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Warsaw Ghetto


Warsaw was the capital of Poland and its largest city. On the eve of the Second World War there were 370,000 Jews in Warsaw, 30 percent of the city's population. Between the two world wars Warsaw had become the cultural and political capital of world Jewry.

When the Germans occupied Poland in September 1939 the Jews became the victims of discrimination and abuse. Many were taken off the streets and sent to forced labor, their property was confiscated and they were abused and humiliated by the German soldiers. In October 1939 the Germans ordered Adam Tcherniakov to set up the Judenrat (Jewish council).

In November 1940 the Warsaw ghetto, in the center of a northern Jewish neighborhood, was sealed. Thirty percent of the city's population were now forced to live in 2.4 percent of the area of the city. The buildings inside the ghetto were rundown, with no sanitation and there was severe crowding. The ghetto was surrounded by a high wall (3 metres), surmounted with barbed wire, completely cutting off the Jews from the outside world. Minimal food rations caused widespread starvation and high mortality.

From Summer 1941 German factory owners began to receive licenses to set up factories within the ghetto. Despite the low wages, fear of deportation drove many Jews to work in these factories. The lack of basic necessities led to extensive smuggling, especially of food. It was often carried out by children and women who risked their lives to bring in food for their families. The police and guards, Poles, Germans and Jews, were in many cases bribed to turn a blind eye.

Despite a ban on education in the ghetto extensive cultural and educational activities took place in secret. Although regular schooling was prohibited, ORT vocational schools were allowed to function and the first courses began in 1940. The courses covered a wide range of subjects, including art, architecture and graphics, which were taught under the guise of regular vocational courses.

The underground movements contributed considerably to the cultural life of the ghetto. For example, the Organization for Yiddish Culture used to hold literary evenings. Another secret organization was Tekumah, whose members fostered Hebrew language and literature. There were underground libraries which lent out banned books. Prominent authors wrote plays that were performed by theater groups and members of the symphony orchestra held concerts. Secret newspapers were published, providing information on events outside the ghetto and presenting various political opinions.

An extremely important secret institution in the Warsaw ghetto was the Ringelblum archives, or Oneg Shabbat, as they were known in the underground. The archives not only collected documentation, but also encouraged people to write about various aspects of ghetto life. When the Final Solution began, records were kept of the deportations and the testimony of people who had escaped from the death camps was recorded. The archive even managed to put out bulletins and send information on the Nazi death machine to countries overseas. Some material from the Ringelblum archives survived the war, including diaries and underground newspapers. This represents the most important source for research into this period of the Holocaust.

Zionist and pioneering Jewish youth movements played a central role in the ghetto. In addition to their vital work in ensuring basic survival, these movements stressed spiritual and moral aspects of life and fostered these values in the youth of the ghetto.

The main deportations (the "great Aktion") took place from 22 July to 12 September 1942. In the first 10 days some 65,000 Jews were deported from the ghetto. In the first week of August the 200 children from Janusz Korczak's orphanage were taken to the assembly point for deportation (the Umschlagplatz). The Germans searched the streets and buildings, hunting down Jews, pulling anyone they found from their homes, including children. At the end of the Aktion about 60,000 Jews remained. They were given work permits and sent to work in the Nazi factories. In effect, the ghetto became a forced labor camp, as the weaker members of the population had been sent to the death camp of Treblinka.

During the deportations, the youth movements set up the Jewish Fighting Organization. Its aim was to organize a resistance, ready for the day when the Germans tried to liquidate the ghetto. On 19 April 1943 (the eve of Passover), the Germans entered the ghetto with reinforcements, intending to deport the remaining population to Treblinka. The inhabitants refused to obey the Germans' commands to report to have their papers checked, hidding, instead, in bunkers they had prepared.

The German soldiers, who had not expected to find the ghetto so deserted, were even more taken by surprise when they encountered armed resistance. The German commander, General Strop, changed his tactics; the Germans went through the ghetto burning and blowing up buildings. The resistance fighters in turn altered their tactics; they remained concealed in bunkers, making sorties against the Germans. This rebellion lasted for about a month, sending waves throughout the occupied countries of Europe. Even as the war continued this rebellion became a legend of unique historical significance.

One example of the rich cultural life of the ghetto is to be seen in the works of Halina Olomucki, who ceaselessly portrayed scenes of life in the ghetto.

(Dr Pnina Rosenberg)