Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

[Joy Dudley]

After the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they began to force Polish Jews in Nazi-occupied areas into ghettoes (Einwohner 281). They were often deported from the countryside or from areas of the city into concentrated locations sectioned off from the rest of the city. In the Warsaw Ghetto 500,000 Jews were confined to an area of the city smaller than 2 square miles (Einwohner, 281).  The condition of the Warsaw Ghetto was deplorable. In the first year, all communications with the outside world were severely restricted. Unfortunately, many of the Jews living in Warsaw survived on less than 300 calories a day (Einwohner, 281). They suffered from starvation and disease. Obtaining food became the main obsession in the daily life of the ghettos. “Warsaw Jews also suffered from the Nazi’s repressive edicts, beatings and other physical abuses, and roundups for forced labor” (Einwohner, 281). However, despite all of these atrocities, there was not a resurgence of collective resistance until about three years after the camp’s inception in January 1943.  This was due to the fact that the Warsaw Jews simply did not see the need for resistance (Einwohner, 281). They were not originally aware that the Germans were preparing to completely annihilate them. The Warsaw Jews still had the hope of survival despite all that was being done to them. If they were able to obtain dry shelter and food, the unbearable conditions of the ghetto were survivable. Many also thought that the defeat of the Germany was imminent, and clung to the hope that they would be liberated from their predicament by the Allies.   Despite some of the calls for resistance from some members of the Warsaw Ghetto, many refused, deeming resistance to be both too risky and unnecessary (Einwohner, 281).  Mass deportations occurred from Warsaw to Treblinka, starting in July 1942. Even after these deportations occurred, there was not enough support for collective resistance against the Nazi regime. Many thought that the “entire ghetto could not be liquidated” (Einwohner, 282).

However, when mass deportations continued throughout the summer, the Jews of Warsaw could no longer be in denial about their fate. They knew that those who were deported were never seen again, and faced destruction. Their attitude shifted from a hopeful obedience, to a strong resignation to their fate. The Warsaw Jews knew that they would all eventually face death. However, the question was whether they would go willingly or die fighting. By the end of the summer of 1942 two fighting organizations took form for the purpose of resistance: the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) (Einwohner, 282).  Most of those who called for armed resistance were young activists from a variety of different political organizations and backgrounds (Einwohner, 282). They already had the organizational capacity for mass collective resistance. Many of them lost most of their family members either to the ghetto, or through deportation to Treblinka. Therefore, they forged many close ties with those in the resistance organizations. These organizational ties helped recruit new members to collective resistance (Einwohner, 283). Many things such as political ideologies and gender also predisposed those in these groups to collective action as well.

The motives behind armed resistance in Warsaw were interesting aspects about the uprising.  The motives were fostering a strong sense of Jewish identity and honor among the inhabitants of the ghetto. The members of the Jewish Fighting Organization and the Jewish Military Union held no illusions about their ability to defeat the Germans: “Instead of protecting their own lives, the ghetto fighters sought to protect the honor of the Jewish people by dying on the battlefield instead of in the gas chambers” (Einwohner, 286). There was both a strong sense of Jewish identity, and a desire to portray the fighting honor of the Jewish people (Einwohner 286). “For now on, Jewish groups would no longer administer their own decimation, but would only rise in their defense” (Young, 76).

The first stages of the rebellion came when the Judenrat (Jewish Council) was dismantled by the unified Jewish Fighting Organization (Young, 76). The armed conflict began officially on January 18, 1943 when 800 Latvian and German troops entered the ghetto expecting to round up the last of the Jews.  However, they were taken by surprise. The Jewish Fighting Organization was able to force the Nazis to withdraw in a full-blown street battle. The next three days after the first insurrection, more than 1000 Jews were killed fighting the Nazis, and about 6,000 were deported to Treblinka. However, 50,000 Jews still remained in Warsaw, and both the Poles and Jews celebrated this act of armed resistance (Young, 78). The resistance fighters fought with homemade weapons and were able to keep the Germans at the brink for a significant amount of time before the Germans were finally able to take control of the ghetto. By the end of the battle, all of the remaining Jews in the ghetto were either shot on the spot or deported to Treblinka. The Germans incinerated the ghetto, eventually burning down all of Warsaw.

The Monument and the Community

There is a common misconception that all Jews accepted their death passively, that they all “went to their slaughter like sheep” (Einwohner, 1).  However, that is simply not the case. To combat such misconceptions, research has been undertaken into the resistance.  It is seen even in the commemoration of resistance. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument is such a memorial that depicts the noble values of resistance and bravery enacted by the Jews who did not accept their death without a fight. It immortalizes their fight for honor and the sense of Jewish identity. The call for the construction of the monument came from a Jewish poet by the name of Julian Tuwim about one year after the uprising. Tuwim wrote the poem in New York right after he received word of the uprising. The poem circulated among Jewish refugees in Russia emphasizing both the destruction and the heroism behind the uprising: “The history of the uprising itself and its perceived significance, the sculptor’s own life and lost home, and the poet’s lament all seem to have moved the stone that became the monument” (Young, 80).  The Soviet government commissioned a young Jewish Pole by the name of Rappaport to design and build the monument. Rappaport “visualized the uprising in both Jewish and proletarian figures” (Young, 80). Rappaport anticipated both his audience and the Soviet government. Ironically, it was originally rejected by Stalin’s own art committee for being too “nationalistic”. Rappaport did not take this as a defeat. From late 1943 until about 1945, Rappaport continued to work relentlessly to get his monument approved. Finally on April 19, 1948 the monument was unveiled. The wall on which the Jewish Resistance Fighters are depicted is a figurative message portraying the division of Jews from the rest of Warsaw (Young, 86). The wall was not just intended to recall the Western Wall of the ghetto, but also the Western Wall in Jerusalem (Young, 86). Seven figures in the front of the monument are classically sculpted. They are seen “fighting their way out of the stone, out of the burning ghetto” and “together they would represent ‘all the people’ at all stages of life” (Young, 88). They are rising in defense of themselves, each one holding a hand-made weapon. Rappaport also decided to leave out portraying the faces of the Nazis, choosing to only show the audience the tips of their weapons. The martyrs on the other side of the monument are engraved into the background, with not much detail given to their profile. However, the heroes are more pronounced rather than blending in with their surroundings.

James E. Young, author of The Biography of  a Memorial Icon: Nathan Rappaport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument, stated that the memory of the ghetto monument was more complicated than being passed down from generation to generation (Young, 90). He declared that every person who has had some connection to the monument has added a deeper meaning to the continuation of memory of the event. He stated that the monument had a “dual life in two communities: one Jewish and one Polish” (Young, 91). The Warsaw ghetto monument has become more of a “universal focal point” rather than one that was just specifically Jewish (Young, 91). This was due in part because there were more Polish survivors of the war than Jewish survivors. The Jewish Uprising served as primarily the inspiration for the Polish Uprising that occurred soon after. However, some Poles did not look upon the monument with pride or inspiration. Some were resentful of the fact that the Poles did not have their own monument commemorating the Warsaw Uprising, distinct from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 1948, there was a campaign, launched by the Soviet Union, to “discredit the Home Army’s role in the Warsaw Uprising.” (Young, 91). Some Poles felt that approving of the Ghetto monument would subsequently “substitute socialist heroes of the Jews for Polish heroes of the Home Army.”  (Young,  91). Some Poles even thought that the Soviet Union wanted to expunge the memory of them from the record even though 180,000 Poles perished during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.  However, the Poles have sought over time to both add a monument that worked parallel to the Jewish identity, or incorporate the Jewish identity into an all-encompassing Polish identity. Lech Wałesa, leader of the Solidarity [Solidarność] Trade Union movement of the 1980s suggested that the Jewish Uprising was part of Polish national history, thus making the Ghetto monument “accessible to all Poles” (Young, 92). The meaning of the monument then came to represent a dichotomy of both Jewish and Polish heroism, a convergence of the Jew and Pole into one national identity of resistance.


Works Cited

  • Rachel L. Einwohner, Availability, Proximity, and Identity in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Adding a Socialogical Lens to Studies of Jewish Resistance. Sociology Confronts the Holocaust, Edited by Judith M. Gerson and Dian L. Wolf (London: Duke University Press, 2007)
  • James E. Young, ”The Biography of a Memorial Icon: Nathan Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument,” Representations, no. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory, spring 1989, pp. 69-106.