In highlighting the importance of the more than 50,000 Jews who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto between the mass transports in the summer of 1942 and the crushing of the revolt in late 1943, Eli Gat performed a service, but blaming the participants in the uprising for the deaths of tens of thousands of ghetto residents is a distortion of history and of morality.
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Gat’s efforts to minimize the scale of the popular revolt and argue that it was only the fighters who were involved, as well as his estimate of the survival chances of the ghetto dwellers had the uprising not happened, are is also fundamentally flawed.
By the start of 1943, the ghetto’s population had dwindled to about 50,000, from around 500,000 at its height. Around 36,000 people served as forced laborer in German factories; an additional 15,000 people had remained illegally, and were called “wild.”
This small, battered remnant of Warsaw’s Jews was fully aware that the Germans planned to eliminate all the Jews. They had survived the extreme conditions in the ghetto life, numerous transports to concentration and labor camps – in particular the Great Deportation of the summer of 1942, when 300,000 people were sent to Treblinka – and had no more illusions.
On January 9, 1943, the head of the German SS, Heinrich Himmler visited Warsaw and was toured of the ghetto. Angered by the number of “wild” Jews and by the autonomy of the German industrialists who exploited Jewish labor, he instructed the SS to seize their factories and transfer their operations to camps near Lublin.
But when German forces entered the ghetto, on January 18, in order to deport the “wild” Jews, they were met with complete disobedience as well as pockets of armed resistance.
Tens of thousands of Jews, including ones with permits, hid from the Germans and refused to follow orders. German forces were forced, for the first time, to enter homes in the ghetto in order to forcibly round up the Jews.
After four days, the operation was halted, without being completed. “Only” around 4,500 Jews were deported; more than 1,000 were shot dead in the streets.
Search for escape
The Jews in the ghetto were thrilled by the premature termination of the operation, which they saw as having been caused by their disobedience. As a result, the sense of imminent death that prevailed in the ghetto since the Great Deportation of the previous summer gave way a search for escape routes.
Those with money and connections left the ghetto for Warsaw’s “Aryan side” This was not an option for the majority, though. They began to build hiding places within the ghetto, large enough to house dozens of people for months, and collected hundreds of kilograms of food that could be stored.
Some of these bunkers were connected to the local water, electricity and sewage systems, and some people tried to reserve space for individuals with medical training. Weapons were purchased for certain bunkers, from which tunnels were dug to the Aryan side. News of the German defeat at Stalingrad, as well as the numerous Soviet air attacks on Warsaw, raised hopes that the horrendous war would be over within six months.
The Jews who remained in the ghetto, knowing the Nazis still planned to kill them all, did everything possible to avoid deportation.
On April 14 one of the ghetto’s main employers, the industrialist, Fritz Emil Schultz, wrote in his diary: “Unfortunately, my hope was in vain. Despite all my good arguments and efforts, I didn’t succeed [in persuading] the people to move [to the Trawniki camp, near Lublin, where his factory was relocated] in a full, organized, reserved, convoy; the pressure of the other side, that is of dark elements [as the Germans called the resistance], was much stronger and therefore I could only send 448 people in 11 train cars, [despite preparing room for 1,500].”
The plan’s failure led to the forced transport of the ghetto workers to the Lublin camps. The ghetto’s “wild” Jews were to be eliminated.
The SS operation to annihilate the Warsaw Ghetto, sending its residents to Treblinka or to concentration camps, was supposed to be brief and simple.
But when the German forces entered the ghetto, on Passover Eve, April 19, 1943, they encountered, in addition to armed resistance by the Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa) and the Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy) and unorganized groups, total disobedience from the entire population.
Throughout the ghetto, in both the areas of the forced laborers and the “wild” Jews, people hid in thousands of bunkers and other hiding places. Relying on past experience, they hoped to remain hidden until the operation was completed. Afterward, they believed, the ghetto would return to Polish rule, as was the case for the ghetto’s southern area after the Great Deportation of 1942. They stayed in the bunkers. Some of the fighters shot at the Germans, but rarely hit their targets.
Numerous documents from the time describe the mood in the ghetto and the spirit of resistance. German documents testify to the disruption caused by the scope of Jewish entrenchment and the failure of the plans to transport thousands of Jews to the camps, which led to the German decision to set the ghetto on fire.
That plan succeeded. The streets of the ghetto became death traps. Buildings collapsed in flames, on top of and around the entrances to the bunkers. The air temperature reached hundreds of degrees, causing water in pipes to boil and eventually explode the pipes. Stored food was burned up or rendered inedible. Smoke filled the bunkers, blinded the inhabitants, and terror reigned.
Anyone who did not die in hiding or was not shot by German troops in the streets was beaten viciously and sent to the camps near Lublin. Only a few thousand Jews were deported to Treblinka.
What made the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt the first urban uprising in occupied Europe and the most significant action of Jewish resistance during World War II was not only the use of weapons but also the complete disobedience of the entire population living in the ghetto.
The vicious suppression of the uprising was not revenge for the armed resistance, as Gat argues; rather, it was part of the overall program to eliminate all the Jews. The uprising did not lead to the destruction of the ghetto; the attempt to destroy the ghetto led to the uprising.
I, unlike Gat, cannot say what would have happened had the uprising not occurred. I can only describe what did happen to the Jews who were transported to the Lublin camps and to the Jews who escaped to the Aryan side of Warsaw. The vast majority died, sooner or later.
In November 1943 the Germans murdered the Jewish prisoners in the Lublin camps — around 42,000, including thousands from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Those who escaped to the Aryan side fared no better. After long months of struggling for survival in hiding or under false identities, in the summer of 1944 they found themselves in the inferno of the Warsaw Uprising, with little chance of survival.
The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were murdered in the Holocaust not as a result of the revolt, but rather as a result of German policy, and those who survived did so thanks to luck and resourcefulness.
Gat claims that hundreds of thousands of Jews survived the war in Germany and Poland, including about 25,000 in Warsaw.
In fact, at the end of the war no more than 40,000 Jews had survived in occupied Poland, in concentration camps, in hiding, under false identities and in the forests. Of these, only around 2,000 were thought to be from Warsaw.
The uniqueness of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt lies in its popular nature, its combination of armed resistance and mass defiance. As such it will continue to symbolize, for Jews and non-Jews alike, the desperate heroism of the Jewish spirit.
Havi Dreifuss teaches Jewish history at Tel Aviv University and heads Yad Vashem’s Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland. She is writing a book on Jews in the final months of the Warsaw Ghetto.