When the Germans conquered Poland in late 1939, they rounded up everyone “with Jewish blood” and forcibly moved them into walled off ghettos. In the Polish city of Warsaw, 400,000 Polish Jews and other National Socialist undesirables were packed into an area of only 1.3 square miles. In the autumn of 1942, Nazi Germany began “liquidating” these ghettos by rounding up a set daily quota of the inhabitants and sending them to the gas chambers. In Warsaw that number was as high as 5,000 a day to the Death Camp at Treblinka.
At first, the Jewish leaders thought that those collected were just being transferred to labor camps and didn’t fight the arbitrary detentions. But eventually the truth became known. By 1943, less than 100,000 Jews were left in the Warsaw Ghetto, many of whom were in hiding. In response, Jewish resistance groups formed with support from the Polish Home Army and eventually fought back against the quota detentions in January. The surprisingly fierce and widespread resistance caused the Germans to stop the deportations until sufficient strength could be gathered to crush them.
On 19 April 1943, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto resumed. 2,000 SS troops backed up by tanks and 5,000 policemen arrogantly marched into the seemingly quiet and deserted streets. On a pre-arranged signal Jewish ambushes were sprung on the unsuspecting Nazi’s. The initial German assaults were repulsed by the fierce Jewish defenders. They were armed with Molotov cocktails, homemade grenades, small arms, and the fanatical resistance of people who have nothing left to lose. Defeat meant immediate execution, and for their families, hiding in homemade bunkers around the Ghetto, a cattle car to Treblinka. That afternoon, the resistance raised the red and white Polish flag and the blue and white flag of the ZZW (the largest Jewish group in the Ghetto) over Muranowski Square. Embolden by this show of defiance, other Polish resistance groups came to the aid of the Jews by attacking the Germans in other areas of Warsaw and smuggling supplies into the Ghetto. However, the approximately 1,000 Jewish defenders were under no illusions that they could save themselves. Their only hope was that the news of the uprising would make its way to the outside world, and expose the National Socialists for what they really were.
The Germans continued to attack and the battle in Warsaw raged for the next 11 days. The uprising was a great embarrassment to National Socialism: for the Germans to be stymied by “untermensch” or “sub-humans” was contrary to all of their racial propaganda. Hitler authorized the subjugation of the Ghetto his highest priority and flooded Warsaw with additional troops and supplies. With practically unlimited support, it was only a matter of time before the Germans overcame the resistance. Nevertheless, the Germans had to resort to using poison gas and burning down the entire Ghetto before they declared victory in May. The German commander, Juergen Stroop, marked the end of the operation with a small twisted ceremony in which the highlight was his personal pressing the detonator button demolishing the Great Synagogue of Warsaw.
Stroop reported killing “about 13,000” and capturing 56,065 Jews at the end of the operation to “cleanse” the Ghetto. 7,000 were immediately sent to Treblinka and gassed over the next few days. Because Treblinka could not “process” so many prisoners so fast, the remainder were sent to other camps in the General Government (Germany’s official name for Poland, since the word “Poland” was outlawed.), primarily the Majdanek Concentration/Death Camp inside the city of Lublin. Those not immediately gassed were eventually murdered when the Nazi’s liquidated that camp in November.
The outside world ignored the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, despite a frustrated Jewish member of the Polish Government-in-Exile committing suicide over the British unwillingness to do anything concrete to help the defenders. However, the Uprising was a great inspiration to the Polish Home Army and led directly to the general Warsaw Uprising a year later. The Polish Home Army managed to rescue about 400 Jews from the Ghetto, and several hundred more continued to hide in the rubble, sometimes for weeks, until they could escape.
After the war the survivors would form the Lohamei HaGeta’ot kibbutz (literally “Ghetto Fighters” in Yiddish) in northern Israel.