Armed Warsaw Ghetto
In spite of the terrible conditions in the ghettos, the Jews stubbornly resisted and fought for survival. They sought to help each other, often showing an amazing degree of self-sacrifice. Thousands of mothers perished for not giving up their children. Many met a swift death rather than abandon their families. In the ghettos an organized underground movement was active in every realm of life.
In the political sphere, anti-Nazi activity was strikingly effective. The majority of the political parties and youth organizations which had functioned in the Jewish community before the war, continued their activities. The Pioneer Youth Organization continued to train youth, striving to give them sound spiritual values and strengthen their ties with the Land of Israel. In some places training farms were actually established. They were camouflaged as economically productive enterprises. The underground press reported on events that took place at the fronts and emphasized the need for opposing the Nazi enemy. From the early days of the war, youth organizations sent out messengers who maintained contact with distant Jewish centers. These emissaries were the main source of information with regard to the Nazi killings and the plan for total extermination.
Jewish armed resistance took three forms: the armed rebellion in the ghettos and camps, the formation of partisan units and the joining the resistance movements in occupied Europe.
The armed struggle of the Jews of Poland was headed by the Jewish Fighting Organization which included members of the Zionist Pioneer Movements, the two factions of the Poalei Zion and the Jewish Communists. The fighters of this organization led the uprising in Warsaw, Bialystok, Cracow and the Czestochowa region of Zaglembia. The most noteworthy feat of the struggle was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April 1943, under the command of Mordechai Anielewicz.
The Warsaw Ghetto revolt was the largest Jewish uprising against the Nazis and was the first armed revolt in occupied Europe. In general up until this point the Nazis had had no trouble in rounding up in mass arrest those Jews destined for the gas chambers. When the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 realized that meek submission to the slaughter did not lessen their chance of death, but increased it, they decided upon a plan of armed resistance. The Jews had few or no weapons and only in the Warsaw Ghetto did the Polish underground supply them with 60 pistols of poor quality with a very limited amount of ammunition. In January 1943, the first armed resistance by the Jewish fighting organization was carried out with only 10 pistols. For three months after Nazis soldiers did not dare venture into the ghetto. Thereafter the Nazis under Himmler decided that they would have to burn down the ghetto house by house in order to conquer it. They proceeded to do so, although not without considerable difficulty in the face of armed Jewish resistance fighters.
In the words of one of the survivor leaders of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw:
"Many had thought that the 18th of January was the beginning of the final liquidation of the ghetto. However, the shock of encountering resistance evidently forced the Germans to discontinue their work in order to make more thorough preparations. They must have overestimated our strength, and thought that they were dealing with a well-organized, well-armed resistance movement. Little did they know that our insurrection was nothing but a feeble beginning out of which a really organized, well-armed fighting force would eventually develop. At the time we had only 10 pistols. Had the Germans known the truth, they would probably continued the raids. Jewish resistance would have been nipped in the bud as a minor, insignificant episode. By interrupting the extermination action on the 21st of January, the Germans allowed us to better organize and arm ourselves."
In August 1943 an uprising broke out in the Bialystock Ghetto. The majority of those who
revolted fell in battle. The remnant of the fighters escaped to the forests and joined the
partisans. There were Jewish uprisings in many other ghettos and camps. In Vilna the
United Partisan Organization included members of all the Jewish political parties. From
June to September of 1943 many of the underground fighters escaped from the Vilna
Ghetto, reached the forests and established Jewish partisan units which fought against the
Nazis and participated in the liberation of Vilna with the Soviet Army.
In 1942 and 1943 the number of Jewish partisans rose steadily. Jews played a considerable part in the partisan fighting and in the resistance movements in France. They also organized the rescue of children and helped many people cross the borders. Frontier crossings were also carried out from Holland. There were Jews in the Belgian underground and resistance units, and Jews had a notable share in the uprising which broke out in Slovakia in the summer of 1944. Most of the Jews who escaped to the mountains in Yugoslavia joined the ranks of the partisan army led by Tito.
Even in the death camps, revolts broke out. Jewish prisoners succeeded in blowing up one of the crematoria at Auschwitz and attempted to escape. In Sobibor, the prisoners revolted, and killed some of the S.S. guards. Hundred were shot, but many made their escape.
Outline of Armed Ghetto Resistance
1. Tuchin Ghetto: On September 3, 1942, seven hundred Jewish families escaped from this ghetto in the Ukraine. They were hunted down, and only 15 survived.
2. Warsaw Ghetto: by 1943, the ghetto residents had organized an army of about 1,000 fighters, mostly unarmed and without equipment. They were joined by thousands of others. By that time, the half-million original inhabitants had been depleted to about 60,000 as a result of starvation, disease, cold, and deportation. In January 1943, the S.S. entered the ghetto to round up more Jews for shipment to the death camps. They were met by a volley of bombs and the bullets from a few firearms which had been smuggled into the ghettos. Twenty S.S. soldiers were killed. The action encouraged a few members of the Polish resistance to support the uprising, and a few machine guns, some hand grenades, and about a hundred rifles and revolvers were smuggled in. Facing them were almost 3,000 crack German troops with 7,000 reinforcements available. Tanks and heavy artillery surrounded the ghetto. General Himmler promised Hitler that the uprising would be quelled in three days, and the ghetto would be destroyed. It took four weeks. The ghetto was reduced to ruble following bomber attacks, gas attacks, and burning of every structure by the Nazis. Fifteen thousand Jews died in the battle, and most of the survivors were shipped to the death camps. Scores of German soldiers were killed. Some historical accounts report that 300 Germans were killed and 1,000 wounded, although the actual figure is unknown.
3. Bialystok Ghetto: Jewish paramilitary organizations formed within the ghetto attacked the German army when it was determined that the Nazis intended to liquidate it. The battle lasted just one day, until the resisters were killed or captured.
4. Vilna Ghetto: Some inhabitants of the Vilna Ghetto began an uprising against their Nazi captors on September 1, 1943. Most participants were killed, although a few escaped successfully and joined partisan units.
Armed Resistance in the Death Camps
1. Treblinka: Seven hundred Jews were successful in blowing up the camp on August 2, 1943. All but 150-200 Jews perished, as well as over 20 Germans. Only 12 survived the war.
2. Sobibor: Jewish and Russian prisoners mounted an escape attempt on October 14, 1943. About 60 of 600 prisoners involved in the escape survived to join Soviet partisans. Ten S.S. guards were killed and one wounded.
3. Auschwitz: On October 7, 1944, one of the four crematoria at Auschwitz was blown up by Sonderkommandos. These were workers, mostly Jews, whose job it was to clear away the bodies of gas chamber victims. The workers were all caught and killed.