Resistance Without Hope In The Face Of Destruction – The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943

Life in a Ghetto was the unfortunate fate of many Jewish citizens during the Nazi Party’s reign over Germany and its many occupied territories. Crammed into hastily built quarters, packed amongst other people and families all forced to leave their homes, little about life in these ghettos was desirable.

Yet in one ghetto, the Jewish residents held within its walls refused to accept the terrible fate the Germans planned for them. In 1942, Warsaw Ghetto decided to fight back against the execution of its people, and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising became the largest revolt of Jewish people to occur during World War II.

Unfortunately, the uprising led to the total destruction of the ghetto and the deaths of so many of its residents – but before its buildings burned and smoke filled the streets, its people made history.

Warsaw’s Beginnings

Before the Jewish population living within Warsaw Ghetto’s fenced-off perimeter decided to resist the Nazi forces in control, the residents faced incredible hardship. The ghetto was, at first, simply one of many; beginning in 1939, the Nazi Party began forcing all Jewish individuals within Poland into ghettos throughout the once-independent country’s territories. More than three million Polish Jews left their homes, their businesses, and their entire lives behind as Nazi leadership demanded they enter the new ghettos.

Corner of Żelazna 70 and Chłodna 23 (looking east). This section of Żelazna street connected the "large ghetto" and "small ghetto" areas of German-occupied Warsaw - Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-270-0298-10 / Amthor / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Corner of Żelazna 70 and Chłodna 23 (looking east). This section of Żelazna Street connected the “large ghetto” and “small ghetto” areas of German-occupied Warsaw. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Immediately, Poland’s Jewish citizens discovered that life inside a ghetto came with terrible conditions. From poor construction and overcrowding to rampant disease and hunger, these ghettos were fraught with trauma, discomfort, and hardly livable conditions. Warsaw quickly became the largest ghetto in Poland, with 300,000 to 400,000 Jews crowded into just 3.3 square kilometers of space within Warsaw’s city limits.

As increasing numbers of Jewish citizens arrived at Warsaw Ghetto, thousands began to die from illnesses and starvation. Yet the ghetto continued to grow, with more people arriving weekly – and the fate of its residents would only worsen in the days ahead.

In 1942, Nazi SS forces struck a stunning new blow to the Warsaw Ghetto population. Beginning in July and continuing until September, the SS launched the operation named Grossaktion Warschau. The operation was part of an already-underway operation to “resettle” Jewish ghetto residents – but this was nothing more than a nicely named cover for what the Nazis really planned. Despite calling one of the operation’s leaders, SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, the “Resettlement Commissioner,” Warsaw residents weren’t leaving the ghetto for a better location to “resettle” in the east.

Instead, Höfle and his fellow SS officers planned to send 7,000 Jews to Treblinka over the course of two months. Once the anticipated 254,000 to 300,000 individuals from Warsaw Ghetto arrived in Treblinka, they would be killed. As the false resettlement effort began, control of the operation changed hands, and SS-und-Polizeiführer Jürgen Stroop took charge.

Deportations to Death Are Discovered

With the Warsaw Ghetto population unaware and unsuspicious, the SS operation started deporting Jews on a regular, rapid basis. Surprisingly, members of the Jewish resistance both inside and beyond the ghetto believed that no harm would come to those who were deported; the resistance thought that they were simply being taken to various labor camps throughout Poland.

After months of deportations, Warsaw residents suddenly discovered just how incorrect their assumptions had been – as 1942 drew to a close, the ghetto’s people learned that everyone selected for deportation was in fact killed. There was no resettlement; it was merely a façade for the Nazi’s grand-scale extermination plan.

Armed with this knowledge of the Nazis’ true intentions, the Jews still left living in Warsaw Ghetto decided it was time to revolt. Though their options and situation seemed futile, the residents weren’t willing to allow the German forces to end their lives. So, in January of 1943, the ghetto’s people took their first stand against the enemy. On January 18, they learned that the SS planned to deport a new train filled with Jews destined for extermination.

The people of the Warsaw Ghetto wouldn’t stand to watch their friends, their neighbors, and their families be taken to their deaths, so they developed a plan. With the assistance of underground Polish resistance groups Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ŻOB) and Żydowski Związek Wojskowy (ŻZW), the ghetto’s residents gathered their limited weapons – only a few rifles, hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, handguns, and submachine guns were available thanks to the aid of the resistance forces – and prepared for battle.

As the majority of the ghetto’s citizens hid in makeshift bunkers, a group of fighters and members of both the ŻOB and ŻZW attacked the SS. The goal was to stop the Treblinka-bound Jews from being forced out of the ghetto; unfortunately, the insurgents were ill prepared to face the powerful German soldiers. They did inflict damage, causing a few SS casualties, yet a more important victory was won – the sudden uprising caused the Nazis to change their deportation plans, taking just 5,000 Jews instead of the planned 8,000.

Stroop Report original caption: "The leader of the grand operation." SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop (center) watches housing blocks burn. The SD-Rottenführer at right is Josef Blösche ("Frankenstein"). Photo taken at Nowolipie street looking east, near the intersection with Smocza street. On the left is the burning balcony of the townhouse at Nowolipie 66; next to it is the Ghetto wall.
Stroop Report original caption: “The leader of the grand operation.” SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop (center) watches housing blocks burn. The SD-Rottenführer at right is Josef Blösche (“Frankenstein”). Photo taken at Nowolipie street looking east, near the intersection with Smocza street. On the left is the burning balcony of the townhouse at Nowolipie 66; next to it is the Ghetto wall. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

On that day, the residents of Warsaw Ghetto proved that they were more than willing to fight, as men, women, and even children of all ages despite the staggering odds against them. Together as one, their goal was not to fight to save themselves; instead, the ghetto fought to protest the Nazis’ actions and to honor all Jewish people suffering under the Party’s reign. They knew that they had two options: press back against the Nazis and their well-equipped forces and win, or die fighting.

So, the people of the ghetto began building and organizing its rebellion for further attacks against the Germans. Both the ŻZW and ŻOB resistance groups took charge of Warsaw Ghetto, leading, planning, and preparing for the Jews to strike again. Together, the ŻZW and ŻOB built hidden fighting posts, an execution station, and even a prison. Even more Polish resistance groups worked to aid the Warsaw Ghetto from outside its walls as well; both the Home Army (known locally as Armia Krajowa, or AK) and the communist Polish Workers’ Party (specifically, the Gwardia Ludowa, or GL) conducted attacks on SS forces stationed around the ghetto’s exterior.

Each of these resistance groups supplied the Jewish ghetto residents with as many weapons as they could smuggle in, sending everything from guns and ammunition to food and supplies. Anyone who was found to be supporting or collaborating with the Nazis was imprisoned or executed – the Polish resistance groups even uncovered a Nazi-created fake resistance organization named Żagiew, as well as multiple Gestapo agents living within the ghetto.

As these secret Germans were discovered, the ŻZW and ŻOB denounced them as traitors. It was quickly becoming clear that the Jews, with the aid of the Polish resistance, weren’t going to give in to the Nazis easily. They were prepared to fight, and to take control of whatever they could.

Total Destruction Arrives in April

The residents of Warsaw Ghetto knew their final fight was drawing near when Nazi forces stormed in on April 19, 1943 – the night before Passover. Orders from SS officials were clear: the Germans were to deport the final trains of Jewish captives to Treblinka within three days. Yet when SS soldiers entered the ghetto, they were immediately struck by a stunning surprise attack.

Although it seemed that the odds were against the Warsaw Ghetto population, those living within its walls were better prepared than the Germans anticipated. Thanks to the assistance from the Polish resistance, the ghetto was filled with illegal weapons, ammunition, and all kinds of secret tools that the SS wasn’t aware of. As the Nazi police and military force entered the ghetto, the Jews launched Molotov cocktails, fired guns, and threw hand grenades at their invaders from every possible angle.

The rebels hid in alleys, sewers, windows – wherever there was a vantage point that allowed them to hide and also easily launch some kind of weapon. Initial German casualties numbered 59. They slowed their advance, unsure of what lay ahead. While the Germans paused and contemplated their next move, the Jews launched another surprise attack: they lit two SS combat vehicles on fire with petrol bombs.

Unable to contain the rebellion, the Nazis pulled back. Those inside the ghetto couldn’t celebrate for long, though – the Germans quickly regrouped, replacing their commanding officers with SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, the man in charge of the deportations. Stroop took charge with force, organizing the SS forces and planning for a deadlier, more forceful ground attack against the insurgents.

Stroop Report original caption: "A patrol." SS men on Nowolipie street.
Stroop Report original caption: “A patrol.” SS men on Nowolipie street. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Stroop and his men reentered Warsaw Ghetto, giving the Jews an ultimatum: surrender and give in to the deportation, or die. When Stroop’s ultimatum was rejected, he upped his brutality and began burning entire blocks of houses. Stroop and the SS forces fired flamethrowers into every building, dropped bombs into basements and sewer systems, and threw fire bottles through windows. The entire ghetto became engulfed by searing, blinding flames.

Still, the Jewish insurgents refused to surrender. They continued to fight back amidst the fire, much to the surprise of the SS. As the ghetto’s people fought back, the German’s progress slowed – the Warsaw residents held out, suffering through the flames, the smoke, and the incredible heat produced by the countless burning buildings. The SS faced attacks on two fronts: their primary battles against those inside the ghetto, and additional skirmishes launched by the AK and GL groups outside its walls.

The Polish resistance launched repeated attacks on six exterior points along the Warsaw Ghetto walls, attempting to distract German focus and cause casualties. Unfortunately, as these attacks continued, the SS gained the upper hand, and the ŻZW lost every one of its commanders by April 29.

Once the last resistance commander fell, the ghetto’s outside help fell apart. The surviving Polish fighters fled Warsaw Ghetto through an underground tunnel, escaping into safety of the Michalin Forest. With this devastating loss of support, those within the ghetto’s walls were left with little hope – and no significant battles would follow. Left with no organized aid, the Jewish rebellion quickly became a lost cause.

The ghetto’s citizens began hiding in the ruins of burned buildings and the underground sewers, desperate to escape the wrath of the SS. These makeshift “bunkers” did little to protect them; the Germans forced anyone hiding out into the open with a combination of search dogs, smoke bombs, floods, and explosives.

The Uprising Ends

Stroop Report original caption: "Destruction of a housing block." Photo from intersection of Zamenhofa and Wołyńska.
Stroop Report original caption: “Destruction of a housing block.” Photo from intersection of Zamenhofa and Wołyńska. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Within the first weeks of May 1943, resistance was crumbling. The Jewish residents’ rebellion, though strong in spirit, could no longer withstand the powerful German forces. Without the leadership, aid, and weapons of the Polish resistance commanders, the ghetto was left to fend for itself with limited options. On May 16, the uprising came to an end: the SS detonated a bomb that destroyed the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, bringing the great landmark down with great force. Stroop and the rest of the SS stormed into the ghetto one last time, rounding up any Jews left and loading them onto deportation trains.

Over the course of Warsaw Ghetto’s uprising and eventual destruction, 13,000 Jews were killed. As many as 6,000 died not from fighting, but from the buildings that burned at the hands of the Nazis – those residents were burned alive or suffered from smoke inhalation. Over 50,000 of the ghetto’s remaining residents survived the months of battles and destruction, but they didn’t see a bright future at the uprising’s end.

Burning ghetto viewed from Żoliborz district.
Burning ghetto viewed from Żoliborz district.

Instead, the SS deported those who remained to various concentration and extermination camps; many were even taken to Treblinka, the very fate the ghetto’s people had fought to avoid. Though the Nazi forces fared far better, the Jews of Warsaw Ghetto and the Polish resistance fighters certainly made an impact. A total of 110 casualties were inflicted, with 17 Germans dead and 93 injured.

In the days that followed the destruction of Warsaw Ghetto and the deportation of its people, the Germans razed what was left of the burned buildings, bombed belongings, and damaged property. Amid the wreckage, the Warsaw concentration camp complex was built, and thousands more Jewish citizens and other enemies of the Nazi Party were executed and died upon its grounds.

Though Warsaw Ghetto never saw a future free of war, and free of Nazi control, those who fought both within and outside of its walls did exactly as they hoped: they fought to represent the rest of their people, those who couldn’t fight, and their uprising left a legacy.

Heather Fishel

Heather Fishel is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE