World War II: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

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SS troops during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, May 1943. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - Conflict & Dates:

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place between April 19 to May 16, 1943, during World War II (1939-1945).

Armies & Commanders

Germans

  • SS-Oberführer Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg
  • SS-and-Polizeiführer Jürgen Stroop
  • approx. 2,100 men

Jewish Resistance

  • Mordechaj Anielewicz
  • Dawid Moryc Apfelbaum
  • Icchak Cukierman
  • Marek Edelman
  • approx. 370-1,000 men plus numerous civilians

    Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - Background:

    Following the German conquest of Poland at the start of World War II, they began relocating the nation's Jewish population into enclosed ghettos. Situated in major cities, these ghettos soon held the bulk of Poland's 3 million Jews. The largest of these was located in Warsaw and contained around 300,000-400,000 people. Through 1940 and 1941, the ghetto's inhabitants suffered from starvation and disease while under the oversight of SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik and SS-Standartenfuhrer Ludwig Hahn. In the wake of the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, efforts began to deport the ghetto's residents to death camps.

    On July 23, 1942, Nazi German forces began Operation Grossaktion Warschau called for the mass deportation of the Warsaw ghetto's population to the Treblinka II extermination camp. The day before, they met with the head of ghetto's Jewish Council (Judenrat), Adam Czerniaków, and informed him that the Warsaw Jews were to be resettled in the East.

    To facilitate this movement, the council was to provide 6,000 people per day for deportation. Quickly learning the Nazi's true intentions, Czerniaków committed suicide rather than comply.

    Over the next two months, approximately 254,000-300,000 Jewish residents of the ghetto were sent to Treblinka at the order of SS-Oberführer Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg.

    When operations concluded on September 21, only around 60,000-70,000 Jews remained in the ghetto many of which were in hiding. In response to the German efforts, two resistance groups, the Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy, ZZW) and the Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ZOB), formed in the ghetto during the summer of 1942. These groups soon united to oppose the Germans.

    Initial Actions:

    During the summer, the ZZW and ZOB made attempts to contact the Polish Home Army resistance (Armia Krajowa, AK) movement outside the ghetto but to no avail. Continued attempts bore fruit in October when communications were opened and a slow flow of arms began into the ghetto. That same month, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto with able-bodied Jews being sent to labor camps in the Lublin District. Acting on these orders, German officials attempted to resume mass deportations on January 18, 1943.

    Moving to disrupt the German operations, a group of armed Jewish fighters joined the deportation column. Breaking ranks at the Umschlagplatz (transfer point), the fighters began a fierce battle with the Germans. Though they were effectively wiped out, their actions allowed the assembled Jews to flee back into the ghetto.

    Shaken by this resistance, the Germans only deported 5,000-6,500 residents before halting operations on January 21. Heartened by this success, the ZOB and ZZW began constructing a series of bunkers and fighting points around the ghetto should the Germans attempt to continue deportations (Map).

    The Uprising Begins:

    Constructing a variety of makeshift weapons and explosives, the ZOB and ZZW effectively took control of the ghetto and purged it of collaborators. On April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover, German forces entered the ghetto with the intention of resuming the deportations. Pushing into the ghetto, Sammern-Frankenegg's men came under heavy fire from Jewish fighters led by ZOB commander Mordecai Anielewicz. Stunning the Germans, the Jews forced them to retreat from the ghetto that morning.

    Following this failure, he was quickly relieved by SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop.

    Battling to the End:

    Resuming the fighting, Stroop's men also came under attack by AK and Gwardia Ludowa forces along the perimeter of the ghetto. These exterior assaults continued until April 23 and saw AK forces unsuccessfully attempt to breach the ghetto's walls. By the end of the first day, Stroop reported a loss of twelve men. Continuing the campaign the next day, the Germans returned to the ghetto. Some of the heaviest fighting occurred around the ZZW headquarters in Muranowski Square where large Polish and Jewish flags flew as symbols of resistance.

    These flags flew for four days until German forces overwhelmed the defenders. Bringing an average of 2,000 men to bear, Stroop began systematically razing the ghetto and using flamethrowers in an effort to root out the defenders. Within a few days organized resistance was broken and the Jewish fighters were forced to conduct limited raids before retreating to their bunkers. ZZW commander Dawid Moryc Apfelbaum was killed in one of these on April 28. The next day, with its leadership corps gone, the remaining ZZW fighters escaped the ghetto through the Muranowski tunnel and fled to the Michalin Forest.

    Though the ZZW had been eliminated, the ZOB continued to fight from its base at 18 Mila Street. Working their way through the ghetto, the Germans continued to be subjected to ambushes and grenade attacks as they sought to pull the Jews from their hideouts. These attacks failed to inflict significant casualties. In an effort to expedite locating the Jews, the Germans employed dogs, tear gas, and possibly poison gas. On May 8, the Germans learned of the ZOB base at 18 Mila Street and attacked. In the fighting, many of the group's key leaders were killed or committed suicide including Anielewicz. Avoiding detection, Anielewicz's lieutenant, Marek Edelman, and several other ZOB fighters were able to escape the ghetto through the sewers two days later.

    Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - Aftermath:

    German forces continued operations in the ghetto until declaring the uprising suppressed on May 16. While sporadic raids continued, the final battle with Jewish fighters occurred on June 5. To commemorate his victory, Stroop ordered the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street to be destroyed on May 16. In the course of the fighting, he reported casualties of 17 killed and 93 wounded. Jewish losses, as reported by Stroop, numbered around 7,000 killed and 56,065 captured. Those Jews who were captured were deported to various camps later that year. While the Germans had anticipated clearing the ghetto in three days, the Jews successfully held out for over month. Though a defeat, their efforts inspired revolts in other ghettos as well as several concentration camps. Captured after the war, Stroop was found guilty of war crimes and hung on March 6, 1952.

    Selected Sources