By Deb Smith
Please read the following and consider participating in the final project.
Warsaw was the capital of Poland and a major center of Jewish life and culture. The pre-war Jewish population of Warsaw was 350,000 (about 30 percent of the city’s total population). On October 12, 1940, the Warsaw ghetto was established by German decree. Jews from nearby towns were forced to move into the ghetto, which increased the population to over 400,000. The residents lived in an area of 1.3 square miles, with an average of 6-7 people per room.
Jewish youth peer over the wall overlooking Mirowski Plac (Square) that divided the Warsaw ghetto into the small and large ghettos. The walls were 10 feet high with barbed wire on the top. Ghetto inhabitants built the walls under strict and violent guards.
What was life like in the Warsaw Ghetto? Hunger, disease, fear, and death were constant. Daily food rations were the equivalent of 180 calories a day. By August 1941, more than 5,000 people a month would die from starvation and disease. There were Jewish organizations inside the ghetto that tried to meet the needs of the ghetto residents as they battled to survive. Some of the welfare organizations active in the ghetto were the Jewish Mutual Aid Society, the Federation of Associations in Poland for the Care of Orphans, and the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training.
I always saw plenty of dead bodies that had been laid out on the sidewalk before dawn and covered with newspapers. You could tell from the length which were children.
-Uri Orlev, Holocaust survivor
Children eating in a Warsaw ghetto street. Warsaw, Poland, between 1940 and 1943.
It is important to note that even though life in the ghetto was harsh, there were numerous activities that flourished. Music, theatre, youth movements, school, religion still continued.
The famous opera singer, Dotlinger, performs on the street in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Mass deportations were carried out from July 22-September 12, 1942. During this time, the Germans deported about 265,000 Jews from Warsaw to the Treblinka killing center, and 35,000 Jews were killed within the ghetto during this operation. In response to the deportations, several underground groups created an armed self-defense unit known as the Z.O.B. (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa/Jewish Fighting Organization). There was also the Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy; ZZW), a right-wing Revisionist Zionist movement. At first, there was tension between the ZOB and the ZZW, but both groups decided to work together against the Germans. When the uprising began, the ZOB had 500 fighters and the ZZW had about 250.
Deportations resumed on January 18, 1943. Armed with pistols, a group of Jewish fighters snuck into a column of Jews being forced to the Umschlagplatz (transfer point). When the prearranged signal was sounded, the Jewish fighters broke rank and fought the German escorts. This attack disoriented the Germans and allowed the Jews in the columns a chance to run away. After capturing 5,000-6,000 ghetto residents to be deported, the Germans stopped further deportations on January 21. The ghetto fighters believed their show of resistance stopped deportations. In case the Germans decided on a final deportation, the ghetto residents constructed subterranean bunkers and shelters.
An underground bunker, built by Jews in Warsaw in preparation for anti-Nazi resistance. This photograph shows cooking facilities in a bunker.
On April 19, 1943, German forces began to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto (on the eve of Passover). When the SS and police units entered the ghetto, the streets were deserted. Almost all the residents had gone into hiding places and bunkers. The leader of the ghetto uprising was 23-year old Mordecai Anielewicz (ZOB commander). The ghetto fighters were armed with a few automatic weapons, rifles, pistols and homemade grenades. On the first day of fighting, the German forces were forced to retreat.
On the third day of the uprising, General Stroop’s (commander of the German troops) SS and police forces began destroying the ghetto, building by building. This was to force the Jews out of hiding. The German forces killed Anielewicz and those with him.
The resistance put up by the Jews and bandits could be broken only by relentlessly using all our force and energy by day and night. On 23 April 1943 the Reichsführer SS issued through the higher SS and Police Fuhrer East at Cracow his order to complete the combing out of the Warsaw Ghetto with the greatest severity and relentless tenacity. I therefore decided to destroy the entire Jewish residential area by setting every block on fire, including the blocks of residential buildings near the armament works. . . . Not infrequently, . . . because of the heat and the fear of being burned alive [the Jews] preferred to jump down from the upper stories after having thrown mattresses and other upholstered articles in the street from the burning buildings. With their bones broken, they still tried to crawl across the street into blocks of buildings which had not yet been set on fire or were only partly in flames. Often Jews changed their hiding places during the night, by moving into the ruins of burnt-out buildings, taking refuge there until they were found by our patrols. Their stay in the sewers also ceased to be pleasant after the first week. Frequently from the street, we could hear loud voices coming from the sewer shafts.
-April 26, General Stroop report to his superiors in Berlin.
The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle. –Mordecai Anielewicz
Click on this link to the last letter Mordecai Anielewicz: https://www.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%20582.pdf.
As you read the letter, what are the lines that stand out to you?
From reading the letter, how does Anielewicz feel about his situation?
Though the German forces broke the organized military resistance within days of the start of the uprising, small groups and individuals continued fighting the Germans for almost a month. The Germans were victorious.
1943, Warsaw, Poland, General Stroop’s men next to burning buildings during the suppression of the ghetto uprising.
Suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. German soldiers lead the Neyer family away for deportation.
Jewish woman and child being forcibly removed from a bunker.
Jews captured during the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
To symbolize the German victory, General Stroop ordered the destruction of the Great Synagogue on May 16, 1943. The ghetto was in ruins. Stroop reported that he had caught 56,065 Jews, destroyed 631 bunkers, killed 7,000 Jews, and deported another 7,000 Warsaw Jews to the Treblinka killing center, where almost all of them were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival.
The Warsaw ghetto uprising was the largest and the first urban uprising. The resistance in Warsaw inspired other uprisings (Bialystok, Minsk, Treblinka, Sobibor).
Some ghetto fighters escaped thru the sewers. This is a memorial in Warsaw, Poland.
Ghetto Fighter’s Memorial in Warsaw, Poland.
If you would like to learn more about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, click on the following link:
"Voices from the Inferno Holocaust Survivors Describe the Last Months in the Warsaw Ghetto"- https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/warsaw_ghetto_testimonies/index.asp
For a final project, take a moment and create a found poem:
Project from Facing History and Ourselves
Creating a “found poem” from Holocaust testimony can be a way to pay respectful attention to and honor his or her experiences. A found poem is one that is created using only words that have been copied and rearranged from another text. Please use a testimony from the Warsaw ghetto uprising. You can use the last letter by Mordecai Anielewicz or testimony on the link, "Voices from the Inferno Holocaust Survivors Describe the Last Months in the Warsaw Ghetto"- https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/warsaw_ghetto_testimonies/index.asp
Read the testimony at least two to three times. If possible, read it aloud at least once.
While reading the testimony one additional time, copy down at least 15 to 20 words or phrases from it that you find memorable or powerful.
Arrange the words and phrases you have selected into a poem. You might want to copy the words and phrases onto note cards or separate sheets of paper so that you can easily rearrange them. Try to arrange the words in a way that captures what you think is the essence of the testimony, as well as your experience of hearing it.
Here are a few more guidelines for creating your poem: *You DON’T have to use all of the words and phrases you chose. *You CAN repeat words or phrases. *You CAN’T add other words besides those you copied from the testimony.
*Your poem DOESN’T have to rhyme.
When you are satisfied with your poem, give it a title. Please share it with me at firstname.lastname@example.org