19 April 2023 marks the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — the largest armed Jewish uprising during World War II and the first urban uprising in occupied Europe. To commemorate this occasion, on 17 April this year, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews will open an exhibition called "Around us a sea of fire. The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising". The exhibition focuses on the civilian population, whose silent resistance was just as vital as the armed struggle. Below you can find more details about the history of the Ghetto and the uprising, find links to our studies and oral history collections, and learn about the event programme for the uprising's anniversary, held under the slogan "Thou shalt not be indifferent".
The Warsaw Ghetto
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest in German-occupied Europe. The occupiers established it in October 1940, ordering all Jewish residents of Warsaw to move there. The wall erected around the Ghetto at the time separated only 2% of Warsaw's area, even though Jews made up 29% of the city's population before the war. The peak congestion in the Ghetto occurred in April 1941 — at that time, the Germans imprisoned about 450,000 people there. Gradually, this number dwindled, with Jews dying from starvation, disease or persecution by the German authorities. One could not leave the Ghetto — the penalty for doing so was death.
The Germans made the Judenrat — Jewish Council — responsible for the internal organisation of the Ghetto. The Council was set up not only to perform administrative functions but also repressive ones; at first, this included rounding up forced labourers and collecting contributions. Self-help organisations, especially the Jewish Self-Help, tried to improve the hopeless situation of the Ghetto prisoners.
Despite the danger, the Ghetto prisoners undertook clandestine operations which included supporting the least affluent residents, organising cultural and scientific meetings, secret teaching and publishing the press. On the initiative of Emanuel Ringelblum, the Oneg Shabbat underground group kept a Ghetto archive, collecting documents, prints and witness accounts. The archive was hidden in milk cans and buried in the ground. See where the archive was hidden.
Few tried, as far as their financial possibilities and contacts on the "Aryan side" allowed, to escape from the Ghetto and hide on the other side of the wall. Out of love and care, some caretakers chose to part with their children, hoping that the latter would survive in a somewhat safer environment.
Deportation Actions and the Ghetto Resistance
In July 1942, the Germans initiated the Grossaktion Warsaw. In essence, it meant the deportation of the Jewish population from the Ghetto to the German Nazi extermination camp Treblinka and their death in the gas chambers. Between 22 July and 21 September 1942, the Germans deported and murdered almost 300,000 Jews. At the outset of the Grossaktion, Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Judenrat, committed suicide after refusing to sign the announcement of the forced deportation of Jews.
By the autumn of 1942, only some 60,000 Jews remained in the so-called residual ghetto. These were mainly young people, employed in German production workshops (so-called shops). Amidst the fear, terror and general feeling of impending demise, there emerged the idea of armed resistance against the German occupier, so as not to be taken alive to the Umschlagplatz. On 28 July 1942, the Jewish Combat Organisation (Polish: Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB) was founded on the initiative of the left-wing Zionist youth movement, with Mordechai Anielewicz at the head. Other ŻOB fighters included such figures as Yitzhak Zuckerman, Zivia Lubetkin and Marek Edelman.
The other underground organisation operating in the Ghetto was the Jewish Military Union (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy, ŻZW), led by Paweł Frenkel and Leon (Arie) Rodal. The ŻZW comprised pre-war activists of the New Zionist Organisation such as Dawid Wdowiński, Michał Stryjkowski and Dawid Szulman, as well as members of the Betar youth movement.
On 18 January 1943, the German police forces entered the residual ghetto and began rounding up people, which came as a surprise to resistance fighters and civilians alike. At the same time, it also served as an opportunity for the first armed resistance organised by Jews. The arrival of the Germans was seen as the beginning of the final liquidation of the Ghetto.
On 18 January we received a call that we would not be going back to Franciszkańska Street because there was a roundup, a selection. The second great selection. (...) And this marked the first time the Germans planned to destroy a ghetto but encountered resistance fighters. (...) [This selection] was a sign that [the Germans] were planning the complete liquidation of the Ghetto, said Halina Ashkenazy-Engelhard in an interview for the POLIN Museum's Oral History collection.
The fighting raged on for several days. The so-called January self-defence, the first open armed struggle on the streets of occupied Warsaw, was a psychological breakthrough, showing that armed resistance against the Germans was possible. Indeed, it contributed to an increase in the authority of the ŻOB among the Ghetto prisoners, who simultaneously tried to resist passively, e.g. by not leaving their homes when ordered to do so by the Germans.
We, at the Ghetto, thought this a great victory! After all, they left but we did not. This was the first time in our lives that we were not so obedient and we thought this was a victory, but this was not a victory, [and] they knew there would be resistance, said Jerry Rawicki (in Polish), recalling those days in an interview for the POLIN Museum's Oral History collection.
The active resistance of Warsaw's Jews in January 1943 delayed the final liquidation of the Ghetto and gave the underground organisations time to prepare for the uprising.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
At dawn on Monday, 19 April 1943, the eve of Passover, German troops entered the deserted Jewish quarter through a gate on the side of Nalewki Street, intending to carry out the final liquidation of the Ghetto. They met with armed resistance from its inhabitants — several hundred members of the ŻOB and ŻZW. This marked the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Though few in numbers and under-armed, the resistance fighters inflicted losses on German soldiers. They fired at the encroaching troops and pelted them with grenades and petrol bottles. The ŻZW under the command of Paweł Frenkel engaged in heavy fighting at Muranowski Square. The image of the Polish and Jewish flags displayed side by side at the Square took on an almost symbolic dimension. Between 20 and 22 April, ŻOB fighters led by Marek Edelman and a ŻZW unit led by Chaim Łopata fought at the brush shop. Fighting against German troops also took place in other areas of the ghetto. Meanwhile, the Germans were blowing up the resistance fighters' bunkers to prevent them from moving and communicating. At the same time, they set fire to one house after another.
The fighting continued until mid-May 1943. On 8 May 1943, the Germans surrounded the ŻOB command bunker on Miła Street. Mordechai Anielewicz, in command at the time, committed suicide along with other fighters. Thereafter, the resistance fighters still fought occasional skirmishes. Only a few dozen managed to get out of the Ghetto through the sewers. See the evacuation site at 51 Prosta Street.
I left the Ghetto on the 1st of May. [...] the superiors were sending people out because they knew that it was out of the question for us to defeat the Germans. No one dreamt about it. […] A Jew was the first in line, the first in line for doom. And so, we indeed had little to lose. Only that we would spare ourselves the agony of the gas chamber, said the ŻOB fighter Simcha Rotem, describing the exit from the Ghetto in an interview for the POLIN Museum's Oral History collection.
On 16 May 1943, on Jürgen Stroop's orders, the Great Synagogue at Tłomackie Street was blown up. This was to be a symbolic acknowledgement of the suppression of the uprising and the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto by the Germans.
Several hundred male and female fighters of the Jewish resistance took up arms against the German occupier. The remaining Ghetto prisoners, some 50,000 "civilian" Jews, stayed in various hideouts and bunkers for weeks. Facing despair, loneliness, hunger, thirst and fear, they fought for every single "day, hour, minute". Though silent, their kind of resistance was as crucial as the armed kind. They remained elusive for days, going underground and disobeying orders from the Germans.
[...] as for the Ghetto uprising, I remember [...] the heat [...], the whole Ghetto was on fire and it turned out that this bunker of ours was pretty sturdy. It did not collapse, even though the surrounding cellars were demolished, burnt down. [...] So scorching was the heat that one could roast to death in there, but we had an escape route to the sewer and we spent most of our time in the sewer, but this did not last long because the Germans soon realised that the sewer was an escape route[...], said Krystyna Budnicka (in Polish), who hid in a bunker near the then Zamenhoffa and Miła Streets in her childhood years, in an interview for the POLIN Museum's Oral History collection.
The handful of Jews left alive after the uprising continued to hide amongst the Ghetto's ruins. Dubbed the "ruin troopers" (Polish: Gruzowcy), they faced a shortage of food and water. They died of exhaustion, or disease or were shot by the Germans. Few managed to cross to the other side of the wall. The last ones left the "ghetto cemetery" in January 1944.
"Thou shalt not be indifferent". Commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 2023.
On the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of early 1943, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews will be opening an exhibition called "Around us a sea of fire. The Fate of Jewish Civilians During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising". The main exhibition content will be the testimonies of 12 Jewish men and women who hid in bunkers across the Ghetto and on the "Aryan side". All other artefacts and memorabilia were destroyed, consumed by the blaze. That is why words have a special power and function in this exhibition. Not only do they convey the experiences, emotions and backgrounds of their authors, but they are also a unique testimony, often the only trace left of those who are no more.
Though concerning a historical time and events, the exhibition will touch on universal dilemmas, attitudes and feelings and raise questions that are still very much pertinent in today's world. How do we behave when facing death? Where does one draw the line between fighting for survival and surrender? What do people feel when they are cast out from society, surrounded by indifference or contempt, "drowning" — as many heroes and heroines wrote about themselves — with no hope for rescue? How can we oppose and take a stand against evil? What is indifference and where does it lead? Do we feel shame when confronted with the suffering of others? The exhibition will open on 17 April 2023. The exhibition will be accompanied by an extensive range of events.
The temporary exhibition "Around us a sea of fire", the 11th edition of the Daffodils Social Education Campaign in six cities, workshops held with Loesje, outdoor artistic activities, a meeting with Martín Caparrós, academic conferences and numerous educational workshops are just some of the activities that the POLIN Museum will be organising in 2023 as part of the programme to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, held under the slogan "Thou shalt not be indifferent". Through these events and activities, we want to take a critical look at history, and ultimately, look to the present and into the future. Exactly as Marian Turski advised on 27 January 2020. At that time, he then recalled the so-called 11th commandment — the message of his friend Roman Kent: "Thou shalt not be indifferent".
Klara Jackl, Piotr Ostrowski
- The Oneg Shabbat underground archive in the Warsaw Ghetto.
- Female fighters and covert operatives in the Warsaw Ghetto
- Love in the accounts of the Survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto
- Janusz Korczak
- Memorials at the sites where the Warsaw Ghetto wall stood
- First Monument to the Ghetto Heroes at Anielewicza and Zamenhofa Streets
- Monument to the Ghetto Heroes at Zamenhofa Street.