On This Day: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Begins

Late because it’s been a very busy day today.

On the 1st of September of 1939 the German Army invaded Poland, providing the traditional starting point of World War II. (Note, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria was earlier but an argument can be made that this is what made it a “world” war.  It wasn’t just the Germans, of course, the Soviet Union invaded the eastern parts of Poland sixteen days later.  By October 6, the conquest of Poland was complete with Germany and the Soviet Union dividing it up between them.

Once in control of Poland, the German invaders began rounding up Jews and concentrating them into crowded ghettos.  The largest of these was the Warsaw Ghetto, with between three and four hundred thousand Jews packed into an area of just over 1 1/4 square miles (about 3.3 square kilometers).  Over the course of the next few years thousands of these Jews died from disease and starvation–before the deportations of these Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp had even begun.

In late July of 1942 the “Resettlement Commissioner” SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle presented a demand to the Jewish leadership council requiring 7000 Jews a day to be “relocated to the East.”  Over the course of the next two months, between 254 and 300 thousand Jews were taken to Treblinka and slaughtered. (When he realized what had happened, the head of the Jewish leadership council committed suicide.) Indeed, at first, many of the Jewish Resistance movement at first decided not to fight, believing that the Jews were being taken to labor camps.  While this was bad enough they hoped that by not presenting active resistance they could avoid a worse fate.

They were so very wrong.

On January 18, 1943 a the Germans began a second wave of deportations.  This time, members of the Żydowski Związek Wojskowy (ŻZW, Polish for Jewish Military Union) and some from the The Jewish Combat Organization (Polish: Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB; Yiddish: ייִדישע קאַמף אָרגאַניזאַציע‎ Yidishe Kamf Organizatsie ; often translated to English as the Jewish Fighting Organization) resisted, engaging the Germans in direct combat.  The resistance fighters, with only a handful of arms among them, only inflicted minor losses on the Germans and took heavy losses of their own.  Still, this was enough to get the Germans to halt this round of “deportations” after only a few days, taking five thousand of the eight thousand they had planned to deport in that time.  In truth, the Jewish resistance did not expect to have much effect toward saving themselves.  The forces arrayed against them were too overpowering.  Instead, they fought for the honor of the Jewish people and a protest against the silence of the world.

There the situation remained for a brief time.  The ZZW and ZOB used the time to build fighting positions and to clear their own ranks with the execution of Nazi collaborators including officers of the “Jewish Ghetto Police” and members of the fake resistance organization Żagiew (German sponsored and controlled).

On April 19, German forces moved into the ghetto, intending to clear it within three days.  However they were ambushed by Jewish insurgents armed with Molotov cocktails and grenades.  The Germans suffered 59 casualties and their advance bogged down.  Given their almost complete lack of equipment and the relative strength of the German forces facing them, the insurgents held for a surprising time.  Ten days after attack began, on April 29, having lost all its commanders, the remaining fighters of the ZZW escaped via tunnel and relocated to the Michalin forest.  That marked the end of organized resistance.

But the fight was not entirely over.  Isolated individuals and small groups continued to resist using smoke bombs and the occasional concealed handgun (often a concealed weapon fired after the Jewish insurgent had pretended to surrender).  It was not until May 16 that the uprising was declared officially over and even then sporadic resistance continued until the last skirmish took place on June 5.

In the end, more than 13,000 Jews were killed in the uprising, with more than 56,000 “deported” to extermination camps.  The Germans lost a “mere” 17 confirmed dead and 93 wounded (German figures) although this does not count Nazi collaborators executed.  With such a one-sided result, one might ask what was the point?  Well, the point was that they were dead anyway.  And while some–the remaining fighters of the ZZW listed above–escaped the Ghetto, whether more or fewer would have escaped without the uprising can never be known.  But with the Nazis bent on extermination of the Jewish people, the choice they faced was dead in the uprising or dead in the camps.  And the German casualties, however few, were more than if they had not fought.

And, frankly, for some people it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees, and better by far than to die on your knees.

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