April 19 marks a very significant anniversary in Jewish history. It was on that date in 1943 that the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto commenced. A small band of Jewish men, women, and boys fought a brave, but hopeless, life or death battle against a sizable Nazi force. They fought to the death rather than submit.
In 1943 Warsaw, the capital of Poland, had a total population of about 1.3 million, of which approximately 375,000 were Jews. Nazi persecution of Warsaw’s Jews began in September 1939 after Poland surrendered, mere weeks after the September 1 invasion. (For various reasons, Poland did not put up much of a fight.) At first, such persecution consisted of the usual, such as harassment, beatings, economic sanctions and being forced to wear armbands for identification. However, in October the Nazis went one step further. They established a ghetto, and by November 16 virtually all Jews in the city plus some refugees from surrounding areas had been confined to it. On that date, the Nazis sealed off the ghetto from the outside world with ten foot walls. It was intended to be a prison from which there was no escape. Any Jew found outside the walls was shot on sight. At one point, the total population of the ghetto reached 450,000.
In addition to the daily threat of violence and random shootings with little or no provocation the living conditions in the ghetto were deplorable.
1. It was extremely overcrowded. Even though it housed 1/3 of the city’s population it encompassed only 2.4% of its area. In many cases, as many as six or seven persons would be crowded into a single room
2. Finding enough food to eat was a constant challenge. Rations provided by the Nazis were below starvation level – perhaps as little as a single bowl of soup per person per day. Estimated calories provided were under 200 per day compared to 700 or so consumed by gentile Poles and 2,600 by the average German. Hundreds died every day from starvation. Obviously, people had to supplement those rations by smuggling in food, which they did quite ingeniously.
3. People, often children as young as four years old, would sneak in and out of the ghetto to buy or steal food and other necessities. These people would make several “food runs” each day. Children would often transport back the equivalent of their body weight or more in food.
4. Disease was rampant, particularly typhus. Estimates vary, but as many as 100,000 persons may have died from disease and starvation alone.
Jews kept up their spirits by trying to retain as many aspects of normalcy in their lives as possible. For example:
- They established schools for both secular and religious instruction.
- They enjoyed cultural activities, such as libraries, the theatre, and a symphony orchestra.
- They maintained hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens and refugee centers.
All of these activities were forbidden, but they managed to hide them from the Nazis. Perhaps, more importantly, the Jews had managed to chronicle events and hide them in the form of photographs, writings and films, which were preserved in make-shift time capsules, and to smuggle information to the outside world. This was crucial in order to refute Nazi propaganda claims.
On July 22, 1942 the Nazis began transporting Jews to “work camps” at the rate of 6,000 per day. They called it “resettlement,” but before long the Jews figured out that “resettlement” meant “extermination.”
By January 1943, only 60,000 Jews remained in the ghetto. On January 18, 1943 the remaining Jews began to fight. This surprised the Nazis, who were used to docile compliance. But, the Jews had been smuggling in weapons and stockpiling them under the Nazis’ noses for months, and they gave a good account of themselves.
The ultimate battle commenced on April 19, 1943, Passover Eve. By then, the remaining resistance consisted of only 500-600 men, boys and women. Initially, they managed to hold off a force of several thousand Nazis, but the Nazis eventually prevailed by systematically burning and blowing up the ghetto block by block. The battle culminated on May 16 when the Nazis blew up the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. Polish sources estimated German casualties for the battle at 300 killed and 1,000 wounded.
The bravery and determination of the Jews is illustrated by this excerpt from the report filed by the Nazi Commandant to the German High Command: “The Jews stayed in the burning buildings until because of the fear of being burned alive they jumped down from the upper stories…. With their bones broken, they still tried to crawl across the street into buildings, which had not yet been set on fire… Despite the danger of being burned alive the Jews and bandits often preferred to return to the flames rather than risk being caught by us.”
The Nazis virtually destroyed the entire ghetto, except for a few streets, buildings and wall fragments. The Nozyk Synagogue survived the war. The Germans used it as a horse stable. It has been restored, and today, it is an active synagogue. Two Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Monuments have been built near where the Germans entered the ghetto on April 19, 1943. They were unveiled in 1946 and 1948, respectively. In 2008 and 2010 Warsaw Ghetto boundary markers were built along where the ghetto gates had stood. Finally, there is a small monument at Mila 18 to commemorate the address of the headquarters of the Jewish underground.
For those of you who want to learn more about the Warsaw Ghetto and the final, decisive battle I would suggest reading “Mila 18” by Leon Uris. “Mila 18” was a best seller published in 1965. It chronicles this story in meticulous and fascinating detail. It is a sad story, but, as a Jew, it will make you proud.