On 19th April 1943 General Stroop
ordered his SS
troops into the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw
. By now, knowing their fate, some 60,000 Jewish
people had refused to obey the order to leave and were resisting forcible deportation
. The German High Command
decided to send their troops in to eliminate them.
In three’s and four’s through still night streets the soldiers gathered, hoping not to alert the inhabitants, to catch them by surprise. By dawn they had assembled in their platoons and companies and were ready, tanks and armoured vehicles entered the Ghetto, artillery was located just outside the walls of the Jewish area.
Confident of minimal resistance from an unarmed and starving people, the SS began their high stepping triumphant march. They were ambushed at the corner of Mila and Zamenhofa Street. Home made petrol bombs and hand grenades rained down upon them from battle groups carefully organised and barricaded at the four corners of the street. Careful, accurate, pistol shots found their targets – ammunition was precious. Even more rare, the sound of rifle fire, methodical and unhurried. Unexpectedly and heroically, the Ghetto was fighting back.
The Germans tried to pull back, only to find their movements had been closely monitored and the escape routes cut off. Shameful though it was for the SS, they called on the aid of the tanks. Only then did they appreciate the organisation behind the rising. The first tank in the convoy was hit by incendiary devices and burnt out, the others halted. The fate of the SS was sealed. Panicked they hid in doorways and were hunted down. Jewish civilians had annihilated the ‘glorious’ SS.
That day all over the Ghetto fierce resistance prevented the German army from deporting the people. A second tank was burnt out and two machine guns were captured. Long lines of German wounded formed for treatment at the military hospital. By 2pm they withdrew from the Ghetto entirely, defeated.
It took the Germans a month to capture the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, and they only succeeded by utterly destroying it, burning the entire area and bombarding it with artillery. There were very few Jewish survivors – who had escaped the Ghetto through sewers or had somehow lived on in cellars through the war and the hunting dogs and listening devices. But their stand transformed the political situation. The German occupiers no longer seemed invincible. The Ghetto rising inspired further armed resistance by Jewish communities faced with annihilation, three month later at Treblinka, and soon after at Sobibor, uprisings succeed in overcoming the guards and hundreds of people escaping.
The rising also electrified the wider Polish population, removing the aura of invincibility from the German authorities. A period of strikes and partisan warfare began to undermine their rule.
It also demolished the myth that Jewish people passively accepted their extermination.
The organisation behind the rising was the Jewish Resistance Organisation (ZOB), a united front between the main Zionist organisations, the Communist Party and the Bund – a radical socialist party.
It had taken a long, dangerous, and inspiring political struggle to create an organisation capable of mounting last-ditch resistance to the fascists.
The German occupation of Poland had led to the rounding up of the Jewish population from all over the local area and their confinement to the Ghetto. Movement in and out was restricted to essential workers – who were severely exploited – and all Jewish people were required to wear armbands with the Star of David.
300,000 people were living in the Ghetto, rich and poor. Lively cafe life took place in streets filled with paupers. But slowly the impoverishment of the whole community began. Insufficient food was allowed into the Ghetto to feed the population; only those with black market resources could avoid hunger. Arbitrary shootings cowed the population and an unwritten law of ‘common responsibility’ meant that where there was resistance to German rule, it was deeply unpopular. 53 male inhabitants of one street were summarily shot for the beating up of a policeman and the mood of the Ghetto was one of trying not to antagonise the authorities.
But then the death camps began their industrial scale executions.
The police had a quota of 6,000 Jewish people to be sent to Treblinka a day. At first they were overwhelmed with volunteers. The offer of bread and marmalade, in order to relocate people to factories in the east lured tens of thousands to their unsuspecting deaths. After all, what sense did it make for the German occupiers to want to kill everyone because of certain imagined physical differences?
Worse still, Jewish representatives themselves were implementing the fascist policy. The Jewish Council signed the poster that was placed all around the Ghetto explaining the relocations. Jewish police were put in charge of rounding people up.
The Bund, being more alert to the nature of fascism than the public, were quick to urge resistance. On their secret printing press they rushed out posters and leaflets urging people to resist, ‘with their bare hands’ if necessary. They also attempted to get arms through the Polish underground, but those organisations were only beginning to equip themselves and guns proved almost impossible to obtain.
On the second day of the deportations the President of the Jewish Council, Adam Czerniakow committed suicide. But this act did nothing to clarify the meaning of the deportations.
The Bund smuggled Zalmen Frydrych out of the Ghetto and onto a train driven by a sympathetic worker. He was shown the track to Treblinka, from which no one returned. He met two escapees from the camp. The Bund rushed out a leaflet with this eyewitness testimony. But still the majority turned a blind eye, they did not want to believe it.
By mid September 1942 only 120,000 people remained in the Ghetto, the Bund had seen its carefully built underground organisation collapse as a result. Everything had to be started again, and still the majority did not understand what was happening to them. A massive round-up assigned papers to some 20,000 essential workers, the rest were scheduled for deportation and if they hid, it was the Jewish police who hunted them down and shot them.
Because Zionism argues that Jewish people should separate themselves from gentile society some of their prominent leaders had accommodated themselves to the rise of fascism and thought they could utilise the anti-Semitism of the fascists to promote the idea of the need for a Jewish state. Only at the very last did the Zionist organisations that remained in the Ghetto gave up hope of working with the authorities and together with the Communist Party and the Bund form an organisation for bitter resistance.
ZOB gained instant popularity with the population for executing brutal factory foremen and leaders of the Jewish police. Suddenly there was a new mood in the Ghetto. The resistance had begun, and those who remained shed the feeling of helplessness that had dominated their lives.
As guns began to be smuggled in, battles were staged to prevent deportations. The early battles were very costly in personnel for ZOB who lost more than half of their fighters. But now the population were behind them and they were effectively the government of the area. The authorities could no longer fill their quotas and deportations slowed up dramatically. Desperate Jewish Police were given personal goals of 7 arrests a day but could only succeed in getting hold of the infirm. Even then ZOB actions could sometimes free prisoners before they left the Ghetto area.
Stories of Jewish resistance started to spread in Warsaw and beyond, creating great excitement among anti-fascists, more arms found their way into the Ghetto including 50 pistols and 55 hand grenades. In this way, under constant threat of execution from the soldiers and police raids, ZOB prepared itself for what it knew was coming, a final onslaught by the German army.
When the rising did come, it was one of the most extraordinarily brave acts of a doomed people, yet a people who were determined to fight for whatever revenge they could and a people who had their eyes on the future that their action would help create. In the middle of the fighting ZOB smuggled the following manifesto out of the Ghetto to the Polish people.
Poles, citizens, soldiers of Freedom! Through the din of German canons, 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 the brutal occupation 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, be we shall never surrender! We, as well as you, are burning with desire to punish the enemy for all his crimes, with a desire for vengeance. It is a fight for our freedom, as well as yours; for our human dignity and national honour as well as yours! We shall avenge the gory deeds of Oswiecim, Treblinka, Belzec and Majdanek!
Jewish Armed Resistance Organisation.