In January 1943 there were only 60,000 Jews left in the Warsaw
They were what remained of the approximately 440,000 Jews who had
been confined there. One-fifth had died of disease and starvation during the
past two years, and the previous summer some 265,000 had been deported to the
Treblinka extermination camp, and over 30,000 to other camps.
start of the great deportation, the head of the Jewish Council, Adam Czerniakow,
had committed suicide rather than comply with German demands to provide census
information about the ghetto, realizing the Germans would use it for the coming
Aktion. His death, however, did nothing to stop the trains from rolling out of
With Czerniakow dead, in the wake of the deportations a new de
facto leadership emerged in the ghetto – the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB),
headed by Mordecai Anielewicz. The ZOB was a coalition primarily of various
Zionist youth movements and the Jewish socialist Bund.
Alongside it there
was a smaller armed underground group, the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) which
represented the Revisionist Zionists.
ON MONDAY, January 18, 1943, 70
years ago, German forces entered the ghetto to round up Jews for
They planned to take about 8,000 people, but the ghetto
population believed the final destruction of the ghetto was at hand. To the
great surprise of the German forces, they met armed resistance.
of Hashomer Hatsair members, led by Anielewicz and armed with pistols they had
received from the Polish Home Army, intercepted a column of Jews being led by a
German force and fired upon the solders. In a nose-to-nose battle, most of the
underground contingent was killed, but Anielewicz managed to overpower the
soldier with whom he was struggling and he escaped unharmed.
The news of
the clash spread quickly to other cells of the underground and they too began to
resist. Yitzhak Zuckerman, with a party from the Dror Youth Movement, lay in
wait for the German force on Zamenhof Street, and when they approached fired a
volley at them.
During four days the Germans tried to round up Jews and
were met by armed resistance. The ghetto inhabitants went through a swift
With the news of the first incident of fighting they stopped
responding to the Germans’ calls that they gather in the Umschlagplatz. They
began devising hiding places, and the Germans had to enter many buildings and
ruthlessly pull out Jews. Many were killed in their homes when they refused to
On the fourth day, having only managed to seize between 5,000
to 6,000 Jews, the Germans withdrew from the ghetto. The remaining inhabitants
believed that the armed resistance, combined with the difficulties in finding
Jews in hiding, had led to the end of the Aktion. As a result, over the next
months the armed under-grounds sought to strengthen themselves and the vast
majority of ghetto residents zealously built more and better bunkers in which to
All of this would be put to the test on April 19, 1943, when the
Germans reentered the ghetto, this time to liquidate it completely.
they met armed resistance. The fighting would continue for three weeks before
the ghetto was razed, and it would come to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto
THE FOUR days of Jewish armed resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto
in January 1943 is much less known than the April uprising, but its significance
was great at the time and remains consequential.
At the time, it showed
the Jews of Warsaw that offering resistance to the German machinery of murder
was possible, even if most realized that fighting had little or no chance to
Nonetheless, this first uprising provided a glimmer of
hope, and was an enormous source of pride – tremendously important to people who
had been profoundly traumatized by preceding events and had a good idea what was
in the offing for them.
Ultimately only a small percentage of Jews
survived the Warsaw Ghetto and deportations to the Nazi camp system. We would be
hard pressed to say they survived directly because of the armed resistance in
the ghetto, but unquestionably, that resistance was crucial in helping the few
survivors maintain their pride, dignity and motivation to survive, and
ultimately rebuild their shattered lives.
The January 1943 Warsaw Ghetto
Uprising teaches us a great deal about the human spirit, about resilience and
about courage. It demonstrates that the very act of resistance against
oppression can inspire further resistance.
In taking up arms against
those who considered them less than human, the men and women in the Warsaw
Ghetto on January 18, 1943, issued a resounding clarion call asserting their
It is this, above all, that we must remember and hold
The writer is the director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of
Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, Vallentine Mitchell, 2005 and
Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front, soon
to be published by Yad Vashem and University of Nebraska Press.