RESISTANCE AND THE WARSAW GHETTO IN POLAND
Resistance often involves a group of active fighters combating the advances of an aggressor. However, the Warsaw ghetto uprising during World War 2 involved more than just armed resistance against the German forces who were deporting hundreds of thousands of Jewish people to the concentration camps. News of mass murder in the killing camps filtered to the ghetto, incensing those left behind, who then proceeded to rise up in opposition against the Nazi Germans; this action took their oppressors by surprise. What distinguished this uprising from other forms of resistance was the use of novel tactics. The Jews in Warsaw managed to clandestinely smuggle in food, weapons and books as they sought to fight the oppression of the Nazi regime.
In the midst of scholars who have disputed the categorization of smuggling as a form of resistance, Battrick credits smuggling as the only feasible option that Jews in Warsaw had at the time. In spite of the great dangers faced by Jews who were caught engaging in their cultural practices or education, those in Warsaw remained committed to their ways. Those people who were caught with forbidden literary materials often risked being shot by the Nazi police. The smuggling of books facilitated the existence of clandestine schools. This covert educational activity was exemplified in the way school children would hide books underneath their clothes while walking home from the basements and apartments, which served as their clandestine classrooms. Soup kitchens as well as private homes played host to these 'illegal' classes. Sometimes the classes took the form of poetry sessions that sought to promote and foster Jewish culture. As the Germans sought to induce death of the Jews through murder, oppression, cold, disease and starvation, the Jews devised ways of cushioning themselves from the suffering experienced in the ghettos, including reduced food rations. Apart from operating as disguised clandestine schools, soup kitchens were places of solace for over 150,000 people who were staring at death from starvation. Here, they were provided with a free midday meal of 600-800 calories per day; this was in contravention of the Nazi policy of providing a paltry 300 calories for the normal citizens. These actions were in oppositional defiance of the Germans' efforts to exterminate them through various initiatives, such as food rations, harsh living conditions and deportations to concentration camps.
Upon Germany's invasion of Poland, the Jewish people, whose population was approximately one third of the entire population, were squeezed into an area of Warsaw measuring 2.4 per cent of the entire area. Through concentration camps, the Nazis were able to contain the Jews and restrict their movements as well as their avenues of resistance. From 1939-42, an estimated 45,000 Jews would die annually in the ghetto due to starvation and diseases whereas 250,000 would constantly be transferred from the ghettos to the concentration camps as well as death chambers, where they met their deaths. Back in the ghetto, the situation worsened with every passing day. Not only was it crowded with the Jewish population from Warsaw but also those that had been transferred to the ghetto from surrounding areas by the Nazi government. A minimum of 6-7 people would be crammed into one room, which was usually characterized by inept sanitation facilities and poor ventilation. As a result, diseases constituted one of the biggest threats for the residents; these diseases often came in the form of epidemics and claimed a lot of lives. One of these diseases was the yellow spotted fever - a disease transmitted by ticks as well as typhus, which is transmitted by lice. As stated by the Social Studies Social Service, thousands of people died every month from diseases, which situation was only made worse by starvation. Another challenge to grapple with in the ghetto was random killings that would often befall those who were found to breaking the law, such as smuggling or practicing Jewish culture and religious faith. The onset of deportations to Treblinka extermination camp served to spark the fire that was the uprising against the Nazis. These challenges were heightened by the deportations of Jews, which led to a situation in which many believed they had no option other than to rise up against the Germans. In addition to armed combat, smuggling, clandestine schools and soup kitchens were integral components of the resistance as these factors went against everything the Nazis were trying to oppress in the Jewish population.
Life in the Warsaw ghetto was a sort of crucible for the Jews and Poles living there under Nazi rule and occupation, in that it hardened the ghetto residents' will to survive and adapt in a resistant way. Although outnumbered and outgunned, the ghetto residents still managed to create new opportunities out of the threats that were being leveled at them. Faced with a situation that seemed unwinnable, they did not give up and march obediently to the executions that awaited them in Treblinka. They found ways to adapt, thrive, and resist. For example, when the Nazis cut off the water supply to the city, the ghetto residents worked together in order to collect rainwater and well water; furthermore, when the Nazis were conducting air raids on the area or using artillery to shell the area, "the Poles made primitive weapons such as homemade grenades out of unexploded shells or Molotov cocktails using gasoline. They created launchers out of car springs, which could carry the weapons almost two hundred feet" (Cosby). This tendency towards being ingenious and using what was available was carried throughout the resistance as a theme. In fact, parallels can be made between the situation of the Warsaw ghetto residents and any number of historical occurrences when an outnumbered and outgunned group made a desperate stand with what was available against an army with superior numbers and weapons, including the American Revolution. However, ultimately, the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was a failure, and the ghetto was lost as a battle ground, so a better comparison in that regard may be to the Alamo.
Warsaw was not the only ghetto that the Nazis set up to persecute those who didn't fit into their new world order; the German forces created a significant amount of ghettoes which eventually functioned as sort of transfer stations to concentration camps. The goal of these ghettos, therefore, was to get people and break their spirit, so that they would be obedient once they were in the extermination camp, and easy to kill. Poland did not fare well in defending itself as a nation against the German onslaught, especially in the early years of World War 2, and the Polish army was technologically outdistanced quickly, leading to a situation of total national defeat in which it was relatively easy for the invading Germans to round up Polish Jews and force them to live in ghettos. For example, to give an idea of some of the numbers, these ghettoes were established in Lodz and Krakow as well as Warsaw. "Inside these overcrowded walled-in ghettos, tens of thousands died a slow death from hunger and disease amid squalid living conditions. The ghettos soon came under the jurisdiction of Heinrich Himmler" (The Nazi). Mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical survival all became that much more difficult in the ghettoes.
The Warsaw ghetto uprising broke out as a result of the above-mentioned crucible conditions, mixed with ingenious survival and guerrilla war tactics, when the Nazis attempted to enter the ghetto in force to round up and oust the remaining ghetto residents. Through a mix of digging in and participating in street raids, the resistors were able to hold out for some time. Although vastly outnumbered and having only primitive, cobbled-together technology, these resistance fighters were able to outlast the better-equipped and -supplied German army, even though the Germans were eventually victorious; "Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured, about 7,000 were shot, and the remainder were deported to camps" (Warsaw). Once the forced evictions started, the ZOB or Jewish Fighting Organization was founded, and continued to resist throughout the deportations that the Germans carried out in Warsaw. "The ZOB, formed by members of Jewish youth organizations, called for the Jews of the ghetto to resist deportation" (Warsaw). The ZOB found its opposition in reports of Jews being killed randomly by Nazi soldiers working in units, and continued to be in operation even after the ghetto deportations had concluded, although it was dispersed into other movements. As it grew as an organization, the ZOB sought out and garnered the support of underground organizations, including the Polish resistance.
With the difficulties faced in the ghetto, the smuggling of food, weapons and books was the only mode of survival for the residents; without these materials they would have starved to death and been unable to organize resistance effectively. The smuggling, usually facilitated through bribery, was concentrated in buildings that were connected to the walls of the ghetto on one side, as well as underground canals, tunnels and camouflaged openings in walls. The smuggling of food was aided in part by certain Nazi officials as well as Aryan Poles. In the case of the former, their actions were influenced by their desire not to lose the free labor that was available to them in the form of the Jewish people. Jewish children were at the center of the smuggling ring because they were difficult to suspect, owing to the fact that they were not so visible and were not required to wear an armband. According to Social Studies Service, the children, most of them aged 12 years and below, would cross over to the Aryan side from where they would emerge with food concealed under their garments. Polen observes that the involvement of children in smuggling was an indication of the reversed roles in the Jewish society, occasioned by the measures of the Nazis to extinguish them. In a show of solidarity that is synonymous with the Jews, children were now taking care of their parents, and this involved sneaking to the Aryan side to go and bring food for their parents. Usually, they would make use of their small body size to crawl through the openings of a wall of the ghetto, or travel via subterranean passageways to go and buy or barter for food on the other side. Tragically, some of these children, when caught, would never be seen again.
Because of the formation of the ZOB and the fact that word had spread about the extermination camps which awaited the ghetto residents, the Germans faced resistance when they tried to renew deportations from the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. This resistance ran counter to the usual process of sublimation and oppression the Nazis were used to using, in which the population was segregated, isolated, lined up, ordered, and moved along in a way that stressed the need for speed and efficiency, and was often accompanied by brutal shows of force against those (relatively few) who resisted. In other words, the way in which the Nazis traditionally approached ghetto roundups was to rely on their superior numbers and the creation of fear in the minds of the citizenry they were persecuting. The Nazi "Sturm and Drang" style, combined with punctiliousness and the obsession with order likely fueled by Hitler's ambitions of creating a new sort of Roman empire, led to a situation in which most civilians simply went along with the dictates of their oppressors. One can see this tendency reflected in the ironic title of Borowski's "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen." However, the ZOB was able to militarize the civilian population to the extent that they were no longer content to be formed into lines and marched off to oblivion. Instead, they had decided to take a stand, even if it looked likely that it would be their last stand, and fight. When the Nazis went into the Warsaw ghetto, hoping to storm through in the early morning and take advantage of natural confusion, they found organized resistance and active individuals taking to the streets against them in a show of makeshift armed revolt. This enraged the invaders to the extent that they sought to make a statement of brutality in response: "In act of retaliation they massacre 1,000 Jews in the main square on January 21, but suspend further deportations" (Warsaw). This may seem like a lopsided victory, but it is nonetheless a partial victory for the ZOB and Warsaw resistance. Even though the Germans were still able to deport and kill thousands of Jews, the ZOB got many others planning and acting out in revolt. As time went by, as mentioned, the ZOB got help from other resistance organizations, and was able to swell its ranks as well as its armaments. "The fighting organization was unified, strategies were planned, underground bunkers and tunnels were built, and roof-top passages were constructed. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto were prepared to fight to the end" (Warsaw, Poland).
Where the police officers, guards, Poles or Germans were involved, bribery played a big part in smuggling of food into the ghettos. The smuggling of weapons also played an integral role in fermenting the resistance. As the militant face of the resistance, the ZOB relied upon smuggled weapons in addition to homemade weapons to repel the Nazis from transferring more residents to the concentration camps. These weapons included pistols and rifles, some of which had been supplied by Polish resistance groups fighting the Nazi-imposed government. Furthermore, Mordecai Anielewicz, the leader of the ZOB, and his armed men, smuggled material stolen from armory factories, which they used to make their homemade weapons. The use of unusual guerrilla and smuggling strategies, much like those used against the French at Algiers, ensured that they could not be detected by the Nazi security forces; these included concealing the weapons in cemeteries as well as setting land mines in particular places that could entrap the German forces.
Life in the Nazi ghettoes of Eastern Europe was a struggle for survival, so clandestine economies were vital to helping the people in these communities. As noted above, smuggling played an important role in the underground economy supporting the Warsaw resistance. This resistance was against more than the German soldiers and Nazi regime, as well. It was about preserving Jewish ways of life. One function of the construction of a ghetto is to basically make the residents feel like they are less than human beings. As the residents of the ghetto struggle for survival and try to resist the forces of oppression as best they can, those forces seek to basically blot them out as human beings through various tactics, including instigating shaming rituals, forbidding cultural and religious practices, and cutting people off from fulfilling basic needs of food, water, clothing, and shelter. In such a situation, the natural first reaction of a human being with dignity and values is to feel a sense of outrage and disbelief. However, this disbelief is often followed by a hardening as the survivor learns to manage and adapts to the new environment. "The population of most ghettos was comprised primarily of women, children, and the elderly, such that men of military age formed a very small part of the population of the ghetto, usually less than 30 percent. Concern for the fate of their families discouraged armed resistance" (The Nazi). To organize and resist in an atmosphere where even survival is questionable requires unique courage.
Although residents of the Warsaw ghetto in Poland did get help from the outside, it is not as if it was from citizen drives. The common people of Germany basically ignored the ghettos in the same way that they ignored the concentration camps. In the so-called "Good German" syndrome, the population basically turned its back on the inhumanity of its rulers and army, and looked the other way. It is easy with the perspective of history to look back on a situation like the Warsaw ghetto and say what should or shouldn't have happened. This is what is known as biased hindsight; to really understand the plight of the Warsaw ghetto inhabitants, one has to understand the lopsided odds and the extreme courage required to stand up and fight in this kind of situation. At the time, there was significant confusion among the people as well as Jewish elites about how to solve the problems facing the Jewish people. Political parties didn't have any answers either, making for a generally chaotic situation in the ghetto.
People today like to ask why the victims of the Warsaw ghetto, and Nazi ghettoization in general, didn't put up more of a fight or organize more of a resistance, but examples like the Warsaw uprising are there for those who want an example of rare courage. From this perspective, "The real mystery is not why Jews failed to resist but why any survived at all. The balance of power was one-sided in the extreme" (Powell). In further answering the question of why more Jews didn't at least try to resist in other cities and ghettoes, one writer and artist may have the answer: "It wasn't so easy like you think. Everyone was so starving and frightened, and tired they couldn't believe even what's in front of their eyes. And the Jews lived always with hope. They hoped the Russians can come before the German bullet arrived from the gun into their head." (Spiegelman).
When thinking of the complications of war, invasion, and resistance in the context of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, one must also think of how the Nazis attempted to control information and propaganda in a way that was deceptive and largely based on the widespread proliferation of disinformation. Part of the Nazi regime was its propaganda empire, which sought to control all news and even all art produced. News was strictly censored, and there was no internet, so people had to rely on the grapevine. "The deception was as brilliant as it was cynical. The indifference and often hostility of the outside world was a sad reality. The willingness of some survivors to share their stories is a recent phenomenon" (Powell). In the chaos and confusion of war, inhumanity finds a tolerant audience among civilians who are plagued by fear, uncertainty, doubt, and hesitation, and who are taken advantage of by propagandists. "For a long time, most refused to talk about the war, chiefly because the act of remembering an offense is itself traumatic. There was a lot of unresolved mourning for family members they hoped to meet again but knew deep down they never would." In this type of atmosphere, chaos tends to reign supreme, so it is relatively unique for an underdog fighting group to go up against insurmountable odds in armed rebellion in order to preserve its ways of life, its culture, its religion, and its education.
The Jewish community holds education in high esteem, and this was exemplified by the extreme extent to which those in Warsaw tried to to educate their children about their Jewish culture and civilization. This was primarily done through the smuggling of books, which were used to run clandestine schools. These books found their way onto the shelves of underground libraries, which were often located in underground apartments and soup kitchens. Couriers were tasked with supplying the libraries with literary works on philosophy and history, as well as novels. As Polen states, the situation in Warsaw ghetto was seen in contrast to elsewhere where people were burning books to keep themselves warm. Tolstoy's War and Peace was one of the most popular books in the ghetto, as it told the tale of the defeat of a European invader. It was their hope that the same fate that befell Napoleon's troops would also befall the Nazi regime. With the smuggling of books, a clandestine schooling system thrived in the Warsaw ghetto. As a form of resistance, this maintenance of education was contravening to the Nazi regime's policy that banned the Jewish population from practicing their cultural beliefs, religious faith or education. If caught, the price of this offence was death. The classes were discreetly held in soup kitchens and private homes where elementary school children would congregate for their lessons. The ghetto also had two clandestine secondary schools, where Hebrew was taught. Not only did these clandestine classes focus on secular aspect of education but also the religious perspective in which children were schooled in Jewish tradition and heritage. Polen aptly captures the zeal for education in the Warsaw ghetto when she states that thousands of children were taught about the Torah, whereas the older children studied legal and homiletic texts of the Talmud. The Jews were also blessed with gifted educators in their midst who provided education to the youth. Prominent among them was Dr. Janusz Korczak, who despite being offered the option of escaping to safety, stuck by his orphaned students to the end, when they were transferred to the concentration camp. Born Henryck Goldsmit in 1878, he was a man with a passion for assisting disadvantaged children. He established a Jewish orphanage called Dom Sierot, which housed children, aged 7-14 years who were studying at Polish public schools as well as Jewish-sponsored ones. When close to 200 children as well as staff members of his orphanage were earmarked by the Nazis for repatriation, Dr. Korczak joined them on their trip to Treblinka where they were all exterminated. The role of Hebrew and Yiddish literary societies cannot be forgotten as they facilitated the growth of this clandestine schooling system by organizing poetry readings and literary evenings whose theme focused on preserving the Jewish civilization.
Another aspect of these clandestine classes was the amateur performance of plays, café music, satire and comedy, all of which provided relief from the harsh conditions in addition to showcasing the Jewish culture and way of life. Out of these clandestine classes emerged diaries and reports documenting the living conditions in the ghetto. A case in point is Oneg Shabbat also known as Joy of the Sabbath an archive that was established by Emanuel Ringelblum who believed that documenting the events would prevent a recurrence of anything similar in the future; long after the disappearance of the Nazi regime (Polen). He was also the brains behind Underground Ghetto Archive (ARG), an archive of documents and records detailing all that was happening in the ghetto. The results of the clandestine schools were quite impressive owing to the great amount of interest they elicited from school goers. As stated by Polen (20), school children exhibited a high level of dedication to their studies as was evidenced by them risking their lives to carry books to and from schools. Furthermore, they had the stamina to withstand the biting hunger pangs and the cold classrooms in order to quench their thirst for knowledge.
The advent of soup kitchens was caused by the starvation that was looming large over the population and claiming lives in the Warsaw ghetto. Being a form of resistance, it was in disobedience of the Nazi regime's efforts to provide Jews with the lowest food rations among the various sectors of the Polish population. Gentile Poles were entitled to 699 calories and Germans were entitled to 2,600 calories whereas Warsaw Jews could only receive 181 calories which is way lower than the required amount of calories for human beings. Consequently, so-called rationing was actually a strategy by the regime to induce death by starvation and keep the population of the Jews at a low number.
However, in a show of defiance, the Jewish Mutual Aid Society, sponsored by the American Joint Distribution Committee, provided relief to people from starvation through its soup kitchens, which provided people with bread and bowls of soups. Simply known as 'The Joint', the committee was able to operate freely without the Nazis interference because by then the Americans were a neutral participant in World War 2, which compelled Germany to allow American agencies to operate without any interference. According to Aktion Reinhard Camps (1), these soup kitchens peaked at over 100 in the face of the deportations to the concentration camps. Even when funding from the American Joint Distribution Committee began to decline, the soup kitchens still thrived on taxes that were imposed by 'house committees;' these committees were a form of self-help established in virtually every apartment. Their task was to assess every household's resources, after which they would levy a monthly payment. This fee would be remitted to a central fund, which would cater for the upkeep of the soup kitchens. They would also distribute food to the needy families; food that had been contributed by other families. Their responsibilities also extended to providing medical care to families albeit 5,000 people still lost their lives yearly despite their best efforts. The shaming of those who were selfish was a tactic used to ensure that everyone was on board with this form of resistance against the Nazi efforts to reduce the Jewish population through starvation.
Poland was the site of many atrocities and massacres during the World War 2, including the Katyn Massacre as well as the concentration camps of Treblinka, Auschwitz and Birkenau. Many other German concentration and extermination camps were also located in Poland. During the war, the Polish people got the worst of both the German and the Russian armies. The Warsaw rebellion represents a ray of positive action, if doomed positive action, amidst a general backdrop of war and chaotic defeat. Even though many people lost their lives in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, it survives today as an important example of Jewish resistance. The Jews who joined the armed resistance and fought against their oppressors were not just surviving; they were taking action against the Nazis within the Polish ghetto, and actively resisting for as long as possible, and at the cost of many lives, as mentioned above. "When the news of the uprising reached the allied bases, Air Marshal Slessor authorized flights to Poland, but not to Warsaw. Bad weather intervened and delayed the mission for two days, until August 4" (Peszke). The shame of the World War 2 is that amidst all of the chaos and confusion, so many people simply marched to their graves in an orderly manner under the Nazis, instead of engaging in more armed uprisings. "According to these accounts--most often describing the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, the life of Hannah Senesh, and Jewish rescue efforts in Palestine--the Holocaust represented Jewry's strength, victory, and courage more than its victimization, vulnerability, and suffering" (Sheramy).
It is clear that the resistance would not have been what it was without smuggling, soup kitchens, and education; these three forms of resistance were intertwined with each other, and none was successful without the other. For example, soup kitchens apart from being sources of food for hundreds of thousands of starving Jews were also hideouts for clandestine classes where young children would congregate for lessons. The clandestine classes also depended on smuggled books as learning materials as what exhibited by the establishment of underground libraries where these literary materials were stored. Some of the smuggled food also found its way to the soup kitchens where they were prepared and shared among the starving population. The soup kitchens also formed perfect hideouts for smuggled weapons where unsuspecting Nazi police could not access them.
As noted above, despite being a courageous resistance movement, the Warsaw ghetto uprising was ultimately doomed to fall to superior Nazi numbers and superior weaponry. The resistance was not sustained for much more than a month, but did represent a reaction which the Germans did not expect or account for happening at all. "After a month of fighting, the Germans blow up the Great Synagogue in Warsaw, signaling the end of the uprising and the destruction of the ghetto" (Warsaw). Most of the Jews who remained in Warsaw at this point were rounded up by the Nazis and taken to concentration camps, but those remaining continued to resist, dug in, and forced the Germans to come in and burn out the ghetto building by building in order to deport the remaining Jews. "Although there are only about 50,000 Jews left in the ghetto after the January 1943 deportations, General Stroop reports after the destruction of the ghetto that 56,065 Jews have been captured; of those 7,000 deported to Treblinka" (Warsaw). Treblinka, also in Poland, was a concentration camp, not a forced labor camp like Majdanek. According to the source quoted above, a small number of resistance fighters from the Warsaw ghetto also managed to escape and join the Polish resistance as well as other partisan groups that were fighting the Nazis.
The Jews' oppression by Adolf Hitler was one of the key themes of World War 2. Somehow, amidst the repatriation to concentration camps and among other Nazi efforts to extinguish them, the Jews in Poland had to survive. The Warsaw ghetto uprising captures the indomitable spirit that was prevalent in the Jewish community in the wake of measures by the Nazi regime to exterminate them. The beginnings of the revolt in Warsaw may have taken the police by surprise, but anyone who was privy to the simmering tensions underneath would have seen it coming. The smuggling of food, weapons and books, and the establishment of clandestine schools and soup kitchens were the first signs that the Jews in Warsaw were not ready to take the treatment lying down. These actions demonstrated that resistance to oppressive authority need not only involve the taking up of arms, but can also take various other forms of civil disobedience.
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