The Easter Pogrom, 1940

Written by: dr hab. Katarzyna Person
The Easter pogrom should be considered as a culmination of anti-Semitic violence which had been increasing on the streets of Warsaw since the beginning of the war, with its peak in the early spring of 1940. The pogrom was certainly strongly inspired by the Germans; as researcher Tomasz Szarota assumes, it was provoked deliberately as a justification for building a ghetto in Warsaw. The construction of the ghetto walls began only several days after the pogrom.

Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto


After dinner, on Jewish streets – beating Jews and breaking windows. A kind of a pogrom.

Adam Czerniaków, Diary, 24 III 1940 [1]


In March 1940, a delegation of Jewish Social Self-Help representatives was summoned by the German authorities in Krakow [2]. The subject of the appointment was supposed to be the material situation of the Jewish community, but one of the main topics the delegation was raising were events which took place in Warsaw at that time. Adam Czerniaków, head of Warsaw Judenrat and leader of the delegation, wrote in his diary on 27 III 1940: I was talking about pogroms in Warsaw, something we haven’t seen since 1880. [3] Despite significance of the events emphasised by their witnesses, the events which took place on the streets of Warsaw during the Easter in 1940, have remained nearly forgotten until recently, both in personal accounts as well as in academic literature. This state of affairs was caused primarily by the temporal location. Despite the dramatic nature of these events, the experience of the Easter pogrom was removed from mass memory of the Warsaw Jews and witnesses of their fate within several months due to ghettoisation and, eventually, the Holocaust. The memory about the Easter pogrom was recovered only 60 years later by Tomasz Szarota, who reconstructed the course of events in his insightful article published in a volume dedicated to pogroms in occupied Europe.[4]

Jewish accounts of the first year under German occupation in Warsaw sometimes call thsi period as a 'neverending pogrom'. In December 1940, one month after closing the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the associates of the Underground Archivee of the Warsaw Ghetto (Ringelblum Archive) noted: In the whole Jewish martyrology, there was no pogrom which would last so long. Usually, a pogrom lasts one day, a few days, a month.[5] As soon as in October 1939, Jews in occupied Warsaw had been impacted by first German regulations, signalling a stricter anti-Jewish policy. They impacted all social groups and led to quick pauperisation of the Jewish community, along with separation from the Polish population. Legally sanctioned violence was followed by individual violent acts committed by Germans against Jews – public beatings, persecution, robbing of belongings.

Increasing anti-Semitic propaganda and a permissive approach towards violence directed at Jews influenced the behaviour of some Warsawians. In many Jewish accounts from the first months of the occupation appears a recurrent theme of deepening divisions in contacts with Poles, accused of remaining oblivious to terror directed at Jews, but also of being complicit in persecutions.

The Easter pogrom should be considered as a culmination of anti-Semitic violence which had been increasing on the streets of Warsaw since the beginning of the war, with its peak in the early spring of 1940. The pogrom was certainly strongly inspired by the Germans; as researcher Tomasz Szarota assumes, it was provoked deliberately as a justification for building a ghetto in Warsaw. The construction of the ghetto walls began only several days after the pogrom [6].

The pogrom began on Good Friday, 22 March 1940, with mass attacks on Jewish shops and beating randomly met Jews on the streets [7].  These events were followed by further violence throughout Easter and the week afterwards, mainly in the Jewish part of the city. Places most commonly appearing in accounts of violence were the Iron Gate Square and the Bank Square areas, other parts of the city, such as Żurawia streets, are mentioned as well [8].  During the pogrom, people wearing the Star of David band were attacked; Jewish shops, private apartments and institutions, including the office of the Jewish Council, were raided. Victims comprised all social groups, from shop owners to social and political leaders [9].  The groups of pogromschiks were estimated to be as large as a few hundred. They came from rather similar background – people from the social margins joined by students, especially those from the Michał Konarski School of Crafts at 72 Leszno street [10].

In a testimony from the Ringelblum Archive, Accounts of treatment of Jews by the Polish community in Warsaw, September 1939-October 1940 (Relacje o traktowaniu Żydów przez ludność polską w Warszawie (wrzesień 1939–październik 1940) [11] we can find a fragment called „March 1940”, referring to the third day of the Easter attacks. Author saw the pogrom from the tram no. 21, going from Wola to Theatre Square. The route of the tram allowed her to follow one of the attacks which took place near the Wielopole hall: Crowds of people, looking like dense black mass from a distance. There’s panic – Jewish sellers are quickly packing their wares in suitcases or baskets, but it is difficult to leave the site. The entire square is surrounded by a crowd of teenagers, armed with daggers, knives and sticks. They take away the goods and destroy them. Some of them run away with stolen things. They beat up mercilessly every Jew they meet. [12]  One of the victims is an elderly man. The author writes: Right next to the bus stop an elderly Jew – with a loaf of bread wrapped in paper – he wants to get into the tram – someone in the back pulls him out — beats him madly on the head with a stick. He covers himself – tries to defend himself. Other attackers surround him – the bread falls out of his hand – before the tram departs – the Jew’s face is massacred, his head bleeds [13]. Passengers on the tram are helpless. They can’t do anything. The account ends with a detailed description of a landscape after the pogrom:

Roads and pavements are covered with broken glass, wood planks and shop equipment. Veiorus goods scattered in chaos. In front of some shops, the pavement is full of colours – paint was spilled out of barrels. Boys parade in women’s hats stolen from shops. On closed doors of certain shops, you can see large announcements: 'Aryan shop', or 'Christian shop', supposed to work as a charm against the pogrom. Usually the shops are open and empty inside [14].

Around the third day of the pogrom, Jewish self-defence units, comprising mostly factory workers and members of Bund, came to the rescue. They were likely supported by groups of Polish socialists. The pogromschiks and Jewish self-defence clashed, but the exact number of casualties and injured cannot be estimated.

Unlike in the case of pogroms in the interwar period, when Polish state police usually reacted to anti-Semitic violence, the Easter pogrom happened, at least initially, with no reaction from the Polish police. There were even mentions of the blue police being complicit in robbery and their support for pogromschiks. The pogrom was condemned by the Catholic Church and the Polish resistance, but it didn’t translate to mass help provided by the witnesses [15].

In his analysis, Tomasz Szarota points at the National Radical Organization (NOR) directed by Andrzej Świetlicki, an activist of ONR 'Falanga' before World War II, as the key actor in the Easter pogrom. NOR activists, along with far-right organization 'Atak', had encouraged teenagers to join the pogrom. The question of German inspiration and coordination remains unresolved so far, according to the source analysis. Certainly the fact that Germans were filming the events proves the German inspiration, possibly also bringing pogromschiks onto the site of violence by trucks. The inaction of the blue police also serves as a proof of the fact that Germans were aware of the development of the pogrom. The theory is also supported by the fact that the pogrom, unlike cases in which violence develops 'naturally', ended after eight days, on 30 March 1940, as if it was ended by an official order [16]. It was the moment of an official intervention from the Polish police, possibly connected with arresting pogromschiks [17].

Was the wave of anti-Semitic violence, which erupted on 22 March 1940, so unusual in terms of its unexpected, sudden nature and the level of aggression that it can be isolated in literature as a pogrom, on the background of deepening German terror in Warsaw before closing the ghetto [18]?  Lack of exact resolutions about the prime movers, the course of events, the scale and range of violence, including victims on both sides, does not allow to consider the Easter attacks in qualification categories suggested by researchers of anti-Semitic violence [19]. Despite the central position of Warsaw in the historiography of the Polish-Jewish relations during the occupation, their initial phase (if we classify the first year of the occupation as such) remains examined to a very small extent. Until we have enough research material, the question whether to classify these events (as riot, unrest, pogrom) – can be answered only in reference to the perspective of their contemporaries. In these terms, the term 'pogrom' is certainly justified.



[1] A. Czerniaków, Adama Czerniakowa dziennik getta warszawskiego, red. M. Fuks, Warszawa 1983, s. 97.

[2] The delegation visited Krakow on March, 9–27. The delegation included: Adam Czerniaków, head of Warsaw Judenrat, Michał Weichert, Jewish Social Self-Help representative, and members of Jewish Council: Józef Jaszuński, Abraham Sztolcman and Izrael Milejkowski.

[3] Czerniaków, Adama Czerniakowa dziennik getta warszawskiego, s. 98.

[4] T. Szarota, U progu Zagłady. Zajścia antyżydowskie i pogromy w okupowanej Europie: Warszawa, Paryż, Amsterdam, Antwerpia, Kowno, Warszawa 2000, s. 19–82. Zob. też. M. Urynowicz, Stosunki Polsko-żydowskie w Warszawie w okresie okupacji hitlerowskiej [w:] Polacy i Żydzi pod okupacja niemiecką. Studia i Materiały, red. A. Żbikowski, Warszawa 2006, s. 537–689; A. Żbikowski, Antysemityzm, szmalcownictwo, współpraca z Niemcami a stosunki polsko-żydowskie pod okupacją niemiecką, tamże, s. 420–506; J. Leociak, Tekst wobec zagłady. (O relacjach z getta warszawskiego), Warszawa 1997.

[5] Jewish Historical Institute Archive [AŻIH], Ringelblum Archive [ARG] I 580 (Ring. I/990/1), NN., Testimony 'Warszawskie refleksje' (12.1940 r.), k. 1., transl. Sara Arm.

[6] Szarota, U progu Zagłady. Zajścia antyżydowskie i pogromy w okupowanej Europie, s. 66–68.

[7]  The exact date of the beginning remains unknown, sources name also Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. About other dates, see: Szarota, U progu Zagłady. Zajścia antyżydowskie i pogromy w okupowanej Europie, s. 25–26.

[8] Czerniaków, Adama Czerniakowa dziennik getta warszawskiego, s. 98.

[9] Adam Czerniaków mentioned that members of the Jewish Council were among the victims, see: Adama Czerniakowa dziennik getta warszawskiego, s. 99.  Also there – information about the siege of the Jewish Council building by pogromschiks.

[10] See also: Szarota, U progu Zagłady. Zajścia antyżydowskie i pogromy w okupowanej Europie, s. 62–63.

[11] AŻIH ARG I 460 (I/176) H. S. L., 'Relacje o traktowaniu Żydów przez ludność polską w Warszawie', Druk: Archiwum Ringelbluma. Konspiracyjne Archiwum Warszawy, t. 5: Getto warszawskie. Życie codzienne, s. 419–426.

[12] H. S. L., 'Relacje o traktowaniu Żydów przez ludność polską w Warszawie', k. 4.

[13] Ibidem, k. 5.

[14] Ibidem.

[15] Szarota, U progu Zagłady. Zajścia antyżydowskie i pogromy w okupowanej Europie, s. 76–80.

Urynowicz, Stosunki Polsko-żydowskie w Warszawie w okresie okupacji hitlerowskiej, s. 554.

[16]  Many testimonies about the pogrom mention 'a call from Krakow', which preceded the suppression of violence. There are different opinions about who was calling. Ringelblum believes it was Adam Rooniker from the Central Welfare Council (E. Ringelblum, Kronika getta warszawskiego wrzesień 1939-styczeń 1943, ed. A. Eisenbach, transl. A. Rutkowski, Warszawa 1983, p. 119). Michał Weichert write in his postwar memoir that it was himself who asked the German authorities in Krakow for help – and they issued an order to end the pogrom. The information has not been confirmed by other sources. See: AŻIH 302/25 (Pamiętnik Michała Weicherta), k. 50; Szarota, U progu Zagłady. Zajścia antyżydowskie i pogromy w okupowanej Europie, p.70.

[17] See: Grabowski, Ja tego Żyda znam!, s. 44.

[18] Anti-Semitic violence during the escalation of violence related to a change of power and occupation was described by Artur Markowski in Rosyjski wizerunek konfliktu społecznego. Żydzi na pograniczu Królestwa Polskiego i Rosji w początkach Wielkiej Wojny, [in:] Lata Wielkiej Wojny. Dojrzewanie do niepodległości 1914–1918, red. D. Grinberg [et al.], Białystok 2007, p. 148–163.

[19] See: D. Engel, What’s in Pogrom? European Jews in the Age of Violence, [w:] Anti-Jewish Violence. Rethinking the Pogrom in East European History, red. J. Dekel-Chen [et al.], Bloomington 2011, s. 19–40.

dr hab. Katarzyna Person   Historyk. Ukończyła Uniwersytet Warszawski i Uniwersytet Londyński. Zajmuje się historią Zagłady na ziemiach polskich i losami Żydów z Polski w obozach DP.