Seventy years ago, in April 1943, the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto rose up against the Nazis.
On 28 September 1939 Hitler’s troops had captured Warsaw and taken control of Poland. Three million Jews lived in Poland as a whole: 350-400,000, a third of Warsaw’s population, were Jews.
The Nazis herded the Jews into medieval style ghettoes —smaller and smaller areas in 45 separate ghetto towns across Poland — where Jews worked for German war industries. The first was set up in Lodz in April 1940.
Immediately the Jewish quarter of Warsaw was put in “quarantine” and 80,000 non-Jews living in the district were ordered to get out. Adam Czerniaków, one of the old leaders of the Jewish community, was called to the Gestapo Headquarters on 4 October 1939 and ordered to set up a new Jewish Council which would have to recruit the work brigades.
A year would pass before the ghetto was set up, as Warsaw Jews managed to deflect the threat with large sums of money. But in September 1940, a 10-foot high wall around the Jewish district was started. It was completed in summer 1941.
Eventually it surrounded an area 3.4 square kilometres in size, 2.7% of the Warsaw area. It was cut in two by an “Aryan” road, crossed by a bridge which allowed people to pass between the two parts.
It included 1500 dwellings in about 100 blocks. Conditions were appalling. Twelve people lived in each room. They had a ration of 800 calories each per day — half of what an adult needs to stay healthy. Jewish refugees brought into the ghetto had nowhere to live and slept on the streets. The native Warsaw Jews resented them and the Jewish Council provided no relief to them. 66% died in the streets of the ghetto from cold, starvation and disease. Only youth organisations would help them and recruited from among them. By May 1942 430,000 Jews were living in the ghetto.
The Germans feared a ghetto revolt which might spread to the whole of Warsaw. So they successfully poisoned the relations between the Jews and the “Christian” Poles — helped by the strong tradition of anti-semitism in Poland.
Jewish Councils administered the ghettos in Poland; they compiled statistics for the Nazis, and conveyed their orders to the community. The Jewish Councils hoped that there would be some sort of future under Nazism. Perhaps if they were useful and compliant the Nazis would not think it necessary to kill large numbers of Jews. One ghetto leader, Chaim Rumkowski of Lodz, took great pride in the fact that “his” ghetto was self-sufficient and economically useful to the Germans.
Very rapidly, the Jewish Council became the centre of the richest Jews.
In order to gain respect, the Council set up the Jewish police with 1,700 men recruited from the sons of “good families”. The Germans promised the Jewish policemen that members of their families would not be harassed.
This police became the centre of a protection racket — all-powerful to dispense (for ready cash) exemptions from forced labour and food rations.
When taxes had to be raised to pay the Nazis, or police wages, a 10% tax was levied on basic foodstuffs — the poor paid as much as the rich. In January 1942, the Council voted down a proposal to “take from the rich the means with which to feed the poor”.
The role of the rich in the ghetto was shameful and they were rewarded with the hatred of the people. But the Nazis made vile propaganda from it to show in Germany. They photographed rich Jews enjoying their privileges, while, nearby, emaciated Jews died in the streets ignored. As if it were only rich Jews who behave like this and not rich people everywhere. As if the Nazis were not themselves responsible for ghetto conditions!
They do not know it, but some on the left who have made “anti-Zionist” and anti-Israeli propaganda out of the behaviour of the bourgeois Jewish puppet councils — Jim Allen, the socialist author of the play Perdition for example — stand in direct line of descent from this vile Nazi propaganda.
To try to escape starvation, 5,000 Jews volunteered to go and work in Germany and 10,000 in Poland. The news was that the camps there were not too bad.
The Germans promised a safe life to the “productive” workers in the Wehrmacht workshops. Eventually they promised to each workshop a survival priority over the other shops, then to men, priority over women and children, to good workers priority over bad. These promises were all deceptions.
Despite it all, many Jews tried to keep up a sense of human dignity the Nazis were ripping from them. They held concerts; academic and religious life continued. Dr Korzchak, who ran the orphanage, sealed it against the ghetto and through three years protected his children from knowledge of life outside. This pretence of normality was the only form of resistance they had.
This desperate desire not to believe the worst was one of the reasons why those who from the beginning wanted the ghetto to fight could not gain the influence they needed.
In August 1942 the Nazis ordered Jews to be deported to camps in the east. They were told they would be settled and allowed to redeem themselves by work. No-one could know the full horror of the camps, but the Council had some eye-witness accounts. The knowledge was too much for Czerniaków, he committed suicide. The Council on the other hand encouraged Jews to volunteer for deportation. 20,000 Jews would go voluntarily to the Umschlag (the deportation place).
When political activists in the ghetto — left wingers and Bundists and Zionists — put out leaflets telling the truth about the death camps, people just did not believe them.
Between July and October 1942, 310,000 people were deported to camps, principally Treblinka, where life expectancy was one hour.
Only when the extent of the genocide was fully known (by the end of 1942), and the futility of passive hope was realised, and — most significantly — only when the Jewish underground began to obtain arms, did the ghetto go to war against the Nazis.
Until 1943 the Underground did not have the trust of the people. Until then, they set themselves the job of relief work, organising young people, holding meetings. They exposed the hypocrisies of the Council. Slowly they gained the respect of the masses who remained.
On 20 October 1942 the Jewish Coordination Committee was formed, bringing together five Zionist movements (Hachomer, Dror, Gordonia, Poale-Zion, Heachalutz), the Stalinists (PPR) and the socialists (the Bund). It drew up plans for a military organisation (Jewish Combat Organisation).
The mass deportations had stopped on 3 October but started against on 18 January 1943. There were only 40,000 Jews left.
They killed police informers. They demanded money off the rich to buy more arms. They organised the remaining dwellers, readying them for the Nazis’ final assault.
In January they were able to thwart the Nazis for a few days and to persuade the remaining Jews that it was better to fight even against impossible odds than to give themselves up for deportation.
The final deportation was planned for April and on the 19th trucks arrived to take people to Treblinka. The Nazis and their trucks were attacked. Nazi tanks which guarded them were set on fire. For three days the fighters held running battles with the Nazis, forcing them to retreat. They had only limited support from the Polish resistance outside the ghetto; their arms were some rifles but mostly hand guns, grenades and molotov cocktails. The Germans had thousands of fully armed troops and sophisticated killing equipment.
Finally the Nazis won simply by dint of setting fire to the whole ghetto, burning the hidden Jews out of cellars. By mid-May the ghetto did not exist. 13,000 Jews had died in the fighting, 30,000 were captured and sent to Treblinka, others committed suicide. Hundreds of “rubble fighters” remained to carry out random attacks on the Nazis for months to come. A few hundred Jews crawled for twenty hours through the sewers to join resistance groups in the forests around Warsaw.
On 16 May the uprising officially ended. The SS demolished the Great Synagogue of Warsaw.
The persistence of the ghetto opposition, in spite of their almost unbearable fear and depression, their isolation, the indifference with which for years their warnings were met, is one of the most remarkable things in this story. They fought knowing that most of them would die.
It is easy to tell the story of the uprising. Understanding the full horror of Nazi genocide, and appreciating the courage of those who fought, takes an enormous leap of the imagination.
We are also used to reading about the Jewish people having been treated as one homogeneous lump of expendable humanity. They weren’t. Until January 1943 the ghetto was a cohesive society, massively oppressed and terrorised, but a society nonetheless, with classes and structures intact. The fact that the first priority of the ghetto fighters was to kill the policemen reminds us of this.
We must organise people to fight for their own lives now. So that we will never — as the ghetto fighters did — have to organise people whose one remaining choice is to choose the manner of their deaths; to die on their feet, with arms in hand, so that they could feel, finally, liberated from fear itself.