The United States Congress established the Days of Remembrance as our nation's annual commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust, and mandated the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a permanent living memorial to the six million Jews as well as millions of others murdered by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. The Museum has designated “For Your Freedom and Ours” as the theme for the 2003 Days of Remembrance in honor, and in remembrance, of those courageous individuals in the Warsaw ghetto who valiantly rose up against their Nazi oppressors sixty years ago.
Before World War II, Warsaw was home to the largest and most dynamic Jewish community in Europe, with a population of around 375,000 Jews. Under German occupation beginning in September 1939, the Warsaw ghetto, established in 1940, became the largest of its kind in Europe. Between July and September 1942, the Germans deported almost 300,000 Jews from Warsaw to the Treblinka killing center. Just over 60,000 Jews remained in the ghettomostly the young and able-bodied. For them, resistance was a last, desperate option, since their families had already been killed and they had few illusions about their future in the ghetto.
After the end of the deportations in September 1942, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto began preparations to resist the final destruction of the ghetto. The Jews intensified their preparations after the Germans deported 5,0006,000 more Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka in January 1943. Most people sought to prepare bunkers and hiding places to evade the Germans. Mordecai Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising, organized Jewish volunteers into units to prepare for battle, but their greatest need was for weapons. A few young resistance fighters who were active outside the ghetto, such as Michal Klepfisz, Arie Wilner, and Vladka Peltel (Meed) used their contacts with the Polish underground to obtain weapons and explosives, and smuggled them into the ghetto. Klepfisz also organized small workshops producing Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. Jewish fighters faced the overwhelmingly superior forces of the Germans.
On April 19, 1943, on the eve of the Jewish observance of Passover, German SS and police units began the final destruction of the ghetto. As German troops entered the ghetto, the Jewish inhabitants went to their hiding places and bunkers, defying German orders to report for deportation. Hela Los, for example, hid with her brother and parents on the roof of their apartment house. By refusing to comply with the Germans' orders, they became part of the uprising.
In the first days of fighting, Anielewicz commanded hundreds of lightly armed Jewish fighters in street battles with the Germans. On the third day of the uprising, in an attempt to force the Jews out of hiding and quell the resistance, the Germans began to burn and demolish the ghetto, building by building. Jewish fighters made sporadic raids from their bunkers, but the Germans systematically reduced the ghetto to rubble. On May 8, the bunker at 18 Mila Street, headquarters of the Jewish Fighting Organization, fell. Anielewicz and those with him died in this battle.
Word of the German destruction of the Warsaw ghetto spread across occupied Europe, and newspaper accounts were published in New York and London. With no military capacity of assisting the Warsaw ghetto fighters and preoccupied with other strategic priorities, political and military authorities in Great Britain and the United States though aware of the uprising could not respond. On May 16, after blowing up the main synagogue, the Germans declared the liquidation of the ghetto complete.
Yet the defeat of the Warsaw ghetto uprising was, and remains, a significant symbolic victory for the Jews who fought their German persecutors. The Germans had planned to liquidate the ghetto within three days. The Jews actively resisted for nearly a month. Approximately 1200 poorly armed members of the united Jewish resistance fought about two thousand well-armed and well-equipped units of SS, Waffen SS, German air force, police and auxiliary police personnel. Those who resisted so bravely demonstrated, with passionate determination, that active resistance was possible.
The destruction of the Warsaw ghetto did not end the Jewish resistance. Some resistance fighters succeeded in escaping from the ghetto to join partisan groups in the forests around Warsaw. Benjamin Meed, for example, worked with other members of the underground to rescue ghetto fighters and to find and build hiding places for them. Mendel Rozenblit and his family managed to escape to the outskirts of Warsaw. Some Jews who escaped the destruction of the ghetto, like Marek Edelman, later joined the August 1944 uprising of the Polish underground in Warsaw.
Some Poles who were not Jewish aided the Warsaw ghetto resistance. Members of the Polish underground organization Zegota, like Irena Sendler, provided false papers, hiding places, and other support for Jews. Individuals like Pawel (Paul) Zenon Wos and his family members, also hid Jews from the Nazis. Jozef Wilk, a member of the Polish resistance, was killed as his unit of the underground Polish Home Army attempted to demolish a section of the Warsaw ghetto wall in support of the uprising
The Warsaw ghetto uprising was the largest Jewish uprising during the Holocaust, and the first armed urban uprising in German-occupied Europe. Between 1941 and 1943, underground resistance movements developed in approximately 100 ghettos in German-occupied Eastern Europe (about one-fourth of all ghettos), mostly in Poland, Lithuania, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine. In the forests of occupied Europe, Jewish partisans banded together to carry out acts of sabotage and provide safe havens for those who fled the ghettos. Jewish prisoners staged mass uprisings inside three killing centers in occupied Poland, attacking guards with stolen weapons at Sobibor and Treblinka and blowing up one of the gas chambers at AuschwitzBirkenau.
The Jewish fighters and their commanders in Warsaw were under no illusion that their resistance would lead to rescue. They knew that their chances of survival were minimal, but they chose to fight and die to defend the honor of the Jewish people. Their revolt was an act of protest. In remembering those who took a determined stand against the Nazis, we honor the memory of those who perished and are in turn reminded that the moral conscience of the individual is one of the greatest weapons against indifference and evil.
Benjamin Meed, Chairman of Days of Remembrance »
Fred S. Zeidman, Chairman, United States Holocaust Memorial Council »
Colin L. Powell, Secretary of State »
Elie Wiesel, Founding Chair, United States Holocaust Memorial Council »
Ruth B. Mandel, Vice–Chair, United States Holocaust Memorial Council »
Poles, citizens, freedom fighters!
From out of the roar of the cannon with which the German Army is battering our homes, the dwellings of our mothers, children, and wives;
From out of the reports of machine-guns which we have captured from the cowardly police and SS men;
From out of the smoke of fires and the blood of the murdered Warsaw ghetto, we — imprisoned in the ghetto — send you our heartful fraternal greetings. We know that you watch with pain and compassionate tears, with admiration and alarm, the outcome of this war, which we have been waging for many days with the cruel occupant.
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; that, like you, we breathe with desire for revenge for the crimes of our common foe.
A battle is being waged for your freedom as well as ours.
For you and our human, civic, and national honor and dignity.
We shall avenge the crimes of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek!
Long live the brotherhood of arms and blood of fighting Poland!
Long live freedom!
Death to the hangmen and torturers!
Long live the struggle for life and death against the occupant.
This appeal was prepared by underground couriers on the “Aryan” side of the Warsaw ghetto and posted by them, most of whom were Jews living under assumed identities as Polish Christians.
September 1, 1939
German forces invaded Poland.
September 28, 1939
Warsaw surrendered to the Germans.
October 4, 1939
Germans appointed a Jewish Council for Warsaw.
December 1, 1939
Germans required Jews in Warsaw to wear an identifying badge.
October 12, 1940
German officials formally established a ghetto in Warsaw. Days later the ghetto was sealed from the surrounding city.
July 22, 1942
Systematic deportation of almost 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka killing center began.
July 23, 1942
Jewish council chairman Adam Czerniakow committed suicide rather than assist in the deportations.
January 18-21, 1943
Germans deported 5,000-6,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka killing center.
April 19, 1943
Nazi officials initiated the final destruction of the ghetto in Warsaw. The Jewish uprising began.
May 8, 1943
German forces captured the bunker housing the Warsaw ghetto fighters’ headquarters.
May 16, 1943
The Germans blew up the Tlomacki synagogue in Warsaw to signal the destruction of the ghetto and the end of the uprising.
Bartoszewski, Wladyslaw T. The Warsaw Ghetto: A Christian’s Testimony. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.
Donat, Alexander. The Holocaust Kingdom. Washington, D.C.: Holocaust Library, 1999.
Gutman, Israel. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
Hilberg, Raul, Staron, Stanislaw, and Kermish, Joseph, eds., The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow: Prelude to Doom, trans. Stanislaw Staron. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1999.
Kermish, Joseph, ed., To Live and Die with Honor: Selected Documents from the Warsaw Ghetto Underground Archives O.S. (Oneg Shabbath), trans. M. Z. Prives, et al. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1986.
Meed, Vladka. On Both Sides of the Wall. Washington, D.C.: Holocaust Library, 1993.
Ringelblum, Emmanuel. Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum. New York: Schocken, 1974.
The Warsaw Ghetto, 1969 BBC Production.
Uprising, 2001 Warner Home Video.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1993 Ergo Media, Inc.