Warsaw Ghetto

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The Warsaw ghetto was the largest Jewish ghetto the German occupation authorities established during World War II. Instituted in autumn 1940 and sealed for good in November of that year, it existed until the suppression of the uprising that broke out in April 1943.


As early as November 1939, shortly after the Wehrmacht occupied Warsaw, an attempt was made to concentrate some of the city's Jews in a special quarter. SS (Schutzstaffel) officials issued a directive in the name of the Warsaw's German military commander, ordering the Judenräte (the council that the Germans had appointed to deal with Jews' affairs) to concentrate the Jews in a special quarter within three days. The directive, however, was cancelled and planning of the Warsaw ghetto did not begin until early 1940. The Nazi occupation authorities in Warsaw justified the need to intern the Jews in a sealed ghetto by claiming that the Jews were spreading disease, endangering the population's health, engaging in speculation and black-market commerce, and exerting a pernicious influence on society at large. Jews, then, were to be isolated until a comprehensive territorial solution to the "Jewish problem" could be found, whereupon all the Jews would be deported.

On 14 October 1940 the German Warsaw District governor, Ludwig Fischer, issued the directive establishing the ghetto and published a list of the streets that the ghetto would include. Some three hundred thousand Warsaw Jews, along with many Jewish refugees who had streamed into the capital from elsewhere in Poland, were to relocate to the designated area by 1 November. The deadline was later extended to 15 November. About 30 percent of Warsaw's population was compressed into an area comprising less than 2.5 percent of the municipal territory. Only seventy-eight of Warsaw's eighteen hundred streets were allotted to the ghetto, which was encased in a brick wall with a circumference of eleven miles and a height, in most places, of ten feet, topped with concertina wire.

The establishment of the ghetto tumbled Warsaw into chaos. It displaced some 115,000 Poles and 140,000 Jews from their homes. Poles tried to intervene with the German authorities to minimize the harm to their population, but many Jews had to relinquish spacious dwellings and businesses or sell them for a pittance because they were outside the area where Jews were allowed to live. The ghetto wall also created problems for public transit, municipal electricity and water systems, garbage removal, burial, and other services. Few buildings in the ghetto had even minimal sanitation facilities; the inhabitants used common conveniences in the yards. By the end of 1940, housing congestion in the ghetto climbed to 332,800 people per square mile and 7 or 8 to a room.


The ghetto's population mounted steadily as Jewish deportees and evacuees from elsewhere were sent there. In the spring of 1941, the population was 450,000. The German authorities in charge of the ghetto were not prepared to support such a large number of people, most of whom had been cut off from their sources of livelihood and many of whom were refugees, deprived of their homes and property with no way to make a living. During 1941 some 43,000 Jews, about 10 percent of the ghetto population, died of diseases that traced back to hunger, poor sanitary conditions, and the almost total lack of medical care. Had this mortality rate continued, the population of the Warsaw ghetto would have been wiped out within five years.

In April 1941 the Germans decided that as long as the Jews were interned in the ghetto ways would have to be found to provide them with enough food to stay alive, since epidemics were endangering the entire city. Max Bischof, an economist and banker from Vienna, was placed in charge of making the ghetto more productive. Workshops were opened inside the ghetto and the number of Jews working outside the ghetto increased.

This small change in policy, however, did not bring the ghetto enough food to sustain its population. An alternative economic system developed, based on extensive smuggling between the ghetto and the "Aryan" part of Warsaw, mainly of basic foods such as flour, potatoes, and wheat, but also of some luxuries. Smuggling took place around the clock through the ghetto gates, over the walls, and along various channels that networks of Jews and Poles had established. In addition to organized, professional smuggling, individual adults, young people, and children slipped outside the walls in an attempt to feed themselves and their families. Often they were captured by German or Polish police and severely punished.

Adam Czerniaków, an engineer and an activist in Warsaw economic circles before the war, was appointed chairman of the Judenräte, whose responsibilities included housing and food supplies, social services, and collection of the taxes imposed on the Jewish population. Apart from its role in managing life in the ghetto, the Judenräte had the task of carrying out German directives, from providing forced laborers for service in town or labor camps to raising funds and handing over Jewish property. A Jewish Order Service, established at the Germans' behest under Józef Szeryńki, a former Polish police officer and an apostate Jew, operated alongside the Judenräte and had more than 1,600 members at its peak. Its duties were to maintain order in the ghetto streets and gates and perform tasks that the Germans assigned to the Judenräte.

The Warsaw ghetto also had an underground system of governance that established social relief and self-help enterprises. One of the founders of this system and the living spirit behind its work was Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian and an activist from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee of prewar Poland. Ringelblum also initiated a ghetto underground archive that accumulated thousands of documents about Jewish life in both Warsaw and Poland during the occupation. Self-help activists, including young people from Jewish youth movements and organizations, ran public kitchens for young people and for the indigent, established study groups and social activities for children as a partial substitute for the schools that the Germans had outlawed, and helped in the upkeep of orphanages for children without families. One of these orphanages was run by the Jewish physician and educator Janusz Korczak.

Social gaps among population groups were blatantly evident in the ghetto, and instances of corruption were not lacking. A small group composed mainly of smugglers and black-market operatives, along with several people who had connections to the Germans, established a system that provided social services for the destitute and ill, with the support of Gestapo officials. Most of the Jewish public regarded this group, known as the Group of the Thirteen, as collaborators and avoided contact with them. Smugglers and members of this group could be spotted in the taverns and places of entertainment that operated in the ghetto. On the opposite end of the scale of suffering were the refugees who flowed into the ghetto and accounted for about one-third of its population. Many refugees were concentrated in special buildings that the Judenräte established, which were among the worst focal points of epidemics, distress, filth, and mortality in the ghetto. Thousands of children, having no family left and nowhere to go to school, were discharged into lives of hardship and vagrancy on the ghetto streets, their existence dependent on the good-heartedness of passersby. Mortality among them was extremely high, especially in the winter.


From the beginning of the ghetto era, German policies faced resistance. Political and cultural gatherings took place in private dwellings, where lectures, debates, and study groups were held on a wide variety of topics. Clandestine synagogues were established in the ghetto even though the Germans explicitly prohibited the public observance of Jewish rituals. The ghetto had an extensive clandestine education system, which was served by hundreds of Jewish educators. Hundreds of classes were established in private homes as a substitute for the Jewish education system that the Nazis had wiped out at the beginning of the occupation.

The best organized underground structures were established by activists in political parties and youth movements. Underground operations included hundreds of clandestine newspapers, mainly in Yiddish and Polish, offering political and military reportage on developments in Poland and at the front, literary and intellectual writings, selections of belles lettres, and news of the activities of whichever organization published the paper. This press was the most important source of reliable information, and despite its limited circulation—mainly among movement members—its information was widely disseminated.

Until early 1942, the ghetto's political underground did not take up the question of armed resistance. Youth movement members and party activists devoted most of their attention to holding their organizations together, assisting members of the movement, operating public kitchens for the needy, and maintaining political groups for members and sympathizers. In early 1942, however, the ghetto received reports about the extermination of Jews in the German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union and at the Chelmno extermination camp in western Poland. These reports dealt a severe blow to the way the underground activists perceived the world. Initial attempts to establish a comprehensive Jewish resistance organization collapsed in disagreements about methods, goals, and cooperation with the Polish resistance, as well as ideological disputes. On 23 July 1942, a day after the mass deportation to the Treblinka extermination camp began, members of the Zionist youth movements established the first fighting organization in the ghetto, but they had no arms, no money to buy arms, and little connection to the well-organized Polish underground. Deportation to extermination camps continued uninterrupted almost every day from 22 July to 12 August 1942, taking some 253,000 people. Afterward, a moratorium took place, since the Germans considered the Jews who had been left behind crucial because of the work they did. The last phase of the deportation began on 6 September 1942; after it ended, 60,000 Jews remained in the ghetto: 35,000 who held labor permits and 25,000 who had eluded the deportations and were in hiding. On the eve of the deportation, there had been more than 350,000 Jews in Warsaw.

The ghetto resistance was immobilized during the months of the deportations. Amid the daily terror, activists attempted to rescue their comrades and many arranged shelter and protection by obtaining work permits in ghetto workshops. Not until the deportations ended did the surviving activists unite and establish the Jewish Fighting Organization (JFO), bringing together communists, the Zionist youth movements, and the Socialist Bund. Mordechai Anielewicz, a member of the Ha-shomer ha-Tsa'ir movement, a Zionist-Socialist movement, was chosen to command the organization, along with a small staff drawn from all the movements and parties taking part. Members of the revisionist Zionist movement established another fighting organization, the Jewish Military Organization (JMO), which drew in young Jews who were not affiliated with any movement but wanted, after the mass deportation, to fight the murderers of their families and people.

On 18 January 1943 the Germans began a new phase in the deportations whose goal was to remove some 8,000 Jews, since the ghetto population still exceeded the number projected after the summer's deportations. The JFO disrupted this new deportation, using handguns to open fire on the Germans. The convoy of deportees scattered, and the Germans halted the deportation.

This armed resistance made a powerful impression on both the Jews and the Polish resistance. The tens of thousands of Jews who remained in the ghetto, responding to the urgings of the JFO, began to prepare for resistance. Hundreds of bunkers and underground hideouts were excavated and equipped with food, water, electricity, and ventilation shafts. The masses of Jews believed that the Germans had been deterred by the resistance and would not dare to respond by wreaking violence in the heart of a great European city. The Polish underground, although initially skeptical about any separate Jewish organizational effort, became more responsive to the pleas of the JFO and provided the ghetto with a limited quantity of light weapons.

On 19 April 1943 the Germans began what was intended to be the final liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. More than 850 well-equipped soldiers entered the ghetto in two columns. The two Jewish fighting organizations responded with tenacious resistance that forced the Germans to retreat. In the aftermath of this failure, SS General Jürgen Stroop took command of the liquidation operation and began to obliterate the ghetto systematically, moving from house to house and setting the ghetto ablaze. The resistance initially fought from rooftops and between buildings, then moved into the bunkers. To flush them out, the Germans injected toxic gas into the bunkers. The JFO command bunker fell on 8 May 1943, and about a week later Stroop announced the end of the fighting and the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising echoed widely, even while it was still occurring. The Polish underground press, which was usually hostile to Jews and accused them of passivity in the face of German resolve, wrote about the uprising with candid admiration. It was the first uprising to have broken out in an important German-occupied European city. In the free Jewish world, too, the uprising attracted widespread responses and Jewish organizations cited it in largely unsuccessful attempts to marshal relief for such Jews as remained alive in Poland. After the war, the Warsaw ghetto uprising came to be engraved in Jewish memory, both in Israel and around the world, as the premier symbol of the Jewish antifascist struggle.

See alsoGhetto; Holocaust; Jews; Warsaw.


Primary Sources

Czerniaków, Adam. The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniaków: Prelude to Doom. Translated by Stanislaw Staron and the staff of Yad Vashem. New York, 1979.

Engelking, Barbara, and Jacek Leociak. Getto warszaawskie: Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście. Warsaw, 2001.

Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw, 1939–1944: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt. Translated by Ina Friedman. Bloomington, Ind., 1982.

Ringelblum, Emanuel. Ksòvim fun Geto. 2 vols. Tel Aviv, 1985.

Zuckerman, Yitzhak. A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Translated by Barbara Harshav. Berkeley, Calif., 1993.

Secondary Sources

Engelking, Barbara, and Jacek Leociak. Getto warszaawskie: Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście. Warsaw, 2001.

Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw, 1939–1944: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt. Translated by Ina Friedman. Bloomington, Ind., 1982.

Daniel Blatman