Eighty Years Ago: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April-May 1943.

Introduction – An Ideological Conflict & the Partition of Poland:

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, an ideological conflict of peculiar savagery began with the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland. Well before the fighting began Hitler and Himmler indicated that German forces should ignore the usual Geneva ‘convention’ distinguishing between the treatment of civilians and soldiers. Jews were a particular target, but Jews who were also communists were to be given no quarter. In the wake of the advancing armies came four so-called Einsatzgruppen, operated by the SS as hit squads against any alleged political or ‘pre-designated’ racial enemies of the régime. Unknowable thousands of civilians were slaughtered in the first few months of the occupation. This brutality spilt over to the Wehrmacht, whose view of the enemy was shaped by racist propaganda. The victorious Germans adopted a policy of forcing enormous numbers of Jews into ghettos, small urban areas where it was hoped that disease, malnutrition and eventually starvation would destroy them.

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Ghettoisation & ‘Special Treatment’:

The treatment of the Jews, communists and other ‘undesirables’ began with a programme of ghetto-building or internment in urban concentration camps, but in the summer of 1941, this suddenly became more violent. Over one-third of the population of Warsaw, for example (comprising more than a third of a million) was forced into a ghetto which occupied an area comprising only 2.5 per cent of the total area of the city. The penalty for leaving the three hundred ghettos and 437 labour camps of the Reich was death and the Judenräte (Jewish elders’ councils) were made to administer them on behalf of the Nazis, on the (often false) basis that they would ameliorate conditions more than the Germans. By August 1941, five and a half thousand Jews were dying in the Warsaw ghetto every month.

In February 1941 Martin Boorman, the Führer’s secretary, was deputed by Hitler to discuss the practicalities of sending the European Jews to one vast ghetto, either in the Vichy-run island of Madagascar or British-owned Uganda, which would become a German colony after the war. Instead, by early 1941, under Special Action Order 14f13, SS murder squads were sent by Himmler into concentration camps to kill Jews and others whom the Reich considered unworthy of life, an approach which the Gestapo referred to as Sonderbehandlung (‘special treatment’, in other words, ‘extra-judicial killings’).

Concentration Camps in Germany, Bohemia-Moravia & Poland:

During the war, Germany became briefly an imperial state again, exploiting its conquests and pursuing a crude ‘ethnic cleansing’. The Reich’s rule in Europe reached its fullest extent late in 1942 when its forces were still poised to seize Stalingrad on the River Volga. The German empire, or the New Order (Neuordnung) as Nazi leaders called it, was an incoherent political structure held together only by German military power. The organising principles of the New Order emerged in a haphazard way following Germany’s early victories in 1940-41. It was formally announced on 3rd October 1941 by Hitler himself when he returned to Berlin from the front to tell his people that Soviet Russia was on the point of defeat and that the work of rebuilding Europe was about to begin. As events unfurled, the Soviet Union was not defeated in 1941, but the process of reconstructing Europe economically, demographically and governmentally was set in motion under conditions of continuous warfare.

Reorganisation of, & Resistance to the Reich:

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Of all the elements of the New Order, the political organisation of Europe was the most complex. German leaders did not want to rule the whole of Europe directly, lacking both the resources and experiences to do so. In the north and west of the continent, the running of local affairs remained in the hands of local authorities whose work was monitored by German commissioners or by military governors. In the East, however, the occupied countries were destined to be in the core of the German Eurasian empire, so the Reich’s rule was more direct. Austria, Bohemia and much of conquered Poland came directly under Berlin, though Bohemia remained, technically, a Protectorate. The Balkan countries were even more complicated, especially Greece and Yugoslavia. In Ukraine, Alfred Rosenberg, the NSDP’s official ideologue, wanted to turn Ukraine into a new nation-state friendly to Germany. In practice, however, Ukrainians remained in junior administrative positions, but they remained alienated from the German commissariat, nullifying any hope that they might have preferred the German New Order to Stalinist rule.

The third area of New Order activity was racial policy. German conquest made it possible to export the biological politics of the Reich to the rest of Europe. This included the search for, and kidnapping of children with ‘Aryan’ features, to be brought up in the Reich, in order to ‘improve’ the ‘bloodstock’ of the nation. An estimated three hundred thousand children were sent to ‘Lebensborn’ centres from where they were adopted by German families. It also involved the liquidation, through murder or neglect, of psychiatric patients and the mentally and physically disabled. But at the core of the policy was the motivation to ‘solve’ the so-called ‘Jewish question’.

The régime’s anti-Jewish policy went through a number of stages both before and after the outbreak of war. Hitler hoped for some form of deportation of European Jewry, not to Palestine but to the French island of Madagascar, which he felt could be made into a tropical ghetto where the Jews would die of disease and malnutrition. This option was kept open in 1940-41, but meanwhile, the Nazis concentrated on their ghetto-building in Europe itself, with hundreds of thousands of Jews transported across Europe from west to east, to ghettoes where Jewish councils ran their lives in uneasy ‘collaboration’ with the SS.

The SS, Barbarossa & the Pursuit of Genocide:

Hitler’s own SS guard, parading on 9 November 1935.

The invasion of the USSR changed the circumstances again. The conquest of continental Europe provided the circumstances for the sharp change in the direction of German race policy away from discrimination and terror to the active pursuit of genocide. Hitler and the racist radicals in the Nazi movement had no master plan for annihilation in 1939, but their whole conception of the war was one of racial struggle in which the Jewish people above all were the enemy of German imperialism. The orders prepared for Operation Barbarossa deliberately encouraged the murder of Soviet Jews, whom Hitler regarded as ‘Jewish-Bolsheviks’ and therefore doubly unworthy of citizenship in the German New Order. Moreover, millions of Jews in the republics targeted for conquest were suddenly panicked about the racial policy they would soon be subject to if the Germans succeeded in occupying their areas of the Soviet Union. In the Baltic States and Ukraine, native anti-Semitism was whipped up by the German invaders and led to widespread massacres. Ten of thousands of Jews were suddenly rounded up, murdered in broad daylight and thrown into mass graves throughout the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine.

Then, when the Nazis suddenly found themselves ruling a very large Jewish population after the conquests in the east, they began to explore more extreme solutions to the ‘Jewish question’. The German New Order was viewed from Berlin in terms of a hierarchy of races: at the apex were the Germanic peoples, followed by subordinate Latin and Slavic populations, and at the foot were races – Jews, Sinti and Roma (‘gypsies’) who were deemed to be unworthy of existence. As early as January 1940, Hitler is reported to have declared to František Chvalkovský (the foreign minister of Bohemia-Moravia):

“The Jews shall be annihilated in our land.”

Following the instigation of Barbarossa, however, this was no longer a vague ‘promise’ lifted from the pages of Mein Kampf. This policy of annihilation was now vigorously and violently applied on a continental basis, especially when four SS Einsatzgruppen (action groups) followed the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union in order to liquidate those considered ‘undesirable’, primarily Jews, Red Army commissars and anyone thought likely to become partisans behind German lines.

The SS groups killed out of all proportion to their numbers; together they comprised only three thousand, including clerks, interpreters, teletype and radio operators and female secretaries. By the end of July 1941, Himmler had reinforced this number ten-fold when SS Kommandostab brigades, German police battalions and Baltic and Ukrainian pro-Nazi auxiliary units augmented the numbers (by forty thousand) and the role of the Einsatzgruppen in an orgy of killing that accounted for nearly one million deaths in six months, by many different means.

The Formation of the Final Solution – Extermination:

There is strong evidence, not least from the later trial of Adolf Eichmann, that it was in July 1941 that Hitler finally ordered “the physical extermination of the Jews”. Flushed with his successes in the east, and the prospect of ultimate victory over the USSR, Hitler knew that there would soon be no forces left in Europe which could constrain a programme of annihilation. Sometime between mid-July and mid-October 1941, just as the mass murder of Russian Jews was being escalated after Operation Barbarossa, Hitler decided to kill every Jew that his Reich could reach, regardless of the help they could have afforded Germany’s war effort. The exact date is impossible to determine since the Nazis attempted to obliterate evidence of the Holocaust itself, regardless of its organisational genesis. But although the precise dates at which the key decisions in the Jewish question were taken have yet to be established, the evidence points strongly to a date in July, as German forces won startling victories in the USSR and Hitler came to realise that victory would give him the freedom to carry out whatever policy he chose on the race question.

In July, Gőring (pictured above at the Nuremberg trial with Boorman) ordered Heydrich to work out a Final Solution, and Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of the rail transport of Jews in Europe, later recalled that Himmler told him in July that physical extermination was what Hitler wanted. This can be verified from the other sources already mentioned. By the autumn, therefore, the widescale mass murder of Jews had become commonplace and routine.

Reinhard Heydrich pioneered the use of mobile gas chambers, originally used to kill the mentally ill and disabled, for the SS (Schutzstaffel, or ‘security police’). They were sometimes disguised as furniture removal vans. The subsequent experiments with these ‘killing vans’ convinced Heydrich and the SS hierarchy that a less conspicuous and more rational form of extermination should be set up, based on camps designed like factories to process human beings. Building began in 1941 and the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was completed in October.

This coincided with a change in the Jewish emigration policy of the régime. In October 1941, all Jewish emigration from Europe was banned, despite the fact that the Nazis had encouraged approximately half of Germany’s Jews to emigrate between 1933 and 1939, forty-one thousand of them to Palestine under the Ha’avarah Agreement made with Zionist organisations in Palestine. Instead, deportations of the remaining German Jews to concentration camps in the east began in October 1941. The next month, mobile gas vans were used to kill Jews in Lodz in Poland and soon afterwards in Chelmno.

So confident was Hitler of his impending almost total victory in Europe that he was planning to push on through the Caucasians to seize Palestine from the British (mandated authority), with the help of local Arab militias. This is confirmed in a Record of the Conversation between the Führer and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on 28 November 1941, which took place in Berlin with Ribbentrop, the Reich Foreign Minister, in attendance. At this meeting, Hitler promised the Arab leader, exiled in Berlin, that as soon as the German armies in the east had gained control of the Caucasians, Germany’s sole objective would be…

‘… the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere under the protection of the British power.’

Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-45, Series D, Vol. XIII, London, 1964, pp. 881 ff.

On 12 December 1941, the day after declaring war on the USA, Hitler spoke to senior party functionaries. Afterwards, Goebbels recorded that the Führer is determined to make a clean sweep as far as the Jewish question was concerned. Hitler referred back to his 1939 speech in the Reichstag, saying:

‘The world war is here, the extermination of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.’

Six days later, Himmler made a note of a meeting he had had with Hitler, which read:

‘Jewish Question: To be extirpated as partisans.’

Peter Longerich, BBC History, 2/2002, p. 36.

Extermination was placed on a proper organisational foundation with the establishment of a series of camps in occupied Poland under the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt), where victims were either gassed as soon as they arrived, or worked to death in factories and quarries closeby. The systematic murder of Jews began in late 1941 and was extended to the Sinti and Roma in 1942. During the war, the number of concentration camps for political prisoners expanded enormously, and the total camp population increased from twenty-five to seven hundred thousand by the end of the war. Hundreds of thousands of others died from malnutrition and disease. From March 1942, the SS also set up camps in the east for the mass murder of Jews and gypsies.

‘Operation Reinhard’ – The ‘Liquidationof the Polish Jews:

The policy was to be changed from killing Jews wherever they happened to be, while moving them eastwards and keeping them living in conditions also likely to kill them, to carrying out the Final Solution in specially adapted camps dedicated to the purpose. This included Operation Reinhard, the sole purpose of which was the liquidation of Poland’s Jews at three further camps: Treblinka, Sobibór and Belzec. Solibór Camp was opened near Lublin in May 1942, and work was begun on Treblinka in north-east Poland the next month. Over the next three years, an estimated five to six million Jews, Roma and Shinti were killed in these industrial-scale, human-processing camps, brought there from all over occupied Europe, and from pro-Axis states, such as Croatia.

The Ghetto Uprising, April-May 1943:

It was against this backcloth that, at 6.00 a.m. on Monday 19 April 1943, some eight hundred and fifty soldiers of the Waffen-SS entered the Ghetto, intending first to ‘evacuate’ the remaining Jewish population there, numbering sixty thousand, and then to destroy it, under direct orders from Himmler. But the Jews had been warned by the arrival of Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian auxiliaries of what was about to happen, and the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB, or Jewish combat organisation) took up positions around the Ghetto, ready to make the SS pay as dearly as possible. The Uprising, as it soon became known, came as a surprise to them. On the first day, they lost twelve killed by ZOB grenades and Molotov cocktails, with the Ghetto’s defenders also managing to set a tank alight. It was so serious a reverse that the chief of the SS in Warsaw was replaced, and SS-General Jürgen Stroop took over. He reported back on one attack soon afterwards:

‘The Jews and bandits defended themselves from one defence point to the next, and at the last minute escaped via atticks or underground passages.’

Bartozewski & Polonsky (eds.), Jews in Warsaw, pp. 338 -42.

Vastly outnumbered in terms of fighters and outgunned in equipment, the Jews fought with a furious determination born of utter desperation, as Stroop slowly made his way into the centre of the Ghetto. His reports to Krüger in Kraków continued:

‘One saw constant examples of how, despite the threat of fire, the Jews and bandits preferred to return into the flames than to fall into our hands. … Yelling abuse at Germany and the Führer and cursing German soldiers, Jews hurl themselves from burning windows and balconies.’


They continued to fight a door-to-door, do-or-die battle against three thousand élite troops. The leader of the Uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz and his closest comrades, refused to surrender to the SS, which surrounded them in a bunker at 18 Mila Street; instead, they committed suicide on 8th May. Eight days later the Uprising was finally put down when Stroop blew up the Warsaw Synagogue. By then he had captured or killed 55,065 Jewish resistors and Polish ‘bandits’ who had fought alongside them and were executed on capture. Stroop had lost sixteen men in all, but another eighty-four were wounded. Only approximately fifty Jewish fighters escaped as the Uprising was brutally suppressed.

The Uprising became a symbol of the Jewish resistance in Lviv, Czestochawa, and Bialystock. In August, there were even risings in the Treblinka and Sobibór extermination camps, set up in 1942. With the huge preponderance of arms available to the Germans, little by way of military success could be achieved by these risings, but the resistance shown helped to maintain the morale and pride of the Jewish people in Poland and throughout Nazi-occupied and Axis-controlled central Europe. A second, more general rising occurred in Warsaw as the Red Army approached the Polish capital city on 1st August 1944.

The Soviet Advance & The Warsaw Rising of 1944:

Understandably, the Poles wanted to wrest control of their capital away from the Germans, and with it, they hoped, the sovereignty of their country, before the arrival of the Soviet troops. While the Uprising was aimed militarily against the Germans, it was also aimed politically against the Soviets, something that Stalin well understood. The result was as desperate and tragic for the Warsaw Poles as the Ghetto Uprising had been for the Warsaw Jews in April 1943. The sixty-three-day rising which began in August 1944 led to the deaths of a quarter of a million Poles and the destruction of some eighty-three per cent of the city in the German retaliation, systematically organised by the Waffen SS. The Red Army stood by outside the city’s environs and watched while all this happened. Yet when, in early September, the Red Cross arranged an evacuation, only one in ten of the remaining one million citizens elected to leave.

A Street in Warsaw after the ‘Waffen SS’ destroyed the city in the summer and autumn of 1944.
Harbingers of Death & Destruction:

Speaking at the Sportpalast on 18 February 1943, only days after Field Marshal Paulus’ capitulation at Stalingrad, perhaps Germany’s greatest single defeat of the war, Goebbels railed against the ‘Jewish liquidation squads’ that he claimed were stationed ‘behind the onrushing Russian divisions’. He went on:

“Germany in any case has no intention of bowing to this threat but means to counter it in time and if necessary with the complete and radical extermin-…

“… elimination.”

Friedlander, Years of Extermination, p. 472.

But because Hitler did not spell out his thinking in regard to the relative importance of the Holocaust and victory on the Eastern Front, we can only surmise how he balanced these demands at different points. It is not impossible that the reason that the Holocaust was intensified when defeat seemed likely, rather than halted as logic might imply – albeit to be reinstated after victory was won – goes to the heart of Hitler’s view of his own place in history. Even if Germany lost the war, he believed, he would always be the man responsible for the complete extermination of the Jewish race in Europe. That would be his legacy to the Volk, even if the Allies managed to defeat the Reich. Putting his dream of a Judenfrei (‘Jew-free’) world even before the need for victory was a measure of Hitler’s fanaticism. On 4th October 1943, Himmler told senior SS officers that the murder of the Jews was a glorious page in our history that has never been written and cannot be written. It is therefore pointless to seek a piece of paper with Hitler’s signature authorising the Holocaust, despite the wealth of minuted statements and the wealth of circumstantial evidence that reveals his intentions.

Undoubtedly, the SS played a key role in organising the Final Solution, as well as in running the apparatus of racial hygiene and moving its wretched army of slave labourers from project to project as the Allied armies closed in on Berlin. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that, when captured by British troops at the end of the war, Himmler followed the example of his führer and committed suicide.

The ruins of Berlin in 1945 with the Brandenburg Gate in the distance. The Soviet offensive in April 1945 reduced large stretches of central Berlin (where it was still standing) to rubble. The irony for the West was that the future of democracy was secured through a Communist victory in the East.

But in order for the Nazis to exterminate almost two million Polish Jews in less than two years between early 1942 and late 1943, they needed help. They decided to use units of the Reserve Police Battalion 101, which was alone responsible for the shooting or transporting to their deaths, of eighty-three thousand people. It was made up of respectable, working-class and middle-class citizens of Hamburg, rather than Nazi ideologues. Peer pressure and a sense of obedience to authority, rather than political fervour, seemed to have turned these ordinary citizens into mass murderers. They represented a cross-section of German society, and not one of them was coerced into killing Jews.


Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis & the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishers)/ Random House.

Appendix: The story of the Oyneg Shabes archive.


“Between 1940-43 a group of dedicated writers, led by historian Emanuel Ringeblum, secretly recorded daily Jewish existence for the 500,000 souls trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto. The project became a race against time -history as survival. Anton Lesser narrates this ten-part series of the lives, stories & destruction of the Ghetto.

“In the middle of Europe, in the middle of the 20th Century, a half million Jewish men, women & children were herded into a prison city within a city. Walled off & surrounded by the German occupiers & their collaborators. How do you tell the world about your life and fate? Historian and activist Emanuel Ringelblum devised and directed a clandestine archive – codename Oyneg Shabes (Joy of the Sabbath) to chronicle every aspect of their existence. He recruited over sixty ‘zamlers’ or gatherers to write, collect & compile thousands of pages-diaries, essays, poems, photographs, statistical studies, art, ephemera – a historical treasure that was buried even as the Ghetto was being extinguished so that the world might read and understand.”

For more information on the Oyneg Shabes/Ringeblum archive go to the website of the Jewish Historical Institute https://cbj.jhi.pl/

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