The focus this week has been on Israel’s 70th anniversary as a country, but April 19 is an important day, the 75th anniversary on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. People across the country in Poland stood in silence as bells and sirens rang to honor that the Jews that lost their lives in the uprising. The uprising was a significant event, as the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto bravely fought back against the barbaric Nazis and threw a temporary wrench in their war efforts.
Here are five things to know about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
1. Prisoners in the ghetto vowed to take arms against the Nazis after the first wave of deportations from the ghetto occurred in 1942. Adolf Hitler ordered all the prisoners in the ghettos to be deported to the Nazi death camps, resulting in the deportation of over two million Jews to the death camps, including 300,000 from the Warsaw Ghetto. Those in the Warsaw Ghetto who watched in horror as their loved ones were being snatched away by the Nazis vowed to take vengeance against the SS, even if it meant death.
“Never shall the Germans move from here with impunity; we will die, but the cruel invaders will pay with their blood for ours,” Warsaw Ghetto survivor Emmanuel Ringelblum wrote.
2. The resistance in the ghetto consisted of two main groups: the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW). During the first two-month wave of deportations to Treblinka in July 1942, the two groups were unable to form an effective coalition because of tension between the two. According to Yad Vashem, “The ZZW claimed that the ZOB refused to incorporate them into their group’s structure, while the ZOB maintained that the ZZW wanted to take over the operation. In addition, both groups imposed taxes on the ghetto’s wealthier Jews, causing more tension between them.” Making matters worse was the fact that the ZOB was fractured by varying factions and they did not have a sufficient amount of arms despite the ZZW’s links to the Polish Home Army.
After the first wave of deportations ended, the ZZW and ZOB realized they had to set their differences aside in other to have a fighting chance against the Nazis. Over the next couple of months, new life was breathed into the ZOB with the acquisition of some weapons from the Polish Home Army and having a new leader in the charismatic 23-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz, who declared that the Jews would “resist going to the railroad cars,” per Jewish Virtual Library.
3. The Jews in the ghetto were able to fight off the Nazis from deporting them in January 1943. The deportations at that time had caught the Jews in the ghetto off guard, but they were able to use the structure of the ghetto to their advantage. According to Britannica, “Jewish fighters could strike quickly, then escape across the rooftops. German troops, on the other hand, moved cautiously and would not go down to cellars.”
The resistance efforts prevented the Nazis from issuing their planned deportations that day, giving the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto a sliver of hope. They spend the next few months stockpiling a few more weapons, training and establishing hiding spots in the ghetto to use as guerrilla warfare against the Nazis.
4. The uprising officially began on April 19 and lasted until May 16. The Jews in the ghetto had heard that the Nazis were preparing to fight and deport the remaining prisoners in the ghetto to Treblinka on April 19, so they retreated to their hiding spots and fired away at the Nazis when they entered. Despite being vastly outnumbered and outmanned in firepower, the Jews forced the Nazis to abandon their three-day plan of complete liquidation of the ghetto. Even when the Nazis began burning down the ghetto, the Jews were able to hold their ground for nearly a month before the Nazis eventually overwhelmed them. The Jews that hadn’t died in battle were either executed by the Nazis or sent to the death camps.
5. Even though the uprising did not prevail against the Nazis, it inspired other uprisings elsewhere. For instance, when the Jews entombed in Treblinka got word of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, they planned an uprising of their own, setting the death camp into flames and killing 40 Nazi guards. Three hundred people escaped Treblinka that day but only 70 survived, as the Nazis hunted down those that escaped. Other uprisings occurred in the ghettos of Bialystok and Minsk and the Sobibor death camp.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was a signal at that time that the Jews would not be herded like sheep into slaughter, they were determined to fight back and “die with honor.” As Journal columnist Ben Shapiro noted in 2004, Anielewicz had written during the uprising, “The most important thing is that my life’s dream has come true. Jewish self-defense in the ghetto has been realized. Jewish retaliation and resistance has become a fact. I have been witness to the magnificent heroic battle of the Jewish fighters.”
“A new model of the Jew had been created: not a passive Jew, but a Jew who would battle to the last bullet,” Shapiro wrote.