgen Stroop with a group of children and adults captured in a basement during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Poland, 8th May 1943. Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images

Aftermath and Legacy

The full story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising did not emerge until after the end of World War II. Yet some accounts did leak. On May 7, 1943, as the fighting was still raging, a brief wire service dispatch in the New York Times was headlined, "Battle Is Reported in Warsaw's Ghetto; Poles Say Jews Have Fought Nazis Since April 20." The article mentioned that Jews had "converted their homes into forts and barricaded shops and stores for defense posts..."

Two weeks later, May 22, 1943, an article in the New York Times was headlined, "Jews' Last Stand Felled 1,000 Nazis." The article mentioned that the Nazis had used tanks and artillery to achieve "the final liquidation" of the ghetto.

In the years after the war, more extensive accounts emerged as survivors told their stories. The SS commander who attacked the Warsaw Ghetto, Jurgen Stroop, was captured by American forces at the end of the war. He was prosecuted by the Americans for killing prisoners of war, and was later transferred to Polish custody. The Poles put him on trial for crimes against humanity related to his attack on the Warsaw Ghetto. He was convicted and executed in Poland in 1952.

Sources:

  • Rubinstein, Avraham, et al. "Warsaw." Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 20, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 666-675.
  • "Warsaw." Learning About the Holocaust: A Student's Guide, edited by Ronald M. Smelser, vol. 4, Macmillan Reference USA, 2001, pp. 115-129. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Berg, Mary. "The Nazis Isolate Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland." The Holocaust, edited by David Haugen and Susan Musser, Greenhaven Press, 2011, pp. 45-54. Perspectives on Modern World History. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Hanson, Joanna. "Warsaw risings." The Oxford Companion to World War II. : Oxford University Press, , 2003. Oxford Reference.