Sixty years ago one of the most heroic struggles against fascism took place. Fifty thousand Warsaw Jews resisted their final liquidation by the Nazi army. Armed with petrol bombs, grenades and a few pistols, the uprising lasted several weeks. How and why the uprising happened, and the effect it later had on the thinking of many Israeli Jews, make it an important anniversary event for study by socialists today. JON DALE writes.
AT THE OUTBREAK of World War Two there were three million Jews in Poland. Three to four hundred thousand lived in Warsaw – one third of the city’s population. Although Jews had lived in Poland since 1200, there was a long history of anti-Semitism and discrimination, which increased during the 1930s. Most lived in poverty, working in small family workshops.
The Nazis invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, a week after the Stalin-Hitler pact was signed. Sixteen days later Stalin ordered the Soviet army to invade. By 1 October Warsaw had fallen to the German army. Within days separate bread queues were established for Jews and Poles. The Nazis built on pre-existing divisions and prejudice to keep the population divided. Himmler later wrote to Hitler “… we have the greatest interest in not uniting the population of the East but, on the contrary, in dividing it into as many parts and splinters as possible”. (25 May 1940)
Most leading public figures left Poland as war broke out. A state of panic and chaos developed among the population left behind. There were immediate cruel and random acts of terror as Jewish people were beaten, rounded up for forced labour, and instructed to hand over all valuables. From November, all Jews over ten years old had to wear the Star of David on armbands.
The punishment for breaking regulations was often death. Obeying all of them, however, was no guarantee of escaping execution. An unwritten law of collective responsibility was applied. In early November, 53 men in an apartment block were shot after one tenant hit a Polish policeman. A paralysing fear overcame the community, increasing as Jews from surrounding areas were forced in. Thirty per cent of the city’s population was crammed into 5% of its area. Food and water were restricted, so malnutrition and disease spread. In January 1940, Jewish people were forbidden to live outside the ‘area threatened by typhus’.
Gradually, political organisations renewed their activity, mostly providing mutual aid. Soup kitchens were established for party members and their families, who also used them as meeting places, educational and cultural centres. The first act of resistance occurred at Easter 1940. Gangs of Polish thugs were paid by the Nazis to mount a pogrom, violently attacking those they could get their hands on. After three days, Jewish Labour Bund militia carried out counter-attacks and four major street battles took place. Although all the other groups and political parties opposed this action, fearing greater reprisals, for a moment the Nazis’ plans were held up.
The Warsaw ghetto was established in November 1940. An eleven-mile wall, ten- to twenty-feet high and topped with broken glass and barbed wire, was built in days. One-hundred-and-thirteen thousand non-Jewish residents were moved out and 138,000 Jews forced in. No Jewish people were allowed to leave the area, apart from a few employed in war-related industries. Communication with the outside world could only be through illegal and dangerous means.
Thousands more, homeless and penniless, were moved in from smaller cities and towns. Whole families occupied the sleeping space for one as the ghetto became a concentration camp. Mass starvation occurred, the monthly death totals between January and August 1941 rising from 450 to 5,600, many dying on the streets.
DESPITE THE DAILY horror, aspects of community life continued. Schools were set up, religious and cultural events organised, and political debate took place. The Bund marked its 44th anniversary in October 1941, with 2,000 taking part in simultaneous small meetings in private apartments. Their Central Trade Union Council registered 30,000 former union members. The Socialist School Students’ Organisation was re-established and soon had a few hundred members. A socialist children’s organisation also existed.
Underground newspapers were published – 47 titles are recorded, although the names of contributors were changed often for security. About two thirds were youth publications. Up to 500 copies were printed on primitive machinery with great physical effort. They were passed from hand to hand and it was estimated that 20 people read each copy. They were also smuggled out to other ghettos and to the Polish underground, at great risk to the couriers.
In early 1941 the earliest stories of the mass killings of Jews filtered into the ghetto, with reports that 80,000 had been gassed in trucks at Chelmno. Mass shootings at Vilna were reported in October 1941. Most refused to believe these stories, however, or thought they were the actions of victory-drunk troops, rather than the organised extermination of the entire Jewish population.
In January 1942 the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) was established in the Polish sector of Warsaw – a revival of the Communist Party that had been disbanded under Stalin’s orders in 1938. It failed to make much headway among Polish workers, however, as they could not forget the momentous betrayal of the Stalin-Hitler Pact.
The PPR turned to the ghetto, hoping for a better response. In March 1942 it formed the Anti-Fascist Bloc with two left-wing Zionist organisations. Other movements joined, although not the Bund. Small combat squads were organised with about 500, mostly young, people involved. A few Molotov cocktails and simple grenades were manufactured and a single revolver was smuggled in.
The PPR wanted these squads to join partisan fighters in the forests, as part of the Soviet war effort. The Jewish organisations wanted to defend the ghetto, overestimating the PPR’s support from the Soviet army and among the Polish population. These disagreements grew and had not been resolved when, on 30 May, three PPR leaders were arrested. Fearing that the details of activists would be extracted by torture (although the arrested went to their deaths without revealing their contacts) the Bloc disintegrated in June. The PPR never recovered from this setback.
Random killings by Nazi troops increased. On 18 April, 60 prominent Jews were seized from their apartments and shot in the street. The Nazis claimed this was retaliation for the publication of underground newspapers – a warning that any evidence of opposition would result in a bloodbath. They were removing those they thought could become a focus of resistance.
A Jewish Council had been appointed by the Nazis to act as their administrative agency. Although its leader demanded the illegal publications stop, he was ignored and papers continued to appear. But most ghetto residents, struggling against hunger, disease and overcrowding, felt they were being punished for the activities of a few.
Systematic mass extermination
A NEW PHASE of the ghetto’s short existence opened on 22 July 1942. Forty miles away at Treblinka a death camp had been built, with gas chambers and a rail connection. The Jewish Council was ordered to supply 6,000 people a day for ‘resettlement’, who were then crammed into cattle trucks and ‘deported’. The Jewish police carried out the greater part of the round-ups. Those in war-essential industries and their immediate families were exempted.
Few believed that deportation meant death. A Nazi poster offered three kilos of bread and a kilo of jam to those reporting between 29-31 July. This fuelled rumours that they were going to labour camps: ‘Why feed those about to die?’ Letters appeared, supposedly written by those ‘evacuated’, describing better conditions. Any shred of hope that survival was possible was clutched at.
To find out the truth, a Bund member, helped by a socialist rail worker, secretly followed the trains’ route. He discovered the destination was Treblinka, meeting two fugitives who had escaped and described the grisly details. The information was published in the Bund newspaper but still most refused to believe it.
Two hundred and twenty-five people were shot in the three months before the round-up compared to 6,687 in the following three months, indicating that many individual acts of resistance occurred. But organised resistance was almost paralysed.
On the second day of the round-up a delegate meeting of all underground political organisations was held. The Bund and some left-wing Zionist youth proposed resistance, even though there were no arms. But the majority felt that such action would be considered a provocation and that if the required number of Jews were delivered the remainder would be safe. Some argued that resistance was hopeless and that faith in God and miracles would save some at least. At the end of the first week, socialist Zionist and Bund youth organisations formed an Actions Committee, but were unable to mount any action. In the extremely dangerous situation it only lasted a few days. Daring attempts, sometimes successful, were made to rescue individuals who had been rounded up. In the turmoil and panic, many members of political organisations were swept into the cattle trucks, further weakening the resistance.
The right-wing Polish government-in-exile made no comment and issued no call for assistance from the Polish underground. There was no encouragement to Jews or offers to help hide them if they escaped. Five pistols and six hand grenades had been smuggled in from the Communist underground during the first week of August. An assassination attempt on the commander of the hated Jewish police was made, wounding him. The arms were discovered on 3 September 1942, when several of the leading youth activists were captured or killed.
From despair to resistance
ROUND-UPS CONTINUED until September, by which time only 60,000 remained in the ghetto. During the pause that followed the mood of survivors changed rapidly. Many of those left were younger workers in the large factories. Fear that resistance would provoke Nazi retaliation against helpless elderly people and children no longer held sway, as so few remained. Often only one person was left from a family. Hope of survival had been replaced with the expectation of death: would it be met meekly in Treblinka or fighting in the ghetto? Despair turned to determination.
At one meeting towards the end of the round-up, a survivor wrote: “There was great uproar, shouting down the comrade who wanted to postpone the last possible act. If we don’t go out into the streets immediately, by tomorrow we won’t have the strength to do so… the discussion was heated, the atmosphere torrid. But gradually more tempered voices began to be heard. Concrete suggestions were raised. It was a fateful night for the remnants of the Jewish Fighting Organisation (ZOB). We took a vote and resolved to pluck up our courage and rebuild the armed Jewish force. Our remaining strength would be dedicated to that end. No effort would be spared. The fate of January and April 1943 was sealed on that night”.
The ZOB emerged in the early days of the round-ups, from members of left-wing Zionist youth movements. Until October it remained largely isolated and powerless. With the new mood it took on a new character. Other organisations joined, including the Bund and PPR. Right-wing Zionist youth organisations formed their own Jewish Fighting Union (ZZW).
There was a long history of rivalry between the Bund, which stood for a socialist Poland with emancipation of the Jews as a national minority, and the left-wing Zionist movements, which stood for a socialist Jewish state in Palestine. Now the remaining members of these organisations recognised a united front was needed.
Groups of five or seven from the same organisation formed combat units. A joint commander was appointed, Mordechai Anielewicz, a 23-year-old who had been organising youth movements full-time since before the war.
Eventually the ZOB had 450-500 members, women and men, carefully vetted to avoid potential informers. Most were under 25, the youngest being thirteen. A desperate drive began to acquire arms. In December 1942, it received its first shipment from the Polish Home Army (linked to the Polish government-in-exile) – ten pistols, four of which did not work. More were smuggled in, but the total remained pitifully small.
Assassinations of the Jewish police commander and others who had caused suffering to their fellow Jews built the ZOB’s popularity and started to instil the idea that resistance was possible. Plans were made for further action against the Jewish police.
However, on 18 January 1943, the ghetto was surrounded again and the second wave of mass liquidation began. Although caught by surprise, Jewish people fought back this time. ZOB members joined those being marched to the trains. At a signal they attacked the SS, killing several and allowing the Jews to flee. Four major street battles occurred, but most street fighters were killed so they turned to guerrilla attacks from apartment houses. Meanwhile, most residents refused to report for the round-up, hiding in cellars and attics.
After four days the round-up stopped. A psychological turning point had taken place. The Nazis had met no popular resistance until then. One resident wrote on 20 January that, “thanks to the resistance, during today’s ‘Aktion’ there wasn’t a single instance of the murderers seeking people out in cellars; they were simply afraid to go down [into them]”.
The resistance fighters, with a handful of pistols, grenades and captured weapons, had broken the fatalistic mood that nothing could be done. Fighting in dark, narrow apartment passages, escaping over rooftops and through alleyways, they grew in confidence.
The Polish underground also looked on the Jews in a new light. There was widespread interest and admiration for the stand taken. The Communist paper wrote, “The Jews have awoken from apathy in a demonstration of resistance worthy of emulation”. It argued for armed struggle in Poland to assist the Soviet Union.
Influenced by this new mood, the Home Army smuggled in 50 pistols (although only 36 worked), 55 grenades and nine pounds of explosive. But few further arms were sent, despite frantic appeals from ZOB. Preparations were now made for the inevitable battle to come. The resistance effectively controlled the ghetto. German troops dared not enter alone and withdrew before nightfall, so the curfew had been broken. This period of dual power lasted 87 days.
Informers were shot. The Jewish Council was forced to follow ZOB orders and hand over money. Taxes were raised on wealthy individuals, who either paid voluntarily or were forced to pay up. The money was used to buy more arms and ammunition from outside the ghetto. Two thousand litres of petrol were smuggled in and a ‘factory’ set up producing Molotov cocktails. Training and weapons drill were daily routine. Eventually, each fighter had a pistol, ten to fifteen rounds of ammunition, four or five hand grenades and four or five Molotov cocktails. There were ten rifles and one machine gun in the entire ghetto.
Those not in the fighting organisations prepared bunkers to hide in. These were more sophisticated than the cellars used in January, with camouflaged entrances, food and water supplies, electricity in some cases, and underground passages linking them together. Some could hold several hundred people.
The SS ordered the German factory owners to move machinery and workers to labour camps under their control. But the machinery was set on fire and workers ignored appeals to report for deportation.
ZOB MADE NO preparations to escape. “Our fear”, wrote a survivor, “was that we might arouse the notion that a man could save his life even if he did not fight… We saw ourselves as a Jewish underground whose fate was a tragic one, as an underground that was not part of the overall war of undergrounds the world over and would have to stand, cut off and alone; as a pioneer force not only from the Jewish standpoint but also from the standpoint of the entire embattled world – the first to fight. For our hour had come without any hope of rescue”.
In the early hours of 19 April, troops massed outside the ghetto walls. While residents rushed to the bunkers, the fighters took their positions and waited. At 6am hundreds of SS troops poured in, along with tanks, armoured cars and artillery. A column marching up the road singing loudly was suddenly attacked with bombs and hand grenades, retreating in disorder. A second column was ambushed with grenades. Two tanks were set on fire. At the end of the first day, all Nazi forces withdrew, having lost 200 killed or wounded.
A short message was broadcast over the partisan secret radio. “Hello, hello! The survivors in the Warsaw ghetto have begun an armed resistance against the murderers of the Jewish people. The ghetto is aflame!”
The battle continued over the next few days. A mine was detonated under a column of troops killing up to 100. A four-pound explosive charge was thrown into a truck, with 60 casualties. A banner saying, ‘We shall never surrender’, was unfurled across a roof. On the fifth day, an appeal was published: “Poles, citizens, soldiers of freedom… we, the slaves of the ghetto, convey heartfelt greetings to you… Every doorstep in the ghetto has become a stronghold and shall remain a fortress until the end… It is a fight for our freedom, as well as yours; for our human dignity and national honour, as well as yours… Long live the fraternity of blood and weapons in a fighting Poland… We must continue our mutual struggle against the occupant until the very end!”
Within a few days, the ammunition and grenades were almost used up. Food and water ran short. Fighters retreated to the bunkers, coming out only at night. The Nazis set fire to building after building, reducing the ghetto to rubble, burying those in their bunkers. Others were forced out into the open, only to be shot or rounded up and deported. Although the full-scale battle of the ghetto lasted only three days, the ‘battle of the bunkers’ lasted weeks as those hiding supported the fighters. Sporadic incidents continued until July.
On May Day the fighters “were briefly addressed by a few people and the ‘Internationale’ was sung. The entire world, we knew, was celebrating May Day on that day and everywhere forceful, meaningful words were being spoken. But never yet had the ‘Internationale’ been sung in conditions so different, so tragic, in a place where an entire nation had been and was still perishing. The words and the song echoed from the charred ruins and were, at that particular time, an indication that socialist youth was still fighting in the ghetto, and that even in the face of death they were not abandoning their ideals”.
Anielewicz and other ZOB leaders were surrounded in a bunker on 8 May. The fighting lasted two hours before a gas bomb was thrown in. Most still surviving chose to commit suicide rather than be taken alive. Some entered the sewers, where more died. Two days later, 80 managed to climb out on the Polish side and escape to join the partisans in the forests, where all but a dozen were eventually killed. A few lived in the sewers for months.
Left to fight alone
THE DAMAGE TO Nazi prestige was enormous, however, and the inspiring news quickly spread, despite the lack of modern communications. An eight-day battle took place when the Bialystok ghetto was liquidated in August. Organized resistance occurred in dozens of other ghettos across Eastern Europe. Uprisings and mass breakouts shook Treblinka and Sobibor death camps.
But why did the ghetto resistance not spread to the rest of Warsaw? Some individuals risked their lives to hide Jews who escaped. The amount of arms at the Polish underground organisations’ disposal was undoubtedly more limited than ZOB realised. Nevertheless, the underground did not call for mass resistance. The strongly anti-Semitic and anti-socialist government-in-exile had little sympathy with the ghetto fighters. It feared the now advancing Soviet army would defeat it if a Polish uprising occurred. Its US and British allies still showed no signs of landing in Europe.
Despite this, as the uprising fought on, admiration amongst many ordinary Poles grew. It helped inspire the magnificent workers’ uprising throughout Warsaw in August 1944, which took place as the Soviet army was within ten kilometres of the city. But, instead of moving in as expected, the Soviet forces retreated under Stalin’s orders. He was fearful that any independent workers’ action might encourage Russian workers to move against the bureaucratic elite he represented. As a result, the Nazis regrouped, massacred 200,000 people and razed the city to the ground.
Only 200 Warsaw Jews survived until the end of the war. But the heroism of the ghetto uprising remains an inspiration to socialists. It showed that, no matter how desperate the circumstances, struggle is possible. The socialist youth organisations took the lead in convincing Jews that resistance was possible. Their determination reinforced the change from the earlier moods of panic and fatalism.
But it also appeared to show that Jews could only rely on themselves. They had not received significant help from the Polish working class, and none from Western Allied or Soviet forces. After the war this mood was used to justify the formation of Israel and its armed struggle. “For centuries, the Jews had been persecuted, driven from country to country in search of a home, herded into ghettos and denied the rights of citizens. They had been forced to fight for their very existence… But they won the victory. With the dead fell the ghetto walls, and in their place today stands the state of Israel”. (M Barkai, The Ghetto Fighters, 1962)
Annual commemorations of the uprising were held there, including a two-minutes’ silence, marches and lessons in schools and army camps. Yet the irony is that a capitalist Israel has been unable to meet the needs of Jewish or Palestinian workers, trapping them instead in a continual state of war and insecurity. That irony is compounded by the fact that most ZOB fighters, whether from Zionist or anti-Zionist organisations, were socialists.
Guide to the ghetto underground
Jewish Labour Bund: A mass workers’ party with links to the Polish Socialist Party. Affiliated to the reformist Socialist International, although it regarded itself as Marxist. Strongly opposed Zionism, calling for a socialist Poland with full minority rights for Jews: “Whenever the reactionaries launch an attack on the freedom of the workers’ movement accompanied by expressions of anti-Semitism, Jewish nationalism stirs beneath the surface… and tries to dampen the fighting spirit of the masses of the Jews who have integrated into the general struggle against reactionism and for liberty”.
Communist Party: Renamed Polska Partia Robotnica (PPR, Polish Workers’ Party) in 1942. Stalinist. Was smaller than the Bund pre-war but controlled several trade unions.
Left Po’alei Zion (Labour Zionists): Smaller than the Bund and Communist Party pre-war, but became more influential in the ghetto due to the activity of its youth. Politically close to Stalinism: “In the struggle for a new world of labour and social justice, we are not isolated. The working masses of the whole world, with the heroic Red Army in the vanguard, are with us”.
Dror: Youth movement linked to Left Po’alei Zion: “…the building of Israel is undeniably connected with the collapse of capitalism; a socialist Israel will rise or fall with the success or failure of [world] socialism”. Had over 1,000 members.
Hashomer Hatzair: Pro-Soviet Union, socialist Zionist youth movement, with 800 members in Warsaw. Mordechai Anielewicz was a full-time organiser.
Gordonia and Akiva: Other youth movements, believing Israel needed to be created before socialism could be achieved.
Right Po’alei Zion: Smallest of the Labour Zionist parties. Put Jewish identity before class identity, but believed this would change in a Jewish state.
General Zionists: Conservative party, many of whose leading members were appointed by the Nazis to the Judenrat (Jewish Council).
Members from all the above eventually took part in ZOB (Jewish Battle Organisation)
Revisionists: Right-wing Zionist party. Believed Jews were entitled to the Biblical land of Israel.
Betar: Right-wing Zionist youth movement. Menachem Begin, later a prime minister of Israel, was a member but left Poland in 1938.
Revisionists and Betar formed the ZZW (Jewish Military Union)
Aguda: Right-wing, orthodox religious party. Did not participate in armed resistance.
M Barkai, The Ghetto Fighters, New York 1962
J Bauman, Winter in the Morning, Virago Press 1991
L Dawidowicz, The War against the Jews 1933-45, Penguin 1975
M Edelman, The Ghetto Fights, 1945 (English translation, Bookmarks 1990)
Y Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw 1939-43, Harvester Press 1982
J Klajman, Out of the Ghetto, Valentine Mitchell 2000
I Schwarzbart, Carry High the Flag of the Bunker! World Jewish Council 1960
W Szpilman, The Pianist 1946, (English translation, Phoenix 2002)