Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Some groups of Jews organized to fight the Nazis.

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Reprinted with permission from Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust (Rossel Books & Behrman House).

The idea of organizing armed resistance was first raised among the members of the Zionist Halutz youth movements in Vilna, Poland. Jewish Vilna, "The Jerusalem of Lithuania," numbered 60,000 people before the war and had been notable for its internal unity and strong attachment to Jewish culture, religion, and Zionism.

Report from Ponary

From July 1941 to the end of the year, two-thirds of the Jewish community was uprooted and taken to unknown destinations. A few survivors, who were wounded and shaken to the core, managed to make their way back to the ghetto, where they spread the shocking news that all the deportees had been taken to Ponary, located near Vilna, where they all were shot.

In the first poster issued by the Vilna Halutz movement to the Jews of the city in January 1942, it was stated:

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 appeal stated that the events in Vilna were not local, but that Vilna was merely the first step in implementing the plan "to kill all the Jews of Europe." This was the first time that a Jewish source, which did not have any information from either German or other sources, mentioned the total annihilation of the Jewish people.

Moreover, this was the first appeal to call for revolt. For the first time, the demand for Jewish armed resistance was openly stated. In January 1942, the FPO (Fareinikte Partizaner Organizatziye, Yiddish for United Partisans Organization) was established in Vilna.

Organizing in Warsaw

The Jewish communal leadership in Poland, and especially in Warsaw, did not accept the dire prediction that all Jews under Nazi rule were doomed. Only the members of the Halutz youth movement initially accepted this, whereas other members of the community very slowly came to the realization of the truth under the impact of the deportations.

From the beginning of 1942, there were attempts in the Warsaw ghetto to establish a fighting force. The major organization, the ZOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, Polish for Jewish Fighting Organization) was only established in July 1942, in the midst of the great deportations from the city. The smaller fighting organization, the ZZW (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy, Polish for Jewish Military Union), which also took part in the Warsaw ghetto revolt and was founded by members of the Betar movement (the activist Zionist youth movement), was organized only at the end of that year (1942).

The Jews who were sealed off in the ghetto did not have the means, the links, and the experience to build an armed force that would be ready for battle. They did not possess arms, an intelligence network, or links with allies outside the country. In addition, they did not have any military training, especially in urban guerrilla warfare.

They were forced to appeal to the Poles, who had a strong underground military organization. Despite their considerable opposition to the Nazis, the Poles, who were generally anti-Semitic, were not willing to aid the Jews.

Only in Warsaw was there established contact between the Jewish Fighting Organization and the Polish underground. The Jews received a small number of arms and help in transmitting information from abroad; sometimes, they were given other types of assistance. The Jewish fighters were also aided by a number of individual Poles and certain factions within the underground, who disobeyed the orders of the central underground organization.

Most of the arms that were gathered in the ghetto, however, were acquired from other sources. Thus, some weapons were stolen from factories or arsenals belonging to the enemy by Jews and members of the underground who were employed there. Components of weapons were smuggled into the ghetto, where they were subsequently assembled. Weapons--mostly handguns, which were inefficient for street fighting--were also purchased from merchants or soldiers through intermediaries. Furthermore, a small factory was established in the Warsaw ghetto to manufacture hand grenades; there were very important when the revolt began.

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Yisrael Guttman

Yisrael Guttman, previously Yad Vashem's Chief Historian and Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research, is Yad Vashem's Academic Advisor. He was a member of the Jewish Underground in the Warsaw ghetto, and he survived Auschwitz.