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The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 80 years on

April 19, 2023

Eighty years ago, Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto rose up against the German occupiers. It was the largest act of Jewish resistance against the Nazis.

Nazis driving Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto for deportation to an extermination camp
The Warsaw Ghetto, where the uprising took place, was also the scene of deportations to extermination campsImage: CAF/dpa/picture-alliance

Torn items of clothing, broken crockery, a rusted baby carriage — the objects laid out on temporary mats in the former children's hospital in Warsaw bear witness to brutally destroyed Jewish lives.

All sorts of things are to be found here: from pots to precious jewelry and "tefillin," the leather straps that Jews wear while praying. The items were dug up during the ongoing archeological work on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, which began in the summer of 2022.

 Various archeological items on the floor, including pots and broken crockery
The items found on the site of the Ghetto are a bitter reminder of the destroyed livesImage: Monika Sieradzka/DW

The Germans, who had occupied Poland since the fall of 1939, set up the Ghetto in October 1940. It was the biggest Jewish ghetto in the occupied regions of Europe. And it was from here that 300,000 people were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers of the extermination camps.

For historian Albert Stankowski, a charred door handle with a key still inserted in its keyhole is particularly symbolic. He is moved as he picks it up very cautiously with his white-gloved hands. "Keys and doors are a symbol of home. And these people never returned to their apartments, to their houses. They were deported or buried under rubble," he says.

Stankowski explains why the key is in the keyhole. "When people were deported to the concentration camps, there was an order from the Germans that Jews had to leave their keys in the door so that the Nazi occupiers could take the apartments over without delay," he relates.

This archeological find will be exhibited in the Museum of the Warsaw Ghetto alongside many others. The museum is currently being created in the former hospital building and is to be opened in 2025. Most of the objects come from Mila Street, where the bunker housing the headquarters of the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) was located in 1943.

Albert Stankowski, middle-aged man, holding rusty door handle
Stankowski finds this door handle particularly symbolic and movingImage: Monika Sieradzka/DW

The desperate resistance of the Jews

Members of the ZOB joined with the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) and other resistance groups to rise up against the German occupiers. Their motto was that it was better to die fighting than be burned to ashes in the crematorium of an extermination camp.

After the deportation of some 300,000 Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp northeast of Warsaw in the summer of 1942, there were only an estimated 50,000 people left living in the Warsaw Ghetto in spring 1943. The only way out of this ghetto hell seemed to lead to the gas chamber. The SS planned to dissolve the Ghetto in the course of 1943.

 People walking with suitcases, guarded by a German soldier
Hundreds of thousands of people from the Warsaw Ghetto were deported to extermination campsImage: Reinhard Schultz/imago images

Fierce resistance despite lack of arms

The uprising began on April 19, 1943, with a shooting attack on an SS column by Jewish resistance fighters, mostly young men and women. The Nazis had marched into the Ghetto to start with its dissolution. It was the Jewish week of Passover.

The 1,000 Jewish fighters, who received some support from Polish partisans, had much too little weaponry and ammunition and were absolutely no match for the German troops. Despite this, they managed to engage the German soldiers under the command of the SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop in weeks of fierce fighting.

Rather death than surrender

The Germans set houses on fire with flamethrowers, and most of the Jewish resistance fighters were killed in battle or executed. The last inhabitants of the Ghetto were either murdered there or deported to the extermination camps of Treblinka and Majdanek.

When the bunker with the Jewish headquarters on Mila Street was discovered, the fighters who had hidden there, including the leader of the uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz, committed suicide.

Historian Stankowski sees this suicide as a "symbolic gesture." He says it was related to an episode from the history of the Jewish people in the year 72 AD, "when the Jews in the besieged desert fortress of Masada decided to kill themselves rather than surrender to the Romans."

On May 16, 1943, Stroop ordered that the Great Synagogue in Warsaw be burned down, writing in his report to his superiors: "The Jewish Quarter in Warsaw is no more."

 Piles of rubble in Warsaw, Poland, with a church in the background
The Warsaw Ghetto was reduced to rubble by the Germans in 1943Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

The end of Jewish life in Poland

Very few people survived the massacre. One group of insurgents, with its leader, Marek Edelman, evaded the surrounding German forces by fleeing through the sewage system and left the Ghetto in a truck. Edelman continued fighting in the underground movement. In 1944, he joined in the Warsaw Uprising, during which 50,000 partisans from the Polish Home Army fought against the German occupiers for two months.

Marek Edelman, an elderly man in pullover and shirt
Marek Edelman helped keep alive the memory of the Ghetto and of the uprising thereImage: picture alliance/dpa/P. Kula

Before the Second World War, there were almost 3.5 million Jews living in Poland, making up 10% of the population. In Warsaw, it was 30%. During the Holocaust, 3 million Polish Jews were murdered; only a few hundreds of thousands survived. After the war, most of the survivors left Poland, partly because of anti-Jewish pogroms. For many Jewish people, the country had become just one big cemetery holding their loved ones and their entire former lives.

Fight for remembrance

Marek Edelman stayed in Poland after the war. He became a doctor, a human rights activist and an active member of the anti-communist opposition. He was one of just a few eyewitnesses who kept alive the memory of life in the Ghetto and the uprising.

Edelman and his friends often had to break the law to do so, because the communists had their problems with the history of Jewish life in Poland and sometimes themselves stoked the fires of antisemitism. When German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt down before the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw in 1970, the Polish communists were so flabbergasted that no Polish newspaper reported anything on the incident.

 Willy Brandt, man kneeling on steps of monument
The 'Kniefall von Warschau' — Brandt's kneeling before the monument — has gone down in historyImage: AP/picture alliance

Highly symbolic anniversary

For anniversaries of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19, many people in Warsaw and other Polish cities wear yellow boutonnieres that are handed out by the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Every year, 450,000 daffodils do service in this way. That is how many people were living in the Ghetto in the spring of 1941 on 307 hectares (759 acres), about 2% of the surface area of Warsaw. Marek Edelman, who died in 2009, also laid yellow flowers at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes.

Albert Stankowski stresses that this year, unlike in earlier years, there will barely be any eyewitnesses of the events back then attending commemorative events. "My generation still had grandparents that we could ask. My children don't have this chance anymore," the 50-year-old says.

For this reason, he says, it is all the more important that the message embodied by this day goes out to the entire world: "There are people even today who deny the Holocaust. And there are barely any eyewitnesses who can be asked about it. That is why this moment of commemoration is partly there to show that this unimaginable crime really took place and that so many millions of people lost their lives."

This article was originally published in German.

Correction: The teaser text of this article was revised on April 20, 2023, to avoid any misunderstanding.