The Warsaw Ghetto

The Germans established the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1940. They ordered the 380,000 Jews of Warsaw to move into a small section of the city, containing only 27,000 apartments. To seal off the Jews from the rest of the city’s residents, the Germans enclosed the ghetto behind walls ten-feet high. Over the next year and a half, Jews from surrounding towns were also forced to live in the ghetto.

At one point more than 400,000 Jews were crowded into the ghetto but death from disease and starvation kept the population from growing much larger. This was part of the German design to eliminate the Jews. The Germans starved the residents by allotting only 184 calories of food per person a day. (The daily ration for Germans was 2,400 calories a day). Weakened by starvation, the people had little reserves to fight off infection. A typhus epidemic broke out in 1941, killing 43,000 people.

In the spring of 1941, German industries opened up small factories inside the ghetto to make use of Jewish slave labor to support the German war effort. So in July 1942, when the Germans started to deport ghetto inhabitants to the Treblinka death camp, many of the Jews with jobs were spared. Within an 8-week period, about 300,000 people were sent to the death camp or were shot in the ghetto. About 55,000 to 60,000 Jews remained. They either worked for German factories or found hiding places within the ghetto.

The first instance of armed resistance occurred in the Warsaw Ghetto in January 1943, when the Germans started a new round of deportations. Armed with homemade and smuggled weapons, a group of Jews attacked guards who had rounded up a group of Jews for extermination. The fight was a partial success. The deportations stopped after four days.

The Germans, knowing they faced an active resistance, decided to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto and kill all of its remaining inhabitants. On April 19, 1943, with a force of 2,842 men, the Germans stormed the ghetto. They attacked with tanks, machine guns, and other artillery. The Jews fought back with guns, rifles, hand grenades and Molotov cocktails (bottles filled with gasoline, which proved to be effective in disabling tanks).

The Germans had expected to defeat the Jews in three days. But the Jewish resistance fighters proved to be tenacious, holding out for nearly a month. After the first few days of combat, the Germans switched tactics. Instead of direct confrontation, they burned the buildings and underground-hiding places to force the Jews out of hiding. The Jews never expected to win. They just wanted the Germans to pay dearly for each drop of Jewish blood. As the Germans systematically incinerated the buildings, the Jewish resistance fighters made sporadic and often deadly raids against the Germans.

The Germans declared victory on May 16 and dynamited the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street to symbolize the defeat. According to a report given by the German commander in charge of the ghetto, SS General Juergen Stroop, the Germans had killed between 5,000 to 6,000 Jews in fires or explosions. They captured more than 56,000 Jews. Of these, 7,000 were killed inside the ghetto, another 7,000 were transported to Treblinka and the rest were sent to concentration camps Poniatowa, Trawniki, and Majdanek. General Stroop received the Iron Cross first class for his role in putting down the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.