The mass deportation of inmates to the Treblinka death camp began in July 1942, and within seven weeks, 250,000 were dead. In May 1943, the ghetto was destroyed, and most of the remaining inmates killed.
However, in the face of the deliberate misery of the ghetto, the prisoners of the Warsaw Ghetto did what they could to ensure their identity, and their memory, were preserved. And when the time came, they fought with everything they had.
THE WARSAW GHETTO UPRISING TIMELINE
The last deportations to Treblinka occur on 6 September 1942, and the resolution to fight is widespread among the remaining population. The Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organisation - ZOB), under the leadership of Mordechai Anielewicz, begin to prepare for a bloody showdown.
Inmates stockpile supplies and construct hidden bunkers throughout the ghetto. The ZOB obtain some arms from the reluctant Polish Underground and the black market, and punish collaborators.
18-22 JANUARY 1943
German police enter the ghetto and begin rounding up Jews. Some ZOB fighters spontaneously open fire, sparking a skirmish that continues for the next four days. Roughly a dozen Nazis are killed and the remainder temporarily forced out of the ghetto, although the ZOB sustain heavy losses.
The January combat is a confidence booster and learning experience for the ZOB, who regroup and restrategise. In the following weeks the impressed Polish Home Army funnel more weapons into the ghetto.
SS forces and collaborators, including armoured vehicles, arrive at the ghetto hungry for vengeance, but walk straight into an ambush: 1,000 militants are within the ghetto and ready for combat.
The Nazis are forced outside the ghetto wall. The flags of Poland and the Star of David are hoisted high above the ghetto, seen by Poles in the surrounding city.
The German forces enter the Brushmakers’ quarter, but the ZOB detonate a large quantity of explosives that had been placed underneath the street. The Germans return, but are repelled with Molotov cocktails.
Anielewicz writes a note to Yitzhak Zuckerman, who had left the ghetto on a mission:
I have only one expression to describe: my feelings and the feelings of my comrades: things have surpassed our boldest dreams: the Germans ran away from the ghetto twice […] Be well my friend. Perhaps we shall meet again. The main thing is the dream of my life has come true. I’ve lived to see a Jewish defence in the ghetto in all its greatness and glory.
24 APRIL - 7 MAY
The Nazis systematically set buildings ablaze in an attempt to force the rebels out, but many escape through tunnels and passages. The Nazis force the massively outgunned fighters into bunkers, where conditions quickly become horrendous. The uprising descends into a sporadic series of smallscale firefights as bunkers are uncovered.
The Germans attack the ZOB command bunker on 18 Mila Street, where a large number of militants are gathered. Some are killed in combat, some manage to escape through tunnels, and 120, including the 24-year-old Anielewicz, take their own lives.
After contact was made by Simcha Rotem, surviving combatants escape through the sewers with the aid of the Armia Ludowa, a Polish communist partisan force. Roughly 80 combatants from the ghetto survive the conflict, escaping into the Lomianki forests and the “Aryan” side of the city.
On 16 May, after almost a month of conflict, the battle ends, and the Nazis destroy the Great Synagogue.
Some of the surviving combatants went on to fight in the wider Warsaw uprising of August - October 1944. This included Zuckerman, who wrote: “We went to that war of our own will, and we wanted to be in it as Jews”.