April 19, 1943. Warsaw Ghetto Uprising through the eyes of survivors

19.04.2021
Written by: Przemysław Batorski
78 years ago, around five in the morning, the Germans entered the Warsaw ghetto along Nalewki Street and from the intersection of Gęsia and Zamenhofa. The insurgents' shots surprised them. Although the most severe fights lasted only for a few days, the resistance of the ghetto inhabitants continued for a month. Unable to break it, the Germans decided to burn down all the buildings in the "closed district".
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"These bandits offered armed resistance". Picture taken by the Germans at Nowolipie Street looking east, near intersection with Smocza Street. In the back ghetto wall with a gate can be seen. The woman to the right is Hasia Szylgold-Szpiro. Stroop Report / Wikipedia

 

“At dawn on April 19, 1943, at the corner square of Gęsia and Zamenhofa Streets, next to the old Pac Palace, where the remains of the Jewish Council were recently housed, almost all formations of Nazi executioners, headed by the famous Lublin team, gathered. Armed from head to toe, smiling, they gave the last orders to murder the defenseless Jewish population, crowded in the basements and bunkers, houses remaining from the former ghetto. At five they started. The first unit of the SS, Ukrainians and Latvians was moving towards Miła Street.

They went joyful and carefree, searched for women, the elderly, men and Jewish children. Suddenly, from the corner windows of the houses at Zamenhofa and Miła Streets incendiary grenades were thrown. These ‘heroes’, accustomed to murdering the defenseless, scattered in panic, seeking refuge in the tenements’ gates.

However, they did not manage to reach the gates when machine guns pinned them to the ground. The Germans covered themselves with Ukrainians, Latvians with shaulis [Lithuanians], and the fire directed by the heroic hands of the ghetto defenders sowed death. Among them was a Jew, counselor Feld, a sixty-year-old man whom they led to protect their unit. And he was hit by a Jewish bullet. He died with these words on his lips: ‘I am happy that I fell at the hands of our boys, defenders of our honor’. Crawling, the surviving criminals withdrew to their starting point. There, however, a great panic seized each one of them.

Michelson, Handke, and Brand, who hid in the basement of the Jewish Council building with incredible beastly bravery, began to think about what new weapons to bring to overcome the resistance of the fighters. Indeed, after an hour the Gestapo brought all types of tanks to the ghetto, and with such cover they launched another attack. However, no one was able to enter any house at Mila Street as each of them was a stronghold”.

This is how an anonymous witness of the outbreak of the ghetto uprising described the events of April 19, 1943. The day of April 19 was chosen by the Germans not by accident – it was the eve of the Passover. Moreover, on April 20 it was Hitler's birthday, and the Germans, convinced that the liquidation of the ghetto would not be difficult for them, perhaps wanted to prepare such a "gift" for the Führer[1].

“The first clash ended with an unquestionable victory for the Jews: at the junction of Nalewki and Gęsia, insurgents threw incendiary bottles and grenades at the German soldiers. After a two-hour skirmish, the Germans were forced to retreat. At the same time, at the intersection of Zamenhofa and Miła Streets, another unit of fighters burned a German tank. At Muranowski Square, the JMU fired a machine gun at the Germans. On the first day of the fighting, Stroop's troops lost 12 soldiers, while only one fighter was killed,” [2] – writes Marta Janczewska.

In the first days of the uprising, the heaviest fighting took place at the corner of Nalewki and Gęsia Streets and at Muranowski Square, defended by the Jewish Military Union. On April 20, fights also broke out in the so-called the brush shop at ul. Świętojerska (now the premises of the Chinese embassy). It was a huge three-yard tenement house turned into a brush manufacturing plant. When the Germans approached the shop’s gate from Wałowa Street, the insurgents detonated a hidden bomb – a dozen or so Germans were killed in the explosion and many were wounded. [3]. The enemy withdrew, but after regrouping, launched more attacks.

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Jürgen Stroop's announcement on the fourth day of fighting in the "former Jewish quarter" informing about the death penalty for hiding Jews. Polona

Prelude to the Uprising

Since the great liquidation action in summer 1942, the surviving ghetto inhabitants no longer had any doubts that sooner or later they would be transported to Treblinka or murdered by the Germans on the streets of Warsaw. They prepared bunkers in cellars and on the upper floors of tenement houses on a massive scale. In the fall, two armed resistance movement groups developed – the Jewish Combat Organization, commanded by Mordechaj Anielewicz, and the Jewish Military Union, led most likely by Paweł Frenkel. In January 1943, another liquidation action took place, during which the Germans, on Himmler's order, wanted to remove about 8,000 people from the ghetto, who had not possessed employment documents. JCO fighters opened fire on the Germans; although many Jews were killed and the Germans deported 5,000, it became clear that the ghetto inhabitants would resist in the future.

“The January action took place and with it there was a breakthrough in the ghetto's psyche. People lived only with the thought of resistance,” recalled Bronisław Mirski (Frydman). “At that time, there was no longer any discussion as to whether or not to defend ourselves. Everyone was convinced that an active resistance must be applied against the German villainy. This was felt by the Germans and Toebbens himself was to come to our territory to deliver a speech about how good it would be in Trawniki. Toebbens came, but on the part of the Jews not a single person came to this lecture (...)”. Walther Toebbens was a German entrepreneur, the owner of forced labor establishments (shops) in the ghetto; he told the workers that they would be relocated to labor camps in Trawniki and Poniatowa. "On the walls of the ghetto, the following inscriptions appear: ‘Do not trample the Trawniki [Trawniki meaning ‘lawns’ in Polish]’, ’Do not get caught on the stick of the Germans’. And indeed the rest of the people in the shops succumb to the party's persuasion, i.e. they do not leave, but together with the ghetto people are getting ready for an uprising"

– recalled Eugenia Truskier. [4]

A single command of the forces fighting in the ghetto was never created. The political dispute between the JCO, composed mainly of left-wing activists, and the JMU, whose members were mainly right-wing Betar activists, was too strong and introduced mutual distrust. The cooperation of the Jewish underground with the Polish Home Army was also small – Poles feared the outbreak of large-scale fighting in the city in a situation where there was no hope of outside help. It was not until the beginning of 1943 that they delivered several dozen hand guns to the ghetto.

In total, before the outbreak of the uprising, both organizations had several hundred fighters, armed with 2-3 machine guns, a few rifles, several dozen hand guns, grenades and bombs at their disposal. Against them were at least 1,460 German, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Latvian SS men, Wehrmacht soldiers and policemen, with machine guns, several cannons, tanks and armored cars, flamethrowers and engineers’ support. [5]

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Burning tenement houses in the ghetto. JHI collection

Flames

After the defeat on the first day of the uprising, the furious Himmler dismissed Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg from the post of commanding officer and court-martialed him. The new commander was Jürgen Stroop, who previously dealt with fighting partisans in Ukraine and organizing deportations and extermination of Jews in Galicia (southern Poland). After the war, this unrepentant Nazi, declaring his faithfulness to Hitler and Himmler for the rest of his life, told Kazimierz Moczarski in the Warsaw Rakowiecka prison that the Germans were poorly prepared for street fights in the ghetto, they had not carried out any reconnaissance and the resistance of the Jews surprised them. The operation, which was supposed to last 3 days at most, lasted 28 – and that was not the end of the shooting in the ghetto. [6]

“From time to time, the Germans ran out from behind the corners of the houses on the Aryan side, fired series of shots and fell flat to the ground. Then they crawled back to their positions, which caused laughter and mockery of the observers,”

– recalled Natan Gross.

Stroop set about systematically the task of breaking the resistance of the Jews. Fearing own losses, which he tried to cover up in front of his superiors, he ordered the entire ghetto area to be burned down. All tenements were to be blown up by engineers or burned with flamethrowers. Stroop also tried to catch up with the insurgents in guerrilla warfare, organized mixed units which were ordered to move around the ghetto, launching surprise attacks and then quickly withdrawing.

“I can only talk about what happened in the second week of the uprising, around 25 or 26 April. We took part in combat, but only at night, when the houses were already on fire. I remember one skirmish with the Germans at night: it was in the transition house at 28 Świętojerska and 2a Wałowa Streets, the Germans crossing the street then entered the gate, we started shooting at them from the yard, we were hidden, and they were just like in a frying pan"

– recalled Bronisław Mirski.

The burning of the ghetto began. The anonymous author recalls:

"On Tuesday evening the cannonade has stopped – the interest is growing – we are informed from the 2nd bunker that for now we can leave, we are leaving – our eyes are presented with a terrible sight – all the houses located within the ghetto's radius are on fire, set on fire by incendiary bombs thrown from airplanes. From below, all the stairs were set on fire, the escaping Jews, who did not want to burn and did not have stairs, jumped with small children in their arms, escaped from the fire, but were hit by bullets from machine guns set by the Germans in front of every house – fire – oh God I will probably never see something like that again, flats with their complete appliances are on fire.

Whole houses – streets – tongues of fire reach straight to the sky. Smoke and carbon monoxide bite my eyes – rubble is falling – walls are collapsing here and there – the street is breathing more and more with fire fever, clouds of smoke fill the street more and more, my eyes ache – lack of breath – I'm choking, I leave my house for a moment to another – I look for a little air – in vain, where I turn – fire – smoke – destruction – as I found out later, hundreds of people who had not escaped in time were burned alive.

The fire is expanding more and more violently, I would like to leave now, because the heat is beating violently in the face, but I cannot take my eyes off the sight, but I do not believe to myself that it is real. Burning apartments image something amazing – some spaces covered with flames look as if a special paper is on fire, parallel stripes of fire represent the most marvelously prepared film – burning roofs and falling cornices, ceilings, balconies and thousands of tons of rubble.

At certain moments all this set me psychologically in such a way that I consciously said several times to my colleagues: look at the work of this fantastic-thinking director… the mad fire rages on, consuming further houses and streets”.

Women fighters

“A few days after the uprising broke out, from the canal at the corner of Franciszkańska Street and Krasiński Square, a young woman came out. After a while, a ‘blue’ policeman approached her. – Please show an ID. – Here you are. – the woman takes out a Jewish Kennkarte. The policeman laughs mockingly. – You will come with me. – Here you are – the woman calmly replies, and with a sudden movement she takes a bottle of hydrochloric acid from her purse and splashes the policeman in the eyes. Before you realized what the inhuman roar of the blinded person meant, the woman disappeared”

– reported Natan Gross.

"Folk fantasy also saw the Jewish Joan of Arc. At 28 Świętojerska Street, in the headquarters of the brush shop, which distinguished itself in the April fights, a beautiful eighteen-year-old girl in white was seen, who was shooting the Germans extremely accurately with a machine gun when no bullets could affect her – apparently she was wearing some armor – claimed the folk”[7] – noted Emanuel Ringelblum the birth of legends about the ghetto. But it was not a fabrication that women as well as men took part in the fighting on the Jewish side.

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"Captured Jewish youth movement fighters", photo from Stroop Report, Wikipedia.
From the left: partially visible Rachela Wyszogrodzka - murdered in Auschwitz; Bluma Wyszogrodzka - shot;
Małka Zdrojewicz - survived the war and moved to Israel.

“I knew these heroic girls from the period before the action, mostly members of the Hashomer Hatzair and Hechalutz organizations. Throughout the current war, they worked socially with great dedication and simply remarkable sacrifice. Disguised as Aryans, they transported illegal literature around the country, reached everywhere with the orders of the National Jewish Committee, bought and transported weapons, carried out death sentences issued by the JCO, shot at gendarmes and the SS during the January operation, and in general they chased men into a corner with their courage, restlessness and bravery. I myself saw Jewish women firing machine guns from the roof. One of these heroic girls must have distinguished herself in the hard fight that JCO was waging at Świętojerska Street, and hence the legend of the Jewish Virgin of Orleans”[8].

"When the ‘good spirits’ urged the Polish population to hide Jews, the ‘evil spirits’ in the form of hordes of blackmailers, police agents and uniformed police rushed, like hyenas on carrion, on the fugitives from the ghetto,” [9] – noted Ringelblum. "The Polish underground (Home Army and People’s Guard) tried several times to enter the ghetto during the uprising in order to come to its aid," writes Janczewska. – “These attempts, however, were improvised and ended in failure. The civilian population of Warsaw commented on the flames over the ghetto in many various ways, many Poles remained indifferent to the drama of dying Jews, many expressed their joy directly”. [10]

Bunkers

“About the second week of the uprising, the people of the Jewish Military Organization [JMU – P.B.] smashed our ceiling and let about 100 new people into our shelter, headed by Rozenberg's brother. It could have led to friendly fire, and only Eng. Mirski calmed the minds. We appointed Eng. Mirski, to communicate with the managers of all shelters and to organize an inter-shelter commission and to ensure that each shelter would receive several new people. And then suddenly our shelter was betrayed, probably by some of the new people who arrived. This is how we were discovered in the first days of May. By the way, I want to emphasize that we had cyanide production and we distributed poison to people, incl. to the head of ZZ Gepner, Szporn, Front and others,”

– Mirski recalled (writing about himself in the third person).

Sometimes the shelters were betrayed by Jews who were caught by the Germans and deceived with a promise that their lives would be spared. In underground hideouts, sometimes several hundred people stayed in a room the size of a large apartment. It was stuffy and hot, and there was little oxygen. The most dangerous were the fires of tenement houses above the bunkers.

"It's burning! From the street, a machine gun shoots at a burning house. People run away and fall. We have to leave the bunker. We run out and run to the nearest house at 39 Nalewki Street. We cannot walk there in a straight position, we crawl, the salvos around us do not stop. We get to the ruins, including the entrance to the basement, which is not on fire. Immediately a series of bullets fall into the basement. One of us was hit in the stomach and screams in pain. The place is getting dangerous. We keep running. Opposite building, at 38 Nalewki is on fire. People's screams and despair have no limits, people are burning alive. People unconscious from pain are running back and forth with buckets of water that God knows where they took it from. They're trying to put out the fire.

Suddenly, another series of shots, people are falling on top of each other. We crawl to the gate of the house at 39 Nalewki. We hide behind a huge pile of rubble. A little girl is standing on the side and crying: ‘Come, help me, my mother jumped down from the third floor, she broke her leg’. We hear the woman's loud moans. We are unable to help and we hold the girl tearing from our hands"

– recalled Jakub Ewinson.

During his post-war trial, Jürgen Stroop emphasized that until the uprising broke out, the Germans did not know about the shelters in the ghetto. [11] In his report on the liquidation of the ghetto, he gave the number of 631 destroyed bunkers, [12] but there were probably many more, because the Germans did not enter many hiding places for fear of traps – instead, they burned them with flamethrowers, let gas inside, and buried residents in the ruins of tenement houses. According to the Stroop report, from April 19 to May 16, the Germans killed or captured 56,065 people in the ghetto. [13] An unknown number of people died in fires and collapsed shelters. With few exceptions, all the buildings in the ghetto were demolished.

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Ruins of the ghetto in 1947, near Gęsia Street (after the war renamed after Mordechaj Anielewicz).
In the background, the tower of the Church of St. Augustine in Nowolipki. JHI collection

 

End of the Warsaw Ghetto

On May 8, Anielewicz and members of his command, surrounded by the Germans in the bunker at Miła Street, committed mass suicide. Shortly after this event "Kazik" Ratajzer (later Symcha Rotem) was looking for the surviving members of the JCO. Helped by Polish sewer workers and the People's Guard, he entered the area of ​​the burning, ruined ghetto. On May 10, "Kazik" led the fighters through the sewers to the hatch at 10 Prosta Street, and trucks took them to Łomianki village near Warsaw. Not all of them managed to escape – a handful of fighters left the sewers in the area of ​​ Bankowy Square, were recognized and shot by the Germans. "Out of several hundred fighting Jewish insurgents, a dozen survived the war." [14] Thanks to them, we know relatively much about the Jewish Combat Organization.

Members of the JMU left the ghetto through the tunnel at Muranowski Square a few days after the outbreak of the uprising. They planned to continue their fight outside the ghetto. Most of the members of this organization were killed in executions, in manhunts in and around Warsaw, or were captured and transported to labor camps. Very few JMU fighters survived the war, which makes historical research on it difficult. Apart from the fighters, an unknown number of civilians managed to escape from the ghetto through the sewers or hide during the uprising on the "Aryan" side.

The end of the uprising is considered to be May 16 – on that day Stroop blew up the Great Synagogue in Tłomackie. For the liquidation of the ghetto, he received the Iron Cross 1st class – one of the highest German combat decorations. He celebrated this event with a lavish banquet in the Royal Łazienki Park. [15] However, Jews were still hiding in the ghetto, sometimes for many months. There were still skirmishes between Jewish fighters and the Germans.

 

Reports from the ghetto available online

Few of the Warsaw ghetto inhabitants survived the uprising in the ghetto and the entire war – a few thousand people at most, out of the nearly 400,000 inhabiting the ghetto in 1942. [16] Some of these people, such as Jakub Ewinson, Natan Gross, Eugenia Truskier, and Bronisław Mirski, wrote accounts, which today belong to the collections of the Jewish Historical Institute. These collections we make available online and we encourage you to browse the manuscripts and transcripts (currently in Polish only) on the DELET portal.

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The project of popularizing reports from the Holocaust is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway as part of the Norway and EEA Grants and by the Polish state budget

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More about the Jewish Cultural Heritage project

 

Footnotes:

[1] Moshe Arens, Flagi nad gettem: rzecz o powstaniu w getcie warszawskim, transl. Michał Sobelman, Joanna Stocker-Sobelman, ed. Piotr Paziński, Karolina Wałaszek, Kraków 2011, p. 151, 161; Barbara Engelking, Jacek Leociak, Getto warszawskie: przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście, Warsaw 2001, p. 733.

[2] Marta Janczewska, Zagłada, in: Warsze-Warszawa. Żydzi w historii miasta 1414-2014, ed. Paweł Fijałkowski, Warsaw 2020, p. 450.

[3] B. Engelking, J. Leociak, op. cit., p. 735.

[4] All prisoners of Trawniki, Poniatowa and other camps in the Lublin district were murdered by the Germans in November 1943 as part of the "Erntefest" operation.

[5] B. Engelking, J. Leociak, op. cit., p. 733.

[6] K. Moczarski, Rozmowy z katem, introd. Norman Davies, ed. Andrzej Krzysztof Kunert, Kraków 2007, p. 216.

[7] Archiwum Ringelbluma, vol. 29A, Pisma Emanuela Ringelbluma z bunkra, ed. Eleonora Bergman, Tadeusz Epsztein, Magdalena Siek, JHI Press, Warsaw 2018, p. 89.

[8] Ibid., p. 90.

[9] Ibid., p. 91.

[10] M. Janczewska, op. cit., p. 455.

[11] Jürgen Stroop, Żydowska dzielnica mieszkaniowa w Warszawie już nie istnieje!, ed. Andrzej Żbikowski, Warsaw 2009, p. 36, note 80.

[12] Ibid., p. 104.

[13] Ibid., p. 40.

[14] M. Janczewska, op. cit., p. 454.

[15] K. Moczarski, op. cit., p. 248.

[16] Andrzej Żbikowski, Po wojnie, in: Warsze-Warszawa, op. cit., p. 474.

 

The spelling of the quoted reports has been updated, linguistic errors have been corrected and a few paragraph breaks have been added.

Przemysław Batorski   JHI Web Editor