Karen Sutton
Karen Sutton

Fighting Back is a Jewish Thing: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow 

Recalling The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 19-May 16, 1943

The power of recollection can be a valuable tool in helping us find the strength and courage we need to face today’s challenges so that we are able to reach a place of hope and inspiration. However, if we as Jews revisit our own particular past, we will no doubt be confronted with one recurring role on the historic stage. The number of times Jews were typecast into the role of “Starker’s fun Eisen,” as “strong as iron,” is indeed striking. That said, the “strong Jew” is not the image popularly portrayed by our anti-Semitic enemies. Rather it is the portrait of the “Eternal Jew” who is inwardly cunning and manipulative but outwardly weak and cowardly.  Time after time, Jews have demonstrated enormous strength in face of overwhelming odds. There is no better example than the heroism displayed by Jews during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

On January 9, 1943, Heinrich Himmler paid a quiet visit to the Warsaw Ghetto. Two days later, he decided, the ghetto must be liquidated.  For three years, the 10-foot-high walls surrounded a 3.5 square mile sector of the city which sealed hundreds of thousands of Jews into a small sector of the city, The Warsaw Ghetto. On November 15, 1940,  Waffen SS along with dozens of Polish and Lithuanian volunteers drove the Jews, religious and secular, from their homes in surrounding parts of Warsaw into their new roach and rat-infested accommodations —with a nine person per room occupancy. Months later, the ghetto population swelled to over 450,000 as more and more Jews were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto.  Within that first year, tens of thousands, particularly the old, infirm, and children began dying of disease and starvation. Still, the process was not quick enough for Heinrich Himmler

That solution, which became known as The Final Solution, was conceived on January 20, 1942 at at a conference in Wannsee, a pleasant suburb of Berlin  There, Hitler, Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich came up with an innovative new method of mass-murder—gas chambers filled with Gift Gas or Zyklon B to murder Jews efficiently and quickly. The resolution was voted on and passed just before dessert was served.  Within 18 months, the Nazis decided to liquidate all the ghettoes and deport more than two million Jews from ghettos to death camps.

The Jews of Warsaw and other ghettoes were already struggling to survive inhumane conditions during the winter of ’42. However, even then Jews fought back. In ghettoes, Jews collectively attempted to establish as normal a life as possible through communal hospitals, schools, prayer minyans, and even theater, musical and literary circles. The Jewish police and administrators, though always subservient to the Germans, established a semblance of home rule. However, it was the Jewish police and administrators (Judenrat) in the Warsaw ghetto that carried out the German order to round up 300,000 men, women and children and pack them in cattle cars bound for Treblinka. Their notion that it was better to sacrifice the few to save the many, was gravely misguided and is certainly not permitted in Jewish law. Yet, the decision made by the desperate Jewish leadership under total Nazi control needs to be seen in the light of ”choiceless choices.”

By late 1942, the mass-murder business moved into large scale operation as “resettlement trains to the east” routinely railed Jews from all parts of Nazi-occupied Europe to the six Death Camps in Poland. Regarding the deportees from the Warsaw Ghetto, “the east” meant a 100-mile train ride, cattle-car class to Treblinka Death Camp. The gas chambers there were churning at full capacity thanks to the “Commandant of the Year” award winner, Franz Stahl.

Horrendous news of the death camps now circulated throughout the ghetto. By December, many Warsaw Ghetto inmates prepared shelters to resist.  Some took refuge, but some 750 civilian fighters (men and women) armed with 17 rifles, a handful of pistols and Molotov cocktails, fought until death.

On January 18th, 1943, the Nazis encroached the ghetto with the mission of deporting 8,000 Jews that day. Although the Jews knew that the day was coming, when it did, it turned out to be quite a surprise to all. Indeed, the day began normally with workers reporting to their jobs. When it became apparent that this was indeed a round-up, an Aktion, Jews fled to their hiding placesAlthough many were caught and shot dead in the streets, ghetto residents offered a fierce armed resistance. A shot rang out and an SS officer staggered to the pavement. As depicted in John Hersey’s drama The Wall, the officer cried out to his fellow Stormtroopers in astonishment, “The Jews are fighting back.” According to eyewitness testimony, “Jews are killing Germans!”  That was merely a prelude. The Germans refused to pursue Jews into their hide-outs and refrained from doing so for three months.

When over 2,000 well-armed, well trained German soldiers did come back to the ghetto, on April 19, 1943, they were equipped with tanks and flame throwers.  Still, the Germans were forced to withdraw from the ghetto. The next day they returned with even more firepower.  After several days without quashing the uprising, SS General Jurgen Stroop ordered that the ghetto be burned to the ground. He noted “the resistance by Jews and Bandits could be broken only by relentlessly using all force and energy by day and night.” The daily historical account, that Stroop himself penned, demonstrates to us that each and every day makes a difference. Jews fought each day, knowing full well, that they had not even the slightest of chance of victory.  Yet, the ghetto resistance fighters made a difference. They inspired further uprisings in ghettoes and camps. And now, for us, it teaches us that our actions in the spirit of fighting against evil make a difference, no matter how small or inconsequential.

The Jews miraculously held out for 27 days. On May 8, the bunker of the ZOB (resistance organization) was captured and their leader Mordecai Anielewicz was killed in the fighting. However, a number of leaders escaped through the sewers. On May 16, the struggle ended in the only way it could, given the enormous weight of the Nazi juggernaut. Stroop blew up the Great Synagogue as a symbol of victory and of the fact that “The Jewish quarter in Warsaw no longer exists.”  (You can read his lengthy day-to day report in English online.)

The Jewish fighters knew then that “fighting back” meant that death was inevitable.  They were right. Yet, the remnant of the ghetto proved that Nazi power was not invincible. And now, the legacy is not in their deaths but in how and why they chose to die– defending themselves. Accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising still inspire us.  This is their story, and ours–to live with purpose for as long as we can. For the Warsaw Ghettoes Resisters it meant dying with dignity and honor.

So, what is the message for us today and for tomorrow? Whether it was Masada, the Maccabee Revolt or Warsaw, Bialystok, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Sobibor, the Jews have a history of fighting back. We are not like sheep but rather young lions and lionesses when it comes to defending our dens.

The call-to-arms in the Warsaw Underground Paper, Ha -Shomir Ha-Za’ir newspaper “Jutrznia “(Dawn,) on March 28, 1942, is one we can draw from. “For generation upon generation, passivity and lack of faith in our own strength had pressed upon us; but also shows beautiful pages glowing with heroism and struggle.  It is our duty to join this period of heroism.” As we recall the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, it is important to remember that we are all born of that spirit.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro College, in New York City.
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