Remembering The Ghetto Uprising

A landmark anniversary, April 19th will see the city pause to remember the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising…

Representing a third of the Warsaw’s pre-war population, the Nazi occupation saw the city’s Jews shepherded into a Ghetto that was ultimately sealed off in November, 1941. Isolated from the outside world, starvation and disease soon decimated the population.

Even worse was to follow once the Nazis began mechanising their death machine – soon, transports began taking the city’s Jews to the Treblinka death camp.

Although armed resistance conducted by ŻOB, the underground Jewish resistance, had already occurred, this tipped into something else entirely when rumours began swirling that the Ghetto would be liquidated in April of 1943.  

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Opening Salvos

By the time war broke out, the northern district of Muranów had become the centre of European Jewish life. It’s spiritual core, though, was Nalewki street. Here, wrote one chronicler, “elegant tenements and seedy annexes” stood side-by-side and “beauties mixed with eyesores and the sacred with the profane. Nalewki was a separate universe, a myth, a legend, and the only such street in the world.”

Given the street’s prominence – and its border with ‘Aryan Warsaw’ – it was here that the Ghetto Uprising saw its first action. Entering via the gate that stood at Świętojerska street, around 2,000 German, Latvian and Ukrainian soldiers entered at dawn on April 19th, confident that the task they had been assigned would go without a hitch.

Warsaw’s surviving Jews had, however, other plans. Lying in wait on the rooftops and within the street’s warren of inner courtyards, they greeted the incursion with shots and petrol bombs hurled from above.

Methodically demolished after the insurgency was crushed, there is little that remains of this once thriving Jewish heartland. Not to be confused with the street that currently trades under the name of Nalewki, today it’s been rechristened Stare Nalewki – the tramlines curling past the Arsenał building are the one haunting reminder of this area’s former story.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

The Battle Rages

To come close to even fathoming the bravery of the insurgents, one must recognise that even they themselves knew they had no chance of victory. “We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning,” wrote Marek Edelman after the war, “we fought simply not to give the Germans that chance to dictate our time and place of death.”

With their entire collection of arms amounting to just two sub-machine guns, 17 rifles and 500 pistols, it was the humble petrol bomb that proved to be the most effective choice of weapon.

In particular, heavy fighting took place in and around the environs of Pl. Muranowski (today, roughly the area around Stawki, Andersa and Edelmana streets). Frustrated by the guerrilla-urban street tactics that the Jews had adopted, the Nazis soon switched to more unconventional methods – burning the Jews out of their hiding places with flamethrowers and suchlike.

Moving in this manner from block-to-block, the Germans were able to extinguish Jewish resistance in a step-by-step manner. Aiding them, they cut water, gas and electricity. Cellars, meanwhile, were cleared with ‘smoke candles’. But despite General Stroop reporting on April 26th that Jewish resistance had been ‘broken’, this was far from the truth. “We fight like animals for naked life,” wrote one Jewish diarist.  

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

The Last Stand

Much of the Jewish Uprising was orchestrated from a vast, fortified shelter on Miła 18. Mordechai Anielewicz, the 24-year-old commander chose, along with his girlfriend and approximately 100 other defenders, to commit suicide on realizing they’d been surrounded by Nazi units on May 8th.

Before supposedly taking poison, Anielewicz penned a defiant final letter: “My dream has become reality, I have lived to see Jewish defence in the Ghetto in its greatest splendour.” After the war the bodies were not exhumed; instead, rubble was poured on the spot and visitors can now climb the small grassy knoll marking the area of the ‘bunker’.

Site of Miła 18 bunker


Not all of the denizens of the bunker perished. Some chose to flee to take up the struggle with Poland’s Home Army, and these included Marek Edelman – the man who assumed brief command following the death of Anielewicz.

Today, on Prosta 51, a monument depicting several pairs of hands vanishing down a manhole commemorates those that attempted to escape via Warsaw’s underground passages. An inscription lists the names of those who made it through the war, those who later died, and, rather poignantly, those who ‘remained in the sewers’. 

The Final Vengeance

News of the Ghetto Uprising had infuriated the Nazi leadership, and its stubborn resistance even more so. In typical fashion, the response was merciless and determined that Jewish Warsaw would, once and for all, be erased from the earth. In line with this, the Great Synagogue was purposefully picked to emphasize the crushing nature of Nazi Germany’s triumph over Warsaw Jewry.

First opened in 1818, and large enough to fit 2,200 people, it was destroyed in a violent flourish typical of the Nazi regime. Gathering troops and dignitaries at 8.15 p.m. on May 16th, the German commander Jurgen Stroop presided over the proceedings. “A fantastic piece of theatre,” he later recalled. “I glanced over at my brave officers and men, tired and dirty, silhouetted against the glow of burning building, and after prolonging the suspense for a moment, I shouted Heil Hitler and pressed the button.”

Crumbling in a sea of explosions, the synagogue vanished under a cloud of dust. “There was a horrible bang and a fantastic array of colours,” wrote Stroop. Jewish Warsaw had ceased to exist. Decades later, the Blue Tower Plaza rose on the site – breaking ground in 1966, it was only completed in 1991, reputedly after a rabbi had removed a curse that had stated no building would ever again be built on the plot.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leah Hammerstein Silverstein

Chronicling The Ghetto

Much of what we now know about daily life in the Ghetto is attributed to the so-called Ringelblum Archives. The work of teacher and social activist Emmanuel Ringelblum, when the Ghetto was first sealed it was he who took it upon himself to create a secret organisation – codenamed Onyeg Shabbos – to record the realities of daily Jewish life. Working with a team of rabbis, historians, doctors and so forth, he collected thousands of essays and testimonies that were later split into three caches and hidden just before the Ghetto Uprising.

Stashed inside milk cans, one was found in 1946, another in 1950. Eluding archaeologists to this day, the third is thought to have been buried on the grounds of what is now the Chinese Embassy. Regardless of its fate, a memorial taking the form of a transparent, illuminated box marks the spot where one of Ringelblum’s archives was found – view it in the garden by Nowolipki 30.

The first monument to the Ghetto Uprising (pictured above) was unveiled on April 16th, 1946 – made from blood red sandstone, it still stands outside the POLIN museum. More often than not, though, it is overlooked by the 11-metre tall memorial that was unveiled on the rebellion’s fifth anniversary.

Authored by Natan Rapaport, the project was conceived whilst the war was ongoing. Rapaport, a Warsaw Jew that had escaped the Holocaust by seeking refuge in the Soviet Union, was working as a sculptor in Novosibirsk when news first broke of the Ghetto Uprising, and he quickly set to work sketching out ideas to commemorate its legend.

Built using Swedish granite that had initially been reserved by Hitler’s favourite sculptor, Arno Breker, for a military monument in Berlin, its slab-like panels encase rubble and debris from the Ghetto itself.

To The Now…

The POLIN museum has earned much praise for the manner in which it has refused to be pigeon-holed as a Holocaust museum. Far from it, it instead does a successful job of celebrating the rich 1,000 year history of Polish Jewry. Of course, the subject of the Holocaust – and the Warsaw Ghetto – is not ignored, and to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the uprising the museum will present an exhibition titled ‘Around Us A Sea of Fire’.


Umschlagplatz, the deportation point from which trains destined for Treblinka’s gas chambers left, today exists only as a monument symbolic of a cattle wagon. Dating from 1988, and found at Stawki 10, its inscribed with first names in memory of the 320,000 Warsaw Jews who left directly from here.

Now a place of higher education, the building from which the SS supervised deportations survives at Stawki 5/7, and so too the building at Stawki 10 – once a hospital, untold numbers were once held here before being packed to Treblinka.

Żelazna 103 has likewise survived – described as “the most important place in the Ghetto for the Germans”, it was here that the Germans had their Ghetto HQ. Jewish prisoners were held in the basement, and on April 23rd, 1943, it was the focus of a failed raid to free those interred.

Other tangible traces include the Neo-Romanesque St. Augustine’s Church (Nowolipki 18), which was allowed to stay open after the Ghetto was sealed – the two remaining priests worked tirelessly to aid their Jewish neighbours, something that would ultimately cost them their lives. When the Ghetto was razed, it was used as a storage space for stolen Jewish valuables.

St. Augustine’s Church (photo source: unknown)

At Chłodna 20, in the pretty white tenement, the president of Warsaw’s Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, could be found living until his suicide in 1942. Close by, an overhead wooden bridge connected the Small Ghetto with the Large Ghetto, something now commemorated via a steel installation that spans the street.

Fittingly, as elsewhere, floor markings have also been fitted outlining the boundaries of the Ghetto, as well as a memorial and information board to signal the site of the Ghetto’s gate. Such memory blocks have been repeated at other relevant points throughout the city.

Heading south, one can view the pockmarked ruins of the tenement in which the Jewish poet Władysław Szlengel lived during the war at Waliców 14, whilst continuing in a southerly direction will bring visitors to a pre-war Jewish children’s hospital at Sienna 60 – soon, this will house the Museum of the Warsaw Ghetto.

As for the Ghetto wall itself, a small stretch of it can be viewed within the courtyard at Sienna 53. Finally, it is all but mandatory that any tour of Jewish Warsaw takes in the 19th century Nożyk Synagogue (Twarda 6) – the only such house of worship to survive the Nazi campaign to eliminate Jewish Warsaw – before concluding on Próżna street.

Though subject to significant gentrification in the last few years, it is the only street that was left largely preserved during the Ghetto’s destruction. Largely renovated, there are still small swathes that bring to mind the past when it was busy with Jewish trade.

Artykuł Remembering The Ghetto Uprising pochodzi z serwisu Warsaw Insider.