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Section: Life in Nazi-controlled Europe

Warsaw ghetto

Map of Europe highlighting Poland and Warsaw.
Map of Europe highlighting Poland and Warsaw.

Warsaw, the capital Poland, sits astride the Vistula River in the centre of the country. On the eve of World War II, the city was residence to 1.3 million inhabitants. At 375,000, Warsaw’s Jewish population constituted almost 30 per-cent of the total population. As the largest Jewish community in Europe, second in the world to New York, Warsaw was a major centre of Jewish culture and religious importance.

As the German army invaded Poland, Warsaw was subject to heavy air and ground bombardments. Within a few days the Polish government fled, first to France and then to London. On 28 September 1939, Poland surrendered to the Germans. The next day German troops entered Warsaw.

Over the next year the Nazis developed a ghetto that would be a means by which they would seek to destroy the largest Jewish community in Europe.

This section of The Holocaust Explained will help you learn about the main events during the life of the Warsaw ghetto.

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The Nazis establish control in Warsaw

Immediately Poland was conquered, German troops began subjecting the Jews of Warsaw to brutal attacks.

Within a week the invaders ordered that a Judenrat be established in Warsaw, under the leadership of a Jewish engineer, Adam Czerniakow. The Judenrat were charged with implementing and administering German orders. In October 1939, Warsaw was incorporated into the General Government, with Ludwig Fischer as its district governor.

Very soon, the Nazi regime introduced a range of anti-Jewish measures. On 23 November 1939, Warsaw’s Jews, over the age of 12 years, were ordered to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David.

Jewish schools were closed and almost all Jewish organisations were dissolved. The only Jewish organisations allowed were those giving aid to the Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw. One such group, the Jewish Mutual Aid Society, ran facilities such as soup kitchens, youth clubs and kindergartens.

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Anti-Jewish attacks

Between 22 and 29 March 1940, encouraged by the Germans, local Poles carried out a series of anti-Jewish attacks against the city’s Jews.

Shop windows were broken, apartments and shops were looted and those wearing Star of David armbands were beaten.

That same month, notices were posted banning Jews entry to cafes and restaurants across the city

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How did the Nazis establish the Warsaw Ghetto?

In October 1939, the SS ordered that a Judenrat be established in Warsaw, under the leadership of a Jewish engineer, Adam Czerniakow. Czerniakow and his council were charged with implementing and administering German orders.

In March 1940, the Nazis declared the existing Jewish neighbourhood within Warsaw an ‘Epidemic Quarantine District’. Signs were posted discouraging others from entering. Then, on 27 March 1940, the Judenrat received an order to begin constructing three metre high brick walls topped with barbed wire to mark out the boundary and close off the area. By June 1940, some twenty sections of wall were in place.

Jewish Residential District

On 12 October 1940, the Nazis issued a decree requiring all Jewish residents of Warsaw to move into this designated ‘Jewish Residential District’. Non-Jewish residents were banished as Jews were forced to Jews leave their home, having been permitted to take very few personal items with them.

The ghetto was fully sealed on 16th November 1940. The walls, measuring 18 Km long and with gates to the outside world being heavily guarded on the outside by the SS and Polish police, enclosed just 73 of Warsaw’s 1,800 streets.

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Conclusion

Chłodna Street, one of the major streets in Warsaw, divided the ghetto. The area to the south of Chłodna Street was known as ‘Small Ghetto’, with the northern area being ‘Large Ghetto’. Those two parts of the ghetto were connected by Żelazna Street, through which a special gate was built for the Jews to pass through. The Nazis constructed a wooden footbridge so the Jews could more easily pass from one area to the other.

Overcrowding

Very soon the ghetto’s population rose to over 400,000 Jewish inhabitants, due to the influx of Jews from nearby towns who had been forced to move into Warsaw.

At its peak the area housed 445,000 Jews in little more than 1.3 square miles, less than 2.5 per-cent of the total area of Warsaw. Overcrowding was severe with an average of seven persons per room.

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Heroic passive resistance

Oneg Shabbat
Resistance within the Warsaw ghetto took many forms.

Many artists and academics produced documentary evidence of life within the ghetto with the intention of demonstrating the actions of the Nazis to the outside world.

Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian from Warsaw who was a prominent member in the mutual aid organisations, founded an organisation that aimed to collect an accurate record of the events within Nazi-occupied Poland. The organisation gathered documents, writings, images and other evidence. They packed these into milk churns and other devices, which were then buried. The record became known as ‘Oneg Shabbat’ – ‘In celebration of Shabbat‘.

After the war many of these valuable eyewitness accounts were found, but many still remain hidden.

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Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak was a Polish Jewish doctor, author and teacher who devoted his life to caring for children. He believed that children should be listened to and respected. Before the war he wrote many books for and about children. He also made children’s radio programmes.

Korczak initially resisted the Nazi’s regulations and was imprisoned. When the Nazis established a ghetto he set up his orphanage. His non-Jewish friends offered to hide him outside of the ghetto, but Korczak refused and chose to stay with the children.

He taught the orphaned children and tried to make their lives as normal as possible by organising plays and other cultural events.

Janusz Korczak with the orchestra of the children's home, Warsaw.
Image: © 2012 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

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Surviving in the Warsaw ghetto

Overcrowding

With seven persons per room, living conditions within the Warsaw ghetto were atrocious. The severely overcrowded buildings lacked even the most basic of sanitary facilities.

Having been dispossessed of their businesses and employment, the Jews of Warsaw had no regular source of income. Whilst the German Transfer Office regulated the ghetto’s legal economic activity with the outside world, most economic activity conducted by the Jews was illegal.

Rations

Food rations were far from sufficient to sustain life. Hunger and death through starvation was common. Between 1940 and mid-1942, more than 83,000 Jews died from starvation and disease. On 8 May 1941, Czerniaków noted in his diary: “Children starving to death.”

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Welfare organisations

As they struggled to survive, ghetto residents also turned to many welfare organisations, including the Jewish Mutual Aid Society, the Federation of Associations in Poland for the Care of Orphans, and the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training.

Smuggling

Widespread smuggling of food, medicines and other supplies reduced the death rate to a certain extent. However, the Nazis used brutal punishments to those found guilty of smuggling food and other necessities.

Public and private executions were carried out as a warning to others. As a result, deaths due to starvation, the effects of cold and the spread of infectious diseases increased.

 

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Resistance in the Warsaw ghetto

Despite the extremely poor conditions there are many examples of resistance within the Warsaw ghetto. For most people, merely staying alive was the ultimate resistance. Stealing food and smuggling food into the ghetto was often the domain of children.

For many others, resistance meant preserving the rituals and traditions of their cultural and religious life. Despite regulations to the contrary, and subsequent risk of death, many Jewish religious and cultural traditions were kept alive within the Warsaw ghetto.

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Preservation of life

Large numbers of people involved themselves in the various mutual aid organisations, demonstrating the tradition of charity amongst Jewish communities. Those involved in the preservation of the lives of the weak and needy within their community worked against the Nazi intention of the ghetto as a place for the demise of the Jews of Warsaw. Many were putting themselves in danger in order to fulfill their aim.

Education

For others, education was an important prerequisite for civil life, with classes for children and adults alike. Secret libraries contained books. Music and theatre also featured highly in people’s attempts to block out the squalor and harsh reality of life within the ghetto. A symphony orchestra continued to rehearse and perform.

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The Warsaw ghetto uprising

Deportations

During 1942, the Nazis began night raids on homes within the Warsaw ghetto in order to carryout out deportations to Treblinka extermination camp. They also called on the Judenrat to provide lists of ghetto inhabitants for deportation. Those within the ghetto began to panic as a result of the rumours, from people deported to Warsaw from other ghettos, of mass killings at Treblinka and other extermination camps.

In July 1942, the SS increased the number of deportations. As a result Czerniakow, the Judenrat chairman, committed suicide. By the end of the summer some 300,000 Jews had been deported, more than 250,000 to Treblinka. Just 60,000 Jews remained in the ghetto.

In January 1943, the Nazis launched another campaign of deportations from Warsaw. During the spring of 1942, the young Jewish political activists had started to discuss armed resistance. However, they didn’t act until the majority of the Jews had been deported. The various Jewish defence groups had organised into a single ZOB fighting organisation led by 24 year-old Mordecai Anielewicz. They knew that they must fight to the death; the alternative would be certain death at Treblinka.

The uprising

On the eve of Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom, 19 April 1943, the Germans began the final liquidation of the ghetto. The group of heroic young Jewish men and women, with very little ammunition, held out against a far superior German force. The Germans responded by systematically burning down the buildings. The Jewish defenders of the ghetto fought on for a month until the Germans finally succeeded in gaining control.

There were very few survivors.

As news of the Warsaw ghetto uprising spread, it served as an example for Jews in other ghettos and camps. There were many uprisings in the camps and ghettos of Eastern Europe.

Anielewicz died along with his people. This is an extract from his last letter:

‘I cannot describe the conditions in which the Jews are living. Only a few will hold out; the rest will die, sooner or later. Our fate is sealed. In all the bunkers where our comrades hide, you cannot light a candle through lack of air…The main thing in my life’s dream has come to be. I had the privilege of seeing the Jewish defence of the ghetto in all its greatness and glory.’

For Mordechai Anielewicz the very act of resisting, fighting back against the Nazi war machine was highly significant. The fact that the ghetto fighters had held out for a month against the brutality of the German Army was success itself.

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Liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto

The liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto began on the eve of Passover, 19 April 1943.

The Jews had been given prior warning of the pending liquidation, so were ready and waiting in their bunkers, which had been built over the previous months. The general population of the ghetto were also in hiding in anticipation of the German army and SS officers entering the ghetto.

The Germans were met by heroic fighting from the men and women of the ZOB fighters attacked. After several days of guerrilla warfare, the Germans began searching for the Jewish fighters bunker-by-bunker, building-by-building, and burning down the ghetto as they fought.

On 8 May the Nazis discovered the ZOB leaders in their bunker.

Eight days later the Germans considered the operation over despite many individual fighters remaining hidden in the ghetto for over a year. In this time several thousand Jews managed to escape to the Polish side of the city.

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The Polish uprising

In August the non-Jewish citizens of Warsaw rose up against the Germans in what is now known as the Polish uprising. The Soviet Army was a short distance away, but did not come to the aid of the Poles.

The Germans razed the city to the ground, rounding up more than 150,000 Poles and sending them to forced labour camps.

The Soviet army liberated Warsaw on 17 January 1945. Despite the city being razed to the ground, 300 Jews were found hiding in remains of the Polish part of the city.

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What were the camps?

What were the camps?

What happened in October