Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April 19-May 16, 1943) by a handful of Jews against the Nazis, although a futile effort against overwhelming odds that was brutally snuffed out by the SS in less than a month, was the largest Jewish uprising in German-Occupied Europe and was symbolically significant. In fact, the story of Warsaw ghetto uprising is a microcosm of the Holocaust: reflecting Nazism's vicious anti-Semitism, the brutality of a totalitarian ideology, the plight of a relentlessly prosecuted people, and individual heroism as well as extreme selfishness in the midst of a life and death situation. This paper about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, traces the background of the incident, discusses why it happened, who were the people involved in the revolt, and what was the outcome and aftermath of the struggle.
Warsaw at the Start of World War II:
Before the start of the Second World War in 1939, the Jewish population in Poland was about 3.5 million. Approximately 350,000 Jews lived in the country's capital city, Warsaw alone constituting 30% of its total population.
When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, it not only signaled the start of the Second World War, it also sealed the fate of the Warsaw Jews. The Polish Army put up heroic resistance against the vastly superior German Army for a brief period, but was quickly overwhelmed by the Wehrmacht's blitzkrieg tactics during which Warsaw suffered devastating German air and artillery bombardment. Soon after occupying the city on September 29, 1939, the Germans started prosecuting its Jewish population. Jewish people had to carry special permits and licenses and were made to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David to distinguish them from the rest of the population. Jewish-owned property was confiscated and able-bodied Jews were conscripted as forced labor for the German war effort. Robbery of Jews was encouraged; violence against them was fostered, and even their murder was condoned. ("Warsaw"; Bell, pp. 167-168)
The Ghetto is Formed:
On October 16, 1940, the German governor general, Hans Frank announced the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto, a segregated area for Jews in the city. A Jewish Council for Warsaw named Judenrat was formed under the auspices of the Germans to "govern" the ghetto and a Jewish police force raised for maintaining order. All Jews in the city, one-third of its population, were ordered to be crammed into an area which was just one-twentieth of the city's size (just one square mile).
Within one month all non-Jews were shifted out of the ghetto and ten-foot high walls were built around it to seal the Jews off from the outside world. During the next year and a half, Jews from smaller cities and villages in the country were brought into the ghetto swelling its population to 400,000. Each room in the overcrowded ghetto held an average of twelve occupants. The Germans systematically closed-off labor opportunities for the Jews, so that 60% of them were unemployed. Official rations for Jews were severely limited to starvation levels and most of the ghetto inhabitants survived on a diet of watery soup served in public kitchens. (Bell, 167)
Survival Becomes the Priority:
In order to keep the Jews in line, the Germans resorted to terror tactics and applied the principle of "collective punishment" if any Jew dared to disobey the rules. For example, as early as November 1939, even before the official proclamation of the ghetto, 53 Jews in an apartment building were summarily shot for the beating of a Polish policeman by one of the tenants. (Edelman, para 5) When a radio transmitting station of the Polish Underground was found by the Germans in January 1940, the Germans arrested and executed over 300 Jewish social leaders, intelligentsia and professionals in a single night. (Ibid, para 9) Apart from the physical travails of the ghetto inhabitants, the Germans also subjected the Jews to psychological torture in order to break their spirit of resistance. A survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and a resistance fighter who was involved in the Ghetto uprising, Mared Edelman, later noted that the complete segregation of the ghetto from the outside world had "a very definite purpose"; it was intended to foster a special way of thinking among the ghetto inhabitants so that the only thing they would be worried about was simply to remain alive. In such an environment many of the Jews themselves turned collaborators and informants in order to be able to survive or resorted to smuggling and black-marketing even if it was at the expense of their own people.
Life in the Ghetto:
The Germans divided the ghettos into three categories. According to the Polish historian, Kazimierz Osmecki, the wealthy Jewish families and the intelligentsia were housed in the "little ghetto." The area was very different from the rest of the ghetto and contained cafes, restaurants, and concert halls that were well supplied with food, drinks and foreign delicacies. The second part of the ghetto was its industrial center, where the Jewish workers and their families were housed and were utilized as cheap labor -- running large-scale workshops. The workers were paid wages and received better food than the poor Jews. ("The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Poles" p.9) The worst part of the ghetto called "the big ghetto" was where the majority -- the poor Jews lived. They lived a life of extreme poverty and misery and barely survival. Homeless adults and children with emaciated bodies and dressed in grimy, torn rags roaming aimlessly in the streets of Warsaw ghetto became a common sight. Beggars begged and died in front of shops displaying food smuggled in from the "Aryan" area for those few who had the money to buy it. Even such harrowing scenes of misery were exploited by the German propaganda machine as examples of "depravity" of the "sub-human" Jews by contrasting it to the extravagant life-style of the few who had benefited from smuggling. (Edelman)
Death and Disease:
The over-crowded conditions, limited food and water, and the overworked sewers resulted in death and disease. Typhus epidemic became rampant and ravaged the ghetto. People could not be buried fast enough and bodies of dead people littered the streets. The mortality rate, particularly among the very young and the very old, began to mount. In 1940, 8,891 died of "normal" causes; in 1941, the figure climbed to 43,238, or 90 per 1,000 inhabitants; in 1942 the death rate had climbed to 140 per 1,000. (Bell, 168) By July 1942, death by disease and starvation, sporadic killings and arrests of Jews had reduced the population of the Ghetto from a high of 430,000 in May 1941 to 380,000. (Ibid)
Rumors of the Final Solution:
If the residents of the Ghetto thought that life could not possibly get worse for them, they were mistaken. In the early months of 1941 news of mass murder of thousands of Jews in gas chambers at Chelmno reached the ghetto. According to the news brought by three persons who had miraculously escaped before being put to death, 40,000 Jews from Lodz, Pomerania and the surrounding towns were taken to the gas chambers in Chelmno in November and December of 1940 and put to death. Despite the eyewitness account of the slaughter and the publication of the news by some organized youth organizations in the ghetto that favored resistance against the Germans, most of the Warsaw ghetto Jews refused to believe the story. They simply could not accept that such large-scale killings could take place for no apparent reason and tried to rationalize that the Germans needed the Jews for cheap labor and would, therefore, not resort to mass killings. (Edelman)
More disturbing news of the "final solution" for Jews arrived at the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Germans were reported to have killed thousands of Jews in the Western Ukrainian and White Russian territories. Most of the Ghetto Jews still refused to believe the stories and theorized that even if such killings did take place they were not the result of a plan to exterminate the Jews but may have been spontaneous acts on the part of isolated German troops in the first flush of victory.
Jewish Resistance Groups:
Organized youth organizations in the Warsaw Ghetto were in favor of armed resistance against the Germans from the beginning. A majority of the other groups such as the Bund
and the older generation of Jews in the ghetto were against armed resistance for various reasons. Most of them believed that armed resistance would provoke the Germans into retaliating more viciously against the Jewish community. Others believed that such resistance was a futile effort as it was bound to fail; they were thus resigned to the philosophy of bare survival. This was probably because the Germans had been successful in installing fear in the hearts of the majority of Jews through their brutal measures and psychological propaganda.
An underground right wing Jewish military organization -- ?ZW (the Jewish Fighting…