Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: 81 Years of Remembrance

April 19, 2024 by No Comments

On Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland ignited World War II. France and the United Kingdom, both having defensive pacts with Poland, declared war on Germany in response. As Germany attacked from the west, the Soviet Union invaded from the east and, under the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty, annexed and divided Poland. The Nazis then targeted Poland’s immense Jewish population, herding them into city ghettos before sending them to the Majdanek and Treblinka extermination camps. During the Grossaktion Warsaw in the summer of 1942, 250,000 Jews were transported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. Reaction to this led to the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union beginning to coordinate resistance operations, which initiated the biggest Jewish military uprising of the war. As the Nazis’ concentration camp deportation plan commenced at the end of 1942, the Jewish resistance initially determined to abstain from military action, since they suspected the Jewish population would be relocated to labor camps. But as awareness of the Nazi plan for Jewish extermination expanded, so did support for armed resistance. On Jan. 18, 1943, the first limited armed conflict occurred in the Warsaw Ghetto, where lightly armed Jewish families endured severe losses, but inflicted dozens of casualties on Nazi soldiers. Then, on Passover eve, on April 19, German police and SS forces entered the Warsaw Ghetto with the intention of completing the deportation plan. They soon faced fierce resistance from Molotov cocktails and grenades. Recognizing the Nazis’ response would be severe and total, the Jews opted to fight to the end — refusing to give the Nazis control over when and where they would die, and in a deliberate effort to alert the wider world of their plight in the face of the alarming inaction towards the heinous Nazi atrocities. SS Brigadefuhrer Jurgen Stroop, commanding officer in Warsaw, issued the Jewish defenders an ultimatum, giving them an opportunity to surrender. The ultimatum was rejected, causing Stroop to resort to burning the Jewish resistance out, using flamethrowers and fire bottles. The ensuing “Bunker Wars” endured for a month, as the courageous Jewish defenders hindered German advances by engaging in close-quarters urban warfare. Some driven from above ground, many defenders took refuge below in bunkers and sewers. Weeks of combat led to the Jewish Military Union losing all its commanders, driving its remaining fighters to flee through the Muranowski tunnel to the Michalin forest on April 29 , marking the effective end of the main engagement. Sporadic resistance, however, held out until early June. An estimated 13,000 Jews perished during the uprising, while the remainder were almost all deported to the Majdanek and Treblinka concentration camps. Nearly all the buildings in the Warsaw Ghetto were demolished, with Stroop later reporting in May 1943 that the Warsaw Synagogue had been bombed. Once the destroyed buildings were cleared, the Nazis built the Warsaw concentration camp complex in their place. Nevertheless, Stroop and other Nazis responsible for the antisemitic brutality in Poland faced consequences. Most were either killed in combat or captured by Allied forces and faced execution or extended imprisonment. After his capture in Germany by American troops, Stroop was found guilty of war crimes and hanged in Poland in 1952. Even though the Jewish resistance faced an overwhelming disparity against the far larger and better equipped German forces, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising remains a significant event in Jewish history. It is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, having inspired other resistance and partisan forces throughout Poland and beyond. Simcha Rotem, a courier in the Warsaw resistance, died in 2018 as the last remaining survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, aged 94.