“The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More.” That was the bombastic title of the May 1943 official report submitted to führer force that liquidated the Warsaw Ghetto. The 75-page Reichsführer-SS Jürgen Stroop, commander of the German task Heinrich Himmler by SS- und Polizeiself-congratulatory text with accompanying photographs trumpeted the exploits of Stroop’s men as they quashed the revolt by Jews and “Polish bandits.” Missing from the account, however, was an uncomfortable truth. For the first time in the short, horrific history of the Third Reich, its Jewish victims had fought back en masse—and the mighty “master race” had come away with a bloody nose.
German occupation forces established the Warsaw Ghetto in late 1940, a year after the Wehrmacht and the Red Army overran and dismembered Poland in September and October 1939. Shortly thereafter the Germans started mass deportations of Warsaw’s estimated 400,000 Jews to various concentration and extermination camps. By the summer of 1942 little more than 60,000 remained. When reliable reports of the deportees’ tragic fate started to reach the ghetto’s inhabitants, some decided it was better to die on their feet fighting than to submit passively on their knees. A relatively small handful of resisters formed the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization), or ZOB, and prepared to strike back. Among the key leaders were Mordechai Anielewicz and Pawel Frenkiel, both in their early 20s.
The ZOB was armed with smuggled and makeshift small arms when it fought its first battle against the second wave of German roundups and deportations on Jan. 18, 1943. The Jewish fighters suffered heavy losses but managed to inflict casualties on the German troops. Shocked that “subhumans” could organize such a resistance, the Germans broke off the roundup and withdrew from the ghetto. Both sides then hunkered down and prepared for the next round.
The Germans re-entered the ghetto in force on April 19, Passover eve. Waffen-SS, police and Wehrmacht troops were supported by machine guns, flamethrowers, artillery, a tank and two armored cars. But as the Germans deployed to gather deportees, the ZOB struck, armed primarily with pistols, homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails. Within two hours the Germans were forced to withdraw, at a cost of one dead and 24 wounded. But they returned the following day and systematically destroyed the ghetto’s buildings, forcing the insurgents off the rooftops and into the cellars and sewers. Himmler, meanwhile, gave Stroop the authority to use any means necessary to crush the resistance.
On average the Germans had 2,000 troops inside the ghetto at any one time. The active Jewish fighters never numbered more than 1,000. It took far longer than the Germans anticipated to bring down the ZOB, but on May 8 they finally destroyed its command bunker at 18 Mila Street. Anielewicz was among the several dozen Jewish fighters who died there. Sporadic fighting dragged on another eight days, till on May 16 Stroop personally oversaw demolition of the remains of Warsaw’s main synagogue and declared the action over. In his final report Stroop admitted that 16 of his men had been killed and 90 wounded. Some 13,000 of the ghetto’s inhabitants died during the 28-day siege. Another 56,000 were captured and either executed on the spot or deported. But the ZOB had managed to blow a hole in the Nazi “superman” myth.
Today a memorial park in Warsaw marks the center of the former ghetto. A small monument at Mila 18 commemorates the site of the ZOB bunker, and in a nearby square stands the Ghetto Heroes Monument. On Dec. 7, 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt performed what Germans call the Warschauer Kniefall (“Warsaw Genuflection”), when he spontaneously dropped to his knees in front of the monument in an act of contrition for the German atrocity.
The events of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising are the basis for several novels; two of the more outstanding are The Wall (1950), by John Hersey, and Mila 18 (1961), by Leon Uris. As for Stroop’s attempt to produce a piece of timeless literature? His report to Himmler was the main exhibit at his own war crimes trial. Stroop was convicted and hanged in Warsaw by Polish authorities in March 1952.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.