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Summary Article: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 marks the best-known and best-documented act of collective Jewish resistance against the Nazi politics of extermination. It is not to be confused with the armed revolt of the Polish Home Army against the German occupation forces that started on August 1, 1944.

Thirteen months after Germany’s invasion of Poland (September 1939), Nazi officials ordered the establishment of a Jewish ghetto in the former Polish capital, arguing that isolating the Jewish community was a necessity in order to prevent outbreaks of typhus among the rest of the city’s inhabitants. Only encompassing a little more than 1 square mile and completely enclosed by a 10-foot-high wall, the ghetto was to become the home of 440,000 Jewish people. The fact that about 30% of the city’s population had to reside in 2.4% of the city’s area, and the extreme difficulty of the living conditions, caused widespread hunger, disease, and death. In 1941 alone, 10% of the ghetto population died.

Although the issue of resistance had been debated several times within the community, the expectation that Nazi Germany would lose the war, as well as fears that acts of resistance would only increase the harsh treatment that residents were already receiving at the hands of German soldiers, stopped any concrete activity. Only the beginning of mass deportations of the Warsaw Jews to the death camp Treblinka starting in mid-1942, resulting in the murder of 75% of the ghetto population in September that year, changed the attitude. Supported by a majority of the remaining Jewish people, two political organizations became the nucleus of the armed uprising: the Jewish Fighting Organization and the Jewish Military Union. Preparations for resistance included the obtaining and smuggling in of weapons as well as training for the uprising.

After some armed clashes between Jewish resistance groups and German soldiers in January 1943, the ghetto was surrounded by German policemen and soldiers on April 18, 1943, in order to liquidate it. Several days of heavy fighting inflicted many casualties on both sides; on April 27, 1943, one of the final skirmishes resulted in the liberation of some 100 Jews who had been forced together for deportation. The German forces under the command of General Jürgen Stroop finally defeated the resistance and destroyed the ghetto by air raids and the extensive use of flame-throwers. In sum, the fighting resulted in 12,000 dead persons; an additional 30,000 were liquidated subsequently and more than 7,000 deported to extermination camps. Despite these heavy losses, the uprising gave back to the Jews their pride and feeling not having been led to the slaughter without fighting back.

Some smaller resistance units were able to carry on attacks or to flee into the woods. A number of them joined the armed revolt of the Polish Home Army in 1944 but could not do so as Jews, since some nationalist anti-Semitic Polish groups killed Jews as well as Germans. Most of those who survived emigrated to Israel, where the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is commemorated with a national holiday.

    See also
  • Holocaust, Resistance; Nazism and Civilian Resistance

Further Readings
  • Einwohner, R. L. Opportunity, honor, and action in the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943. American Journal of Sociology, 109(3), 650-675. (2003, November).
  • Grynberg, M. (Ed.). (2002). Words to outlive us: Voices from the Warsaw ghetto. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Hanson, J. K. M. (2004). The civilian population and the Warsaw uprising of 1944. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fabian Virchow
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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