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What was unique about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?

The Jewish ghetto in Bialystok had easy access to weaponry.

The Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Vilna had a resistance leader – the poet Abba Kovner – who famously shouted the true intentions of the Nazis before anybody really knew. 

In the Warsaw ghetto, a group of Jewish inhabitants were initially leaderless and in no position to fight. Early on in their efforts to organize, they took stock of their arsenal: one pistol.

And yet it was the Warsaw Ghetto where a legendary uprising would erupt on April 19, 1943 – on the eve of Passover.

In his lecture Tuesday evening, titled “What was unique about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?” Samuel Kassow, history professor at Trinity College, asked the central question: Why did this massive rebellion occur in the Warsaw Ghetto, and not in other places where armed resistance was perhaps more feasible?

Presented by Doheny Memorial Library and co-sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, the lecture was part of the series "Hidden Archives - Public Struggles: Events Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising," which will be commemorated on April 19.

Even after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jewish leaders in the Vilna and Bialystok ghettos opted against following suit.

“Instead of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising serving as a clarion call as an example, in fact it was respected but it was not emulated,” said Kassow, who was born in 1946 at a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany.

Drawing from his book, “Who Will Write Our History,” Kassow laid out at least three conditions that made Warsaw unique.

First was a vacuum of Jewish authority in the Warsaw ghetto. Jewish ghettos in Vilna and Bialystok, for instance, were partly overseen by Judenrat with head administrators who were able to maintain some semblance of stability and convince their fellow Jewish civilians not to join the resistance efforts. 

In the Warsaw ghetto, the leadership structure broke down in July of 1942, when the SS barged into the office of Judenrat President Adam Czerniaków and told him of a plan to deport Jews en masse. Refusing to participate in the murder of his people, Czerniaków committed suicide.

The Jewish police in Warsaw, meanwhile, “turned into bloodhounds.” They aggressively followed Nazi orders to meet the deportation quota of five Jewish people per day, and often took the opportunity to extort their fellow Jews. 

Second was the massive support of the Jewish community. Ordinary families in the ghetto became invested in the effort, and established more than 750 secret bunkers in their homes for resistance fighters.

Third was the fact that the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto had, even before the war, been more a part of Polish culture than Jews of other Polish ghettos, and Polish culture put a high premium on honor.

In a six-week span the ended in September of 1942, the mass deportations to the gas chambers of Treblinka death camp had shrunk the Jewish population of the ghetto from 360,000 to 60,000.

It left the survivors shell shocked.

“And what did the ghetto look like? Empty buildings,” he said. “The streets littered with books, mattresses, feathers from pillows, children’s toys – everything empty, everything a reminder how, in five weeks, or six weeks, 300,000 people had been taken away.”

As the shock wore off, surviving inhabitants began to express regrets about not putting up more of a fight. 

“People were literally tearing their hair out: why didn’t we resist? Why didn’t we at least attack them with knives?”

In Poland, the young generation of Jews born around World War I was uniquely cohesive. Prior to World War II many had joined politically active youth movements for socialists, communists, Zionists, and others.

In the wake of the great deportation, the youth of the Warsaw Ghetto decided to fight back, despite their lack of arms. The youth ultimately joined forces with more experienced hands to form several groups, including the ZZW and the ZOB.  

Through an envoy, the rebels sought help from a more established group of resistance fighters: the Polish Home Army. The Poles had little interest in the Jewish group, but ultimately donated 10 pistols.

In the Warsaw Ghetto, the resistance fighters made use of the pistols, killing Jewish Nazi collaborators and taking hostages for ransom. In this manner they raised enough money to purchase more weapons and bombs on the black market. 

Next came a misunderstanding that significantly altered the course of history.

On Jan. 18, 1943, German soldiers stormed the ghetto, taking the inhabitants by surprise. They’d come on orders to deport up to 10,000 people to work camps, but the resistance fighters assumed they’d come to wipe out the ghetto, and fought fiercely. The SS called it quits and retreated after putting maybe 6,000 people on trains.

“The Jews thought that they had foiled a German plan to eliminate the ghetto,” Kassow said.

Word of their bravery spread, and their “prestige of the ZOB went to the sky.”

The Poles were “finally impressed,” Kassow said, and donated more weapons. Eventually, on April 19, the SS and auxiliary troops did in fact arrive in force to liquidate the ghetto.

They were “met with a hail of fire” and Molotov cocktails. The resistance famously raised two flags – one Jewish, one Polish – which could be seen waving from a long distance.

After suffering heavy casualties, the SS changed tactics and began torching the ghetto building by building. On May 8, the Germans discovered the ZOB headquarters bunker, known as Mila 18 – built by Jewish underworld smugglers – and attacked it with poison gas. Most died, but some ZOB escaped to safety through the sewers.

The bodies of the fallen remain on Mila 18, which is the site of a memorial mound.

Kassow expressed misgivings about lionizing the few fighters at the expense of the many ordinary Jews who were not in a position to take up arms.

“The fact is that Jewish society as a whole and especially in Poland showed massive powers of resistance …. in many different forms,” he said.

This included: smuggling food to curb starvation, collecting archives to ensure the atrocities wouldn’t be forgotten, and establishing soup kitchens and refugee centers for the dispossessed, among others.

“Without the ordinary Jews who didn’t have weapons, their fight could not have taken place,” he said. “In between the martyrs and the fighters there was a Jewish people. And a Jewish people that resisted in massive and varied ways.”