This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first armed resistance in German occupied territory in WW2, led by a band of brave but poorly armed resistance fighters. Elisabeth Gifford tells their story.
In 1943 a band of poorly armed teenagers and young people staged the first organised armed resistance in the occupied territories of the Reich. Jewish insurgents repelled the Nazi troops sent in to clear the Warsaw ghetto and flew the flags of Poland and Israel above the ghetto rooftops for all to see.
Many of the ghetto fighters came from the Dror or Freedom commune formed before the war from a band of young Jewish people secretly preparing to make the illegal journey into Palestine. They were led by Yitzhak Zuckerman, a young, blond Jewish teacher, and Zivia Lubetkin, serious, dark-haired and also a teacher – later to become Yitzhak’s wife. The commune lived in an apartment block built around a courtyard on Dzielna Street, or on a small farm in Grochow on the city outskirts, where they were studying farming skills. Yitzhak organised teacher-training seminars and invited lecturers, including Dr Korczak, the celebrated Polish Jewish educator who ran two orphanages in Warsaw. Korczak also broadcast on Polish radio, lectured and wrote widely on the rights of the child. Yitzhak liked to encourage Dr Korczak to talk about his time as a medical student in 1910, when students would hold secret university classes on subjects forbidden by the Russians who ruled much of Poland up to 1920. The venues for the secret lectures changed so often to avoid detection from the Tsar’s police, that they were dubbed ‘the Flying University’.
No one could have foreseen that by 1940 the Dror commune would be running their own secret university inside the walls of the ghetto, where Warsaw’s entire population of 300,000 Jews had been imprisoned by the Nazis and all education banned.
The Dror building stood inside the ghetto, so the students continued to live on Dzielna Street, sharing any food they had or money they earned from tutoring or from sparse factory work. Their farm was now in the hands of German owners but run by a Pole who was sympathetic to the commune’s situation. He let them smuggle food into the ghetto. After a year, most of the ghetto was starving, or beginning to starve.
The commune continued to work towards the future, educating themselves, running a school and a soup kitchen for street children. The building, known as the Kitchen, also held secret lectures and seminars. Korczak went often, to teach or to simply chat with his young friends and fellow educators.
Korczak’s Jewish orphanage of 200 children had also been imprisoned in the ghetto where it was known as a beacon of cleanliness, love and justice. But like everyone in the ghetto, Korczak was finding it increasingly difficult to find enough food each day.
After a year of the ghetto, starvation, typhus and winter cold in crowded and insanitary conditions had inflicted a huge mortality rate. In fact this was the Nazi’s official but secret plan – to reduce Jewish numbers by this cost effective method. However, it was not proving fast enough, and they began to plan the extermination of the ghetto population at Treblinka as part of a total extinction of Jews. The ghetto remained ignorant of these plans and continued to hope they might survive the war.
The Dror commune regularly smuggled out students to travel between Dror cells in other towns and gather news. Blond, Aryan looking men such as Yitzhak were chosen for these dangerous trips, but most often young blond Jewish girls went. In early 1943 they began to bring back reports of Nazi plans to eliminate all Jews and of a terrible a massacre in Ponary forest of all Vilna’s Jews, including Yitzhak’s relatives. The Dror commune and other youth groups went to the Jewish council to inform them of Nazi plans, but no one would believe such news. And even if the rumours were true, resistance would be suicide.
The Dror commune began secret lessons in weapons training. They banded together with other underground youth groups in the ghetto under the banner of the ZOB, the Jewish Fighting Force, and managed to acquire a pistol. But when a further cache of guns from the Polish side was intercepted by the Nazis and two ZOB members arrested, the resistance movement ground to a halt.
Through spring and summer of 1942, terrible rumours continued to reach the ghetto of mass murders of Jews in the Lublin ghetto. In the Warsaw ghetto the Germans began a programme of mass shootings, eliminating food smuggling, underground newspapers and unofficial leaders. Yitzhak and Zivia were on the list, but managed to evade the knock of the German gunmen.
In late July 1942, Korczak called at the commune with an invitation to a play in his orphanage. Yitzhak and Zivia attended, along with Irene Sendler, a Polish nurse. Korczak had refused her offer to smuggle out some of his children. With his innate belief in goodness, and his long history of friendship with Germans before and during the war, Korczak continued to believe that the Germans would spare the children.
A few days later, the first trains arrived at the Umschlagplatz station. The streets were emptied of beggars and refugees. Then the police began to empty out the flats of ordinary families. Anyone without a work permit was taken to the trains. The terrified population waited for this purge of adults who could not work to end. But the Nazis had only just begun.
On 6th August the ghetto streets were cleared and a strange noise was heard – the sound of children’s feet. Dr Korczak and his children were taken to the trains for deportation with 4,000 other children. No work camp needed children. It was clear that they were going to their deaths.
The ghetto was convulsed by shock and grief. Yitzhak, Zivia, and the rest of the ZOB met together to resume plans to resist deportation in full awareness that this would most likely mean their deaths. Mordechai Anielewicz from the Betar youth movement was appointed leader. The ZOB began to arm themselves and to construct dugouts and runways between attics.
300,000 people were sent to Treblinka between July and September. The Germans did not return to the ghetto until January 1943, expecting to rapidly clear the remaining 50,000 Jews. Members of the ZOB hid in a column of Jews being marched to the trains and, at a signal, opened fire on their German guards, killing a handful of them. Unprepared for resistance, the Germans retreated.
On 19th April, two detachments of Waffen SS, with tanks, mortars and machine guns, marched back into the ghetto. No one was to be seen, the streets empty. The Jewish Fighting Force members were waiting with their rackety weapons and Molotov cocktails. The ZZW, a group of Jewish soldiers from the Polish Army, also rose up to fight. Three days of guerrilla fighting followed, with no sign of a Jewish defeat. Hitler was furious when he heard that a Jewish and a Polish flag were now flying over the ghetto, advertising the first successful armed resistance in Reich territories. Hitler wanted them stopped and then every last stone of the ghetto razed to the ground.
Police Commander Jurgen Stroop began to burn the resistence fighters out, block by block. It took a month for the Germans to clear the ghetto. One of the last underground shelters they found was at 18 Mila Street, headquarters of the ZOB. Many took cyanide rather than be captured.
While organising arms into the ghetto, Yitzhak had been left on the Polish side of the wall at the sudden outbreak of the uprising. He watched as the ghetto burned, people in flames jumping from burning balconies, clearly visible from the windows on the Polish side of the wall. Yitzhak organised an escape route from Mila 18 through underground sewers, but only a handful made it out, including Zivia, appearing caked in sewage in the middle of a Warsaw street. The SS gassed the tunnels suffocating those who remained.
In a symbolic gesture of his victory, Stroop dynamited the Great Synagogue and presented Hitler with a document entitled, The Warsaw Ghetto is no More, complete with photographs of its destruction.
The few ghetto escapees continued to resist, some taking part in the Warsaw uprising a year later. Hitler was equally furious about the Polish uprising and after its defeat in 1944 ordered that Warsaw too should be razed to the ground. Yitzhak joined the Russian army moving west to defeat the Reich.
After the war, Yitzhak and Zivia returned to a Poland that had lost almost all of its Jewish population, and where German occupation had been replaced by Russian occupation. When a short amnesty allowed Jews to leave Poland, Yitzhak and Zivia finally made the journey they had planned for so many years. They founded the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum in Israel, with a room dedicated to Dr Janusz Korczak and his plea for nations to unite around the common aim of the welfare of the child.
Elisabeth Gifford’s latest novel, The Good Doctor of Warsaw, is the shocking and ultimately inspiring true story of some of the rare survivors of the Warsaw ghetto during WW2, and features the inspiring story of Dr Janusz Korczak who defied the Nazi brutality by creating an oasis of kindness and happiness for children. It is published on 1st February 2018. Read our review here.
- German soldiers arrest ghetto resistance fighters.
- Zivia Lubetkin and Yitzhak Zuckerman circa 1943.
- Dr Janusz Korczak
- A Warsaw street destroyed during the uprising, Wikimedia.