Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – the heroic military struggle of the Ghetto’s Jewish combat organisations with Germans fought since 19.04.1943 until 15.05.1943; the biggest act of military resistance of Jews during World War II.

According to Ludwik Fischer’s notes, about 35,000 Jews had remained in the Warsaw Ghetto in the aftermath of the huge deportation. In August 1942, the so-called “small ghetto” was liquidated. Those remaining in the ghetto were the people who managed to escape deportation. These were mostly young and lonely people who had lost their families and for whom a membership in any organisation filled the emptiness which they felt after the loss of their close ones. The majority of the Ghetto residents were overwhelmed with the feeling of helplessness and indifference. Some people were aware of the true meaning of the slogan “Deportation to the East” but not all wanted to believe it. The Germans introduced the curfew. The only gate which led to the Ghetto was situated at the intersection of Gęsia and Zamenhofa/Dzika Streets. The residents of the “closed district” were used for work in the so-called sheds (the Walter Toebbens’ enterprise among others). The work in workshops provided some kind of hope  for being spared and avoiding deportation. At that time, apart from one title “Ojf der Wach” (Yid. „Keeping Guard”), published by the Bund, the conspiracy press ceased to be published in the Ghetto.

* * *

In the atmosphere of fear, terror and general belief in the imminent end, an idea of a military resistance against the German occupant emerged, motivated by the desire of not to be taken alive to the Umschlagplatz. On 28.07.1942, the Jewish Combat Organisation (ŻOB) was founded which was composed of the members of the youth movements Hashomer Hatzair, Dror and Akiba. On 15.10.1942, other organisations joined the ŻOB: the Bund, the Gordonia, the Poale Zion- Right Wing, Ha-Noar Hatziyoni and the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR). The ŻOB staff was composed of Mordechai Anielewicz (the commander, Hashomer Hotzair), Hersz Berliński (Poale Zion-the Left Wing), Berek Sznajdmil (the Bund, after some time substituted by Marek Edelman) and probably Michal Rosenfeld (the PPR).

The liaison officer with the Polish Underground was Arie Wilner (aka Jurek, Hashomer Hatzair). At the end of October 1942, The Jewish National Committee (ŻKN) was constituted by the Zionists and socialists (excluding the Bund) which was a political representation of the ŻOB. Its principal aim was the preparation of the Jewish society to fight and resist. It was in a close contact with the Temporary Committee for Aid to Jews and the Home Army. The Bund agreed to cooperate with the ŻKN through the joint Cooperation Committee of the ŻKN and Bund which represented Jews in contacts with the Polish underground.

On 2 December 1942, the Jewish structures underwent subsequent expansion and turned into the Jewish Combat Organisation (ŻOB)[1.1]. It consisted of 22 combat units (14 of them of the Zionist orientation), composed of mostly the “soldiers” of the 19-25 years of age. The ŻOB members played a significant role in obtaining information on what was happening outside the Ghetto walls, and in other cities and towns, thanks to the emissaries and liaison officers maintaining links between the Ghetto and the “Aryan” world. The fighters began to rebuild and strengthen the underground structures of the Ghetto and to obtain tangible material for the weapons needed to fight. Also the construction of bunkers began.    .

With the assistance of the Polish underground, a report prepared by Oneg Sabat under the title “The Liquidation of the Jewish Warsaw” was dispatched to the western countries, carried by an emissary, Jan Karski, but unfortunately it was dismissed by all authorities,   .

Another clandestine unit acting in the Ghetto was the Jewish Military Organisation which used the name of Jewish Military Union (ŻZW). Its members were mostly the members of the Revisionist faction of the Polish Zionist Party and the Betar. Their headquarters was located at 7 Muranowska Street. The ŻZW members also produced and smuggled weapons through the earlier built tunnel [1.2].

* * *

„We have to be ready to die as human beings”[1.3].

The subsequent deportation took place in January 1943. During an attempt to deport about 8,000 Jews undertaken on 18 January 1943, the Germans supported by the Lithuanian and Latvian troops encountered the first military resistance of the people sentenced to extermination who perceived the occupant’s activities as a preview to the complete liquidation of the Ghetto. The first to shoot at the signal from Mordechai Anielewicz were members of the Hashomer Hatzair at the intersection of Niska and Zamenhofa Streets. Also the members of the Dror and Gordonia resisted militarily. The fighting (self-defence) also occurred in other places of the Ghetto during which 12 Germans were killed and, so far, undetermined number of fighters. On the same day, the ŻOB issued a proclamation to the Ghetto residents: “Jews! The occupant begins the second stage of your extermination! Do not go willingly to death! Defend yourselves! Pick up an axe, a knife, barricade your houses! Let them thus conquer you! You have a chance to be saved in fighting. Fight…”

The majority of the residents were engaged in a passive resistance hiding within the confines of the Ghetto. The military skirmishes had been taking place up to 21 January. During four days of the deportation, about 5,000 people were deported to Treblinka[1.4].

The first military resistance was of a great importance both for the Ghetto residents and for the Germans who had abandoned the deportations of the Jewish people for a while. The Nazis had also stopped to enter the Ghetto after dusk and searching its cellars in order to pull out the hiding people. Jews ceased to be perceived as defenceless victims. The members of the ŻOB began to be recognised among the civil residents of the Ghetto. They became a kind of an authority for the residents. The psychological barrier of being scared of the occupant had been overcome by the residents.

On the ŻOB orders, bunkers with an access to water, electricity and sometimes even telecommunication began to be built containing food reserves and ventilation. They were built in the basements of the houses or under the basements. A second, underground city emerged under the surface of the earth. The bunkers were the expressions of resistance of the civil residents of the Ghetto and played an important role during the Uprising. Also passages and tunnels between the buildings and through basements and attics were prepared as well as passages and tunnels leading to the “Aryan” side in Muranowska, Leszno, Karmelicka and Franciszkańska Streets. The members of the combat organisations of the ŻZW and ŻOB began independently of one another to win and smuggle arms with the aid of their representatives on the “Aryan side” as well as to produce them (grenades and fire bombs, the so-called Molotov cocktails).

The money to finance the arms was won by the ŻOB through robbing the richer residents of the Ghetto, organising attacks on the Judenrat cash deposits or assaults at the transports of money prepared to be dispatched by the Bank Cooperative to the German authorities. Following the January action, it was decided to place the members of the ŻOB in barracks so they might be ready to fight any time. The tactics and strategy of the future military resistance began to be developed to minimise the threat of a surprise at the next, unannounced deportation and prevent “being led like lambs to the slaughter”. One of the slogans of the underground city read:   

“We can only survive as free people and if this is impossible we can only die as free people. We will overcome death while fighting "  [1.5]”.

The decision was made to use partisan tactics. Before the outbreak of the Uprising, each of the fighters had a personal weapon with several cartridges in reserve, probably two hand grenades and a few fire bombs. The preparations for the armed resistance had been kept in secret in order to avoid possible denunciation. Because of that, the ŻOB made a few assassinations of collaborators and eventual traitors. On 21 February 1943, four Gestapo agents were liquidated in the brush workshop, a day later an agent, Alfred Nossig was shot to death. On 26 February 1943, an officer of the Jewish police, Mieczysław Brzeziński was executed and two days later, sentences were carried out on the agents Adam Szajna and Bubim Nebel.

Apart from the organised groups also the so-called wild groups were active in the Ghetto which were accumulating arms as well[1.6].

The Ghetto was divided by the ŻOB fighters into 3 combat sectors under the general command of Mordechai Anielewicz. The central Ghetto was commanded by Israel Kanał, the area of the Toebben’s and Schultz’s workshops  – by Isaac Cukierman, and then Eliezer Geiler while the area of the brush workshop at 34 Świętojerska Street – by Marek Edelman.

 * * *

On the night of 18/19 April 1943, the Ghetto was encircled by a ring of the German gendarmerie and the navy blue police. That was the day when the residents were preparing to celebrate the eve of the Passover[1.7]. This time, the members of the ŻOB warned by the Polish underground did not let themselves be surprised and decided to undertake a military resistance against the German occupant.

At dawn, on Monday 19 April, the German troops (about 2,000 people) under the command of Colonel Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg entered the deserted Jewish district through the gate in Nalewki Street in order to carry out its total liquidation. They encountered a military resistance of its residents – several hundred poorly armed members of the ŻOB and the ŻZW. The Jews launched an uprising. The fighting which lasted until the middle of May commenced (sporadic skirmishes dragged on until June). The first military confrontations headed by the ŻOB units took place along Gęsia Street and at the intersection of Zamenhofa and Miła Streets. The surprised Germans had to withdraw from the Ghetto. It was undoubtedly the first victory of the Jewish fighters.

On that day, following a few hours’ break, the German units re-entered the Ghetto, this time (and from that moment until the end of the Uprising) commanded by Jürgen Stroop. The fighting began at the intersection of Nalewki and Gęsia Streets with the participation of the ŻOB fighters and near Muranów Square where the ŻZW “soldiers” were fighting.

During the Uprising, the ŻZW was commanded by Paweł Frenkel. The ŻZW fighters were engaged in combat mainly near the Muranów Square. The first skirmishes in that area lasted until 22 April. Two flags: Polish and Jewish were put up on one of the tenement houses[1.8]. „[Following the outbreak of the Uprising in the Ghetto] the euphoria exploded in the entire tenement house [at 6 Muranowska Street].

People were moving around on the roofs of the houses [on the Ghetto side of Muranowska Street] and they would appear one time on the top and another time in the street. They carried some weapons in their hands. One moment, we noticed in front of us and a little to the right side, the blue and white and the red and white flags on the roof.” [1.9]. The German troops were shot at by machine guns and thrown at by grenades. It was difficult for them to locate the Jewish fighters since they quickly changed the shooting posts using passages between houses in basements and attics. The fighters lost their advantage only when German tanks emerged on Muranowski Square. Because of that, some of them decided to withdraw from the Ghetto.

They reached the “Aryan side” through a tunnel under Muranowska Street, on 25 or 26 April 1943. Following the unmasking in Michalin, they returned to Warsaw[1.10].. On 27-29 April, the so-called “second Muranów battle” was fought. A group of the ŻZW fighters also fought on 20-22 April in the area of the brush workshops (they stationed at the barracks in Świętojerska Street). They were commanded by Chaim Łopata. In the area of the Toebbens-Schulzs workshops, the members of the ŻZW were placed at the barracks at 5 Karmelicka Street and were commanded by Dawid Szulman. Other ŻZW groups were fighting in Leszno and Nowolipie Streets[1.11].

Very fierce fighting with the occupant fought by the ŻOB took place on 20-24 April 1943 in the area of the so-called brush workshops covering the houses in the quarter of Świętojerska, Wałowa, Fanciszkańska and Bonifraterska Streets. Five groups of Jewish fighters were active there commanded by Marek Edelman. The fighting was conducted mainly with grenades and Molotov cocktails. The Germans who withdrew from Wałowa Street offered the Jewish fighters an armistice. Additionally, they promised the employees of the brush workshops safe transfer to labour camps in Trawniki and Poniatowa. The proposal was rejected by the fighters.

The ŻOB fighters were also engaged in combat with German troops in the area of the central Ghetto in Franciszkańska and Miła Streets and in the area of the Toebben’s and Schultz’s workshops, in Gęsia and Zamenhofa Streets. Despite scarcity of arms, poor training and lacks in supplies, the insurgents inflicted significant losses on the German troops. The system of the bunkers erected beforehand proved to be helpful. The heroic defence of particular houses and bunkers lasted until the first days of May.

Acting on Stroop’s orders, the Germans began to blow up the bunkers to prevent the fighters from changing their places and communicating. At the same time, they set a house after a house afire, letting the combat gases into the basements to force the residents to leave them or to kill them by suffocating or burning alive. Clouds of smoke were hanging over the Ghetto. The captured Jews were murdered on the spot (about 7,000 people died this way), were sent to the Treblinka death camp (about 7,000) or other camps (about 36,000). Only a few residents of the Warsaw Ghetto have survived the war. In his report written between 20 April and 16 May 1943, Stroop boasted of identifying and destroying 631 bunkers in the Ghetto. The data could be overestimated, however.

The fighters carried out a fierce defence on the upper floors of the houses, they were hiding in bunkers which were particularly protected against the attacking enemy troops and set traps for Germans. They were unable, however, to take advantage in such an unequal fight. Facing the overwhelming enemy forces having excellent arms they had no chance. They were aware of that from the very beginning. A week after the beginning of the Uprising, the ŻOB issued a proclamation: “The scale of our losses (…) is enormous. Our last days are approaching. As long as we have weapons in our hands, however, we will continue to fight and resist.” The purpose of the heroic insurgents was revenge, inflicting as big losses to the enemy as possible. Many fighters preferred to die than to be captured by Germans.

Their commander, Mordechai Anielewicz was one of them. On 8 May, when the Nazis made their assault, Anielewicz, hiding in the shelter in the tenement house at 18 Miła Street where the staff of the insurgents’ command was located chose a suicide with many of his comrades. Some of the people staying in the bunker died of suffocation caused by the gas let in by the Germans. Only a few managed to escape. The words Anielewicz wrote to Isaac Cukierman on 23 April 1943 came true: “What we have lived through has exceeded our wildest expectations. The Germans were fleeing the Ghetto twice… (…) Believe me, a revolver is of no value whatsoever. We did not practically use it. We need grenades, machine guns and explosives. (…) Only a few will survive. The rest will be annihilated sooner or later. Our fate has been sealed. (…) The dream of my life has come true. I lived long enough to see the Jewish self-defence in the Warsaw Ghetto in its entire glory and greatness”[1.12].

In the meantime, the Ghetto devoured by flames continued to burn to the joy of its liquidator Gruppenführer SS Jürgen Stroop. As early as on 16 May 1943, he was reporting: “The former Jewish district of Warsaw has ceased to exist”. On this day at 8.15 PM, the Germans acting on his orders, blew up the Great Synagogue in Tłomackie Street. It was the last act of the tragedy of Jews in Warsaw. Stroop wrote in his report: “The beautiful climax of the Great Action was blowing up the Great Synagogue. The preparations had lasted for 10 days. The synagogue was a solid building. Hence, to blow it up all at once, the laborious sapper and electric works had to be carried out. What a beautiful sight it was! It was a fantastic sight from the painter’s and theatrical viewpoint. The sapper officer handed me out the electrical apparatus initiating detonation of the explosives. I prolonged the moment of waiting. Then, I shouted: Heil Hitler! and pressed the button. A flaming explosion rose up into the clouds. The great “bum” was heard. The fairy-like mosaic of colours appeared. It was an unforgettable allegory of triumph over the Jewry. The Warsaw Ghetto’s existence came to an end.”        

Only several dozen ŻOB fighters managed to survive the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Some of them left the burning Ghetto through canals. On 10 May, the group of several dozen fighters who emerged from the canal manhole in Prosta Street included Marek Edelman, Cywia Lubelkin, Kazik Ratajzer (then, Symcha Rotem), Janek Bilak and the Błones couple. They were transported by a truck from Warsaw to the Łomianki Forest where they joined a group of fighters who left the ghetto on 29 April. Most of them were killed while fighting in forests or participating in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was a desperate attempt at choosing a dignified death when carrying weapons in one’s hands and at the same time at taking revenge on the Germans undertaken by a several hundred strong group of fighters (opposing about 3,000 enemies mobilised to fight) from the ŻOB and ŻZW, supported to a very small extent by the soldiers of the Polish underground formations – The Home Army and the People’s Guards. Even before the Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile, Władysław Sikorski, appealed in BBC to his compatriots to help the fighters, the The Poles carried out at least a dozen actions in the vicinity of the Ghetto initiating fighting against German troops and disrupting of the occupying forces activities.

The first action took place on the day of the outbreak of the Uprising. In the evening, a group of the Home Army soldiers under the command of Captain Józef Pszenny (aka “Chwacki”) made an unsuccessful attempt to penetrate the wall of the Ghetto in Bonifraterska Street. Stroop wrote in his report that his forces were “(…) continuously under the rifle fire from the outside of the Ghetto, i.e., the Aryan side. (…) During the first assault on the Ghetto, Jews and the Polish bandits managed to repulse our attacking forces with tanks and armoured vehicles due to the prepared armed action.” Confronted with the tragedy evolving behind the Ghetto walls, the Polish civilian population in the “Aryan side” of Warsaw was helpless. There were both examples of indifference and hatred and attempts at providing aid at the risk of life. For example, the Polish canal workers participated in organising the escape from the Ghetto of at least several dozen Jews, including Marek Edelman, one of the Uprising leaders who, accompanied by other ŻOB fighters, was led outside the Ghetto walls with the support of the People’s Guard on 10 May.

* * *

On 12 May 1943, Szmul Zygielbojm (aka „Artur”), the representative of the Bund at the National Council of the Republic of Poland in London committed a suicide at the news of the extermination of the Warsaw Ghetto, thus protesting against the indifference of the world towards the Nazi crimes perpetrated on Jews.

* * *

After the fighting had ended, the entire area of the Jewish district was methodically burnt down and levelled to the ground. Those who survived fighting, mass executions by Germans and fires were deported mostly to the death camp in Treblinka. However, single Jews survived in the ruins, shelters and basements and they were hiding in Warsaw until the end of the German occupation. They were called the Robinsons of the Ghetto. The Ghetto area became a huge waste land full of ruins[1.13].

Martyna Rusiniak-Karwat

  • [1.1] A. Grupińska, Odczytanie listy. Opowieści o powstańcach żydowskich, Warszawa 2003; T. Prekerowa, Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie 1942–1945, Warszawa 1982, p. 35-37.
  • [1.2] More on the ŻZW see, e.g., A. Grabski, M. Wójcicki, Żydowski Związek Wojskowy – historia przywrócona, Warszawa 2008.
  • [1.3] The ŻOB Proclamation, Warsaw, Autumn 1942.
  • [1.4] T. Prekerowa, Zarys dziejów Żydów w Polsce w latach 1939-1949, Warszawa 1992, p. 131.
  • [1.5] quote according to: „Słowo Żydowskie/Dos JidiszeWort”, No 7-8 (293-294) 4-18 IV 2003, p. 4.
  • [1.6] T. Prekerowa, Zarys dziejów Żydów w Polsce w latach 1939-1949, Warszawa 1992, p. 130.
  • [1.7] “On that night of 19 April before the outbreak of the Uprising, we were sitting up to 2 AM at our poor meal. When we were talking and making plans, a comrade burst into the room and his pale face showed that something had happened. He came up to the table and peacefully announced that a moment before the news came from the Aryan side that that very night the Ghetto would be surrounded and that at six o’clock the Germans would begin attack. Although we had been preparing for this and were even waiting for this moment – we all went pale”. C. Lubetkin, Zagłada i powstanie, Warszawa 1999, Quote by: „Słowo Żydowskie/Dos Jidisze Wort”, No 7-8 (293-294), 4-18 IV 2003, p. 8.
  • [1.8] (the probable location of the flags – the ŻZW headquarters AT 7 Muranowska Street or the strongly fortified tenement house at the corner of the Muranowski Square (Nalewki 42/pl. Muranowski 15).
  • [1.9] Y. Helman, The fate of the last fighters of the Jewish Military League in Warsaw, „Dapim. Studies on the Shoah” 1991, cyt. za: A. Grabski, M. Wójcicki, Żydowski Związek Wojskowy – historia przywrócona, Warszawa 2008, s. 6
  • [1.10] D. Libionka, L. Weinbaum, Bohaterowie, hochsztaplerzy, opisywacze. Wokół Żydowskiego Związku Wojskowego, Warszawa 2011, p. 395-512.
  • [1.11] A. Grabski, M. Wójcicki, Żydowski Związek Wojskowy – historia przywrócona, Warszawa 2008, p. 61-67.
  • [1.12] List komendanta Mordechaja Anielewicza do swego zastępcy po stronie aryjskiej Icchaka Cukiermana, „Słowo Żydowskie/Dos Jidisze Wort”, No 7-8 (293-294), 4-18 IV 2003, p. 39.
  • [1.13] information on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising according to: B. Engelking, J. Leociak, Getto warszawskie. Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście, Warszawa 2001; A. Grupińska, Ciągle po kole. Rozmowy z żołnierzami getta warszawskiego, Warszawa 2000; T. Prekerowa, Zarys dziejów Żydów w Polsce w latach 1939-1945, Warszawa 1992.
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