At the start of the Holocaust, the Warsaw ghetto was home to some 350,000 Jews. Afterward, just 11,000.
The Warsaw ghetto remains one of the darkest examples of Nazi Germany’s cruel, calculated efforts to first contain Europe’s Jewish populations and then eliminate them entirely. Situated on both banks of the Vistula River, the Polish capital had a population of 1.3 million and was a hub of Jewish culture before the Holocaust.
According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Warsaw’s 350,000 Jewish citizens comprised nearly a third of the city’s prewar populous. It was the largest Jewish community not only in Poland — but on the European continent as a whole.
On Sept. 1, 1939, however, the city received its initial air attacks and artillery bombardments as World War II first got underway. Besieged by Nazi Germany’s behemoth war machine, Warsaw didn't take long to fall to the Third Reich.
On Sept. 29, the Nazis entered the city. It would only take a year for the Germans to establish the Warsaw ghetto and decree mandatory relocation there for all Jewish residents of the city.
Both the photos above and the stories below provide a disturbing account of the horrors perpetrated inside the Warsaw ghetto for the remainder of the Holocaust.
The Judenrat, Blue Stars Of David, And The Dissolution Of Jewish Organizations
A few days after the city surrendered, the Germans officially established the Judenrat, a Jewish council headed by Jewish engineer Adam Czerniaków and situated in the southern part of the ghetto on Grzybowska Street.
The Judenrat was implemented partly as a Nazi appeasement of the Jewish population designed to make them think they had some control over their own fate. The council also made it easier for the Nazis to implement new laws by anointing intermediary Jewish citizens to do so.
Czerniaków’s orders were essentially to organize the logistics of the ghetto and install new German orders into the city’s social fabric. This included forcing Warsaw’s Jewish citizens to wear the infamous white armbands with blue Stars of David.
Furthermore, this early period saw Jewish schools forcibly shut down, and the nonnegotiable confiscation of any Jewish-owned property the Nazis saw fit. Slowly but surely, then quickly, Jewish men were forced into labor, Jewish organizations that had existed long before the war were dissolved, and the ghetto was completed.
The Warsaw Ghetto
The Warsaw ghetto was formally established on Oct. 12, 1940, with all Jewish residents mandated to move within its confines immediately. By November, the Nazis had completely sealed the ghetto off from the rest of Warsaw — using a 10-foot tall, barbed wire wall that was guarded at all times.
The ghetto’s estimated population soon reached more than 400,000 due to an influx of Jewish Poles from nearby towns forced into Warsaw by Nazi regulations.
Conditions within the ghetto were immediately horrid and dangerously cramped to the point of forcing an average of 7.2 people into each room. Scared, destitute, and impoverished, ghetto residents bonded together in the hopes of sharing whatever little resources were available.
Countless struggling residents of the Warsaw ghetto survived infectious disease, exposure to the elements, starvation, and more — with only small amounts of financial backing from foreign aid organizations to help. Then, in 1942, things got even worse.
Conditions Inside The Ghetto
“The hunger in the ghetto was so great, was so bad, that people were laying on the streets and dying, little children went around begging,” recalled survivor Abraham Lewent.
In addition to poor housing, disease, and lack of medical care, a severe lack of food was the primary concern for residents of the Warsaw ghetto. Allotments rationed out by German civilians simply didn’t suffice and by 1941 the average Jew in the ghetto consumed only 1,125 calories per day.
“Children starving to death,” Czerniaków succinctly wrote in his diary on May 8, 1941.
The available data tragically reflects that diary entry as 83,000 Jews died of disease and starvation between 1940 and mid-1942. This gave rise to a network of food and medicine smuggling, with both Poles and Germans accepting bribes in order to make it happen.
Some of these realities were documented on film by Warsaw-based historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who founded a secret effort to record what was occurring in the ghetto for future generations. This indispensable document has since been named the “Oneg Shabbat."
Only a portion of this record, now known as the Ringelblum Archive, ultimately survived the Holocaust. Nonetheless, the footage that did survive has become a priceless primary source of life in the Warsaw ghetto and the horrific German policies that shaped it.
Soon, those policies grew even more horrific. In the summer of 1942, deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp began.
Deportations To Treblinka
Between just July and September of 1942, the Nazis deported around 265,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka, where some 35,000 were killed within a matter of mere months.
It was the SS, with local help from the police, that carried out the logistics of these deportations. With such a massive amount of people, the Nazis simply packed train cars to the brim and sent them off. Meanwhile, 70,000-80,000 Jews remained in Warsaw, fearful that it would soon be their turn to get on a train.
In January 1943, the SS and police units came back for the second phase of mass deportations. Fortunately, the Jews had already begun to organize and were now prepared to fight back.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
With deportation or extermination virtually inevitable, numerous secret Jewish organizations began to mobilize. According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, the armed Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa; ZOB) had 500 members, while the Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy; ZZW) had another 250.
Initially, the plan was to get in touch with the Polish military underground (Armia Krajowa). When this failed in the summer of 1942, the ZOB contacted the Polish resistance movement known as the Home Army in October and managed to get a smuggled supply of pistols and explosives into the ghetto.
Meanwhile, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler officially ordered the liquidation of the ghetto that same month. All able-bodied Jews were to be shipped to the Nazis' Lublin camp. When the SS and police initiated this second attempt at deportations, on Jan. 18, 1943, the Warsaw uprising began.
Jewish fighters swarmed a group of Jews being forced into the Umschlagplatz (the transfer point for deportation) and began shooting Germans. Most of these resistance fighters died, but the surprised Germans lost enough momentary control to let everyone disperse.
On April 19, the Nazis planned on fully liquidating the ghetto on the eve of Passover. By this time, the Jews had gone into hiding, using tunnels, sewers, and bunkers. The Nazis found the streets deserted.
Mordecai Anielewicz led the ZOB during this resistance, with his band of fighters carrying pistols, a small number of automatic guns and rifles, and homemade grenades. The first day was successful as the ZOB successfully defended itself and forced the Germans to retreat and exit the ghetto. SS General Jürgen Stroop lost 12 men that day.
The SS then modified its approach by the third day and simply began razing buildings to the ground to remove hiding spots and bring resistance fighters to the streets. While the Jews successfully engaged in chaotic, sporadic attacks from their bunkers, it didn’t last long and the Nazis reduced the ghetto nearly to rubble.
“The entire sky of Warsaw was red,” Benjamin Meed said. “Completely red.”
Final Deportations From The Warsaw Ghetto
Scattered resistance fighters endured for another four weeks before the SS officially ended its operation. By May 16, 1943, the SS and police had deported 42,000 survivors and shipped them off to concentration camps in Trawniki, Lublin, and Poniatowa.
At least 7,000 Jews died in the battles for the Warsaw ghetto, either by force or from starvation. Another 7,000 were sent straight to Treblinka’s killing center.
The final months before the ghetto’s liberation saw only a small amount of Jews remain in hiding in the ruins.
The Liberation Of Warsaw
On Aug. 1, 1944, the Home Army made a final push to liberate the ghetto. The slow but steady encroachment of Soviet troops was an inciting factor here, as the underground resistance army felt that true military support was finally headed its way.
The Soviets failed to contribute during this crucial juncture, however, and the Nazis razed what was left of the city to the ground in October. Some of the captured fighters were treated as prisoners of war, while others were sent to camps. In the end, 116,000 people died during the uprising.
When the Soviets finally did arrive on Jan. 17, 1945, a mere 174,000 people were left in Warsaw. This was less than six percent of the population that had been there before World War II. Only around 11,500 of these survivors were Jews.
After looking at these 44 harrowing photos captured inside the Warsaw ghetto, take a look at these heartbreaking photos of the Holocaust. Then, see some of the most disturbing images captured inside the Jewish ghettos set up by the Nazis.