Warsaw Ghetto

   On the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Warsaw had about 375,000 Jews, who constituted about 30 percent of the city’s total population. Warsaw was the capital of Polish Jewry where both a religious and Jewish secular culture thrived. Poland’s defeat at the hands of the Germans put an end to the creative life that characterized the Jews of Poland. At first Jews had no reason to believe that the German occupation of Poland would be as severe as it later turned out to be. Rather, the memories of tolerance shown by German troops to the Jews during World War I led many to believe the German occupation would be no different. It did not take long, however, for the Jews to discover that the German troops who occupied Warsaw in 1939 were unlike their World War I counterparts. Almost from the beginning of the occupation, Jews were discriminated against and subject to attacks by the Germans. Jews were driven away from food lines, and religious Jews were frequently stopped and their beards shaved by mocking German soldiers.
   In November 1939, the first of the German anti-Jewish decrees was promulgated, which included the requirement that Jews wear a white armband with a blue Star of David on it. Jews were required to register their assets, with a detailed list of clothes, household goods, and other items found in the home. The Germans also forbade the operation of Jewish institutions such as schools and cultural organizations. What the Germans did demand, however, was the formation of a Judenrat (Jewish Council). The Germans controlled the Judenrat by appointing those who were to serve on the council.
   In mid-November 1940, the Germans confined Warsaw’s Jews to a ghetto surrounded by a high wall and sealed it off from the rest of the population. It was situated in the Jewish section of Warsaw and placed under the administration of the Jewish Council, which was also given the responsibility of supervising a 2,000-man Jewish police force (Judischer Ordnungsdienst). The ghetto area was crowded inasmuch as the Jews, who constituted about 30 percent of Warsaw’s population, were squeezed into 2.4 percent of the city’s area. The daily food ration allocated to the ghetto inhabitants was 181 calories, about 25 percent of the Polish ration and 8 percent of the nutritional value of the food that the Germans received for their ration coupons. Between November 1940 and July 1942, the time of the major deportation of Warsaw’s Jews to Treblinka, the monthly death rate of Jews in the ghetto increased from a few hundred a month at the end of 1940 to as many as 5,560 in August 1942. Disease and starvation were the most common causes of death in the ghetto.
   Despite the crowded conditions and the extreme hardships faced by the ghetto Jews, they were still able to educate their young, create productive enterprises, organize cultural activities, and in general replicate life in the ghetto as it had been before the German occupation when organized Jewish life came to a standstill. The steps that led Warsaw’s Jews to the death camps began in July 1942 when the Jewish Council, led by Adam Czerniakow, was ordered by the Germans to prepare lists of the “nonproductive elements” in the ghetto population for deportation. Those whose names were on the list were expected to report to the Umschlagplatz (the area where Jews reported for deportation to the extermination camps), which was located near the railway station where freight trains waited to take them for resettlement to Treblinka. The German deportation quota was 10,000 Jews per day, although the rail facility had room for only 5,000.
   The first deportation numbered 60,000 Jews but exempted the able-bodied who were fit for work and their families. It was under the pressure of these circumstances that Adam Czerniakow, having learned that the trains were taking Jews to their deaths, committed suicide rather than remain a party to the selection process. The July deportation was subsequently followed by additional roundups of Jews, including Dr. Janusz Korczak (pen name of Henryk Goldszmit, 1878–1942), the director of the ghetto orphanage, who was deported with his 200 children to Treblinka in August 1942. By 5 September 1942, there were approximately 130,000 Jews left in the ghetto, and on that day the Germans ordered the remainder of the Jews to present themselves at the Umschlagplatz for a Selektion. The Germans deported 60,000 Jews, thus reducing the ghetto population from a high of 380,000 to 70,000.
   It was at this point that the various underground organizations in the ghetto joined to form the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa) in an effort to resist the Germans. When in January 1943 the Germans ordered another roundup of Jews for deportation, Jews refused to comply. Although the Germans managed to gather about 1,000 Jews, it was at a cost. The ZOB confronted the Germans in hand-to-hand fighting, and soon it become difficult for the Germans to fill their quotas for Treblinka, although 5,000 to 6,000 additional Jews were sent to the death camp. The Jewish Council also saw its authority weakened as the remaining Jews now took their lead from the Jewish Combat Organization. This was the situation in April 1943 when the Germans attempted to liquidate the ghetto and found themselves faced by a revolt that commenced on April 19 and was eventually crushed on May 16 when Brigade-fuhrer Jurgen Stroop reported that “the Jewish quarter of Warsaw no longer exists.”

Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. . 2014.

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