Pesach 1943: The importance of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising
Pesach 1943: The importance of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising

Yisrael Gutman, a leading Holocaust scholar, noted that before 1942, the Jewish underground in Nazi occupied Eastern Europe did not genuinely view armed resistance as an option. Why? The Jews had very few resources available to mount attacks, and armed resistance would not have aided them in their immediate need to survive or advance their political situation in the future. Additionally, military attacks would not have weakened the Nazi military; they would have provoked severe mass reprisals, resulting in the murder of significant numbers of Jews.

Misplaced Jewish Faith in the Goodness of Mankind

In The Holocaust Kingdom: A Memoir, Alexander Donat explained that the Jews were not psychologically prepared for armed resistance. Initially they did not believe the Resettlement Operation to be “what in fact it was, systematic slaughter of the entire Jewish population.” For generations, Eastern European Jewry had considered “Berlin as the symbol of law, order, and culture.”  

The Jews “fell victim to our faith in mankind,” Donat asserted. “Our belief that humanity had set limits to the degradation and persecution of one’s fellow man.” This attitude shaped the decision by the overwhelmingly majority of the Jewish leadership in Warsaw to vote against armed resistance at the very beginning of the Resettlement, which began during the summer of 1942. 

Donat recalled hearing the following argument in support of not resisting. “Try to imagine Jesus on the way to Golgotha suddenly picking up a stone and hurling it at one of the Roman legionnaires. After such an act, could he ever have become the Christ? Think of Gandhi and Tolstoy, too. For two thousand years we have served mankind with the Word, with the Book. Are we now to try to convince mankind that we are warriors? We shall never outdo them at that game.”

Gutman pointed out that the Nazis were viewed as a transitory evil. Until they were defeated, Jews had to “play for time,” in order to maintain their community and prevent minimal harm. The possibility of mass murder had never even entered their minds.  

“All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponary”

The idea of armed resistance was first broached by the Zionist members of the Halutz youth movement in Vilna, Poland Gutman continued. Beginning in July, 1941 to the end of December, two-thirds of the Jewish community was deported. A number of survivors, who succeeded in escaping the deportations, returned to bear witness to how the Jews had been forcibly removed from their homes and taken to Ponary, near Vilna, where they were shot.

On January 1, 1942, the Vilna Halutz movement issued a proclamation to the Jews of Vilna, which stated: 

Of the 80,000 Jews living in “The Jerusalem of Lithuania,” [before the war], only 20,000 have remained.

All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponary.

And Ponary is death!

Doubters! Cast off all illusions. Your children, your husbands, and your wives are no longer alive.

Ponary is not a camp - all are shot there.

Hitler aims to destroy all the Jews of Europe. The Jews of Lithuania are fated to be the first in line.

Let us not go as sheep to slaughter!

It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but resistance is the only reply to the enemy!

Brothers! It is better to fall as free fighters than to live by the grace of the murderers.

Resist! To the last breath.

This was the first report from a Jewish source Gutman said, which did not rely on any information from any other sources including German ones, confirming that the Nazis’ ultimate goal was the complete extermination of the Jewish people. In January 1942, the mass murders at the Chelmno concentration camp, approximately 31 miles north of the city of Łódź, were revealed. This information acted as a gamchanger.

Establishing a Jewish Fighting Force

Jews in the Warsaw ghetto began their effort to create a fighting organization beginning of 1942. The primary organization, the ZOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, Polish for Jewish Fighting Organization) was founded in July, 1942, during the major deportations. The smaller fighting unit, the ZZW (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy, Polish for Jewish Military Union), which also participated in the revolt, was founded by the Betar movement at the end of 1942.

Overcoming Obstacles

“Despite their considerable opposition to the Nazis, the Poles, who were generally antisemitic, were not willing to aid the Jews.”
The Jews in the ghetto did not have the arms, military training, especially in urban warfare, connections to allies outside of Poland, an intelligence network, and the ability to prepare an armed force for combat.

Under the circumstances, Gutman said the Jews were “forced to appeal to the Poles, who had a strong underground military organization.” Yet, “Despite their considerable opposition to the Nazis, the Poles, who were generally antisemitic, were not willing to aid the Jews.”

 Cost of the Revolt to the Nazis

The Jews held out for a month. The Nazis paid a heavy price in terms of prestige, loss of resources, and casualties Gutman added.  Warsaw was the first uprising in any Nazi occupied city in Europe. The revolt tied down a considerable number of enemy forces for a longer period of time than did many other countries under Nazi control.

The rebellion demonstrated to the Poles that even a limited number of people, with a minimal quantity of arms, could inflict serious damage to the Nazis, who were compelled to fight in an urban setting. 

The Germans had not expected the Jews to resist, which is why they were surprised by the fierce opposition. To prevent further large-scale revolts while deporting Jews from the other ghettos, they Nazis implemented additional safeguards. 

A rebellion of this nature, which does not offer any immediate relief from suffering or provide any optimism for the future, is a unique occurrence, and thus could not involve the Jewish masses.

Alex Grobman, is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, and a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).