SS troops guard members of the Jewish resistance captured during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising SS troops guard members of the Jewish resistance captured during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Photo: Public Domain

John Westmoreland looks back at the Jewish fighters who fought their Nazi oppressors

On 19 April, we remember the 1943 uprising in Warsaw’s Ghetto. It is an inspiring story of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds that has been immortalised by Marek Edelman in The Ghetto Fights: Warsaw, 1941-43 (1995). The heroic fighters of the Jewish Ghetto inspired the later general uprising of Warsaw in 1944.

Marek Edelman was a young Jewish fighter who led one of the resistance groups and was one of the few to survive the battle that raged between April and May 1943. Edelman not only survived the war, but went on to oppose Stalinism and played a role in the formation of the Polish trade union, Solidarność.

Here we recount the uprising of the Jewish Ghetto. Edelman’s book is important on a number of levels. Firstly, it allows us to know the character and qualities of some of the fighters who otherwise would have been blotted out by Nazi mass murder. The book also acts as a corrective to Zionist accounts. The Jewish ghetto fighters received support from the Polish Resistance, who gave weapons, amunition and other supplies, and this flies in the face of Zionist accounts that deny the possibility of solidarity between Jews and non-Jews.

The Ghetto

Warsaw was a city with the second largest Jewish population in the world. Only New York’s was bigger. This was to provoke drastic measures after the Nazi invasion.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, their intention was to annihilate completely all notions of Polish nationality. Intellectuals, administrators and publishers were simply murdered. Heinrich Himmler, Head of the SS, saw Poland as responsible for blocking Germany’s eastward expansion for the past seven hundred years. As a nation, it had to be destroyed and rebuilt as a German country. Warsaw would no longer be a capital city and would become a provincial German town.

Warsaw’s huge Jewish population fell under the racial administration of Nazi government. Isolating Warsaw’s Jews from the city’s Poles was a deliberate policy. But Jews and Poles had never lived as distinct groups. The Nazis started by making each Jew over twelve years wear a Star of David armband, then, forcing Jews from outlying villages and suburbs into the part of the city with the highest Jewish population. This enabled the Nazis to take over and loot the homes of wealthy Jews after the occupants were sent to what was becoming a ghetto, with just the possessions they could carry.

The ghettoization was completed by laws forbidding Jews to leave their proscribed areas. Walls and barbed wire blocked off the many lanes, and entry to the ghetto was only permitted through guard posts. Jews continued to arrive from surrounding villages. By 1940, there was something like 400,000 Jews in the ghetto. Order, such as it was, was maintained by three police forces. At the top of the order stood the SS, who oversaw racial policy. They employed Polish police, the hated ‘Blues’, to minimise the possibility of Jews making contact with the ‘Aryan side’. Then, within the Ghetto, was the Jewish police – the first to be targeted in the uprising that was to come.

Edelman describes the dehumanising effect of ghetto life:

‘A few hundred people crowd every large, unheated room of a synagogue, every hall of a deserted factory. Unkempt, lousy, undernourished and hungry, they remain all day on their filthy straw mattresses, with no strength to rise … This is the kingdom of hunger and misery’ (The Ghetto Fights, p.41).

The Nazis took pictures of this hell for propaganda purposes. Jews were specifically blamed for the typhus that swarmed over the population, and the Ghetto was made necessary to contain a ‘Jewish plague’. Medieval caricatures of Jews were reborn.

But still, contact with the outside world was made. Holes in the wall, covered by piles of rubble, enabled children to escape and bring back food. It was a risky game. The penalty for those caught breaking the rules was always the same: death.

Death hung over the Ghetto. It accounts for the fatalistic attitude of the vast majority of Ghetto-Jews. Soon after the Nazi deportations to the first death camps began, two escapees from one of the trains returned to warn of Nazi plans. The newly formed resistance groups tried to spread the message. But evacuation to a ‘work camp’ looked like a life-raft in a sea of desperation.

Compliance seemed a more realistic option than resistance. The random murders by SS troops and their underlings increased the desperate need to get away:

‘Three children sit, one behind the other, in front of the hospital. A Gendarme, passing by, shoots all three with a single round. A pregnant woman trips and falls while crossing the street. A German, present during the accident, does not allow her to rise and shoots her there and then’ (p.52)

The job of persuading Jews to ‘evacuate’ the Ghetto fell to the Nazi-approved Jewish Council and the Jewish police. These bodies became the hated enemies of the rapidly emerging Jewish resistance.

The Jewish Battle Organisation (ZOB)

For revolutionaries, politics is always paramount, whatever the circumstances. In the Ghetto, resistance meant the political rejection of top-down political thinking. The political parties that had existed before the Nazi invasion had proved themselves to be largely useless. This applied above all to the Communist Party. Stalin had, after all, signed a pact with Hitler that had partitioned Poland and led to rival dictatorships in east and west Poland. The Communists were, until the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, collaborators with Nazism and what was needed was a combat organisation, not a talking shop.

In October 1942, the fighters of the different groups came together to form the Jewish Battle Organisation (ZOB). They were formed because they chose to fight rather than meekly surrender. They wanted to take the offensive to the Nazis. They told Jews to fight all out, with whatever was at hand, rather than submit.

Their initial problem was mainly the lack of weapons. But that was never separated from wider organisational problems. The fight that the ZOB organised was based on the idea of total, all-out war of Warsaw’s Jews against the Nazis. For this to happen there had to be political organisation and propaganda. Secret printing presses turned out masses of leaflets, working all night. Factories making materials for the war effort smuggled out self-made weapons and bombs.

ZOB cells organised in each residential block. A committee was organised to work with supporters on the ‘Aryan side’. This helped to get weapons into the Ghetto, but also let the outside world know that there was a fightback taking place. In a dictatorship, the news from the resistance frontline can provide further sparks to take hold.

Marek Edelman has argued strongly against the view that the Polish Resistance left the Jews to fight alone:

‘The year was 1942. The resistance movement of the Poles was just beginning at the time, and only vague stories were being circulated about partisans in the woods. The first organised act of armed resistance on the part of the Poles did not take place until March, 1943. There was, therefore, nothing unusual in the fact that our efforts to obtain arms … brought no results’ (pp.69-9).

Throughout the latter half of 1942, the ZOB engaged the Germans and their agents. Jewish foremen and Jewish police officers were attacked. In January, the Nazis initiated a fresh round of deportations, and the ZOB had their first armed engagement with them. Half the ZOB fighters involved were killed. But the deportations were disrupted. The so-called Master Race had got a bloody nose, and Nazi murders of civilians reinforced the ZOB’s argument that resistance was the only option.

As ZOB partisan fighting developed, bunkers and barricades were constructed on street corners, in cellars and even the sewers. The passivity had given way to astonishing idealism. The shock of armed resistance by Jews carried right up through the Nazi chain of command. Goebbels was perplexed that Jews could shoot guns at all! Himmler was convinced that only full extermination would suffice.

The Nazis moved tanks and columns of SS troops into the Ghetto in early April. On 19 April, the final battle between the Nazis and the Ghetto fighters began. The Ghetto fought the Nazis to the death with a clear realisation that they could never win. They chose to die fighting. Women fighters were among the most determined:

‘At the second-storey window is Dworja, firing away rancorously. The Germans spot her: “Schau, Hans, eine Frau schiesst! They try to get her, but somehow their bullets miss. She, apparently, does not miss often, for, strangely enough, they withdraw quickly’ (p.78).

Grenades and firebombs took out panzers and half-tracks. The fighters gave their lives generously. The Nazis final act was a tacit admission of defeat: ‘The partisans’ stand was so determined that the Germans were finally forced to abandon all ordinary fighting methods’ (p.79).

The new methods that the Nazis used involved flame-throwers. Starting with the Brush-makers’ Block, the Nazis razed the entire area to the ground. The partisans engaged in a fighting retreat to the central Ghetto. Here, the final meaningful battle of the Ghetto took place in May 1943. Edelman offers a brief picture of the fight, and his dear friend, Abrasha Blum:

‘The fighting lasted for two days and half of our men were killed in its course. A hand grenade killed Berek Sznajdmil. But even in the most difficult moments, when there was nothing left, Abrasha Blum kept our spirits up. His presence among us gave us more strength than the possession of the best possible weapons. One can hardly speak of victories when Life itself is the reason for the fight … but we did not let the Germans carry out their plans. They did not evacuate a single living person’ (p.83).

The ZOB command was soon surrounded by the Germans, and heavy bombardment brought their glorious chapter of history to an end. Some fighters survived by crawling through the sewers – booby trapped by the Germans as they were – and made it out. Edelman says most of the fighters went to the woods and died fighting with the Polish resistance. Edelman himself was able to witness the final act of resistance, and its betrayal.

The Warsaw Uprising betrayed by Stalin

The fighting legend of the Warsaw Ghetto led to the rising of Warsaw again in 1944. The Germans retreated from the east, and their rear-guard action against swathes of Russian troops weakened their grip on Warsaw. The Polish underground resistance led an uprising inspired by the fight of their Jewish brothers and sisters the year before. The Polish Communist Party had re-emerged to some extent in the context of the Russian successes against the Nazis. The Russian army was held to be on the cusp of ‘liberating’ Poland, but what would that mean?

Many in the resistance remembered the pre-war Hitler-Stalin Pact. In the Soviet-controlled sector, political opponents of the regime had been rounded up and sent to labour camps in Siberia. Most of the deportees died there. The Polish fighters represented the best hope of an independent post-war Poland that could be rebuilt by Poles and for Poles. The working class could only make the post-war settlement democratic if the stranglehold of Stalinism was kept at bay. Independent working-class politics and leadership was all important.

Poland then, like Ukraine today, was at the centre of the ambitions of the imperialist forces fighting in the war. The immediate threat came from the Germans, who wanted to reinforce Warsaw as a fortification against advancing Russian forces. But Russia and the Western Allies also wanted to maintain their stake in a future Poland. Both Russian and Western historians have claimed that the Polish Uprising of 1944 was ‘premature’, an argument that reveals the arrogant and manipulative attitude of both imperialisms.

The truth is that the Warsaw Uprising could have easily triumphed over the German forces, despite their reinforcements, if the Russians had supplied air cover and allowed Russian infantry in the city to help the resistance. Instead, Stalin ordered the bulk of the Red Army to stop on the eastern bank of the Vistula and wait for the Nazis to break the Polish resistance. The cost in human life was colossal. Some 150,000 to 200,000 Warsaw civilians died, many in the massacre ordered by Himmler in the suburb of Wola. When a ceasefire was eventually agreed between the German and resistance forces, many civilians faced transportation to work and death camps, including Auschwitz.

The city was then all but destroyed in a deliberate policy that aimed to prevent Poland from raising its head again. Nazi racial policy was finally fulfilled with the active support of Stalin’s state capitalist tyranny.

That Marek Edelman fought both Stalinism and Nazism is to his undying credit, and the last word goes to him:

‘Those who were killed in action had done their duty to the end, to the last drop of blood that soaked into the pavements of the Warsaw Ghetto. We, who did not perish, leave it up to you to keep the memory alive – forever’ (p.87).

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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