Anniversaries & holidays

The first armed struggle of the Warsaw Ghetto

Fotografia archiwalna, Powstanie w getcie warszawskim, 1943.
Bojownicy powstania w getcie warszawskim otoczeni przez niemieckich żołnierzy. Zdjęcie z raportu Jurgena Stroopa "Żydowska dzielnica mieszkaniowa nie istnieje!", fot. Instytut Pamięci Narodowej

At dawn of 18 January 1943, German forces entered the Warsaw ghetto and began a round-up of its inhabitants which lasted several days. The captured Jews were deported to their death in Treblinka. Despite the unexpected German attack, members of the Jewish Combat Organisation put up an armed resistance. It was the first open battle with the Germans in the streets of occupied Warsaw.

The Jews perceived the entry of the Germans into the residual ghetto as the beginning of its final liquidation. Having experienced the Great Liquidation Action in 1942, and in light of the information flowing in from other ghettos, people were well aware that a deportation equaled death in the gas chambers. That’s why passive resistance became a widespread mode of behavior—ignoring German orders to leave a building or seeking refuge in all sorts of hideouts.

Underground organizations summoned the Jews to do precisely that in case the Germans renewed the liquidation action. 22 January marked the six-month anniversary of the beginning of the Great Deportation. On that day, the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) prepared a propaganda action addressed to the ghetto residents. Its manifest called for resistance in case of yet another deportation—refusal to board the trains and go into hiding, this account survived in the Ringelblum Archive. Another appeal from that period, this time ascribed to the Jewish Military Union, read: "Wake up, Nation, and fight!"

When this armed resistance took place, members of underground organizations were just as surprised as the rest of the ghetto population. The Jewish Combat Organization had not yet developed a plan to defend the ghetto, and was in possession of a very small number of arms. The actions undertaken by its members were therefore of a spontaneous nature. These were non-coordinated acts of resistance by specific groups or individuals.

Even though the scale of armed resistance of January 1943 was not huge, it had an enormous psychological effect. Jews were convinced that their actions prevented the Germans from finally liquidating the ghetto. Such a belief was far from the truth, but it gave the Jews a sense of hope. They believed that both active and passive resistance made sense, and offered a chance of survival. After January 1943, people in the ghetto began to eagerly construct bunkers and other shelters.

The Jewish Combat Organization’s authority grew significantly. It was to consist of what was referred to as "guerrilla warfare." The tactic was to avoid open clashes in the streets, and attack the enemy from the pre-arranged posts on upper stories of tenement buildings. Last but not least, the January armed struggle made a huge impression on the "Aryan" side of Warsaw. For the first time, the Polish underground press wrote about the Jews with admiration and respect. The struggle of ŻOB triggered a change in attitude on the part of the Home Army, which supplied the ghetto with a larger batch of pistols.

Krzysztof Persak

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