A Tragedy of Hate: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the first armed uprising against the German occupation and the Holocaust. However, the heroic story of the Jewish insurgents is not entirely black and white.

Mar 14, 2022By Andrzej Nowak, MA History
warsaw great synagogue with jews captured ghetto uprising


The short story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising described in the following article does not have a happy ending. It was a dark, tragic, and horrible event. Many of the insurgents who took part in the uprising were not only killed by Nazi bullets and grenades but also deprived of the memory of their achievement. Most painful of all, however, is the fact that the pervasiveness of hatred in this event was not just the work of the Nazis. The two Jewish resistance movements in the ghetto failed to overcome their mutual animosity, resentment, and prejudice.


Embodying Hatred: German Actions Leading to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising


In Nazi-occupied Poland, called the General Government, there were about 2 million people classified by the Germans as Jews. In Warsaw alone, the capital of pre-war Poland, 333,000 people claimed to be Jews. The first German regulations aiming to exterminate this group of people was the so-called “ghettoization.” People considered to be Jewish were evicted from their homes, from smaller towns and villages, stripped of most of their private property, and confined to ghettos in districts of major cities in occupied Poland. The Germans planned for them to die there through starvation, pestilence, disease, and exhausting slave labor. Escape was made impossible by the ghettos being surrounded by walls, entanglements, barbed wire, and armed guards who shot to kill at the first runaway attempt.


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Jews captured by German troops during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, author unknown, Warsaw, Poland, April 19 – May 16, 1943, via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


The largest of such places was Warsaw. In July 1941, the ghetto reached 490,000 people. The tragic conditions alone brought the population down to 380,000 on the eve of the start of the “proper” Holocaust known from textbooks.


Between July 22, 1942, and September 24, 1942, the Germans transported 254,000 to 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to extermination camps. Most, if not all, of the children and older people from the ghetto were deported and murdered at this very moment. Only those who could work hard were left alive. This event catalyzed thoughts of resistance from the remaining Jewish survivors. From that moment on, they would begin preparations for the largest Jewish uprising against the Nazis.

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Voice of the Damned: The Jewish Combat Organization

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Deportations From Warsaw Ghetto, 1942, via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


Two organizations prepared the armed uprising: the well-known “left-wing” Jewish Combat Organization and the largely forgotten “right-wing” Jewish Military Union. The “leftist” organization was formed on July 28, 1942, in the Warsaw Ghetto in a tenement house at 34 Dzielna Street. This group, composed of representatives of the younger generation with progressive views, was built on anger and frustration. They were angry both at the Germans and at the passivity of the older generation who had failed to resist both during ghettoization and the ongoing wave of ghetto deportations. From September 1942, Mordechai Anielewicz became head of the organization, and the Jewish Combat Organization practically took over the ghetto.


Its members fought collaborators and informers. Unofficially, they replaced the infamous Jewish Ghetto Police in their policing duties. Unlike the Ghetto Police, which worked at the Nazis’ behest, the Jewish Combat Organization brought a semblance of justice to the ghetto by trying to protect the remaining Jews in the ghetto from extortion, violence, and theft. They also dealt with the problem of collaboration between some Jews and the Nazis by punishing informers, as well as German informers and collaborators. The Jewish Combat Organization planned to prepare to fight against the Germans, to build secret shelters and bunkers in which the civilian population could survive the expected liquidation of the ghetto.


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Mordechai Anielewicz 1919, 1943, via Yad Vashem Photo Archives GO1123


Next, they established contact with the Polish Underground. This task was particularly important. On the one hand, thanks to the Polish Underground’s Home Army, they were equipped with weapons and ammunition. On the other hand, they could gain contact with the Allies and the free outside world through the Poles.


Thanks to the Jewish Combat Organization and Yitzhak Cukierman, who stayed by chance on the “Aryan” side of Warsaw during the uprising, the world learned about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Cukierman also led the evacuation of the remaining Jews through the sewers. Without him, it is very possible that no one would have survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The last and maybe most important goal of the Jewish Combat Organization was to unite most of the still-living Jewish political fractions in Warsaw into one organization, the Jewish National Committee.


The Fist of the Ghetto: The Jewish Military Union


Unlike the Jewish Combat Organization, it is extremely difficult to say anything definite about the origins of the Jewish Military Union. The most reliable information we have is that the organization was founded in the second half of 1942 during World War II around the mysterious figure Paweł Frenkel, who hangs between legend and history. Practically nothing is known about his person, not where he lived, studied, nor what he looked like.


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A likeness of Paweł Frenkel, author unknown, via Yad Vashem Archives, with; Photo attached to Jurgen Stroop’s report: Jewish residential area in Warsaw no longer exists, author unknown, 1943, via IPN Warsaw Archive


Only two things are certain about him: firstly, all the people connected with the Jewish Military Union whose accounts have survived to this day remember him as one of the most outstanding men they have ever known. The second fact about Frenkel is that he was certainly a leader of the Jewish Military Union, as even the memoirs of one of the leaders of the Jewish Combat Organization, Marek Edelman, who had a special hatred for this “right-wing” organization, would confirm.


The Jewish Military Union began its existence as a group of friends associated with the Revisionist movement. Revisionism was an idea that advocated for the creation by force of a Jewish state of Israel on both banks of the Jordan River. The supporters normally had paramilitary or military training. This military nature was the cornerstone on which the Jewish Military Union was founded. People joined the organization through acquaintances, recommendations, or coaptation, and for this reason, it was much smaller than the Jewish Combat Organization. To a much greater extent, however, their organization resembled military structures. The Jewish Military Union had a military organization, insurgents were divided into squads commanded by officers, and the whole operation was directed by the general staff headed by Paweł Frenkel.


The right-wingers fell short in the field of diplomacy. They failed to organize help from the Polish resistance outside the ghetto. In the long run, this group was isolated and remained completely alone on the battlefield. Because of this, practically all of them died, unable to be evacuated safely or to withdraw with the help of Polish assistance.


Divided We Stand, United We Fall

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Emmanuel Ringelblum, founder of the archive “Oneg Shabbat”, via Yad Vashem Photo Archives, 4613/1115


The tragedy of this event is evidenced by the fact that the two Jewish insurgent groups were never united, even in the face of total extermination of all surviving Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. This happened despite the efforts of such great men as “ghetto historianEmmanuel Ringelblum. The tragic irony of history remains that if the two groups were united, they would have been able to overcome their flaws and approach the fight against the Nazis in a far more effective and deadly way.


Better prepared for battle and structured militarily, the ex-military men of the Jewish Military Union did not want to cede command to the civilians of the Jewish Combat Organization. On the other hand, the civilians of the Jewish Combat Organization, as a larger group consisting of most of the surviving representatives of Jewish political groups, did not want to submit to the Revisionists (with whom the Jewish Military Union was associated). The latter were marginal in the ghetto, both politically and demographically. Thus, a compromise was never reached, and the discussions were so fierce that even on the eve of the Uprising, the leading figures of both insurgent organizations were pointing guns at each other.


Those Going to Their Death: Arming and Preparing for the Uprising


The Jewish Combat Organization based its armament efforts on supplies from the Home Army. The Poles, however, for pragmatic reasons, did not rise to the occasion. Although the Polish Underground movement incorporated the organization and began some deliveries of military equipment, they were too little and too late. The commander of the Home Army believed that the Jewish uprising was doomed to fail and did not want to give them the Polish Resistance’s already scarce supply of weapons. However, a few rifles, several hundred grenades, and a few dozen pistols were delivered.


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Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943, via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


Paradoxically, members of the Jewish Military Union, on their own, accumulated a much larger stock of weapons and armaments. They managed to acquire dozens of rifles and machine guns, thousands of grenades, as well as 9 mm pistols, ammunition supplies, and two heavy machine guns. In addition, they stocked up on helmets stolen from factories and combat and officer’s uniforms with appropriate German decorations, armbands, emblems, and even medals.


The fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization prepared for street battles as partisans using the tactic hit and run. They strongly resonated with Anielewicz’s idea of a dignified death with a weapon in hand, so no escape plan had been made.


The Jewish Military Union’s approach was more pragmatic. Frenkel’s men fortified their headquarters in Muranowski Square. They pierced the walls of all the tenements on that street to combine a string of townhouses into one fighting position. Anti-bomb bunkers were created in the basements. On the upper floors, they prepared machine gun nests aimed directly at the open square. They planned to battle against the Germans and then retreat behind the ghetto area through previously dug tunnels. They were to escape to previously prepared shelters in and around Warsaw, where they would then develop a plan for guerrilla warfare.


Both organizations separated the ghetto districts in order to defend them separately. Both also received intelligence information about the last displacement action from the ghetto, planned for the morning of April 19. Both groups were already waiting for the Germans, who at 6 o’clock surrounded the ghetto and marched into it. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had begun!


This Time, It Will Be Blood For Blood:  April 19, The First Day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

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Scene during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, author unknown, Warsaw, Poland, April 19 – May 16, 1943, via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


From the upper floors of the tenements, Jews of both organizations opened fire on the German troops entering the ghetto with pistols, grenades, and bottles filled with gasoline, particularly effective against Nazist armored vehicles. The United Jews succeeded in forcing the Nazis to retreat. Unfortunately, the success did not last long. After regrouping, the Germans began the systematic destruction of the tenements, using flamethrowers and heavy and light artillery.


Fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization were driven out of their positions. Despite this, they resisted for another month, hiding in previously prepared bunkers and attacking German units by surprise. The Jewish Military Union acted according to a prearranged plan. The fighters resisted in a given building for as long as possible, then moved through passages dug into the buildings to the next tenement house, from where they resumed fighting. In this way, they would strategically retreat from one tenement house to another in the direction of Muranowski square, where their main forces and machine guns were waiting for the Germans. Above their fortress, they hung two banners, Poland’s white and red flag and the blue Star of David on a white background.


Flags Over the Ghetto: Battle at Muranowski Square

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Destruction during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, author unknown, Warsaw, Poland, April 19 – May 16, 1943, via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC, with; A captured Jewish Resistance Fighter, author unknown, April 19 – May 16, 1943, via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


The Germans managed to temporarily break through as late as April 19. However, they were forced to retreat by two machine gunners, one of which was located on the roof and operated by female Jewish Military Union fighters. On the night of April 19 and 20, the Germans received an order from Heinrich Himmler himself that the flags hanging over the ghetto should be taken down by any means possible. Unfortunately, this was what happened.


On April 20, the Germans threw most of their forces at Muranowski Square. The Jews defended themselves with both cunning and machine guns. One of the Jewish Military Union leaders, Leon Rodal, disguised as a German officer and lured soldiers directly under the barrels of the Jewish insurgents’ rifles. Despite the insurrectionists’ fierce and unbroken resistance, the Germans captured or shot down both flags by dusk.


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Photo attached to Jurgen Stroop’s report: Jewish residential area in Warsaw no longer exists, author unknown, 1943, via IPN Warsaw Archive


Leon Rodal disguised as a German officer and lured soldiers directly under the barrels of the Jewish insurgents’ rifles. Despite the insurrectionists’ fierce and unbroken resistance, the Germans managed to capture or shoot down both flags by dusk. However, the Jewish resistance was not yet broken, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was not yet lost. By nightfall, the Nazis withdrew once again. The Jewish Military Union began an evacuation plan to hideouts in Otwock, at 6 Muranowska Street, Grzybowska Street, and a villa in Michalin near Warsaw.


The battle at Muranowski Square was already boiling over from the morning of April 21. The Germans attacked the fortified Jewish positions with heavy artillery, grenades, armored vehicles, and machine guns. Amid the burning ghetto, Jewish Military Union fighters fought for every scrap of land in anticipation of when most of the soldiers would evacuate the ghetto. By dusk on April 21, the Germans broke through the resistance of heroic Jews and took over the square. From that moment on, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising would turn into a slaughter.


The Violent End of the Jewish Military Union

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Photo attached to Jurgen Stroop’s report: Jewish residential area in Warsaw no longer exists, author unknown, 1943, via IPN Warsaw Archive


The Jewish Military Union hideout near Otwock was discovered on April 21. All fighters were killed. Most of the defenders of the headquarters in Plac Muranowski were likely released by an anonymous denunciation on April 27. They were hiding, most probably waiting for transport, in a tenement house on the Polish side of the ghetto, at 6 Muranowska Street. According to the Germans, 120 people were hiding there. Practically all Jewish Military Union fighters hiding there died in the bloody clash with the German unit.


The hideout of the Jewish Military Union in Michalin near Warsaw was discovered on April 30, and it is possible that one of its leaders, Leon Rodal, was killed there. Those who survived fled to the forests or returned to the last shelters on Grzybowska Street in Warsaw. Unfortunately, on May 11, this place was also discovered and surrounded by the Germans. When the Germans asked them to lay down their arms, the last members of the Jewish Military Union answered with shots. No defenders survived the battle. Most of the surviving fighters, including the general staff and Paul Frenkel, died. It was the final breath of the Jewish Military Union and one of the last heartbeats of the Jewish community in Poland.


The Violent End of the Jewish Combat Organization

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Photo attached to Jurgen Stroop’s report: Jewish residential area in Warsaw no longer exists, author unknown, 1943, via IPN Warsaw Archive


The Jewish Combat Organization fulfilled their resolution of having a dignified death in the ghetto; they fought there longer than Frenkel’s group. Although the Jewish resistance at this point was already rather symbolic, they fought until May 9. On that day, the Nazis discovered and surrounded an underground bunker where most of the leaders of this insurgent group, along with Mordechai Anielewicz himself, were located. Surrounded by Germans with no possibility of further fight or escape, like the defenders of Masada 1876 years earlier, they decided to take their own lives.


The surviving fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization, led by Marek Edelman, began a fierce fight to leave the burning and German-invaded ghetto. Unlike Frenkel’s organization, some Jews from the Jewish Combat Organization managed to survive. With outside help, including the Polish resistance, they managed to escape, survive and hide in occupied Warsaw. They are the ones who told the world the story of heroism, contrariness, courage, sacrifice, and community resistance against the atrocities perpetrated by Nazis.


Those hiding in bunkers were one by one discovered by the Germans, who were methodically demolishing the ghetto buildings. Unfortunately, the Nazis managed to detect most of these bunkers and murder everyone inside. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising ended on May 16, when the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street was blown up. With this event, the German commander responsible for the ghetto’s destruction titled his report: “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is No More,” as did the centuries-old Jewish presence in Poland.


The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: For History’s Sake, a Trace of Them Should Remain…

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The Great Synagogue in Warsaw, via Foto Polska


Hate is the worst of human feelings. It was hatred that led the Germans to such barbaric and brutal acts as the Holocaust and the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Unfortunately, the evil lying in this sentiment affected more than just the tormentors. Prejudice and anger drove the surviving members of the Jewish Combat Organization not to tell the world the story of the Jewish Military Union, of which all members were practically completely slaughtered. In a letter to one of the surviving leaders of the Jewish Combat Organization, the chronicler of the ghetto, historian Emanuel Ringelblum wrote this: “Why is there no data about the ŻZW(Żydowski Związek Wojskowy, Jewish Military Union in Polish)? For history’s sake, a trace of them should remain, even though they are not likable to us.”


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Rubbles of a destroyed The Great Synagogue of Warsaw at Tłomackie St., after 16 May 1943, via the Warsaw Ghetto Museum


Unfortunately, Ringelblum did not manage to survive the war to tell the story. The rest of the still-living veterans of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising chose to remain silent. Afraid of being accused as “right-wing,” and blaming Frenkel and his men for the failure to form a united front against the Germans, the surviving Jews from the Jewish Combat Organization remained silent about the existence of the brave defenders of Muranowski Square. Because of this, the world will never know the full story of the Jewish Military Union. This is yet another tragedy of the dark event that was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.


The important conclusion of this catastrophe is not to punish the Jewish Combat Organization for this act. They, too, were victims of the enormous hatred that Hitler started in 1939, but had to learn from their mistakes. Prejudice, anger, quarrels, pride, and envy only weaken every endeavor, and every message.

Author Image

By Andrzej NowakMA HistoryAndrzej believes that there is such a thing as objective truth. There is only one truth, but getting to that truth is one of the most difficult tasks in the world. He became painfully convinced of this while exploring history during his education at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Nevertheless, in his pursuit of history, he tries to fight for this truth, or at least its substitute.