By Aneeq Mohideen/newsin.asia
The Holocaust saw six million European Jews being sent to Nazi death camps to be gassed and burned, in one of the largest attempts at ethnic cleansing in history. From late 1942 to the 8th of May 1945, European Jews were kept in ghettos or camps, made to do forced labor or were sent to extermination camps to be gassed in hambers and burnt in furnaces.
Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi party introduced anti-Jewish legislation and processes to rid Germany of Jews and enable racial domination of the Aryan Germans. Anti-Semitism had shaken Europe well before the reign of Adolf Hitler, but Hitler’s entry as Fuhrer cemented and institutionalized anti-Semitic social ideology.
On 8th of September 1939, Nazi Germany marched its troops through Poland. The Polish Army fought valiantly, but the larger German army pushed through them. On November 7, 1939, the Reichsführer-SS reorganized the Wehrmacht and Einsatzgruppen into a local Security Service. The commander of EG IV, Josef Meisinger (the “Butcher of Warsaw”), was appointed Chief of Police for the newly formed Warsaw District. The Nazis then proceeded to cordon off a part of the city and placed captured Jews there. The rest of city was strictly Aryan. On the 15th of November, walls and barriers sealed this area from the outside world. It was the Warsaw Ghetto.
Life in a Nazi-controlled Ghetto was hard. The Warsaw Ghetto, perhaps the most famous of all Nazi ghettos, housed, at its peak, 400,000 mostly Polish Jews. The ghettos were run by the SS and Gestapo who imposed curfews and repressive regulations in order to quell rebellions. A lack of basic amenities or sanitation meant that diseases ran amok. Infectious diseases were common in the ghettos, which brought death and permanent disabilities.
Besides the squalid living conditions, food was heavily rationed and controlled by the SS, each man being allotted 2500 calories, whilst every woman was allotted 2000 calories, no matter what their physical needs or condition. This led to malnutrition. But to survive in the ghettos, food was smuggled in from the city at great risk.
Children would often crawl through sewage tunnels under the walls and steal fruit and bread and bring it back to the camps. Here it would be distributed to those who needed it most, who were usually males over 16 who were forced to do construction work in the city. Those who collapsed from exhaustion were usually shot on the spot by SS guards.
The SS also had an agenda to banish all forms of Jewish culture or tradition within the ghetto. Religious education and ceremonies were taboo. However, despite this, secret synagogues and bars and theatres operated underground. These establishments were highly secret, but served to provide a sense of normality, comfort and familiarity. Doctors and academics held lectures and seminars in their off time, educating their fellow prisoners about various topics such as basic sanitation, engineering, astronomy, etc. Children were taught Jewish culture by rabbis and religious figures. But all activities required careful organization and planning in order to maintain secrecy.
It was a most difficult time for Jews living in Warsaw. Constant shelling and battles sometimes made food smuggling a dangerous and difficult ordeal. At times people who engaged in secret meetings or attended a seminar or lecture would be dragged away from the ghetto and executed if they were caught. The SS had an extensive intelligence network in the ghetto in the form of officers dressed up and disguised as residents, meaning that it was difficult to trust other people in the ghettos.
Yet, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto retained a slice of their previous lives and tried their best to make the best of a bad situation, and this was the biggest form of resistance to the Nazis. Ordinary people broke rules and followed their culture and traditions even if they could be executed for doing so.
However, alongside the peaceful inmates, there were others who believed a violent uprising against their captors was the only way to liberation. Complete deportation of the camp was ordered when the Russians were advancing from the east towards Poland.
Perhaps the most famous uprising against the Nazi party by the oppressed Jewish people was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. They banded together and fought their captors for almost a month. Throughout the early 1940’s the people of Warsaw Ghetto were being forcefully deported to labour and death camps, usually Treblinka and Madjanek. Between 1941 and 1943, almost 300,000 Jewish inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto were deported.
Only 35,000 Jews were allowed to stay with special permission. A further 20,000 hid underground. Tired of the forced deportations and the oppressive life in the Ghetto, several organizations were formed to offer armed resistance. A group called the Jewish Combat Organization or Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa in Polish (ZOB for short) was formed on the 28th of July 1942. The right-wing Zionist Revisionists of the Ghetto also formed a group of their own, the Jewish Military Union or Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy in Polish (ZZW for short).
There was initially tension between them due to opposing political ideologies but eventually both decided to work together and liberate the Warsaw Ghetto. The combined manpower of both groups was about 750. However they had no weapons. Contact with the Polish Home Army from outside the Ghetto was established in October and a small number of pistols and explosives were supplied to the resistance fighters.
In October 1942, SS Commander Heinrich Himmler, ordered the Warsaw Ghetto to be liquidated and all residents to be deported to labor camps. In January 1943, when German troops began mass deportations, resistance fighters attacked the Germany troops. Many insurgents died in the process, but it allowed most of the Ghetto to escape. Deportations were paused for 4 months during which, the remaining insurgents dug underground tunnels and built bunkers.
On the 19th of April 1943, the Nazi troops entered the city to deport the final batch of Jews and destroy the Ghettos. But the troops found the city to be completely empty. Mordecai Anielewicz, the ZOB commander ordered the fighters to emerge from the bunkers and attack the German troops mostly with homemade pistols and grenades, and a few assault rifles. 12 Nazi soldiers were killed. The Jews also suffered casualties. On the third day of the uprising, the Germans returned armed with machine guns and mortars and began shooting anyone and everyone in sight.
The resistance fighters put up a considerable fight and fought valiantly to death. The surviving fighters went underground and planned surprise attacks which broke German supply lines and weakened their firepower. However, Anielewicz was shot and killed. His ZOB command bunker was found on the 8th of May. His death ended attacks on the German forces. The rest of the forces split into individual groups which hid and occasionally attacked the enemy.
However, now the priority was survival. By the end of May, the Ghetto was firmly under Nazi control. The Nazis ordered the entire Ghetto to be destroyed and all establishments were to be burnt using flamethrowers. Any survivors left would be killed immediately or sent to Madjanek. German deaths were 150, whilst Jewish deaths were around 13,000, most of them burnt alive.
The Warsaw Ghetto rebellion is of enormous significance for the Jewish people. A small and under equipped force took on the German army with ferocity and gallantry in a desperate bid for survival and for liberation. The Warsaw Ghetto was also the final home of hundreds of thousands of Jews before they were murdered in the death camps. Today, the Warsaw Ghetto has been preserved as a museum to educate people about what happened in the Ghetto.