Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1943: the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began

On April 19, 1943, a Nazi force consisting of several thousand troops commanded by Jürgen Stroop were ambushed by Jewish insurgents in the Warsaw Ghetto, marking the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II.

From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 to the early years of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poland was arguably one of the most tolerant countries in Europe. After the 1573 Warsaw Confederation guaranteed religious freedoms across the Commonwealth, Jews began seeking shelter from persecution in the country, which became home to the largest Jewish community of the time.

After the Partitions of Poland, Polish Jews became subject to the laws of the partitioning powers, including the increasingly antisemitic Russian Empire. By the time Poland regained its independence in the aftermath of World War I, it was considered the center of the European Jewish world, with one of the world’s largest and most vibrant Jewish population of over 3 million, 375,000 of which lived in Warsaw, composing one-third of the city’s population.

But the interwar period also saw the rise of antisemitism throughout Europe, including in Poland, where antisemitic legislation, boycotts of Jewish businesses, and the nationalist post-Piłsudski Polish government plans put the Polish Jews under pressure. By the time Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, its Jewish community was substantially poorer and less integrated than the Jews in most of Western Europe.

Antisemitism and the Nazi invasion

Persecution of Polish Jews by the German occupation authorities began immediately after the invasion, particularly in major urban areas. In the first year and a half, the Nazis confined themselves to stripping the Jews of their valuables and property for profit, forcing them into slave labor and herding them into a number of extremely crowded ghettos located in large Polish cities.

The largest of these, the Warsaw Ghetto, established in November 1940, collected approximately 300,000–400,000 people into a densely packed 3.4 km2 central area of the Polish capital. But the borders of the ghetto changed and its overall area was gradually reduced, as the captive population was decreased by outbreaks of infectious diseases, mass hunger, and regular executions.

The segregation of Jews in ghettos culminated in the policy of extermination the Nazis called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, discussed by senior Nazi officials in January 1942. All anti-Jewish measures were radicalized and, under the coordination of the SS and with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, killings were committed in Poland and throughout occupied Europe.

Grossaktion Warsaw and the Warsaw Ghetto

In the summer of 1942, at least 254,000 Warsaw Ghetto residents were sent aboard overcrowded Holocaust trains to the Treblinka extermination camp, which had been completed 80 kilometres from Warsaw only weeks earlier, specifically for the Final Solution. On arrival, the Jews were stripped of their clothes and directed to one of ten chambers disguised as showers, where they were gassed to death.

When the deportations first began, members of the Jewish resistance movement, led by the left-wing Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) and right-wing Jewish Military Union (ŻZW), began to build bunkers and smuggle weapons and explosives into the ghetto. And by January 1943, the remaining ghetto inhabitants decided to revolt, achieving considerable success initially in taking control of the Warsaw Ghetto and stopping the deportation.

On April 19, 1943, on the eve of Passover, a Nazi force consisting of several thousand troops commanded by Jürgen Stroop were ambushed by Jewish insurgents firing and tossing Molotov cocktails and hand grenades from alleyways, sewers, and windows, bogging down the German offensive. Later that day, two flags were raised, the red-and-white Polish flag and the blue-and-white banner of the ŻZW, marking the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

After initial setbacks, the German troops resorted to systematically burn and blow up the ghetto buildings, block by block, rounding up or murdering anybody they could capture, and by the end of April, significant resistance had been crushed, although sporadic resistance continued until June. The suppression of the uprising officially ended on May 16, when Stroop personally pushed a detonator to demolish the Great Synagogue of Warsaw.

The largest single revolt by Jews during World War II, the uprising was, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “one of the most significant occurrences in the history of the Jewish people”. Despite knowing that the uprising was doomed and that their survival was unlikely, Marek Edelman, the only surviving ŻOB commander, later said that their inspiration to fight was “to pick the time and place of our deaths”.

A total of 13,000 Jews died during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Of the remaining 50,000 residents, almost all were captured and shipped to the death camps of Majdanek and Treblinka.

After the uprising was over, most of the incinerated houses were razed, and the Warsaw concentration camp complex was established in their place.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.