On This Day

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Associated Press
A group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers in April/May 1943.

On This Day: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Begins

April 19, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On April 19, 1943, Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto launched a revolt against the German SS that would take weeks to suppress. It was the largest Jewish act of resistance during the Holocaust.

Jewish Insurgents Retaliate

The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of the Jewish ghettos established by the Nazis, holding an estimated 445,000 Jews when it was established in 1940. The ghetto covered a small portion of Warsaw (2.4 percent of the city’s area), but held about a third of the city’s population. The Jewish residents suffered through overcrowding, meager food rations, disease, and deportations to concentration camps.

In July 1942, the Nazis began deporting ghetto residents to concentration camps. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, approximately 300,000 Warsaw Jews were killed or deported between July and September; about 35,000 were allowed to stay and about 20,000 remained in hiding, but “deportation seemed inevitable,” according to the museum.

Several resistance movements were formed within the ghetto, most prominently the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW). The movements were united under the leadership of 24-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz.

On Jan. 18, 1943, the Warsaw ghetto launched its first act of resistance, attacking SS officers making a surprise deportation of 8,000 Jews. Though the Jewish fighters suffered significant losses, they killed 20 Germans and held the number of deported Jews to 5,000. The Nazis decided to temporarily halt deportations.

Over the next several months, the ZOB and ZZW built bunkers and tunnels, and smuggled in weapons from the Polish Home Army. They were prepared for war on April 19, when the Nazi SS attempted liquidate the ghetto, a task it believed would take three days.
When the Nazis entered the ghetto, they were ambushed by Jewish insurgents armed with Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. After three days of fighting, SS commander Jurgen Stroop ordered that the ghetto be set on fire.

As buildings burned, Jewish fighters were forced into underground bunkers. The SS then attacked the bunkers, using tear gas and poison gas to drive out the Jews.

On May 7, the resistance suffered a devastating blow when the Germans discovered the ZOB command bunker. Many ZOB leaders died either by suicide or by poison gas and the resistance effort was effectively crippled.

By the end of the uprising on May 16, 13,000 Jews were dead, most of the survivors were on their way to death camps and Stroop had announced that “the Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no more.”

Biographies: Mordechai Anielewicz and Marek Edelman

Mordechai Anielewicz
Anielewicz was a member of the HaShomer HaZair, a Zionist youth movement, and entered the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 hoping to establish a resistance. He joined the ZOB and quickly became its commander, establishing relations with the Polish government-in-exile and a Polish resistance movement.

He was part of a small uprising on Jan. 18, 1943, that encouraged the Polish to aid the Jewish resistance. He led the April uprising, and was killed in battle on May 8, 1943, when the ZOB command center at 18 Mila Street was attacked with poison gas. 

Marek Edelman
Edelman was a founding member of the ZOB and one of the three subcommanders under Anielewicz. When 18 Mila Street was attacked, he was able to escape through a sewer and later joined the Polish resistance in Warsaw. He was the last surviving member of the Warsaw resistance movement before his death in October 2009.

Reflecting on the uprising in a 2008 interview, he said, “We knew perfectly well that there was no way we could win. It was a symbol of the fight for freedom. A symbol of standing up to Nazism, and of not giving in.” 

Edelman published his accounts of the uprising for its 45th anniversary in a pamphlet called “The Ghetto Fights.”

Historical Context: The Holocaust

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to World War II provides the best links for learning about the Holocaust. The Learning About the Holocaust page teaches you about the events and people associated with it.

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