Under the cover of World War II, Nazi Germany began a genocidal program to deal with “the Jewish problem.” As a first step, the Nazis herded Jews into small ghettos where starvation and disease could take their toll, thus lessening the workload for the extermination camps. On Yom Kippur, October 12, 1940, the Nazis announced the building of Jewish residential quarters in Warsaw. Close to 400,000 Jews (30% of the Warsaw population) were forced to occupy an area consisting of some ten streets (2.4% of the city’s area). (Warsaw’s pre-war Jewish population in 1939 was 393,950 Jews.) Jews were also deported into the ghetto from other places, and the population of the ghetto reached more than half a million people.
Beginning in the summer of 1942, the first mass deportations of Jews from the ghetto to the death camps began. The number of deportees averaged about 5,000-7,000 people daily, and reached a high of 13,000. At first, ghetto factory workers, Jewish police, Judenrat members, hospital workers and their families were spared, but they were also periodically subject to deportation. Only 35,000 were allowed to remain in the ghetto at one time.
[Regarding the Judenrat, as the Jewish Virtual Library explains:
“As far back as 1933, Nazi policy makers had discussed establishing Jewish-led institutions to carry out anti-Jewish policies. . . . These councils of Jewish elders, (Judenrat; plural: Judenräte), were responsible for organizing the orderly deportation to the death camps, for detailing the number and occupations of the Jews in the ghettos, for distributing food and medical supplies, and for communicating the orders of the ghetto Nazi masters. . . . As ghetto life settled into a ‘routine,’ the Judenrat took on the functions of local government, providing police and fire protection, postal services, sanitation, transportation, food and fuel distribution, and housing, for example.”]
A second wave of deportations to Treblinka began on January 18, 1943, during which many factory workers and hospital personnel were taken. Unexpected Jewish armed resistance, however, forced the Nazis to retreat from the ghetto after four days of deportations.
Jews who were concentrated in the Warsaw Ghetto knew that their last remnants were slated for evacuation and death on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1943. Thus, on April 19, 1943, some 750 Jews – ragged, starving and barely armed – began firing at Hitler’s soldiers with smuggled guns, Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. On the fifth day of battle, they issued a proclamation to the Polish population outside the ghetto walls:
“Let it be known that every threshold in the ghetto has been and will continue to be a fortress, that we may all perish in this struggle, but we will not surrender.”
They did not inflict more than a few hundred German casualties, but diverted over 2,000 German troops for some six weeks, and inspired many other Jews to acts of resistance.
On May 8, 1943, the Germans discovered their main command post, located at Miła 18 Street. (From thence comes the name of Leon Uris’s novel about the uprising, Mila 18.) Most of the leadership and dozens of remaining fighters were killed, while others committed mass suicide by ingesting cyanide. The suppression of the uprising officially ended on May 16, 1943. Approximately 13,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto during the uprising. Of the remaining 50,000 residents, most were captured and shipped to concentration and extermination camps, in particular to Treblinka.
Hirsh Glick (1920-1944), a poet and partisan in the Vilna Ghetto, wrote the Partisan Hymn when he heard about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It became the battle hymn of the underground Jewish resistance movement. It was written in Yiddish, and is widely known by its Yiddish title, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol!” An English translation is shown below.
Never say that you are going your last way,
Though lead-filled skies above blot out the blue of day.
The hour for which we long will certainly appear.
The earth shall thunder ‘neath our tread that we are here!
From lands of green palm trees to lands all white with snow,
We are coming with our pain and with our woe,
And where’er a spurt of our blood did drop,
Our courage will again sprout from that spot.
For us the morning sun will radiate the day,
And the enemy and past will fade away,
But should the dawn delay or sunrise wait too long.
Then let all future generations sing this song.
This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
This is no song of free birds flying overhead,
But a people amid crumbling walls did stand,
They stood and sang this song with rifles held in hand.
(Translated by Elliot Palevsky)
You can see additional rare photos of Warsaw Ghetto life here.