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“You understand, O LORD; remember me and attend to me. Avenge me against my persecutors. In Your patience, do not take me away. Know that I endure reproach for Your honor.” —Jeremiah 15:15

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Begins, April 19, 1943

Not all battles of the Second World War (1939-1945) were fought by regular armies in the major theatres of the war. Not all the Jews and other hated minorities went quietly to their deaths in gas chambers. In 1942, more than a quarter million Jews had been hauled off from German-occupied Warsaw, Poland to the death camp at Treblinka. On April 19, 1943, the Nazis returned to cart off the remaining 60,000 (about 40,000 there by permission and 20,000 in hiding). A thousand or so Jews of all ages and genders, determined to sell themselves dearly from subterranean bunkers and ambush points. In what became the largest Jewish armed resistance of the war, known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the resistance became a block by block, house by house, fight to the death.

German troops march through Warsaw, Poland, September, 1939

The Germans began the war with their invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Of all the German conquests, the Polish people put up the longest resistance, even though the Russians simultaneously attacked them from the opposite border, and their country was then divided between their two most ferocious historic enemies. After the armies moved on, special German SS units moved into the cities to control the civilian population. They eventually tried to locate all the Jews, Communists, Roma, Slavs and other people the Nazis considered untermenschen (sub-humans) for deportation and enslavement or extermination. In the six years of the war, about three million Polish Jews and more than five million non-Jewish Poles were killed by the Germans. The number murdered by the Russians is unknown.

Soviet cavalry march through Lviv after the city’s fall to the Red Army. Then known as Lwów, the city was annexed by the Soviet Union and today is part of Ukraine.

The boundaries of pre-war Poland (c. 1937) with modern-day Poland overlaid, including the line of demarcation between German (light red) and Soviet (dark red) military forces after their joint invasion of Poland in September 1939

Almost 360,000 Jews were herded into a huge “ghetto”, from which they were subjected to starvation, selection, and deportation to slave labor and death camps in 1942. Two major resistance groups in the walled-in ghetto prepared to fight: the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW). They had received a few rifles, grenades and other explosives, surreptitiously, from the Polish Home (underground) Army. In October, 1942, SS Commander Heinrich Himmler, ordered the Warsaw Ghetto “liquidated” and all able-bodied Jews sent to forced labor camps. In January, columns of deportees were infiltrated with armed members of the Jewish defense force, who opened fire on their captors, allowing the marchers to disperse, although most of the shooters were killed, along with German guards.

Jews are forced to board Holocaust trains during what the Germans called Gross-Aktion Warsaw, their code name for the deportation and mass murder of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto beginning July 22, 1942.

Nazi officials stand outside the Warsaw Ghetto wall

By the time the Germans began the next attempt to round up the 60,000 or so Jews left in Warsaw, underground bunkers and kill zones had been established within the several-square-mile ghetto, to shoot it out with the heavily armed and reinforced enemy. Commanded by Mordecai Anielewitcz, the ZOB fighters “stunned” the Germans on the first day, April 19, 1943, forcing their retreat back across the wall. The counter-attack by SS General Jurgen Stroop began the systematic total destruction of the ghetto, block by block, with high explosives, flamethrowers and overwhelming force. The Jewish command bunker was wiped out on May 8, several of the Jewish leaders committing suicide, ending much of the fighting. Isolated snipers and bombers continued fighting in the rubble for another month. Some of the warriors and others escaped through the sewers leading outside the ghetto.

Nazis stand guard over Jews in the Umschlagplatz, a term used to denote the holding pens adjacent to railway stations in occupied Poland

Nazi SS Commander Júrgen Stroop (center, in a field cap) surrounded by his men during the burning of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1943

General Stroop reported that he captured more than 56,000 Jews for deportation, and killed about 7,000 in the fighting, admitting the loss of just over one hundred casualties, which included Polish and Jewish collaborators, surely a German loss report too low. The remainder of the ghetto was razed, but a year later the rest of (non-Jewish) Warsaw revolted, and a second massacre ensued. The following year, several of the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto led a revolt in the Treblinka extermination camp and two hundred inmates escaped to the forests of Poland, where Polish peasants helped track and murder the escapees. A hundred or so survived the war, however. The uprising inspired similar resistance in other Polish cities, as well as in the camps in which Polish Jews were incarcerated. Many of the SS officers and Polish collaborators, responsible for the Warsaw ghetto and Treblinka camp, were, after the war, executed as war criminals, some went to prison, and others committed suicide.

Treblinka Memorial dedicated in 1958 at the site of the former gas chambers, where an estimated 700,000-900,000 Jews were killed. Only the Auschwitz death camp claimed more victims than Treblinka.

Jewish women and children are forcibly removed from a bunker in the aftermath of the Uprising

After the war, a number of the Warsaw Ghetto survivors founded in Israel, the Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta’ot, which literally means the Ghetto Fighters. In 1984, 98 members of the kibbutz published a book of their stories of the uprising. In 2008, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi delivered a most appropriate speech at the site of the ghetto in Warsaw:

“I don’t think there’s any real need to analyze the Uprising in military terms. This was a war of less than a thousand people against a mighty army and no one doubted how it was likely to turn out. This isn’t a subject for study in military school. (…) If there’s a school to study the human spirit, there it should be a major subject. The important things were inherent in the force shown by Jewish youth after years of degradation, to rise up against their destroyers, and determine what death they would choose: Treblinka or Uprising.

Gabi Ashkenazi, former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff

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