The Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 was a high point of Jewish resistance. And in both its scale and heroism it was one of the key events in the history of resistance to the Nazis.
Marek Edelman, one of the five leaders of the uprising, describes it in his book The Ghetto Fights. Written in 1945, it shows how the Jews fought back.
He tells of guns smuggled into the ghetto through sewers and of home-made grenades blasting unwitting German troops. His recollections show how vital it is to fight back—even under the most terrifying circumstances.
German armies occupied Poland in 1939 and set out to destroy anyone and anything around which Polish national feeling could organise.
They systematically executed Polish army officers—with help from the Russian Army who had also invaded—and attempted to wipe out the Polish intelligentsia. The pitifully weak left was easily picked off too.
As the Nazis set about smashing nationalist opposition they also began herding Jewish people into enclosed ghettos. Once these were established, the Nazis reduced the Jews to the status of slaves.
Jews were isolated from the rest of the population.
The Nazis first planned to starve the inhabitants by cutting rations to a bare minimum. When that failed to wipe out the Jewish population, they began deportations to the death camps.
To win, the Nazis relied on two things. The first was naked terror.
Massive repression and summary executions were the order of the day. For example, after one policeman was beaten up, 39 inhabitants of a single house were shot.
The second was the cooperation of the Jewish establishment.
There were two main currents in Poland’s Jewish community before 1939. On the left was the Jewish socialist organisation, the Bund, which allied itself to the left wing Polish Socialist Party.
The other current was the Jewish councils, the Judenrat, formed by the leaders of the Jewish establishment.
In each ghetto a Jewish council was charged by the Nazis with policing the population and suppressing resistance.
Many of those who ran the councils were not cowards. They often put their own names at the top of lists of people to be deported to the camps, knowing it meant death.
But the idea that dominated the councils was that resistance was useless.
For them, Nazi brutality could only be staved off by begging for mercy.
The experience of two Jewish ghettos shows how these political currents worked out in practice.
In Vilna, in occupied Lithuania, the elite German troops of the SS established a ghetto, starved the population and then slowly began taking groups of Jews out to be murdered.
The Jewish police in Vilna were headed by Jacob Gens, who believed it was pointless to resist the Nazis. But standing against him was the underground United Partisan Organisation headed by the Communist Yitzhak Wittenberg. Their slogan was “We will not go like sheep to the slaughter.”
As resistance grew the Nazis demanded that Gens hand over Wittenberg. If he refused, the German tanks would destroy the ghetto.
At this point the underground had a clear choice—to fight or give up.
But continued resistance meant taking on the Nazis, as well as Gens and the Jewish police. To avoid such a split in the Jewish community Wittenberg surrendered voluntarily.
The Nazis, far from being appeased by this sacrifice, realised the Vilna ghetto didn’t have the will to fight. Days later most of its inhabitants, including Gens, were murdered. Only a few members of the underground managed to escape.
Marek Edelman’s book describes a different story. It explains the horror of the ghetto not in a fatalistic way, but with the insight of someone organising resistance.
At first, all the Bund could do in the Warsaw ghetto was warn of the impending Holocaust.
But the dominance of the Jewish council, combined with a desire not to believe the worst, meant it was ignored.
But by July 1942, it was clear the Nazis were embarking on a policy of mass extermination.
The deportations to the death camp at Treblinka started. The Nazis used a combination of repression and the promise of bread to get people to go.
Nazis demanded a daily quota of deportees and the Jewish council was given the job of organising people to fill the trains.
Tragically, the Jewish police did their job well.
That is why they became the first targets of the resistance movement and why one its first successes was the assassination of the deputy chief of the Jewish police.
Confronted by Nazi horror, the leader of the Jewish council, Adam Czerniakow, committed suicide.
To some he is now a hero for his “act of protest” and a street is named after him Warsaw.
But to Edelman the suicide compounded Czerniakow’s crime.
“He knew beyond doubt that the supposed deportation to the east meant the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the gas chambers, and he refused to assume responsibility for it.
“We thought he had no right to act as he did. We thought that since he was the only person in the ghetto whose voice carried a great deal of authority, it had been his duty to inform the entire Jewish population of the real state of affairs and dissolve all public institutions, particularly the Jewish police.”
The deportations brought home to Jews their impending annihilation.
In response the Bund and left Zionist organisations formed the Jewish fighting organisation, ZOB.
At first, their main problem had been convincing the Jewish population to fight—but now their main difficulty was providing them with arms.
The Polish resistance in 1942 was itself poorly equipped and the ghetto was physically cut off from it. But the Bund was able to obtain some arms through its links with the left in the Polish Socialist Party. These proved invaluable.
In April 1943 the ghetto rose up. The Nazis expected the fighting to last only a few days, but against all odds the resistance kept them pinned down for months.
Edelman describes their fight: “Now the SS men were ready to attack. In closed formations, stepping haughtily and loudly, they marched into the seemingly dead streets of the Central Ghetto.
“Their triumph appeared to be complete.
“But no, they did not scare us and we were not taken by surprise.
“We were only waiting an opportune moment... Battle groups barricaded at the four corners of the street opened concentric fire on them. Strange projectiles began exploding everywhere (the hand grenades of our own make), the lone machine pistol sent shots through the air now and then (ammunition had to be conserved carefully)... They attempted a retreat but their path was cut. Their dead soon littered the street...”
In the end, the Nazis had to use massive military force to smash the uprising and eventually the ghetto was destroyed.
Even so, some Jews managed to escape through the sewers to join the Polish resistance and fight on.
It took the Nazis longer to defeat the Warsaw ghetto than it had for their armies to defeat entire countries.
The description of the ghetto fighters’ heroism and their methods of organising is inspiring. But most important is the way Edelman shows that the decision to fight in Warsaw was political one.
The ability to organise depended on an understanding that, while all Jews were herded together in the ghetto, there were class and political differences between them that could not be blurred.
The ZOB leaders had no doubt their military resistance would be crushed and the ghetto destroyed. But they consciously set out to show the world fascism could be fought.
As they faced down German tanks, they issued this proclamation to Polish freedom fighters:
“Poles, citizens, soldiers of freedom!
“Through the din of German cannon, destroying the homes of our mothers, wives and children; through the noise of their machine guns, seized by us in the fight against the cowardly German police and SS men; through the smoke of the Ghetto, that was set on fire, and the blood of its mercilessly killed defenders, we, the slaves of the Ghetto, convey heartfelt greetings to you.
“We are well aware that you have been witnessing breathlessly, with broken hearts, with tears of compassion, with horror and enthusiasm, the war that we have been waging against every brutal occupier these past few days.
“Every doorstep in the Ghetto has become a stronghold and shall remain a fortress until the end! All of us will probably perish in the fight, but we shall never surrender!”