The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Still Inspiring

Two members of the Jewish resistance, Bluma Wyszogrodzka (left) and Malka Zdrojewicz (right). (Image Credit: Meczenstwo Walka, National Archives)

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 was a revolt against the Nazis by Jews facing extermination in Hitler’s death camps. It occurred in two stages: a smaller revolt in January, followed by a large uprising in April.

The Jewish ghettos were an old legacy of European antisemitism – a type of racism against Jews. For centuries, European Jews were discriminated against and segregated in separate neighborhoods that came to be known as ghettos. These were abolished in Western Europe following the French Revolution, but Jews remained segregated in Eastern Europe, with the majority of them living in Poland. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, his Nazi Party created tightly-controlled Jewish ghettos that were like open-air prisons. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of them all – cramming about 450,000 people into 1.3 square miles in Poland’s capital. One of the leaders of the Warsaw uprising, Yitzhak “Abtek” Zuckerman, wrote about the conditions in the ghetto:

The establishment of the ghetto meant a revolution in our life. Suddenly you saw poverty in a concentrated and harsh form. Every single day, the situation grew worse. Dead bodies rolled in the streets. Your senses did grow blunt in time. You got used to it, you moved a little and passed by. I was used to passing one family: two young people carrying a little girl. I recall the nobility in their stance and their silence. Every time I passed them, I would give them something. One day they disappeared and I knew they were no longer alive.

Antisemitism had been prevalent in Germany before the rise of Nazism. But Hitler’s party went to great lengths to stoke the flames of racism against Jews. This was a key strategy of the Nazi movement to get working-class people to blame their own misery on Jews and other oppressed groups rather than blaming the capitalist system. A major reason for this was the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its galvanizing effect on the revolutionary socialist movement in Germany and other countries. The Russian Revolution was led by the Bolshevik Party, and it successfully removed the Russian capitalists from power and created the world’s first workers’ state. Capitalists worldwide were terrified that they would be next. Even before the revolution, Jews had been scapegoated by the ruling class for the rise of the socialist movement. The far-right circulated the idea that Jews were the “evil conspirators” behind socialism. Hitler took this scapegoating of Jews to the extreme. His Nazi Party aimed to protect the German capitalists by getting rid of their biggest threat: the Socialist and Communist parties of Germany. Thus, “Judaism=Bolshevism” became a core tenet of Nazi ideology.

The culmination of this racist anti-communism came in 1942, when the Nazis implemented what they called “The Final Solution,” or what became known as the Holocaust: the industrial extermination of all Jews living in German-occupied territory. They began to deport people from the ghettos to death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka. About six million Jews were killed in the gas chambers of these camps, together with other groups persecuted by the Nazis, such as the Romani and Sinti people, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities.

In 1942, when German troops entered the Warsaw Ghetto to begin mass deportations to the death camps, 100,000 ghetto inmates had already died of hunger and disease. The Jews were told they were being put on trains to be relocated. By the end of 1942, however, after almost 300,000 Warsaw Ghetto inmates were deported, their final destination became well-known in the ghetto: Treblinka death camp.

In January 1943, the Nazis came in once again to deport 8,000 to Treblinka, but this time they were attacked by hundreds of ghetto inmates armed with smuggled handguns and improvised weapons. The uprising cut the deportation short, and the Nazis were only able to take 5,000 Jews.

Meanwhile, preparations for another uprising were organized by the two resistance groups in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) and Jewish Military Union (ZZW). They also received help from the Polish underground resistance organization AK (Home Army). Zuckerman describes the days following the January revolt:

We got word from the Poles that they “saluted us” and appreciated the fighting spirit of the Jews, and they even sent weapons. […] They sent fifty pistols. […] Later they sent us grenades[…] They also sent us a few kilograms of explosives. And, since we also got the recipe for Molotov Cocktails, we started collecting bottles. They brought the weapons to a place near the wall; in the evening, our unit picked them up and brought them into the ghetto. That is, the Poles risked their lives by going through the streets of Aryan Warsaw to the wall.

[…] The January Uprising taught us the need for organization. Fighters scattered around an area, not organized in groups, can be caught off guard. In the January Uprising, the people who weren’t in designated places in time didn’t even get to the weapons and didn’t participate in the Uprising at all.

Before the January revolt, Jews had built makeshift hideouts. Many more of these “bunkers” were built afterwards, in anticipation of the Nazis’ return. By April, the Jewish insurgent forces of the ZZW and ZOB were about a thousand strong. The ghetto inmates knew they would almost certainly die, but they refused to go down without a fight.

On April 19, the German police and SS (stormtroopers) returned to deport the 50,000 remaining ghetto inmates to Treblinka death camp. They were immediately ambushed by the Jewish insurgents with hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, and pistols. The Jews had the tactical advantage of being able to strike and then quickly retreat to the bunkers. In the meanwhile, the Polish resistance fighters attacked the German forces from outside the Ghetto walls. The Germans suffered 59 casualties, and were forced to change their tactics. Zuckerman relates:

I didn’t believe the fighters would hold out even for three days. […] Since the Germans couldn’t conquer the whole ghetto, they had to devote a lot of forces to conquering every individual building. And when they did conquer a building, they had to leave a German force in it. In such a case, you could attack them in the courtyard, which is just what our fighters did, even though the Germans kept units and patrols at concentration points. When we switched to guerilla warfare, they didn’t know who they were fighting against or where to look for the enemy; and then the Germans began setting fire to the ghetto.

The Germans set the ghetto on fire block by block with flamethrowers and explosives, and their deportation operation was drawn out for a month. Over 50,000 Jews were killed in the uprising or shortly thereafter in the death camps of Majdanek and Treblinka. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was brutally put down, but Jewish resistance against the Nazis continued. Jews in other ghettos fought the Nazis, and the inmates of Treblinka staged a heroic revolt in August 1943, burning the camp.

Hitler and the other fascist dictators were dredged up by the desperate capitalists to save their skin. Today, the specter of fascism is looming once again, as far-right groups are swelling around the world in reaction to the economic crises of the last decades. The fight against fascism, of which the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was a small but heroic episode, is not over – because the capitalist system that gives birth to fascism is still in place.