In 1939, Warsaw was home to approximately 375,000 Jews, who accounted for 30 per cent of the city’s population. Jews had lived in Warsaw for more than five centuries. There was a vibrant Jewish cultural life, with many synagogues, Jewish newspapers, theatre, art and schools. Antisemitism existed, and there were moments when anti-Jewish sentiment turned violent, but in twentieth-century Warsaw, most Jews – whether assimilated or not – went about their daily lives in peace.
This relative peace was destroyed by the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which marked the beginning of World War II. In October, the Polish government surrendered and went into exile. The German occupation of Warsaw very quickly brought anti-Jewish policies and persecution to Poland. New restrictions included forcing Jews to surrender luxury goods and property, to wear an armband with a Jewish star and to obey strict curfews. Non-Jewish neighbours who were once friends often stood by while Jews were humiliated in the streets. German soldiers and even Poles sympathetic to Nazi ideology regularly perpetrated relentless acts of violence, and Jewish people in Warsaw were in constant danger.
“My whole family walked the seventeen kilometres to Warsaw. When we arrived at the homes of our relatives, my father asked my cousins about joining the army, but it was already too late for volunteers to help defend our homeland. There was no army to join – Poland was defeated only a few weeks after the outbreak of war. The speed at which the Nazis invaded crushed the Polish army’s resistance in a short time. Now, I can see how mistaken my father’s expectations were.” - Elsa Thon, If Only It Were Fiction
“The Germans soon began shedding their masks and signs saying ‘Nur für Deutschen’ (For Germans Only) began appearing in the city. Some streets were completely evacuated and occupied by Germans. Then the raids and roundups began…. We were inundated with degrading and panic-inducing orders.” - Arthur Ney, W Hour
“It must have been nine or ten in the morning when suddenly the doorbell rang and three men dressed in black mackintoshes and hats, like the Gestapo wore, came barging into the apartment…. One of them took out a revolver and ordered us all to undress completely. He demanded that we stand facing the wall with our hands up against it and he said that if anyone turned around while they were there, he would shoot them dead on the spot.
We all did as we were told and stood there shivering….
We stood there for what seemed an eternity to me but must have been about twenty minutes to an hour while they ransacked the apartment. When they were finished, the same voice that had spoken before, the one with the revolver, said they were going to leave and we had better not move until they had banged the door shut and were gone. Otherwise, he said, he was going to shoot us all. As soon as they left, everyone dressed quickly and took in what they had done to the apartment. It was a mess and anything of value had been taken: the Shabbos candlesticks, the kiddush cups, whatever they thought might have worth. I particularly remember the candlesticks because on Friday night, there was nothing to place the candles in for Shabbos.” - Pinchas Gutter, Memories In Focus
Then in October 1940, the Germans issued the order for all of Warsaw’s Jews to move to an area of the city that would become the Warsaw ghetto. Further restrictions followed, and by November, the ghetto was closed off, confining everyone inside behind a massive wall.
Construction of the ghetto wall. Warsaw, Poland, ca. 1940. Source: Yad Vashem.
Conditions in the Ghetto
The sealed Warsaw ghetto was only 1.3 square miles in area. The more than 400,000 Jews trapped inside were no longer able to leave and were therefore cut off from the outside world. Food was scarce, the often-filthy apartments were overcrowded and starvation and disease were everywhere. Rationing was so strict that many people bought and sold goods on the black market.
“In November 1940, the ghetto was closed and life grew much more difficult. My father somehow still managed to get raisins on the black market to make wine after the ghetto was closed off, but my mother’s kiosk lasted for only another six months or so. Either she couldn’t get the items she needed anymore or people didn’t have any more money to buy them. It might also have been that it was too difficult for her to deal with the black market. Maybe she wasn’t strong enough to hustle. Before the war, she was a lady who didn’t work, so perhaps she could only work the kiosk as long as she didn’t need to be too pushy, which she didn’t have the mentality for.” - Pinchas Gutter, Memories In Focus
“Dozens and dozens of small, naked children stood or sat or lay against the walls too hungry even to speak, their eyes silently begging for something to eat. I remember their swollen bellies and their bodies covered with scratches from the lice that attacked them. One of the ways in which starving people made a desperate effort to survive had elements of a hunter stalking his prey. A person would stand near the door of a shop that sold food, pretending to be part of the passing crowd. The minute a customer left the shop with his purchase, however, the desperado would jump on this person, grab the food and run away. When the people who were still able to buy food started holding on to it more tightly, the chappers (snatchers) would bite the food they were carrying. This took place most often with bread since it was bought without wrapping. Of course, after the food had been bitten, the purchaser simply surrendered it to the chapper. This kind of encounter often attracted small crowds, members of which were divided between those supporting the buyers and those supporting the chappers. Very often, these incidents ended in melees.” - Arthur Ney, W Hour
Resistance in the Ghetto
Resistance in the Warsaw ghetto took many forms. The Nazis forbade Jews from having schools and participating in religious activities. Both still took place clandestinely. Other forms of cultural resistance included theatre, musical performances and art. These were small triumphs over the Nazis’ attempts to strip Jews of their identities and crush their spirits.
Acts of spiritual and cultural resistance were documented by a group using the code name Oneg Shabbat, established by Emanuel Ringelblum and others in the Warsaw ghetto. As it became clear that the Nazis would eventually destroy the ghetto, the organization collected documents, drawings, essays, diaries, newspapers and other material into an archive that was a record of their daily lives — evidence that would show they had been there, even when none of them were left alive. This was also an act of resistance, a way to, as David Graber, a member of Oneg Shabbat, wrote, “scream the truth at the world.”
“There was always resistance to what was forbidden. There were lots of underground newspapers, underground schools for the children, universities where professors had smuggled in research materials and people were being taught, some of them to become doctors.… And there was an enormous amount of passive resistance in the Warsaw ghetto by people who risked their own existence to help others. Schools were forbidden but they existed nonetheless. My father found a melamed, a teacher, who taught a few children in secret and I studied the Talmud with him. We studied the book Nedarim, or Vows, which is challenging with its perush, commentary, by Ran, the acronym for the name of Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Gerona. I looked forward to the diversion of those classes, and I liked the teacher. It was not systematic study, mainly discussion, and I enjoyed that as well. But it didn’t last long.” - Pinchas Gutter, Memories In Focus
“There was one man, a famous man by the name of Emanuel Ringelblum, who organized people to collect any information relating to ghetto life. His organization, Oneg Shabbat, buried thousands of archival documents in tin and milk cans, many of which, miraculously, were discovered after the war. By 1941, the food situation had become so dire that people were dying in the streets on a daily basis, and Ringelblum and his followers set up a soup kitchen to give people at least a bowl of soup and a piece of bread. His was not the only soup kitchen in the ghetto but setting these up was not easy to do.” - Pinchas Gutter, Memories In Focus
As deportations increased and rumours spread that the ghetto would be completely liquidated (with all Jews sent to concentration and death camps), Jews in the ghetto starting making plans for armed resistance. The Jewish Fighting Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, or ŻOB) managed to communicate with the Polish Home Army outside the ghetto and plan a coordinated attack for such a time when the Germans would try to empty the ghetto of Jews. On April 19, 1943, when the Germans marched into the ghetto, the Jews hid in bunkers while ŻOB fighters began firing on the Germans, using weapons that had been smuggled into the ghetto. The attack took the Germans by surprise, and the fighting continued for almost a month. The weapons of the resistance fighters could not match the German arsenal, and most of the Jews were captured and many of them killed as German forces burned down the ghetto.
Although the Warsaw ghetto was destroyed, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising served as an inspiration for other acts of Jewish resistance.
“We existed … by hiding, until April 19, 1943, Erev Pesach, the eve of Passover, which was also the eve of the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto. That day, there was an alarm. The few telephones that existed in the ghetto were still somehow working — these were mostly in apartments where doctors or other people deemed important lived — and the Polish underground resistance on the outside who were working with the Jewish underground phoned someone in the ghetto to say that the Nazis were coming in to take everybody out. By that time, there were already lots of bunkers in the ghetto. We had also prepared a bunker underneath the ruins at the front of our building. The caretaker and the men in our building, including my father, had dug it out, creating a middle section as an entrance and a room on either side. They didn’t want to give up and be taken by the Germans and so they put in food, electricity and water and air vents so the bunker couldn’t be discerned from the outside. My father and mother prepared us children for when we would have to go there. They told us that when the time came to go into the bunker, we were to ask no questions and we must get ready as quickly as we could.” - Pinchas Gutter, Memories In Focus
“One of the ghetto buildings closest to the wall had been hit by incendiary shells and was on fire. It was burning from the bottom up and since no one was putting out the fire, it was only a matter of time before the building collapsed. Suddenly, someone in the crowd started yelling, ‘A woman! A woman! She’s going to jump!’ I turned my head in the direction that everyone was looking and witnessed the image that later became one of the ‘official’ photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, probably taken by a German photographer. I saw the woman standing on the roof of the burning building wrapped in a flag; after shouting something I couldn’t make out, with flames already at her feet, she jumped to her death. The crowd gasped in unison.” - Arthur Ney, W Hour