At dawn of 18 January 1943, German forces entered the Warsaw ghetto and began a round-up of its inhabitants which lasted several days. The captured Jews were deported to their death in Treblinka. Despite the unexpected German attack, members of the Jewish Combat Organisation put up an armed resistance. It was the first open battle with the Germans in the streets of occupied Warsaw.
The German action was an aftermath of Heinrich Himmler’s inspection at the Warsaw ghetto carried out on 9 January. The head of SS was crossed because his earlier directives regarding transfer of the production workshops from the ghetto to the SS-run labour camps in the Lublin district had not been implemented. In a letter addressed to Friedrich Krüger, head of SS and police in the General Government, Himmler ordered an immediate transfer of 16,000 Jewish workers to Lublin. In the same letter, he mentions a deportation of 8,000 Jews from Warsaw in the coming days. Historians interpret this vague note as a proof of an order issued by Himmler during his stay in Warsaw (we do not know its exact content) regarding a deportation of 8,000 unemployed Jews to Treblinka. However, the Germans’ intentions are not altogether clear—having entered the ghetto, they began to round up all Jews—both the unemployed ones and those with valid certificates of employment. The first victims were in fact the workers who gathered in the morning to set off to workplaces beyond the ghetto wall, and some members of the Jewish Council and its subordinate institutions. Perhaps the staff yet again did not follow Himmler’s orders, this time because of both active and passive resistance on the part of Warsaw Jews.
For the Jews, Germans entering the restghetto was tantamount to its final liquidation. Having experienced theThe Great Deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, and in light of the information flowing in from other ghettoes, people were well aware that a deportation equalled death in gas chambers. That is why passive resistance became a widespread mode of behaviour—ignoring German orders to leave a building or seeking refuge in all sorts of hideouts.
Underground organisations summoned the Jews to do precisely that in case of Germans renewing the liquidation action. 22 January marked six-month anniversary of the beginning of the Great Deportation. On that day, the Jewish Combat Organisation [ŻOB] prepared a propaganda action addressed to the ghetto residents. Its manifest calling for resistance in case of yet another deportation—refusing to board the trains and hiding—survived in the Ringelblum Archive. Another appeal from that period, this time ascribed to the Jewish Military Union, read: “Wake up, Nation, and fight!”
And yet, the members of underground organisations were as surprised by the January action as the rest of the ghetto population. The Jewish Combat Organisation had not yet developed a plan to defend the ghetto and was in possession of a very small number of arms. The actions undertaken by its members were therefore of a spontaneous character—these were non-coordinated acts of resistance by specific groups and individuals.
Germans combing the tenement buildings surprised the members of Hashomer Hatzair, Mordechai Anielewicz among them, staying at the organisation seat at 63 Miła Street. Forced to join a column of captured Jews, they managed to hide guns and grenades under their clothes. At the intersection of Zamenhofa and Niska Streets, upon realising that the Germans were leading them towards Umschlagplatz, they attacked the guards at Anielewicz’s command. The Jewish fighters stood little chance against heavily armed enemy in an open space of a street—almost all of them were killed. Anielewicz was the only one to escape unharmed; he even managed to take a rifle off one of the Germans. We know the names of only two members of ŻOB killed in this action: Margalit Landau and Eliyahu Różański. The action of Anielewicz and his comrades ended up with great losses but, at the same time, it helped many civilians captured by the Germans escape and thus save their lives.
Members of Dror and Gordonia watched the dramatic events unravel at the corner of Niska and Zamenhofa Streets from the windows of their quarters located one block away, at 58 Zamenhofa Street. Having witnessed their comrades’ defeat, they decided to wait for the enemy inside the building and attack them unawares. When a German patrol entered the apartment they were staying in, the fighters began to shoot. The fight with the use of grenades continued on the staircase. The two fighters who distinguished themselves in combat were Zachariasz Artsztejn and Henoch Gutman. After the battle, the fighters fled via the roofs to Miła Street.
These two clashes with Germans are best known thanks to the accounts of those who participated in them or of the witnesses who survived the war and were able to retell the story. We do know that there many more acts of resistance. On the third day of the January action, a group of ŻOB fighters led by Izrael Kanał clashed with Germans in the main area of the workshops at 76 Leszno Street. A group of Polish Workers’ Party members fought the Germans in the same area. Sometimes, only addresses of the skirmishes with the Germans are provided in the accounts—40 Zamenhofa Street, 34, 41, 63 Miła Street, 44 Muranowska Street, 22 Franciszkańska Street—but we don’t know any details of what had indeed happened there. There are no sources pointing to active participation of the Jewish Military Union in the January defence. It is possible, however, that members of the Union took part in some of the above-mentioned clashes.
It is also possible that some acts of active resistance were put up by people not associated with conspiratorial organisations. A Jewish Combat Organisation leaflet—which is clearly linked to the January self-defence—called for action: “Jews! The occupying force is gearing up for the second act of our genocide. Do not go to your death without a fight. Defend yourselves. Take an axe, a crowbar, a knife in your hand, barricade your house. Let them make an effort to get you. In fight, we have a chance for rescue. Put up a fight!”
One must mention heroic behaviour of a group of several dozen members of the Bund, captured unarmed by the Germans. Having been led to Umschlagplatz, they refused to board the trains and were all shot dead. In total, during the January action which ended on 21 January 1943, over 5,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka and approximately 1,200 were shot dead on the spot, in the ghetto.
Even though the scale of armed resistance in January 1943 was not huge, it had an enormous psychological effect. Jews were convinced that their actions prevented the Germans from finally liquidating the ghetto. Such belief was far from the truth but it gave the Jews a sense of agency. They believed that both active and passive resistance made sense and offered a chance of survival. After January 1943, people in the ghetto began to eagerly construct bunkers and other shelters. The Jewish Combat Organisation’s authority grew significantly and the Organisation itself drew important lessons from the January events regarding the tactics of a future defence of the ghetto. It was to consist of what was referred to as “guerrilla warfare”—avoiding open clashes in the streets and attacking the enemy from the pre-arranged posts on upper storeys of tenement buildings. Last but not least, the January self-defence made a huge impression on the “Aryan” side of Warsaw. For the first time, Polish underground press wrote about the Jews with admiration and respect. The struggle of ŻOB triggered a change in attitude on the part of the Home Army, which supplied the ghetto with a larger batch of pistols.