It was 80 years ago this month; on April 19, 1943, that some 700 brave men and women stood up and took part in what they knew was going to be a losing fight. Those mostly young Jewish fighters confronted the German military and police that entered the Warsaw ghetto—and for nearly a month, until May 16, they held out against overwhelming odds. It was not actually the first revolt in the ghettos of Europe against the Nazis, but it was the first significant and largest uprising conducted by Jews during World War II.
At least 7,000 Jews were killed in the fighting or while hiding in the Warsaw ghetto, while approximately 7,000 more were captured by the SS and police at the end of the fighting. Those who were captured could hardly be described as the lucky ones, as they were deported to the Treblinka death camp.
In addition, after the uprising, the SS and police deported approximately 42,000 Jews to forced labor camps and to the Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp. The majority of those individuals were murdered in November 1943 in a two-day operation known as Operation Harvest Festival.
Origin of the Warsaw Ghetto
Just weeks after the start of the Second World War, which began when Germany launched its invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the Polish capital city of Warsaw fell to the Nazis. More than 400,000 Jews from the city and the surrounding region were forced to live in an area that was little more than one square mile. By November 1940, this Jewish ghetto was sealed off by brick walls, barbed wire, and armed guards. Anyone attempting to leave was shot on sight.
In July 1942, as a part of the infamous “Final Solution,” Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, ordered that Jews in Warsaw be “resettled” — which essentially meant that they’d be sent to work camps, while others were sent to die in the gas chambers.
Throughout the second half of 1942, some 265,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to Treblinka; while 20,000 others were sent to forced labor camps or killed during the deportation process. An estimated 55,000 to 60,000 Jews were all that remained in the Warsaw ghetto.
The End of Hope
For much of the war, the Jewish people in the ghetto had largely clung to a belief that they could somehow survive the Nazis, but by April 1943 it was apparent that this wasn’t the case. It may be easy in hindsight to see that within two years the war would be over, but it could be argued that few of the Jews could have survived had they done nothing.
“It is true that the Germans had setbacks, including at the Battle of Stalingrad, which had ended in February 1943,” said Dr. Christopher R. Browning, Frank Porter Graham professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina.
“However, we have to remember that half of the victims of the holocaust had been killed in 1942,” he explained. “There were still 50,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, but many other ghettos across Poland had been essentially emptied. The bulk of Poland’s Jewish population had already been killed.”
Browning added that the early calculation for the Jews was to survive through bribery and labor. In the former case, it was expected that there was a vested interest from the corrupt German military, which could be bought off, while it was also expected that the Jews were too important to the labor force. They were largely operating on what may have seemed to be a perfectly rational assumption from the pre-war era.
It would have probably been impossible to see the ideological considerations of the Nazi principles—and it wasn’t until vast numbers were dead that the realization came that they couldn’t survive the war by waiting. That in turn made the whole Jewish resistance different from that of the rest of Europe.
“There was no looming victory, especially in 1943, so when the uprising began on April 19, it was fighting a revolt of the doom,” said Browning. “They saw that there was no more buying time. It was very much about choosing ‘how we are going to die.'”
A Military in Name Only
Small groups, such as the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW), had planned for a revolt. They had managed to smuggle into the ghetto a small number of weapons from anti-Nazi Poles. Yet, as noted, it was essentially a lost cause from the beginning. And despite being described as “combat” or “military” units, they were far from trained soldiers.
“One of the things that I find that is so impressive is that these were civilians, and they had no military training. They had to learn quickly how to use the limited weapons they had access to,” said Dr. Deborah Dash Moore, Frederick G. L. Huetwell professor of history and professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.
“It was still inspiring to people when it occurred, and even the first anniversary a year later in 1944 was remembered as being the first time a large group of civilians had revolted against the Nazis,” added Moore.
Part of the initial success of the Warsaw ghetto uprisings was also owed to the fact that the Germans had expected no resistance.
“For the Germans, it was really meant to be a small operation to take 10,000 Jews to Treblinka,” said Browning. “When the attack on the SS units began, the Germans were forced to retreat.”
That gave the Jews more time to stand their ground, but as has been noted, victory was never really a possibility.
Could More Have Been Done?
Another question often asked in hindsight, and knowing all the facts, is whether more could have been done to aid the uprising. In truth, there simply was no way that the Allies operating from London could have aided the efforts. The Americans and British hadn’t even landed in Sicily by that point, and as noted, the Soviet Red Army may have won the largest battle of the war to date, but it was literally still a thousand miles away.
“Perhaps the ghetto could have been better equipped with weapons, but the last thing the Poles really wanted was a premature uprising,” said Browning. “The Poles were essentially waiting for the Soviets to come.”
However, more could have been done directly to the labor/death camps. The camps were guarded by only a few dozen armed guards. An attack on such facilities could likely have succeeded.
“The problem is that neither the Poles nor the Jews had any plan to attack the death camps, and that is an utter tragedy,” Browning added. “It wasn’t a priority for the Polish Home Army at the time either.”
The Legacy of the Uprising
In many ways, the Warsaw ghetto uprising may have hastened the end for many of the Jews in Eastern Europe.
“It convinced Himmler that it would require a military operation to remove an entire population, and that resulted in camp liquidations, which were liquidated one by one,” said Browning. “In that sense, the uprising accelerated the extermination of the Jews.”
The uprising also didn’t really hurt the Germans, and as already noted it failed to save any Jews.
“It didn’t change the military status of the war, but it did help the Jew’s pride,” said Browning.
That could be the lasting legacy of the uprising. In addition, Moore explained that it may have also helped inspire the Polish Home Army, which mounted a city-wide uprising that began in August 1944.
That uprising too failed, largely because the Soviet Red Army refused to come to the Poles’ aid.
Instead, under orders from Joseph Stalin, the Soviet military waited for the Polish forces to be defeated. That ensured that Moscow could place its own puppet leaders in charge of Poland. Though Warsaw has been rebuilt, nearly the entire city was destroyed in the two uprisings that took place in the conflict.
We must never forget.