The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: When The Jews Fought Back Against The Nazis

Published March 10, 2017
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Boy
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Walking
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Escaping Building
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: When The Jews Fought Back Against The Nazis
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On April 18, 1943, the eve of Passover, the Nazis stormed the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. After sending between 250,000 and 300,000 of Warsaw's Jews to their deaths at the Treblinka extermination camp the previous summer, the Nazis had returned to finally empty the largest ghetto in Europe for good.

This time, however, the Jewish resistance fought back like never before. With approximately 1,000 Jewish fighters battling against approximately 2,000 Nazis over the course of four weeks, this clash was far more intense than any such battle yet fought.

It would come to be known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the largest act of Jewish resistance in the entirety of the Holocaust.

Such an unprecedented act of resistance was undoubtedly spurred on by the fact that Warsaw's Jews realized that this was their last stand. Yet, the Nazis' scorched-earth approach would quickly test their resolve.

Indeed, after the resistance used guns, hand grenades, and Molotov cocktails to kill and injure dozens of Nazis, destroy several vehicles, and even plant their flags atop the resistance headquarters in the central Muranowski Square, the Nazis responded by systematically burning the ghetto to the ground, block by block.

"We were beaten by the flames, not the Germans," recalled surviving resistance commander Marek Edelman decades later.

Throughout late April and early May, these flames drove out the resistance, turned the sky black, and ended the Warsaw ghetto uprising with the deaths of some 13,000 Jews and the deportation of approximately 56,000 others — ultimately destroying this once great center of Jewish culture in Europe.

More than anything, it was this utter elimination of an entire culture, city, and population — and the outside world's lack of intervention — that Szmul Zygielbojm, for one, could not abide.

A Jewish member of the Polish government in exile then living in London, Zygielbojm refused to remain silent as the Allied nations of the world ignored the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the larger genocide that the Nazis had been carrying out across Europe for more than a year already.

When the Allies failed to sufficiently acknowledge this problem at the Bermuda Conference, held just as the Warsaw ghetto uprising was actually taking place — and taking the lives of Zygielbojm's own wife and daughter, who'd not made it out of Warsaw — Zygielbojm had had enough.

On May 10, he took a fatal overdose of sodium amytal, ending his life in hopes that this last-ditch act would, if nothing else, call attention to a tragedy that most of the world was still ignoring.

In his suicide letter, he wrote:

The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime... I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave. By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

Thankfully, the Allies wouldn't ignore the genocide for much longer. And while the world may have largely ignored the Warsaw ghetto uprising at the time, today it remains an eminently stirring tale of perseverance — as well as a tragic reminder of the perils of inaction.

See images from the Warsaw ghetto uprising, as compiled by the Nazis in the Stroop Report, in the gallery above.

After this survey of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, have a look at 44 heartrending Holocaust photos that reveal the tragedy and perseverance of history's worst genocide. Then, read up on feared female Nazi Ilse Koch, "The Bitch of Buchenwald" and one of the Holocaust's greatest monsters.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Kuroski, John. "The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: When The Jews Fought Back Against The Nazis.", March 10, 2017, Accessed June 25, 2024.