Anniversaries & holidays

The Anniversary of the Great Liquidation Action at the Warsaw Ghetto

Ludzie stłoczeni na Umschlagplatzu w okupowanej Warszawie podczas Wielkiej Akcji Likwidacyjnej.
fot. Żydowski Instytut Historyczny im. Emanuela Ringelbluma

On 22 July 1942, Germans announced the launch of a resettlement "to the East" action in the Warsaw Ghetto. In reality, transports of Jews were heading towards the newly established Treblinka death camp where they were sent straight to gas chambers. Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto was part of the Reinhardt Aktion whose aim was to exterminate all Jews residing in the General Gouvernement.

The decree on resettlement was dictated by the Germans, but signed by the Warsaw Jewish Council (Judenrat). A day later, to avoid being forced to fulfil Nazi orders to select daily contingents of people to be deported, Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat, committed suicide. In all likelihood, the main reason to take his own life was his failure to convince Germans to exclude orphanages and other institutions for children from the deportations managed by the Jewish Council. He wrote in his farewell letter: "They demand that I kill the children of my nation with my own hands. There is nothing left for me but die".

Initially, Warsaw Jews didn’t know what was in stock for them. Even though there were news on liquidating smaller ghettoes in the province and on the extermination centres in Chełmno, Bełżec and Sobibor, the annihilation of 380,000 Jews from Warsaw seemed unimaginable. The news did not reach everyone, and the name Treblinka was mainly associated with the forced labour camp which had been in operation near Treblinka village since 1940. There were all sorts of rumours regarding the deportations’ destination and the number of ghetto prisoners to be resettled “to the East.”

The decree informed that people ought to take food rations for three days, which suggested they were taken a new place of employment. Food was scarce at the ghetto, especially that from the moment the deportation action had begun, the life inside the ghetto was paralysed—food trade and smuggling from “the Aryan side” was stopped. That is why some people would volunteer for a deportation, tempted by food rations for the journey (3 kg of bread, 1 kg marmalade) promised at the end of July. Some people wanted to join the members of their families who had been deported earlier. People were allowed to take with them 15 kg of luggage as well as money and valuables which thus went straight into the hands of their German executioners. On 22 July, the first day of the so-called Great Liquidation Action, 6,250 people were deported.

The liquidation action was supervised by Hermann Höffle himself, head of the Reinhardt Aktion operation. He arrived in Warsaw from Lublin, accompanied by the 800-strong commando which included the Gestapo and SS guard unit members (they were recruited from among the former Soviet POWs - Lithuanians, Latvians and Ukrainians). The Jewish Ghetto Police were direct executors of the orders issued by the SS-men supervising the liquidation action; thus, they played an infamous role in rounding up people and forming transports at Umschlagplatz. Jewish policemen were an object of widespread hate in the ghetto; on 20 August, the Jewish Combat Organization, established on 28 July, carried out an assassination of Józef Szeryński, the Jewish Ghetto Police commander. Towards the end of the Great Liquidation Action most of the Jewish policemen and their families shared the fate of their brethren and were sent to their deaths in Treblinka.

In early August, the news on the real destination of those "deported to the East" began to reach Warsaw. Nonetheless, an escape from the ghetto—its walls closely guarded by the Blue Police and the SS auxiliary units—was really difficult. According to the estimates, approximately 8,000 Jews managed to flee to the “Aryan side” during the Great Liquidation Action.

Over the course of merely two months, from 22 July until 21 September, Germans managed to deport no less than 254,000 Warsaw Jews—one-fourth of the pre-war population of the city—to the extermination centre in Treblinka. 35,000 people stayed behind in the so-called Restgetto, the remnants of what used to be the largest ghetto in Poland which covered the area of today’s Muranów. They were granted the "life-saving numbers" which confirmed their employment in the German shops. A similar number of people remained in hiding. The final liquidation of the ghetto took place in May 1943, following the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.