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The Warsaw ghetto

The Jewish uprising at the Warsaw ghetto was a heroic, yet tragic struggle. But it saw the world's conscience being shaken and led to protests against the genocide. P. SUBRAMANYAM continues the series on the holocaust.


The ghetto's remarkable monument for those who laid down their lives in total defiance in their struggle for freedom against the Germans.

BETWEEN 1919 and 1939, Warsaw had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe. There were nearly 4,00,000, almost one third of the city's population, before the Second World War began.

The Jewish population swelled in Warsaw, as Germans occupying Poland and the former Soviet Union, in a wave of ethnic cleansing and by compulsory re-settlement, rounded up the Jews and sent them off to Warsaw, systematically preparing a ghetto for the non-Aryans.

It was a ghetto in the truest sense — these prisoners were stoned to death; there was no sanitation and no basic amenities. Apart from starvation, severe punishment, shooting and gassing, the Germans isolated Jews in ghettos.

The Warsaw ghetto was thus created. Half a million people were cramped in an area of 770 acres. In no time, huge walls were erected and the occupying Germans cut off the rest of the city during the night of November 15-16, 1940 — the greatest congestion of human beings.

The Nazis liked to take action against the Jews on Jewish holidays, so it was on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement (October 12, 1940), that an announcement was made that ``Jewish residential quarters'' would be set up in Warsaw. According to the United States Holocaust Museum, the Ghetto would comprise 2.4 per cent of the city's land but would contain 30 per cent of the population. Thus, to create the Ghetto, the Nazis moved 1,13,000 Christian residents out and moved in 1,38,000 Jews. By the time deportation to the concentration camps began, about 1,00,000 residents of the Ghetto had died of starvation or disease, according to Raul Hilberg.

A 10 feet-high wall was erected and anyone leaving the place was shot. No contact with the outside world was allowed, and food, clothes and medical supplies were restricted. By mid-1941, some 5,000 people were dying every month. Corpses littered the streets, typhus and cholera erupted and gangs of bored German soldiers would, for fun, shoot Jews at random. The Germans treated the ghetto as a holding bay and called it a quarantine district, to combat the typhus epidemic sweeping Warsaw. The German propaganda material depicted the Jews as carriers of the disease and justified the death penalty for anyone trying to leave the district. But the walls and the makeshift gates were far from unassailable as an estimated 22,000 people did escape and lived in hiding or on false papers in the ``Aryan'' sectors.

Smuggling provided 80 per cent of the food. Bulkier products such as potatoes would cost twice as much in the ghetto. Goods were smuggled in many ways. Policemen and soldiers at the gate could be bribed and the trams, which passed through the ghetto and were not allowed to stop, would have provisions thrown from the window as the trams slowed while taking a corner. People sold whatever they could to buy food. There were soup kitchens to stave off starvation. The Germans had allowed a titular Jewish Council, which, although not financially funded, was able to provide a welfare department to run hospitals and orphanages.

By the spring and summer of 1942, three extermination centres were set up at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, while Auschwitz had already become a mass extermination centre. In occupied Soviet Union, nearly five million Jews were moved into Poland and 3,00,000 of them were gassed in Treblinka. As these atrocities were happening, the self-governing body within the ghetto collected and analysed the information and began preparing for resistance.


Life in the ghetto... children on the streets.

In the sealed ghetto of Warsaw, material assistance was possible as some sort of economic activity took place openly, breaking the Nazi system of isolation. Bribery became a part of daily living in exchange for food and medicine. The SS, German police and the Polish workers under the Germans, could be bought with money in exchange for goods. Although life was unbearable among the Jews, a dramatic fight began to preserve values, maintain human relations and meet spiritual needs.

The underground movement united the community and tried to save them from total starvation. To this end, everyone shared what they had with others, doctors treated the children of their neighbourhood free of charge, cobblers repaired boots free of charge and so on. The underground culture helped teach children, hold secret musical performances and religious activities and taught basic hygiene and sanitation. Underground publications, leaflets and the press flourished.

In order to liquidate the Jews by gassing, the next stage of the plan was ``transportation to the East'', and accordingly, on July 22, 1942, the Warsaw Ghetto was surrounded by Ukrainian and Latvian soldiers in Nazi SS uniforms, as the liquidation of the Ghetto began in response to an order given by Heinrich Himmler that ``the settlement of the entire Jewish population of the General Government be carried out and completed by December 31, 1941."

The chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Council, Adam Czerniakow, was ordered by the Nazis to deliver 6,000 Jews a day, seven days a week, to the Umschlagplatz (collection point) for deportation to Treblinka, a concentration camp near the eastern border of Poland where they would be gassed to death. A day later, the Nazis increased the number to 7,000 a day. Rather than co-operate with the Nazis, Czerniakow committed suicide on July 23, on the first day that the Jews were assembled and were ready for deportation.

To highlight this mass murder, Martin Gilbut, in his book, The Holocaust wrote, "In those seven weeks, a total of 265,000 Jews were sent by train for `Resettlement in the East'." It was the largest slaughter of a single community, Jewish or non-Jewish, in the Second World War. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, by summer 1944, all the Jewish Ghettos in Eastern Europe had been closed and two million Ghetto Jews had been transported to concentration camps.

The underground Ghetto Archives, known as the ARG, collected the fate and accounts of the Jews and the reports of the Nazi genocide were sent from here to the rest of the world. Through the Polish underground movement, the news of the mass extermination was relayed to the BBC, London and Washington but without much success.

In 1942, about 300,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to Treblinka and these reports of mass murder and killings leaked back to the Warsaw Ghetto. A group of young people formed an organisation called Z.O.B. (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, which means Jewish Fighting Organisation). The Z.O.B., led by 23-year-old Mordecai Anielewicz, issued a proclamation calling upon the Jewish people to resist going to the trains. A small supply of arms was smuggled into the Ghetto and as inhabitants were assembled for deportation, the inmates fired at the German troops.

After a few days of exchange of fire, the troops retreated and this small victory inspired the Ghetto fighters to prepare for further resistance. This was indeed the beginning of a large-scale defiance from the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.

On April 19, 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began in total defiance after the German troops and the police entered the ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants. Seven hundred and fifty fighters fought the heavily armed and well-trained Germans. The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month, but on May 16, 1943, the revolt ended as the Germans slowly but surely crushed the resistance.

Though unsuccessful, the ghetto uprising succeeded in two objectives: the participation of the Jews from the ghetto in the war against the Nazi Reich and awakening the conscience of the world against genocide.

Out of more than 56,000 captured, about 7,000 were shot and the rest were deported to concentration camps in Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz and Majdanek. In the uprising and the deaths, the Jewish fighters, in the name of its community, resolved to die bearing arms. They had no illusions as to the outcome of their desperate struggle — "The Jews had to die a death in defence of human dignity and their own honour."

The Vashem centre in Israel later recorded that of the 495,000 Jews who passed through the Warsaw ghetto, about 10,000 survived. In just seven weeks between July and September 1942, 265,000 were sent to Treblinka and were gassed to death.

Today, there exists a neatly laid out park and a huge monument stands as testimony to the memory of those who fought with great courage and determination in Warsaw.

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