Shortly after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, German authorities began to concentrate Poland’s population of over three million Jews into several extremely crowded ghettos located in the larger Polish cities. The largest of these, the Warsaw Ghetto, confined over 300,000 people into a densely packed area of central Warsaw that was little more than 1 square mile. Many of the people had no housing at all and those that did were crowded in at about nine people per room. In November 1940 the Ghetto was sealed off with barbed wire, brick walls and armed guards – anyone caught leaving would be shot on sight. Even before mass deportations from the Ghetto to Treblinka extermination camp began, Nazis controlled the amount of food that was brought into the Ghetto so disease (particularly typhus) and starvation were rampant, killing thousands each month.
Mass deportations to Treblinka first began in July 1942 under the secretive Grossaktion Warschau operation. Under the plans German SS major Hermann Höfle, the Nazi’s ‘Resettlement Commissioner’, informed the Ghetto Jewish Council’s leader, Adam Czerniaków, that he would require 7,000 Jews a day for ‘resettlement to the East’ – the people of the Ghetto were told that they were being transported to work camps, but in reality they were being ‘resettled’ to Treblinka extermination camp. Once he became aware of the true goal of the ‘resettlement’ plan, Czerniaków committed suicide.
At first, members of the Jewish resistance movement decided not to challenge the SS directives, believing that the Jews were being sent to labour camps. However, during the Grossaktion, Jews began being terrorised via daily round-ups where they were marched through the ghetto and assembled at the Umschlagplatz station for this so-called ‘resettlement’. It soon became apparent that they were actually being sent to their deaths aboard overcrowded Holocaust trains. Once the Ghetto inhabitants became aware that the deportations were part of an extermination process, many of the remaining Jews decided to revolt. In those first two months some 265,000 Jews were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka and more than 20,000 others were sent to forced labour camps or died during the deportation process.
The first armed resistance in the Ghetto occurred in January 1943. Small groups of survivors had started to form underground self-defence units such as the left wing ŻOB (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa: Jewish Combat Organisation) and right wing ŻZW (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy: Jewish Military Union). On 9 January 1943 chief of the SS Heinrich Himmler visited the Warsaw Ghetto and ordered the deportation of another 8,000 Jews. The January deportations caught the Jews by surprise, but whilst Jewish families hid in bunkers, fighters of the ŻZW joined by elements of the ŻOB had been making preparations to resist since the autumn. On 18 January 1943 the Nazis entered the Ghetto to begin a second wave of deportation but were ambushed by a ŻOB unit. Fighting lasted several days before the Germans withdrew. Although both the ŻOB and ŻZW suffered heavy losses, the deportation was halted within a few days and suspended for the next few months.
The two resistance organisations, ŻOB and ŻZW took control of the Ghetto, building fighting posts, executing a number of Nazi collaborators and even establishing a prison to hold traitors. Hundreds of people in the Ghetto prepared themselves to fight, arming themselves (albeit sparsely) with handguns, gasoline bottles and the few other weapons that had been smuggled into the Ghetto by resistance fighters.
On 19 April 1943, on the eve of Passover, Himmler sent in SS forces and their collaborators with tanks and heavy artillery to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto. Himmler launched the attack as a special operation in honour of Hitler’s birthday on April 20. As they went in the Germans were ambushed by Jewish insurgents firing pistols, handguns and one machine gun and tossing hand grenades and Molotov cocktails from alleyways, windows and sewers. Despite being outnumbered, hundreds of resistance fighters armed with a small cache of weapons managed to fight the Germans for almost a month. The Germans had planned to liquidate the ghetto within three days.
When the German’s ultimatum to surrender was rejected by the resistance fighters, the forces resorted to systemically burning houses in the Ghetto block by block. By 16 May the Ghetto was firmly back under Nazi control and one that day, the Germans blew up Warsaw’s Great Synagogue in a symbolic act. It is estimated that up to 13,000 Jews died during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; around half of them were burned alive, suffocated or died from smoke inhalation. Of the remaining 50,000 residents, most were captured and shipped to concentration and extermination camps. It is not known how many German casualties there were but it is thought to have been less than 300.