Under the cover of World War II, Nazi Germany had begun a genocidal program to deal with “the Jewish problem.” As a first step, the Nazis herded Jews into small ghettos where starvation and disease could take their toll, thus lessening the workload for the extermination camps. On Yom Kippur, October 12, 1940, the Nazis announced the building of Jewish residential quarters in Warsaw. Close to 400,000 Jews (30% of the Warsaw population) were forced to occupy an area consisting of some ten streets (2.4% of the city’s area). (Warsaw’s pre-war Jewish population in 1939 was 393,950 Jews.) Jews were also deported into the ghetto from other places, and the population of the ghetto reached more than half a million people.
Beginning in the summer of 1942, the first mass deportations of Jews from the ghetto to the death camps began. Between July 22 and September 12, 1942, the German authorities deported or murdered around 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. The number of deportees averaged about 5,000-7,000 people daily, and reached a high of 13,000. The German authorities granted only 35,000 Jews permission to remain in the ghetto, while more than 20,000 Jews remained in the ghetto in hiding. For the at least 55,000-60,000 Jews remaining in the Warsaw ghetto, deportation and death seemed inevitable.
In the summer of 1942, however, several Jewish underground organizations created armed self-defense units. They obtained a small number of weapons from the Polish military underground that October.
When a second wave of deportations to the Treblinka killing center began on January 18, 1943, Jewish fighters armed with pistols infiltrated a column of Jews being forced to the Umschlagplatz (transfer point) and, at a prearranged signal, broke ranks and fought their German escorts. This unexpected Jewish armed resistance caused the Nazis to retreat from the ghetto after four days. Members of the ghetto population began to construct subterranean bunkers and shelters in preparation for the next series of deportations.
The German forces decided to begin the operation of the total liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto on April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover, with the goal of finishing the job on the next day, in honor of Hitler’s birthday. But when SS and police units entered the ghetto that morning, the streets were deserted. Nearly all of the residents of the ghetto had gone into hiding places or bunkers. The rest, some 750 Jews – ragged, starving and barely armed, began firing at Hitler’s soldiers with smuggled guns, Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. On the fifth day of battle, they issued a proclamation to the Polish population outside the ghetto walls: “Let it be known that every threshold in the ghetto has been and will continue to be a fortress, that we may all perish in this struggle, but we will not surrender.” They did not inflict more than a few hundred German casualties, but diverted over 2,000 German troops for some six weeks, and inspired many other Jews to acts of resistance.
On May 8, 1943, the Germans discovered the main command post in the ghetto, located at Miła 18 Street. (From thence comes the name of Leon Uris’s novel about the uprising, Mila 18.) Most of the leadership and dozens of remaining fighters were killed, while others committed mass suicide by ingesting cyanide. The suppression of the uprising officially ended on May 16, 1943. Approximately 13,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto during the uprising. Of the remaining 50,000 residents, most were captured and shipped to concentration and extermination camps, in particular to Treblinka.
Hirsh Glick (1920-1944), a poet and partisan in the Vilna Ghetto, wrote “The Partisan Hymn” when he heard about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It became the battle song of the underground Jewish resistance movement. It was written in Yiddish, and is widely known by its Yiddish title, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol!” An English translation is shown below.
Never say that you are going your last way,
Though lead-filled skies above blot out the blue of day.
The hour for which we long will certainly appear.
The earth shall thunder ‘neath our tread that we are here!
From lands of green palm trees to lands all white with snow,
We are coming with our pain and with our woe,
And where’er a spurt of our blood did drop,
Our courage will again sprout from that spot.
For us the morning sun will radiate the day,
And the enemy and past will fade away,
But should the dawn delay or sunrise wait too long.
Then let all future generations sing this song.
This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
This is no song of free birds flying overhead,
But a people amid crumbling walls did stand,
They stood and sang this song with rifles held in hand.
(Translated by Elliot Palevsky)