Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The first urban uprising in German Occupied Europe, and the largest carried out by Jews (April 19 - May 16, 1943) took place in the Warsaw Ghetto. Some of the Jewish underground in the Warsaw ghetto, especially members of the pioneering Zionist movements, concluded that a defense force should be prepared to be used in the event of an attempt to deport the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the death camps. The attempts to organize met with opposition on the part of various underground movements, and until the beginning of the mass deportation on July 22, 1942, no unified Jewish resistance force was established.

Since April 1942, a body called the Anti-Fascist Bloc had been operating for some time in the ghetto, but it was only a partial organization of underground forces and had not achieved its objectives. After the deportation began on July 22, another attempt was made to establish a fighting unit of underground factions operating in the ghetto, but the initiative was thwarted by some of the leaders, who viewed armed resistance as a danger that could bring disaster to all Jews, including those that could be saved. As a result, a limited Jewish organization was formed on July 28, with only three pioneering movements (Hashomer Hatzair, Dror and Akiva). The operations planned by the organization during the deportation in the summer of 1942 yielded only a few results ,and at first, efforts to contact the Polish military underground (Armia Krajowa) failed. At the same time the organization suffered serious failures, and during the deportation many fighters and commanders were lost.

The deportation ended in mid-September. It had uprooted about 300,000 Jews from the ghetto, and 265,000 of them were sent to the Treblinka death camp. Some 55,000-60,000 Jews remained in the ghetto, and after the struggle for survival in the ghetto ended, an atmosphere of “orphan hood” and bitter disillusionment descended upon them. The survivors, most of them young, accused themselves for not having actively opposed the deportation of their families, and realized that at the end of the deportation life was not guaranteed, and that the situation was only a respite between deportations. This atmosphere also affected the different underground forces and in October, other parts of the Jewish underground joined the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and included all the active underground forces, except for Beitar, which organized with its affiliated factions in a separate framework called the Jewish Military Union, (ZZW).

The little-known battle of Beitar in the Warsaw ghetto took place in the main building at Muranowska Square where scores of Jews barricaded themselves, hoisted the Zionist flag (which later became the flag of the State of Israel ), as well as the flag of Poland, and waged a heroic battle against the Nazi soldiers who entered the ghetto. The fighters, commanded by Pavel Frankiel, were for the most part Betar members. The Germans entered the Ghetto streets on the 19th of April and a bitter and lengthy battle developed which lasted for four consecutive days of continuous fighting. The Jewish fighters had organised themselves before the battle and so had two machine guns and light weapons, but the Germans arrived well equipped and in four days managed to kill more than sixty fighters.

At that time, the emissaries of the ZOB managed to contact the Armia Krajowa, the main body of the Polish military underground, to obtain its recognition and to acquire a small quantity of weapons which was not sufficient to arm all the fighters (ten pistols and a small amount of explosives) but was important from the point of view of giving morale support. The organization set up a headquarter commanded by Mordechai Anielewicz and began to train fighters and plan to defend the ghetto. On Monday 18th of January 1943, before these preparations were completed, the Germans started a second deportation, known as the "January Deportation." The first military test of the ZOB came with the second Aktion in the ghetto by the German police and the SS. From its experience in the first deportation campaign, which accounted for 83% of the ghetto's Jews, the Jewish public assumed that the second Aktion was planned to be final and absolute. It is now known from German documentation that the Aktion was intended to be only partial, and its purpose was to remove 8,000 Jews from the ghetto. However, even as a partial Aktion, it did not go according according to German expectations and plans. Since the Aktion began unexpectedly, the ZOB was unable to convene its institutions in order to decide on a coordinated response.

Only two companies belonging to the ZOB -- the "Dror" company and the "Hashomer Hatzair" company, were equipped with weapons, and they took action. The main operation commanded by Mordechai Anielewicz took place on the street. A group of Hashomer Hazair members armed with pistols intermingled with a convoy of Jews who had been kidnapped and taken to the Umschlagplatz. When the sign was given, they began a face-to-face struggle with the German guards. In this battle the first Germans to fall in the ghetto were killed here and almost all the Jewish fighters. Anilewicz overcame a soldier with whom he fought and thus was saved. The large convoy dispersed in all directions and details of the event spread amongst the besieged Jews. In another place, in an apartment on Zamenhof Street, a group of Dror members commanded by Yitzhak Zuckerman met the attacking Germans with a round of gunfire.

January 18th 1943 was not only the organization's first baptism of fire. During the Aktion, which lasted for four days, there was also a decisive change in the behaviour of the ghetto inhabitants. After the first convoy dispersed, the Germans could no longer assemble a second convoy, because the Jews of the ghetto no longer obeyed calls to leave their homes and report to a collection site. Most of the Jews in the ghetto hid in improvised hideouts. There was also a great change in German behaviour. They began to move quietly and were reluctant to enter possible hiding places. The second Aktion, which extracted 5,000-6,000 residents of the ghetto, was halted. The Jews interpreted the cessation of the Aktion by the Germans as a sign of weakness and a retreat from the force that was employed against them, and even the Polish underground thought that the Germans had stopped the Aktion because of Jewish resistance.

The events of January had a decisive effect on the preparations for the April uprising, and the three months from the last week of January to April 1943 was a period of feverish preparations for the coming combat. The ZOB drew conclusions from the lessons learned from January 1941. It was clear that the Aktion could come as a surprise the ghetto, and therefore the organization and its fighters had to maintain constant alertness. The 22 fighting groups that were formed after January, and which were organized according to the movements that they belonged to, now organised themselves together in apartments of the organisation near prepared positions. The January fighting taught them that they had to attack the enemy unexpectedly and from prepared positions in the maze of houses and attics in the ghetto .With this concept in mind the ghetto or parts of the ghetto were divided into combat zones, and positions, which were assigned to the combat groups.

Anielewicz commanded the entire force of the ZOB and the ghetto, and Israel Kannel took charge of the central ghetto sector, Yitzhak Zuckerman, and after him Eliezer Geller, were in charge of the factory area, and Mark Edelman was the commander of the ”Brush Shop“ area. In the area of Muranowski square, a force of the Jewish Military Union entrenched itself under the command of Pavel Frenkel.

The weapons, a few of which were obtained from the Polish organizations and mostly bought for money, were mainly pistols. The gun was the fighters' personal weapon.

In addition to the pistols and automatic weapons and rifles captured from the Germans, the ghetto was engaged in placing grenades, and these were to play an important role in the battles during the revolt. In the waiting period between January and April, the ZOB was able to recruit large numbers of fighters, but the small number of weapons prevented a real expansion of the forces. Near the beginning of the revolt, the armed force comprised 22 combat sections of 500 fighters, and the ZZW force comprising 200- 250 fighters, totalling altogether together 700-750 ghetto fighters.

A fundamental change, the results of which were decisive during the revolt, also affected the civilian population that remained in the ghetto. The Jews of the ghetto interpreted the results of the events in January as proof that resistance could deter the Germans from carrying out their intended plans. Many thought that the Germans engaged in mass deportations without restraint as long as the Jews were passive, but in the face of resistance and combat, they would have to think twice about the resumption of the Aktion, and that an outbreak of hostilities in the ghetto might light the flame of revolt amongst the Polish population and thereby leשd to a deterioration in the Security situation in the whole of occupied Poland. For these reasons, the civilian population at the last stage of the ghetto's existence favoured resistance and supported the preparations for the revolt.

The civilian population took advantage of that period to prepare a network of hideouts and well-equipped underground bunkers, which could withstand prolonged conditions of isolation. In the final analysis, every Jew had his own place in one of the hiding places and bunkers in the central ghetto, and in many of these places of the civilian population weapons were stored for protection. Thus, was created a common interest between the civilian population and the combatants based on the hope that fighting under the existing circumstances might serve as a means of survival. The ZOB command did not share the optimistic view of the Germans' hesitation in the face of the Jewish resistance, but all the same encouraged the digging of the bunkers and preparation for a prolonged stay inside.

The two aspects of preparation for the test - the battle preparations of the fighting organizations and the position of the general population and its entrenchment in the bunkers - caused the uprising, which began with the opening of the last Aktion on April 19, to be a wide-scale popular uprising with wide-scale results.

The three months between January and April were a period of intensive preparations in terms of training the fighting force, arming it, and determining a defensive strategic plan for the ghetto.

The last Aktion and the resistance campaign known as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on April 19th, the eve of Passover 1943. The fighters in the ghetto were warned and knew in advance of the date of the beginning of the last deportation.

There is no doubt that the commander of the SS and police in the Warsaw district, Obergruppenfuhrer Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg knew of the existence of the Jewish defense deployment, but apparently did not dare to admit to his superiors in Krakow that a serious Jewish force had crystallized in the ghetto Himmler did not trust von Sammern - Frankenegg and on the eve of the beginning of the last deportation sent a replacement experienced in fighting partisans, SS Brigadier General Jurgen Stroop, who was given the mission of subduing the ghetto.

During the 27 days of the ghetto campaign, the Nazis employed considerable force, including tanks, which in the first days of the fighting included 2,054 soldiers and policemen and 36 commanders.

Opposite them were the 750-700 young Jewish fighters, lacking any military or combat experience, and equipped almost exclusively with pistols.

On the morning of April 19, when German forces entered the ghetto, no one was found in the central ghetto except for a group of policemen. The entire Jewish population was in hiding and in bunkers, refusing to obey German orders, and thus became part of the uprising. On April 19, the Germans were forced to withdraw from the ghetto after the first battle. They lost a tank and an armored vehicle that were hit by incendiary bombs and failed to overcome the position of the fighters of the ZOB and the ZZW in Muranow Square, where two flags were raised on the top of one of the houses, the Polish flag and the blue and white flag. Stroop, who wrote daily accounts of the ghetto campaign, wrote in his first report: Immediately upon the deployment of the units, a planned attack by the Jews and the thugs two Molotov cocktails were thrown at the attacking tank and the two armored cars. The tank burned. This enemy fire initially caused the withdrawal of the forces being activated. Our losses in the first operation were 12 men (six SS men, six Trooniki(?).)

The face-to-face combat lasted a few days. The failure of the Germans to capture and hurt the Jewish fighters, who slipped away after the battle through the roofs or capture the Jews hiding in the bunkers, motivated them to systematically burn the ghetto, house by house.

This also forced the fighters to descend to bunkers and conduct partisan warfare by sporadic sorties. The fire and the heat inside the bunkers made life hell. The air in the bunker was boiling hot, the food stored was spoiled and the water was unfit for use In spite of all this the people in the bunkers did not want to abandon their hiding places.

The bunkers 'war, or the cleansing of the bunkers, was the Germans most difficult and worrisome task. In his daily accounts, Stroop wrote several times that he had overcome the resistance and the rebellion was fading, but the next day he repeated that the constant attacks on his soldiers' lives continued unabated.

Gradually, however, the resistance of the Jews in the ghetto weakened. On April 23 Mordechai Anielewicz wrote to Yitzhak Zuckerman, a member of the command who was on the Aryan side:

"... I cannot describe to you the conditions under which the Jews live, only the few privileged will survive, all the others will be destroyed, sooner or later .Our fate is sealed, in all the bunkers where our comrades are hiding, it is impossible to light a candle at night because of lack of air. Of all the companies in the ghetto only one man was killed. Yechiel, this is also a victory, farewell my friend, maybe we will see each other again: The most important thing is that the dream of my life came about and I was privileged to see Jewish defence in the ghetto in all its greatness and glory."

One of the biggest weak points of the fighters was their meager armament. Small pistols were not suitable for efficient street fighting, and the number of casualties among the Germans was small compared to the stubbornness and daring spirit of the fighters.

The resistance of the bunkers was desperate but lost in advance. The entire ghetto burned and became a dead-end trap. The Poles reported on units of the Polish military underground that gave assistance to Jewish fighters. Some of those fighters fell, but no group managed to break through the wall and enter the ghetto.

On May 8, the headquarters of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) fell on 18 Mila Street, where Mordechai Anielewicz and a large group of fighters and commanders fell, and the fighters did not prepare a retreat route from the ghetto because of the assumption that the battle would last until the last of them fell.

Thanks to a rescue mission that was sent through the sewers at the initiative of the ZOB members on the Polish side of Warsaw, dozens of ghetto fighters were saved.

For nearly a month, the battle of the ghetto continued, and the fighters in bunkers, who were not discovered by dogs and special detectors and were not murdered on the spot continued their resistance. The Nazis threw gas into the bunkers' openings, where those inside refused to leave even after they had been penetrated by the enemy forces.

On 16 May Stroop announced that the battle was over, that the number of all Jews who had been captured and destroyed with certainty was 56,065, and that he was going to blow up the Great Synagogue on Tlomacka Street (outside the ghetto and outside the area of the battle) as a sign of victory and that " the Jewish Quarter of Warsaw no longer exists’

Even after May 16, hundreds of Jews in underground bunkers survived in the ghetto, which became a mound of ruins.

Those people in the bunkers would emerge at night, search for food and water, and establish contact between them. Some of the last fighters managed to contact the Poles and escape to the "Aryan" side. A few survived the bunkers until the beginning of the Polish Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising was the first uprising of an urban population in Occupied Europe. It was unique in that it was a general rebellion, in which, alongside fighters with arms, the masses of Jews took part in bunkers and hideouts. Thanks to their common fate and determination to share this fate, the Warsaw Ghetto, starved and humiliated as it was brought itself to a state of defense and combat against Nazi Germany for a longer period than which some sovereign states in Europe managed to do.