The Warsaw Ghetto, 1940-3



This account is culled from visits to Warsaw museums, books and pamphlets I bought in Warsaw, and site visits I made during a holiday to Warsaw.   If you notice any mistakes/ inaccuracies, please email me.



      Into the storm     In the ghetto     The First Resistance     Cultural Life    

Armed Struggle     Liquidation     The Ghetto Uprising    The End of the Ghetto





A brief overview - difficult

Stroop's account - full of Nazi bias


Photos of the ghetto     


Photos of the Ghetto uprising 

Into the Storm

Before the Second World War, Warsaw was a prominent intellectual and social capital.   It also had the largest Jewish settlement in Europe – perhaps 380,000 Jews (almost a third of the city’s population) lived in Warsaw, many of them in a prosperous and vibrant area called Nalewki.


Poland, of course, was the first country to be conquered by Nazi Germany.   Immediately, the persecution of Jews began, as Nazi soldiers mocked and bullied vulnerable Jews in the street.   By 26 October, Hitler had imposed his own civilian government on Poland, and – as part of this – Jews were put immediately to manual labour.  


Nalewki Street in 1936

In December, more regulations followed: Jews over the age of 12 had to wear white armbands showing a blue Star of David, Jews’ bank accounts were closed, and their houses and businesses were confiscated.   Jewish patients were expelled from the hospitals, and schools were closed to Jewish children.   In 1940, the synagogues were closed and Jewish prayers forbidden.


From February 1940, the Nazi leaders were considering a separate area for the Jews, but they hesitated because Germany needed Warsaw’s production for their war effort, and feared that setting up a ghetto would cause too much disruption.   In April 1940, however, Jewish workers were put to building walls, and on 2 October 1940 the decree was signed defining a Jewish Residential Area around the Nalewki quarter.   On the night of 15-16 November 1940, without warning, the ghetto was closed.   Jews were not allowed to leave the ghetto, under punishment of death.   Originally, there were 20 gates through the wall, but this was later reduced to 15, to tighten security.  



Because the Nazis wanted to keep Chlodna Street (an important thoroughfare) open, the ghetto was divided into two; originally joined by a street-crossing, the two parts of the ghetto were later connected by a wooden bridge.


In the ghetto

The ghetto comprised an area of 307 hectares (slightly greater than a square mile).   Into it were crammed, not only the city’s Jews, but large numbers of Jewish ‘refugees’ sent there by the Nazis from the surrounding areas, so that the total number of people in the ghetto numbered about 450,000.   Of these, 1,700 were Christian Jews, who had converted to Christianity; it did not save them from being sent to the ghetto.   Also in the ghetto were numbers of local Gypsies.   The Nazi Major General Jürgen Stroop estimated that, at its creation, the ghetto contained 27,000 apartments with an average of 2 ½ rooms each – an average of six persons per room.  


In Spring 1941, the Nazis set up workshops, using the Jews as slave labour, producing mainly armaments for the war effort.


The government of the ghetto was run by a Council called the Judenrat, led by Adam Czerniakow, an engineer who had been a member of the Polish Senate before the war.   Some writers dismiss the Judenrat as a ‘sham, as only Nazi orders were carried out’.   However, within the ghetto, the Judenrat did have the right to make certain decisions of its own, including social, health and aid regulations.   And on occasions – such as when it organised the release of a number of prisoners from the local jail in return for a donation of furs to the Nazi war effort – it was able to have some effect.   The fact that it failed was due to the extreme situation it found itself in.



A wall, 3m high, surrounded the ghetto – the Nazis built it down the middle of streets so that there would be no chance of people sneaking through ‘shared’ buildings.  

The First Resistance

The immediate problem was survival.   The inhabitants of the ghetto were issued with ration cards – but where the daily requirement for an adult is 3,500 calories, ‘intellectuals’ and key workers were allowed only 1,000 calories, and everybody else was allowed only 300 calories.  These were starvation rations. 


The Judenrat organised allotment plots, on every bit of spare ground, growing cabbages.   Also, helped by Poles on the ‘Aryan’ side of the wall (and, we now know, by Nazi officials turning a blind eye because they needed Jewish workers and could not do with them starving) quantities of food and fuel were smuggled into the ghetto.  


Children smuggle food into the ghetto.   Much of the smuggling was done by children under the age of 12, because they did not have to wear an armband and were not so visible.   People who were caught smuggling were shot or hanged.


Meanwhile, inside the ghetto, dozens of workshops were set up making pots and pans, brushes and buttons, clothes and mattresses, toys and dolls, which could be traded for food.   Nazi propaganda claimed that, within the ghetto, certain Jewish war profiteers lived a life of luxury whilst other Jews starved, but there is little evidence for this.   Rather, voluntary mutual aid organisations flourished, even pauper families shared what they had, and doctors treated the sick, and cobblers repaired shoes, free of charge.   One historian suggests that this – the refusal to lie down and starve to death – was the first ‘resistance’ movement against the Nazis.


It must be mentioned also that – again, absolutely contrary to what Nazi propaganda claimed – ordinary Polish people ALSO helped in many ways.   The Nazis had forbidden any post, but many postcards and letters got through, secretly passed on by Poles from the ‘Aryan side’ of the wall, mostly in the Law Courts, the only ‘shared’ building in Warsaw.   Polish inhabitants of Warsaw, despite the dangers, hid 20,000 Jews outside the ghetto.   And one Polish doctor, Franciszek Raszeja, was shot for visiting a patient in the ghetto.


Woman selling bread in the ghetto, c.1941.   notice that by this time she has to cover the bread in a wore cage, or starving people would steal it.

All this failed in the end, however.   The problem was, not the will, but the means.   The ‘refugees’ from outside Warsaw had arrived with almost nothing – food, clothes or possessions.   Slowly, despite everything they were doing, the inhabitants of the ghetto starved to death.   Children, especially, were vulnerable, and begging children were everywhere.   An organisation called Centos (Society for the Care of Orphans and Abandoned Children) was set up, but it could not cope with the huge numbers of starving children.  


Disease was an associated problem.   At the beginning of the ghetto, yellow spotted fever (carried by ticks) was a problem.   An organisation called TOZ (Society for the Protection of Health) was set up.   In fact, deaths from spotted fever had fallen as a result by 1942, but by that time there was an epidemic of typhus (a disease carried by lice).  


In January 1942, nearly 6,000 people – and perhaps 100,000 people, 1939 to 1942 – died of starvation and disease in the ghetto.



Starving children, 1942.  By 1942, people were starving to death in the streets.   People became inured to the sight of death.   When a person died, other beggars would strip them of everything they possessed.

Cultural Life

The Jews in the ghetto adapted and adjusted.   The hundreds of people who lived around each ‘well-shaft’ – the courtyards in the centre of the apartment-blocks – formed communities which organised for themselves self-help, social events, religious ceremonies and even ‘underground kitchens’ (unofficial schools).  


Dozens of ladies clubs, youth groups, libraries, music and drama societies etc. set up and flourished.   There was an underground press which published bulletins, proclamations, songs and poems, transcripts of Allied radio broadcasts, and religious and academic pamphlets.  


A group called Oneg Shabat (meaning ‘Sabbath joy’, because they met on a Saturday), led by a history teacher called Emmanuel Ringelblum, organised the Underground Ghetto Archive (ARG) – a massive collection of materials and documents which systematically logged everything that was happening in the ghetto.  Ringleblum believed that, in the long term, after the Nazis were gone, THIS would help to prevent anything similar happening again in the future.  


The collection survived the war, and is one of the main reasons we know what went on in the ghetto.


This – the preservation of social and cultural life – was a second form of resistance.



An actor/ street performer named Rubenstein was especially popular.   He performed satirical sketches which mocked the Nazis, and his catch phrase: ‘I don’t want to give up bony’ (‘bony’ was the slang word for rations, thus ‘I don’t want to die’) became a common ghetto saying.

Armed Struggle

At the same time, however, some of the younger inhabitants of the ghetto were talking about more active forms of resistance.   Mordechaj Anielewicz was one of a number of Jews who had seen the Nazi persecution coming and had fled to Russia; unable to leave his own people, he returned and worked in the ghetto.   He was a member of the ‘Young Guard’, a group which looked forward to a Jewish state, for Jews, in Palestine.   A group of Jews formed the ZOB (Jewish Fighting Organisation).   The Communist Polish Workers Party (PPR) formed a ghetto branch, and allied itself with the Jewish National Committee (ZKN), another hardline group of Jewish radicals.  


Most of the members of these groups were in their twenties.   Few had families – their parents had died in the persecutions.   Increasingly, they began to see armed force – even if it meant an ‘honourable’ death – as the way to resist.   But, at first, they were restrained by the older members of the Judenrat, who feared that any resistance would bring reprisals.



Mordechaj Anielewicz


From the beginning of 1942, the Nazis actively began to try to exterminate the Jews as a race.   They started outside Warsaw, in other areas of Poland.   But the ARG had been sending people – mainly young ‘Aryan’-looking women – out into other areas to collect information; now they started coming back with rumours of mass-exterminations.   Before they ‘liquidated’ an area, the Nazis always imposed a tax on the Jews; this ‘demonic tax’ as it was called was the signal for Jews to write goodbye letters to their loved ones – and from January 1942 some of these postcards began to arrive in Warsaw.   Finally, some Jews managed to escape from the death camps – for example, one young man with the codename ‘Szlamek’ – and their stories circulated rapidly round the ghetto.


Ringelblum made sure that news of the exterminations reached the BBC, which broadcast about them in June 1942.


On 22 July, the Nazis ordered Czerniakow to organise 5,000 Jews a day for deportation.   The Nazis had been making raids into the ghetto to frighten and ‘soften up’ the Jews.   Everybody knew what was going on.   The next day, Czerniakow committed suicide, saying that he would not participate in the murder of his own people.   In London, Samuel Zygielbojm, a member of the Polish government in exile, also committed suicide in protest.  


Between July and September, 310,322 Jews were deported from the ghetto to the extermination camps.   When in July 1942 the teacher Janusz Korczak – who was running the ghetto orphanage – was told that his children had to go, a friend offered to get him away to safety.   Korczak refused to leave his orphans.   The children performed a play they had prepared; then on 6 August, Korczak (telling them they were going to the countryside to see the flowers) organised them in twos into a crocodile, and went with them, singing songs, to the Umschlagplatz and onto the transports to Treblinka.



The ghetto inhabitants were assembled, marched to a railway siding at the Umschlagplatz, and put on trains to Treblinka.  Some poor people, fully aware of what was happening, nevertheless volunteered to go because the Nazis gave bread to those who were going. 

The Ghetto Uprising

In September 1942, without warning, the deportations paused, leaving about 60,000 people in a much-reduced ghetto area.   But there was no longer any argument that armed resistance might bring Nazi reprisals.   The different groups favouring armed resistance united under 24-year-old Mordechaj Anielewicz and prepared to resist.   Every effort of the Jewish community went, now, into preparing for rebellion.   If they were going to die, they would die fighting.   Polish freedom fighters outside the ghetto gave them a few weapons.   They used materials stolen from the armaments factories to make home-made bombs.   Under the pretence of building air-raid shelters, they dug dozens of underground bunkers.


On 18 January 1943, the Nazis came back to the ghetto to resume the deportations.   They were taken by surprise when the inhabitants of the ghetto fought back.   ‘Fight’, the young people urged their fellow Jews – and if you can’t fight, resist passively: ‘hide!’   When direct attacks on the Nazi soldiers led to heavy casualties, the rebels changed their tactics – they lured the soldiers into houses, and ambushed them.   After four days of fighting and heavy losses, the Nazis called off the deportations.


In April 1943, Major General Jürgen Stroop arrived at the head of a well-armed unit of soldiers, including Panzer and Cavalry ‘Training and Reserve’ battalions, a couple of police regiments, and a small number of engineers.   On 19 April, he attacked the ghetto.


Stroop estimated that, on average, he used more than 2000 soldiers each day; facing him were 500 ZOB, with perhaps 250 other freedom fighters.   Stroop had machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and light artillery; when it was all over, he recovered from the rebels 7 Polish rifles, 1 Russian rifle, 1 German rifle, 59 pistols, several hundred home-made hand-grenades, several hundred incendiary bottles, home-made explosives and some ammunition.   Stroop thought that it would take him 3 days to clear the ghetto; even by his own account, the end of the ghetto did not come until 16 May 1943, when he symbolically blew up the Great Synagogue of Warsaw (unofficially, fighting continued until November).


When Stroop’s men attacked, they were driven back by ‘concentrated fire’.   Stroop described the fighting:


Over and over again new battle groups consisting of 20 to 30 or more Jewish fellows, 18 to 25 years of age, accompanied by a corresponding number of women kindled new resistance. These battle groups were under orders to put up armed resistance to the last and if necessary to escape arrest by committing suicide …

            During this armed resistance the women belonging to the battle groups were equipped the same as the men … Not infrequently, these women fired pistols with both hands. It happened time and again that these women had pistols or hand grenades (Polish "pineapple" hand grenades) concealed in their bloomers up to the last moment to use against the men of the Waffen SS, Police, or Wehrmacht …

            The resistance put up by the Jews and bandits could be broken only by relentlessly using all our force and energy by day and night.


After two days of hard fighting, Stroop realised that clearing the ghetto of these small groups was impossible, and he decided simply to burn down the ghetto, systematically setting fire to the buildings.  


Still, however, he encountered resistance:


Not infrequently, the Jews stayed in the burning buildings until, because of the heat and the fear of being burned alive they preferred to jump down from the upper stories after having thrown mattresses and other upholstered articles into the street from the burning buildings. With their bones broken, they still tried to crawl across the street into blocks of buildings which had not yet been set on fire or were only partly in flames.



Major-General Stroop, centre, watches the ghetto burn, May 1943.

Driven out of the buildings, the insurgents hid in the underground bunkers (Stroop discovered 631 of them), linked by the sewers.   German soldiers had to climb down into the sewers and drive the rebels out.   When, in 1946, the people of Warsaw made a first monument to the uprising, it was in the form of a sewer-pipe and manhole cover.



The End of the Ghetto

On 8 May, Anielewicz and 17 other rebels found themselves trapped in a bunker at 18 Miła Street.   When Stroop’s men gas-bombed the bunker, 26-year-old Arie Wilner, the son of a wealthy Warsaw tannery-owner, suggested that they blow up the bunker, rather than just die in the poison fumes.


The ghetto uprising failed.   Barely a handful of the insurgents escaped and lived to tell the tale (most of those who did died later helping the Warsaw uprising of 1944).   Stroop estimated that five or six thousand Jews had died in the action or the fires, and that 56,065 Jews were captured (of whom 14,000 were ‘exterminated’ immediately).   By contrast, the German casualties were 15 dead and 90 wounded.


The ghetto was then – apart from the hospital and the police barracks – razed to the ground.


Nalewki Street in 1943.