The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Warsaw Ghetto was established on the orders of Hans Frank who was the most senior Nazi in Poland after the success of the invasion that started on September 1st 1939.
On October 16th 1940 Frank ordered that all the Jews in Warsaw and the surrounding areas had to live in specified areas within the city boundaries. To begin with it is thought that about 400,000 Jews were forced to live within the ghetto. The area allocated to the Jews represented less than 3% of the whole city. With such numbers crammed into such a small space, conditions were extremely difficult. The ghetto was sealed off to the outside world on November 16th 1940.
As with all Nazi-created ghettos, a Jewish Council was created within the Warsaw Ghetto and was headed by Adam Czerniaków. The Jewish Council believed that a policy of co-operation with the Nazis was better than a policy of dissent as the latter would only lead to overt repression within the ghetto. Some saw ‘co-operation’ as nothing more than collaboration. However, the Jews within the ghetto in Warsaw were in the same predicament as the Jews at Lodz, which was the second largest of the Polish ghettos. If the Jews within the Warsaw Ghetto were thought to have been dissenting against the Nazis, then the repercussions would have been severe. The way the Nazis dealt with open rebellion was seen in 1943 when the ghetto was destroyed.
Despite many more Jews and other ‘untermenschen’ arriving at the ghetto, it is thought that the population within it remained reasonably steady at 400,000. Diseases were rampant and medicines were very difficult to acquire even if you had the means to pay for them. The Nazi hierarchy in Warsaw had determined that each Jew only needed 186 calories of food a day. Bodily strength quickly ebbed away and left everyone open to diseases that could spread with frightening speed. It is estimated that 100,000 died in the ghetto either as a result of starvation or disease – though the former invariably led to the latter.
Despite being shut off from the rest of Warsaw, smuggling became a lucrative but very dangerous occupation. Young children were used to smuggle out goods that the Nazis had failed to confiscate – jewellery that had been hidden, for example. The children were small enough to get through the barbed wire or the small tunnels that had been dug. They would then bring in food. Anyone caught smuggling would be severely punished.
The Jewish Council established schools, hospitals and even libraries. However, the hospitals were constantly short of the most basic of medicines and the schools posed a danger for those who worked in them as many schools were deemed to be illegal as they taught about Jewish culture, religion and heritage – all forbidden by the Nazis.
In 1942, the Nazis started ‘Operation Reinhard’ – the deportation of Jews from the ghettos to the death camps. The nearest of these camps to Warsaw was at Treblinka. Between July and September 1942, between 250,000 and 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were sent to their deaths at Treblinka.
It soon became clear to those in the ghetto that those who left were not being resettled – as they had been told. In early 1943 the first instance of open revolt occurred in the ghetto. On January 18th, a small group of armed Jews attacked German soldiers who were in the ghetto overseeing the deportations of the remaining Jews. Their success was such that the deportations stopped as the soldiers temporarily withdrew from the ghetto.
However, the Nazis could not allow such an open sign of rebellion and determined to re-establish their authority within the ghetto. On April 19th 1943, a large force of soldiers entered the ghetto. Within four days they had gained control of most of the ghetto and in the process destroyed whole blocks of buildings and killed anyone who they saw. The re-taking of the ghetto officially ended in mid-May as there were sporadic outbreaks of resistance. The Nazis believed that the resistance ended on May 16th when they destroyed the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. It is thought that over 55,000 people were killed during the uprising. There were those who used the city’s sewage system to hide in. They were drowned when the Nazis deliberately flooded the system. The ghetto was levelled. Anyone who was found alive after the uprising was sent to Treblinka and killed. By the end of May 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto had ceased to exist.