The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 was a great tragedy for Poland and the Poles, but for Polish Jews, it proved to be the beginning of the road leading to the Holocaust.

Zalman Akerman, born in Warsaw in 1927, commented after many years:

My Holocaust began when I was 12 years old. On 1 September 1939, the Germans bombed Warsaw.[1.1].

Initially, the war affected everyone in the same way. Bombs were falling on Warsaw, houses were burning, people were dying regardless of their origin or religion. As soon as the German army seized Warsaw, in October 1939, the occupation authorities gradually began to legally separate the Jews from the other inhabitants of the capital.    

Before 1939, Warsaw was one of the most important hubs of Jewish culture in the world. According to statistics, it had a population of 1.2 million, of which about 370 thousand were Jews (about 30% of the total).  

Initially, hardly anyone realised what German persecutions – anti-Jewish legislation gradually restricting normal Jewish life – would lead to. The Jews “were faced with persecution. They had to wear armbands with the Star of David, which distinguished them from the rest of society”[1.2]. Under German regulations, Jews had their bank accounts blocked, their businesses seized, synagogues closed, and they were forbidden to ride the railways or enter restaurants.

The outbreak of war meant an additional break in education for all children. The school year did not begin until 10 October. After a month, the Germans ordered schools to be closed, so that on 7 December only Polish common schools and vocational schools were open (high schools and universities officially remained closed). Jewish schools did not resume their activities and their assets were seized. Through grassroots initiatives, Jews began to organise education for their children.

They organised themselves in homes, where a family member would be teaching, and they also formed nursery groups. Halina Aszkenazy recounted that her mother, Maryla, opened a kindergarten and taught several groups at home. Pre-war school teachers formed learning circles in private homes and communal kitchens. Rachel Ubfal, who attended Yehudyah school before the war, attended secret sets (classes) taught by Yehudyah teacher and Emanuel Ringelblum collaborator Abraham Lewin in the early days of the occupation. Some children were even able to complete several years of school during the war. Halina Sztarkman, born in 1933, “managed to complete four grades of school in the ghetto”[1.3].

Nina Zinger, who attended the Cecylia Goldman-Landau girls’ school before the war, recalled:

We were learning, after all, we weren’t allowed to learn, it was our parents who would organise it, not only my parents – a lot of them; there were 3, 4, 5 girls who were learning and someone was making sure we wouldn’t get caught because it wasn’t allowed, the Germans didn’t allow studying. We were learning, I was learning all the time in the ghetto[1.4]

Another blow was dealt to the Jewish population of Warsaw by the decree establishing the ghetto in the autumn of 1940, which forced many Jews in Warsaw to move into the quarter designated by the Germans. It is estimated that nearly 230,000 people (Jews and non-Jews) were forced to relocate at that time. Additionally, Jewish people were resettled to Warsaw from other places: towns near Warsaw and other large Polish cities, as well as from abroad. Many Jews were experiencing difficulties in finding new accommodations.

Aleksandra Brandwajn, whose family lived outside the ghetto, at 13 Graniczna Street, recounted:

We were trying to swap flats with a Polish family, even though their flat was smaller. However, the Germans made the area even smaller and it turned out that this flat fell outside the ghetto boundaries. [...] So we were left without a home, without furniture and income. Eventually, my mother found a room in a friend’s flat and we stayed there for about a month. Afterwards, we rented a room from another family.[1.5].

The situation was most favourable for those who were already living in the area designated by the Germans. However, they had to take into account that someone would move in with them.

Nina Zinger’s family, who had previously lived at 3 Hipoteczna Street, which was outside the ghetto, exchanged flats with a non-Jew who lived on Nowolipki Street.

A flat in the ghetto – that was a lot because, after all, for anyone who didn’t live in the area, it was very difficult to find a flat, because they eventually moved everyone from those villages and little towns to Warsaw.”[1.6] 

Cut off from the outside world in the ghetto, Jews lost the opportunity to work and earn money. People were looking for a source of income. If you had any valuable items, you looked for a buyer on the “Aryan side” through old contacts or by sneaking to the other side. Often the task of providing the family with food would fall to the children. With their tiny stature and suppleness, they were able to make their way through the ghetto wall and smuggle various products. Many of them paid with their lives for that. Jurek Płoński (born 1926), who smuggled meat into the ghetto, was caught and put in Gęsiówka. He was to be executed but managed to escape. Yakov Frajman (born 1929) would even get outside the wall several times a day to smuggle food bought from favourable shops on the “Aryan side”. 

Sometimes artistic performances – singing or playing instruments in the street and backyards – would become a way to earn money. Rachel Ubfal, a ghetto resident, recalled years later that she saw “Jewish prostitutes in the ghetto. They were elegant, well-dressed ladies”[1.7].

The last desperate cry for help was begging in the crowded streets. In the spring of 1941, on just over 300 hectares, the Germans had confined nearly 450,000 people, deprived of their normal day-to-day food supply and of a workplace, living in constantly deteriorating hygienic conditions.

Raya Ratajzer recounts that “there was a tremendous crowd in the ghetto”[1.8]. Nina Zinger’s testimony, on the other hand, reads that in the streets, there were “above all, a lot of beggars, a lot of corpses, a lot of hungry people, you couldn’t walk with a package because they would snatch it away from you.”[1.1.4]

Ilana Rotenstein recalls that “conditions were terrible: people were fighting for food and many died of starvation”[1.9]. The daily energetic value of the ration cards at the beginning of 1941 was 200–240 calories per person, which is 15% of the daily calorie needs. Social institutions tried to save the starving by running communal kitchens based on support and allocations of products, mainly from the Judenrat and the Joint.  

Bread was treated as a rarity. For her birthday in the ghetto, Natalia Strzelecka received from her friend “the only piece of bread she had and they celebrated together as if it were a birthday cake”[1.10]. Halina Sztarkman’s mother “made cakes from carrots because there was a shortage of essential products. Bread was made from unground wheat grain. There was only ersatz coffee made from roasted beans, there was a lack of sugar, and saccharin was used instead”[1.11].  

In addition to hunger, people in the ghetto suffered from cold weather and infectious diseases that spread rapidly, especially typhus and tuberculosis.

Alexandra Brandwajn recalled:

The winter of 1940/1941 was very harsh and many people died in the ghetto from hunger and cold. I also suffered a lot because of cold weather. My hands and feet swelled up and turned blue. That winter, my grandfather fell ill with pneumonia and died. [...] A terrible disease – typhus – began to spread in the ghetto. There were many victims, one of whom was my uncle. [1.1.5]

It is estimated that nearly 100,000 people died in the ghetto as a result of starvation and infectious diseases.

During this terrible time, as if sensing that things could get even worse, people decided to leave the ghetto or at least save their children. Chawa Szczypior, who was less than eight years old, and her one-year-old brother Jakow were smuggled to the “Aryan side”. Elżbieta Zaks, born in 1938, was hidden by her parents in a rubbish bin, which was then handed over to a rubbish collector to be taken outside the ghetto.

Teresa Jawic, 8 years old at the time, recalls:

At night, my father told me to get ready to escape from the ghetto. I packed a small suitcase with my toys and a picture of my parents hugging. I was carrying this suitcase like I was going on a school trip. But my father gently took it out of my hand and said, “You can’t” and put it away. It is a traumatic memory that I cannot get rid of. I cried for many days missing the doll, the photo and other keepsakes left in the suitcase.[1.12]

22 July 1942, when the Germans launched the “Grossaktion” of liquidation, marked a dramatic caesura in the history of the Warsaw Ghetto. During two months of its duration, more than 250,000 people – about 75 per cent of the Jews who were confined in the ghetto at the time – were deported to the German Nazi extermination centre Treblinka II.

Among the thousands of Jews in the ghetto, some believed the Germans’ assurances that they were on their way to “work to the east” and voluntarily boarded the train. The loved ones who then “disappeared” forever – mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandfathers, grandmothers and friends – are mentioned in the memories of the Survivors. Occasionally, messages would be received that someone had been caught. Goodbye cards would arrive written on the way or as early as at the Umschlagplatz. Rachel Ubfal’s sister, Tosia, “was arrested by a Jewish kapo (policeman). She was sent with other Jews and he brought the family a farewell card. The family never heard from her again”[1.1.7]. Jakow Frajman, who had been outside the ghetto looking for food when the “Aktion” began, was no longer able to find his parents and brother when he returned.

When someone was sent to the Umschlagplatz, the chances of being rescued were becoming slim. Only a few managed to get out, either through connections or bribing Jewish policemen.

After the “Aktion”, many survivors decided to seek refuge outside the ghetto. Those who were left alone had nothing left to lose and saw their only chance of survival in getting out of the confined area. Parents were trying to save at least their children. Ilana Rotenstein, aged 9, and her 2-year-old sister Karmela were led through the building of the Courts on Leszno Street to the “Aryan side”. In the late autumn of 1942, 13-year-old Jadzia Epsztejn “was included in a group of workers in which Jechiel [her father] was, and who set out early in the morning to work”[1.13] outside the ghetto. At the end of 1942, Zofia Lampert took her 7-year-old son, Norbert, and also managed to sneak out of the ghetto with a group of workers.

Thanks to a network of contacts, a rescue was organised for them on the other side of the wall. Children were placed in convents and orphanages and given false identities.

Many Survivors emphasise that their so-called good looks (e.g. blonde hair, light-coloured eyes) or speaking Polish without an accent helped them to be rescued. Unfortunately, this was not always enough. Vera Frister, fleeing Lwów with her mother, describes her arrival in Warsaw as follows:

My mother got on the train with me and came to Warsaw. What she looked like was this: hair dyed blonde, green eyes and a turned-up nose. In Warsaw, she got off the train, went out onto the street and was caught by a szmalcownik who dragged her into a gate and took off everything she had on her hands, some rings, wedding rings. He took the money she had. And she only had one question to ask of him: how did you know? And he said: from the eyes, two thousand years of captivity.[1.14]]

In the autumn of 1942, those who chose to remain in the ghetto set about building hiding places in case of further deportation actions. Bunkers with electricity, sewerage and ventilation were being built under tenements and courtyards. Some were connected with the sewers. Food reserves were gathered to enable people to survive for a long time without going outside. Some could shelter up to several hundred people.  

In December 1942, there were 34,969 registered Jews living in the so-called residual ghetto. They worked and lived in so-called shops (production facilities organised by the Germans in the ghetto). In addition, there were still “wild Jews” in the ghetto, i.e those who were not registered with any shop and therefore deprived of their “life numbers” and at risk of being shot or deported at any time.

After another deportation action, carried out by the Germans on 18 January 1943, which this time was already met with resistance from Jewish fighters, the number of those imprisoned in the ghetto was reduced by a few thousand.

When the uprising broke out, there were around 50,000 Jews in the ghetto. A few hundred fighters from the Jewish Combat Organisation and perhaps a similar number from the Jewish Military Union stood up to fight the Germans. Civilians hid in bunkers prepared in advance, in attics. Aleksandra Brandwajn, who managed to leave the ghetto in January 1943, found out much later about the fate of her relatives, who were to leave the ghetto after Pesach.

The family went down to the bunker since there was no other escape. In the hospital bunker, there could be enough food for a long time. And even though the Germans were setting fire to every house and the smoke was seeping down into the bunkers through various openings, they decided to stay there and not go out into the street, but someone gave them away and they were all driven out. The Germans shot my uncle dead. My mother and aunt were probably sent to Treblinka.[1.1.5]

However, with the Germans starting to set fire house by house, it was impossible to stay in a bunker, which was getting hot, without an air supply. Aware that the Jews were hiding in bunkers and sewers, the Germans began to introduce poison gas into the bunkers. Jews would come out to avoid being burned alive or suffocated.

Zalman Akerman and his mother were staying in one of the largest bunkers in the ghetto, at 22 Franciszkańska Street. "Zalman and his mother were caught and sent by train to one of the extermination camps. Zalman jumped off the train and escaped, never to see his mother again”[1.15].   

Felka Zilberstein stayed in the bunker until 2 May. It was then that the bunker was blown up and the people taken to the Umschlagplatz; from there Felka was taken to the Majdanek camp. The same fate befell Zofia Rozensztrauch and her family. A few managed to escape through the sewers, like Jurek Płoński. 

On the other side of the wall, those who managed to escape from the ghetto, the Jews hiding in the area of Warsaw, saw smoke and a glow over the city. They knew what it meant. Dawid Szwarc, who had been hiding under a false identity, recalled:

During the ghetto uprising, I could watch the burning houses from afar. I tried to remain calm when the Polish inhabitants around me showed joy at seeing how the Germans were “taking care of” the Jews.[1.16]

Fighting in the ghetto continued until early May 1943. On 8 May, the Germans discovered the bunker of the Jewish Combat Organisation command at 18 Miła Street. Most of the fighters gathered there committed suicide to avoid falling into the hands of the occupying forces.

On 16 May 1943, the Germans blew up the Great Synagogue at Tłomackie, and Jürgen Stroop noted “the Jewish residential quarter in Warsaw has ceased to exist” – this was to symbolise the end of the ghetto uprising.

There were still individual people left in the ruined ghetto who continued to hide in cellars and bunkers. Those who had not been transported by the Germans to the camps at Treblinka or Majdanek were shot on the spot. There were also those who managed to survive for months in hiding. 

It is estimated that during the Second World War, approximately 98% of Warsaw’s Jews, i.e. some 350,000 people – mainly civilians: children, women and men – perished in Warsaw.


The text is based on testimonies by Rachel Ubfal Rotem, Ilana Rotenstein Furman, David (Jurek) Płoński, Felka Zylberstein Openheim, Halina Sztarkman Kornblum, Aleksandra Brandwajn Płoński, Jakow Michaeli (Frajman-Michlewicz), Aviva (Wiktoria) Blum Wachs, Dov Kornblum, Hanna Avrutzky (Mandelsberger), Rai Ratajzer Gutman, Zalman Akerman, Naomi Judkowski, Nina Zinger Dinar, Vera Hefter Frister, Teresa Jawic (Tirza Potter), Dawid Szwarc from the Polish Roots in Israel project.



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