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Warsaw Ghetto

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The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of the Jewish ghettos established by the Germans in Poland during the World War II.

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Plans to isolate the Jewish population of Warsaw in a ghetto first circulated immediately after the German occupation of Poland in 1939. At the time, the administration of the Generalgouvernment had not been fully organized, and there were conflicting interests among the three major players: the civilian administration, the military, and the SS. Under these circumstances, the Jewish Council, or Judenrat, headed by Adam Czerniakow[?], was able to delay the establishment of the Ghetto by one year, mainly by appealing to the military to consider how Jews were a valuable labor resource.

The Warsaw ghetto was finally established by the German Generalgouverneur of Poland Hans Frank in October and November 1940. At this time, the population of the ghetto was estimated to be about 380,000 people. During the next 18 months, Jews from smaller cities and villages were brought into the ghetto, while diseases (esp. typhoid) and starvation (rations for Jews were officially limited to just 184 calories per day, as opposed to 1,800 for Poles and 2,400 for Germans in Warsaw) kept the inhabitants at about the same number. On July 22, 1942, the mass expulsion of the inhabitants started; in the next 52 days (till September 12, 1942) about 300,000 people were taken to the Treblinka extermination camp or murdered on the spot.

The situation for the remaining 55,000 to 60,000 Jews changed for the better initially: The famine ended and the once overcrowded houses were largely empty. The Jews either worked in German factories within the ghetto or lived in hiding.

During the next six months, what was left of several political organizations was brought together under name ŻOB[?] (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, Jewish Fighting Organization), headed by Mordecai Anielewicz, with 500 persons; another 250 were organized in the ŻZW[?] (Żydowski Związek Walki, Jewish Fighting Union). The members of these groups had no illusions about the German plans and wanted to die fighting. Their armament of the ŻOB consisted largely of handguns, homemade explosives and Molotov cocktails; the ŻZW was better armed through better contacts to the Polish underground outside the ghetto.

Social and Cultural Life in the Ghetto

A soup kitchen for women in the Warsaw Ghetto

Despite the enormous hardships of day-to-day life, the Judenrat and youth movements succeeded in organizing various institutions and organizations in the Ghetto to meet the various needs of the inhabitants. The major concerns were overcrowding, hunger, inactivitym, and work detail. In response, the Judenrat took the bulk of the responsibility for allocating housing--with an average of nine people per room, while charitable organizations such as CENTOS organized free soup kitchens: at one point as much as two-thirds of the Ghetto's population was provided for by these soup kitchens. For a brief time, the Judenrat was also permitted to organize four elementary schools (grades 1-3) for ghetto children, but there was also an extensive underground school system run by the various youth movements, which covered all grades (often disguised as soup kitchens) and even offered university-level courses on Sundays.

The Judenrat was also responsible for the hospitals and orphanages that operated in the Ghetto. One orphanage, headed by the pediatrician and author Janusz Korczak, was run as a model democracy, called the Republic of Children. This and the other orphanages were evacuated in 1942 and their occupants and staff were sent to Treblinka.

Cultural life included a lively press in three languages (Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew), religious activity (including a church for Jews who had converted to Catholicism), and lectures, concerts, theater, and art exhibits. In many cases, the artists and performers were prominent figures in Polish cultural life during the war.

One of the most remarkable cultural efforts in the Ghetto was headed by the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum[?] and his group Oyneg Shabbos, which collected documents by people of all ages and positions to create a social history of life in the Ghetto. In all, it is estimated that some 50,000 documents were collected, including essays on various aspects of ghetto life, diaries, memoirs, art work, underground journals, drawings, school work, posters, play bills, recipes, notes from lectures, etc. These documents were hidden in three separate batches, two of which have since been recovered and provide an invaluable insight into life in the Ghetto. (Plans are now underway to find the third cache, which is believed to be buried under what is now the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw.

The Uprising

On January 18, 1943, the first instance of armed resistance occurred when the Germans started the second expulsion of the Jews. The Jewish fighters had some success, the expulsion stopped after four days and the ŻOB took control of the ghetto, building dozens of fighting posts and operating against Jewish collaborateurs.

During the next three months, all inhabitants of the ghetto prepared for what they realized would be a final struggle. Hundreds of bunkers were dug under the houses, most connected through the sewer system, linked up with the central water supply and electricity, some featuring camouflaged air supplies and tunnels leading to safer areas of Warsaw.

Captured inhabitants of the Ghetto await removal to the Umschlagplatz for deportation

The final battle started on the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943 and the uprising ended on May 16. Nevertheless, sporadic shooting could be heard in the area of the Ghetto throughout the summer of 1944.

German sentry units near the ghetto walls were sporadically attacked by Polish units from AK and GL.

After the uprising, area of Ghetto became the place where Polish prisoners and hostages where executed by Germans. Later there was found there concentration camp KL Warschau in the area of ghetto. During Warsaw uprising[?] Polish AK unit "Zoska" was able to save 380 Jewish prisoners of concentration camp, most of whom immedietely joined AK.


  • Israel Gutman, Resistance, Houghton Mifflin, New York 1994

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