Warsaw Ghetto: Life & Uprising

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
The Warsaw Ghetto is remembered for inhuman living conditions and incredible human suffering. The ghetto is also known for the human spirit, and the resistance of fighters against overwhelming odds in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

The Warsaw Ghetto

After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Nazi Germany enacted a series of laws and restrictions on Jewish life, business and organizations. This involved not only the wearing of the Star of David, the yellow star that identified Jews during the Holocaust (1933-1945), but also forced labor and no access to public services like riding the bus. By early 1940, the Nazis had created a plan for a ghetto, or an area where a minority lives or is forced to live. The result was the construction of a Jewish quarter in Warsaw where 400,000 Jews and Romany from the city and the surrounding area were interned. The Warsaw Ghetto was a 1.3 square-mile area in the center of the city surrounded by a 10-foot high wall. Prior to the war, Jews represented over 1/3 of the the population of Warsaw. During the war, they were confined to 2.4% of the city's land space.

Life Inside the Warsaw Ghetto

While German and Polish units guarded the outside of the ghetto, Jewish government and police units were formed inside. Led by a Jewish council, the ghetto coped with dwindling or non-existent food supplies and disease, especially typhoid caused by contaminated water and overcrowding.

Conditions inside the ghetto were deplorable. According to some accounts, 7 to 10 people were forced to share available rooms. While the average German was sustained on 2,000 or more calories a day, Jews inside the ghetto endured a diet of 500-1,000 calories, or substantially less. Inadequate clothing led to exposure and risk of freezing. By 1942, nearly 100,000 people had died, including a high number of suicides, strictly forbidden in the Jewish faith. And because Jews were still expected to pay for burials, corpses littered the streets.

At first, Jews who entered the the ghetto with more financial resources or things to sell could sometimes buy limited quantities of food from the Nazis. Jews, who had been the predominant sector of the Warsaw middle class, including tailors, watchmakers and small-trade craftsmen, created illegal, small industries. Finished products were smuggled outside the walls by very small children who could fit through holes and sewage systems. The children would return with bartered materials for more products and food.

Great Synagogue of Warsaw, destroyed in 1943

Despite the ever-present prospect of death by disease or starvation, the Jews attempted some normalcy in daily life. Illegal schools and religious services continued throughout the ordeal of the Warsaw Ghetto. There were orphanages, soup kitchens, hospitals and even recreational activities and a full orchestra. Children still played and made toys out of whatever material they could find. A dynamic cultural life that included theater and music even emerged. Through secret photographs and early film, Jews attempted to record the life and conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto, not only for future generations, but also as evidence of Nazi crimes.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

By late 1942, over 250,000 ghetto residents had been taken to Treblinka, a Nazi extermination camp in northeast Poland. Word began to spread that deportations were, in reality, mass extermination. When the Polish resistance reached the remaining ghetto residents with news that people who had been removed from the ghetto for ''resettlement'' were instead being exterminated, one of the more remarkable events of human resistance happened.

Mordechaj Anielewicz

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