April 19th marks the 77th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, an audacious rebellion undertaken in the face of insurmountable odds…
Though amounting to approximately a third of the capital’s pre-war population, the Nazi occupation saw the capital’s Jews confined within an area covering a paltry 2.5% of the town. Considered the largest and most significant Ghetto in the Third Reich, it was subsequently sealed off in November, 1941.
“We have entered a new phase of life,” wrote Chaim Kaplan. “It is hard to imagine the panic which this has caused in the Jewish district. We have suddenly realized that we are confined and enclosed on all sides. We are now excluded and isolated from the world, expelled from human society.”
Worse was to befall the starving population when, the following year, deportations began to the gas chambers of Treblinka. When rumors that a final action to empty the Ghetto would begin in April, 1943, those Jews that had hitherto survived rose in rebellion against the Nazis.
Though out-numbered and desperately under-equipped (their collections of arms numbered two sub-machine guns, 17 rifles, 500 pistols and numerous homemade devices), the ragbag collection of insurgents took the Wehrmacht by surprise and repeatedly frustrated their efforts to liquidate the area by employing classic street fighting tactics.
Often moving through sewers and basements, they offered dogged resistance under the leadership of 24-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz. Directing operations from his bunker on Miła 18, German units finally discovered the fortified HQ on May 8th. Surrounded, its defenders chose suicide over surrender.
Before reputedly taking poison, Anielewicz penned a last defiant letter: “My dream has become reality, I have lived to see Jewish defense in the Ghetto in its greatest splendor.” After the war the bodies were not exhumed; instead, rubble was poured on the spot and visitors can now climb the small grassy knoll marking the area of the ‘bunker’.
Though regarded as the Ghetto’s last stand, sporadic combat continued and scores of Jews, among them Marek Edelman, using the chaos to escape to the Aryan side of the wall before joining with the Polish underground. “We weren’t beaten by the Germans,” Edelman later recalled, “we were beaten by the flames.”
Nearly one month after it originally broke out, the German commander, Jurgen Stroop, was finally able to report to his superiors that he had successfully crushed the rebellion. As if to signal the end of Warsaw’s Jewish population, the SS-Brigadeführer – who would later hang for his crimes in Mokotów Prison in 1952 – chose to mark the conclusion of his operation with the symbolic demolition of the Great Synagogue that had once stood on Pl. Bankowy.
“What a marvelous sight it was,” he wrote. “A fantastic piece of theater. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device which would detonate all the charges simultaneously. I glanced over at my brave officers and men, tired and dirty, silhouetted against the glow of the burning buildings.”
“After prolonging the suspense for a moment, I shouted: ‘Heil Hitler’ and pressed the button. With a thunderous, deafening bang and a rainbow burst of colors, the fiery explosion soared toward the clouds, an unforgettable tribute to our triumph over the Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was no more. The will of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been done.”