In 1943 the blue and white banner of the ZZW, the Jewish Resistance group born in the Warsaw ghetto, flew next to the Polish flag over a square overlooking the city. There for the entire populace of Warsaw to see at the distaste of the SS and Nazi police commanders. If there is one event throughout modern Jewish history that signifies the drive of the Jewish people it is without a doubt the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, where Jews fought against overwhelming odds for their freedom, and their lives. For their right to live, a right which was taken away from them for one reason- the fact that they were Jews. Their reaction was an act of brave defiance against certain defeat. Why you ask? The short answer is dignity.The harrowing circumstances that befell the Jews that were forcibly placed in the small confines of the Warsaw ghetto were wholly unthinkable. About 400,000 people were crammed inside an area of 3.4 km2 in horrendous conditions. The SS had amassed a great deal of the Jews in this small ghetto for the purpose of later sending them off to concentration camps, something which became far more obvious as the the 1942 Final Solution came into effect. In fact, in 1942, over the course of a few months more than 240 thousands Jews were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp where they met their end. Despite the extreme cramped conditions, poverty, lack of water, electricity, proper health care, people were also living on diets of 184 calories a day as decided by the Nazi authorities. As a result, a black market became the only viable choice for people to get hold of food and other necessities.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Photo is in the Public Domain.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Photo is in the Public Domain.
In 1940, after the Wehrmacht invaded Poland and Warsaw was taken, the SS under the guidance of Governor General Hans Frank set up the ghetto which was immediately filled with the Jewish population of Warsaw which was around 30% of the entire city. Throughout the years, as the Nazi sped up the process of murder across Europe, more Jews, Romani, and other political prisoners were placed in the ghetto which further exacerbated the issue of space.The uprising itself was the symptom of not only years of drudgery, but also the German demand that the entire ghetto be liquidated in a series of transports. They were being told that the transports were reallocating people in different areas where there would be more living space, however everyone knew the dreadful truth. Regardless of the tight grip that the Nazis had over the enclosed ghetto, information still traveled profusely from the outside world through the help of Polish resistance agents.
The first instance of violent protest first occurred in January of 1943, however it was crushed immediately. As more and more Jews joined the ranks of the ZOB and ZZW, they eventually joined forces together realizing that they would have more numbers in strength. In the months leading to April, they tried to get hold of as many weapons and supplies they could with the help of the Polish Resistance outside of the ghetto. Finally the Jewish Military Union and the Jewish Fighting Organization were ready as they would ever be to fight the Germans.On the eve of Passover of 1943, the Germans entered the ghetto with the sole purpose of gathering as many people and deporting them to concentration camps. However as they walked through the empty streets of the ghetto, as everyone was hiding, they were attacked by the Jewish resistance from windows. They used machine guns, pistols, and makeshift molotov cocktails until they forced the army and SS to retreat outside the gates of the ghetto.The next day Jurgen Stroop, an ardent Nazi, was given command of the situation and he led a sizable German force back into the ghetto, from where he ordered that the resistance fighters be burned out of each building through the use of flamethrowers. While thousands of non-fighters were burned, the Jewish resistance fought on bravely despite the harrowing circumstances. During the uprising, the Polish resistance also engaged the Germans in different parts outside of the Ghetto in hopes of alleviating the pressure on the ZOB and ZZW, however the German forces were too overwhelming.As the Germans continued to massacre all the people they came across inside of the ghetto, the Jewish resistance fighters were squandered by the fires. Some fled through the sewerage system with hundreds of civilians to a nearby forest. The main leadership of the ZOB fortified themselves in a building and continued to fight until a few dozen remained. Just before the Germans were about to storm the building, many took poison rather than be captured or killed by the Nazis. Amid them, Mordechai Anielewicz prefered to die by his own hand than the SS. Up until that point the Jewish resistance fought for nearly a month.The result of the Uprising was the death of 13.000 Jews, and later the deportation of 57.000 to concentration camps. Stroop, out of spite, completely demolished the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, with testimonies saying that he was the one that pushed the detonator. The approximate German losses were 17 killed, and about 98 wounded. Looking at these figures, it becomes clear that the Jewish resistance was ill equipped, and went against a force that had a vast amount of resources. However, it is also clear throughout historiography that the leadership as well as all the fighters knew that their uprising would lead to their deaths, yet if they simply just yielded to the German demands, trains would have taken them to their certain deaths at Auschwitz or Treblinka. From our point of view it is wholly impossible to think in such terms, as we had never been put in such a situation, and for that we are lucky.Izhak Katznelson, one of the leaders of the uprising, said:
“Through if be to die, we will fight...
We will fight not for ourselves but for future generations..
Although we will not survive to see it,
our murderers will pay for their crimes after we are gone. And our deeds will live forever.”The question “Why?” is something that is often asked when studying the Shoah, however such a question has no meaning in the dread of the entire event. It is wholly meaningless. I equate it to the redundancy of “What if” that us historians usually fall into. There is no way that we can possibly understand why such an egregious event could take place, or why a human being could do such a thing to another? There is simply no answer to such questions. However, the one thing that we cannot forget in the context of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is that the men and women who died, did so not for their own salvation, but for the glory and dignity of the Jewish people. Milad Doroudiam a native of Jassy Romania, is a writer, historian, and the senior editor of The Art of Polemics magazine. He is currently working on a book on The Jassy Pogrom of 1941.