‘With the dead fell the ghetto walls, and in their place today stands the state of Israel.” – Meyer Barkai, ‘The Ghetto Fighters’
In the pantheon of Holocaust symbols, Anne Frank is the composite victim and the definitive killing site is Auschwitz. Though thousands of Jewish resistance acts punctuated the genocide, only the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising achieved the status as the ultimate emblem of resistance.
Seventy years ago on April 20, Adolf Hitler was supposed to receive a special birthday present from SS chief Heinrich Himmler: confirmation of the final “liquidation” of the Warsaw ghetto, from which 300,000 Jews had already been sent to the gas chambers of Treblinka.
Himmler was unable to come through on his gift, but it was not for lack of trying. On April 19, the day before Hitler’s 54th birthday, the dictator’s eternal boogeymen – the Jews – picked up arms to temporarily halt the annihilation of their people.
Following World War II, both Jews and Poles helped elevate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to mythic status. The Jewish uprising and its Polish-led sequel in 1944 allowed both nations to counter victimhood narratives and base reconstituted states upon self-agency, as opposed to rescue from the outside.
But even without nationalist romanticizing, the story of Warsaw Jewry would reside at the center of Holocaust memory. The world’s second largest Jewish community – and its most vibrant – left behind a wealth of primary sources.
Ghetto publications included 47 underground newspaper titles, many of them preserved in milk cans of the legendary Oneg Shabbat archive. Prominent ghetto residents wrote diaries, including renowned child advocate Janusz Korczak, who accompanied his orphans to death.
Testimony from the ghetto sometimes appears larger-than-life, even by Holocaust standards.
Take the head of Warsaw’s Jewish council, Adam Czerniakow, for example. The engineer and former Polish senator committed suicide when the SS demanded he commence deporting Warsaw’s Jews. It was July of 1942, and 100,000 ghetto Jews had already died of starvation and disease. To quicken the pace of genocide, the Nazis demanded Czerniakow select 6,000 Jews every day for “resettlement” to Treblinka. Out of despair and “to prove to everyone what is the right thing to do,” Czerniakow swallowed cyanide he had stored for the occasion.
Between Czerniakow’s suicide and the start of armed resistance on January 18, 1943, up to 300,000 Warsaw Jews had been gassed at Treblinka. Just 60,000 of the ghetto’s original population of 450,000 remained, bracing themselves for the final liquidation.
Nazi troops entered the ghetto for what they thought would be one of the last times that January morning. As the Germans prepared to rouse their victims from hiding places, they were suddenly assaulted by pistol and grenade-wielding Jews determined to resist deportation.
While most of the Jews hid in cellars, several dozen fighters conducted the first organized armed resistance against the Nazis in Europe. During four major street battles and a coordinated attack at the deportation platform, Jewish fighters killed several SS men.
“Thanks to the resistance, during today’s ‘Aktion’ there wasn’t a single instance of the murderers seeking people out in the cellars,” wrote one witness. “They were simply afraid to go down.”
News of the resistance spread throughout Europe, and the image of Jews marching to their deaths as “sheep to the slaughter” encountered a powerful alternative. In a psychological victory, Jews in Warsaw and elsewhere determined to “die with honor.”
Even the Polish underground Home Army — rife with anti-Semitism — called the struggle ‘worthy of emulation’
Even the Polish underground Home Army — rife with anti-Semitism — called the struggle “worthy of emulation.” Hitler’s troops left the Jews largely to themselves for 87 anomalous days in the condemned ghetto’s existence.
Following the January upheaval, Jewish fighters increased their ranks and prepared for the final showdown. Elaborate hide-outs were prepared for civilians and tunnels dug to connect them. Workers destroyed German machinery in factories where employment was once the only lifeline for ghetto Jews.
No one pretended that resistance would alter the ghetto’s ultimate fate, but fighters and their supporters were determined to inflict a price on the murderers of their families.
On the day before Passover – April 19 – thousands of German, Polish and Ukrainian soldiers surrounded the ghetto. Jewish fighters used homemade bombs, pistols and a single captured machine gun to attack Nazis backed by tanks, artillery and armored cars. More than 200 Nazis were wounded or killed by the end of the day.
The ghetto walls and Nazi forces were overwhelming forces and it would have taken an Exodus-style miracle to free the Jews that evening before Passover. Still, many observers called the genesis of Jewish armed resistance a marvel in itself.
After several days of pitched battles, the Nazis decided to burn the Jews out of their underground hiding places. Every building was set ablaze, burying some victims beneath the rubble and forcing others outside. The “battle of the bunkers” lasted for weeks, longer than armed resistance to the Nazis during the invasion of Poland.
Even during the uprising’s first days, participants and observers began to symbolically frame what would become the most legendary revolt against Hitler’s rule.
‘Every doorstep in the ghetto has become a stronghold and shall remain a fortress until the end’
“Every doorstep in the ghetto has become a stronghold and shall remain a fortress until the end,” fighters wrote to Poles on the fifth day of the uprising. “It is a fight for our freedom, as well as yours; for our human dignity and national honor, as well as yours. Long live the fraternity of blood and weapons in fighting Poland.”
Inspired by the uprising, the Home Army launched its own revolt against Nazi rule sixteen months later. The Nazis massacred 200,000 Poles and razed Warsaw, making the 1943 Jewish rebellion a preview of the capital’s death knell.
Other acts of resistance
Intense focus on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as “proof” that Jews fought back can obscure other resistance acts. The 1943 death camp revolts at Treblinka and Sobibor yielded as many survivors and important testimony about the camps’ procedures, lay-out and personnel.
In Poland and elsewhere, Jews marked for murder carried out armed and unarmed resistance during all phases of the genocide. Before the Nazis could murder them at killing pits or in gas chambers, thousands of Jews fought back – in Bialystok, in Janowska and in Brody, and in hundreds of towns and forests across Europe.
In a twist of history, both Israeli and Polish history-shapers helped canonize the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising for their respective purposes.
The world – except for Israel – marks Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the date Auschwitz was liberated. In 1951, Israel’s leaders chose the uprising’s Hebrew date to memorialize all Holocaust victims, officially calling it the “Day of the Holocaust and Heroism.”
In the early Israeli context, emphasizing Jewish heroism in the Warsaw Ghetto mold outranked the seeming passivity of waiting for liberation by Allied armies.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the uprising “a turning point in the fate of the Jewish people” during this month’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, claiming the warrior mindset born in the ghetto led to Jewish statehood.
Since 1976, televised Holocaust commemorations have taken place in Yad Vashem’s Warsaw Square, a wall of red bricks through which uprising leader Mordechai Anielewicz and his fighters erupt in a replica of Nathan Rapoport’s iconic sculpture.
Rapoport’s original Ghetto Heroes Memorial stands in a grassy square of Warsaw’s former Jewish quarter. Since the bronze monument’s installation in 1948, the uprising has been remembered as a Jewish affair detached from the experience of Nazi-occupied Poland.
Fewer than 10,000 Jews live in Poland today, compared to more than three-million before the war. The murder of Polish Jews continued even after Hitler’s defeat, albeit in isolated pogroms and not death camps. After the fall of Communist rule four decades later, anti-Semitism went out of vogue as a tool of the manipulative state.
Jewish life in Warsaw has undergone a micro-renaissance in recent years, somewhat demonstrated by this month’s unprecedented activities to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Hundreds of volunteers are handing out yellow paper daffodils for people to pin on their clothes, and a human chain of flowers and candles will surround the former ghetto borders. Several weeks of ceremonies, lectures and high-profile political visitors will make the uprising’s 70th anniversary the most visible in Warsaw’s history.
Catalyzing interest in Jewish memory and the uprising is Warsaw’s nascent Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Designed to foster “a new page in Polish-Jewish relations,” the museum will highlight more than one millennia of Jewish-Polish coexistence. If the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising elevates Jewish resistance, the museum seeks to portray another supposed anomaly – the golden age of Jewish life in Poland.
Already being called the most beautiful public building in Warsaw, the museum was built across the square from Rapoport’s 65-year-old Ghetto Heroes Memorial, close to the uprising fighters’ command center.
As with Jerusalem’s Holocaust History Museum and Berlin’s Jewish Museum, the building’s emblematic design suggests both continuity and the cataclysmic Jewish century. The opaque facade splits open abruptly where it faces the old Ghetto Heroes Memorial, linking the desperate Warsaw fighters to the fragmented recovery of Jewish life in Poland.