GMD Memorial Essay, May 2010: Warsaw Ghetto by Adam Majeed

GMD Memorial Essay, May 2010: Warsaw Ghetto by Adam Majeed


The theme of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ bore another sad chapter in events concomitant to World War II.  The events that unfolded in this ‘total war’ itself, accounting for the deaths of more than seventy million people (principally civilians), made it arguably the most noxious conflict in the history of human civilization.[2]

The war years between 1939 and 1945, following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1 1939, laid the setting for a truly poignant example of men’s failure to treat their fellow men with prerequisite dignity.

The Holocaust exhibited Nazi Germany’s penchant for the cold and methodical murder of millions of Jews, Romani, ethnic Poles, disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet civilians and prisoner s of war amongst other religious and political groups.

Conventionally, the Holocaust is identified as the ‘mass murder of more than 5,000,000 Jews by the Germans during World War II’.[3]  However, if we were to include other groups who met a similar fate under Nazi occupation, the numbers of victims would swell to as many as 17,000,000.[4]

The definition of the Holocaust is a difficult matter as there are arguments that call for a more expansive definition and those that advocate a Judeocentric approach.[5]  Yet, these questions fall beyond the pale of this essay as we intend to promulgate and commemorate the plight of the victims and survivors of the largest ghetto in Nazi occupied Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto.

The idea of separating the living space of Jews from the rest of the population was not one novel to Nazi philosophy.  Rather, this design evolved out of the early middle ages, premised upon a theological and economic anti-Semitism that sought to limit interaction between Jews and Christians.

Additionally, ‘although then as now, Jews had a natural tendency to live in close proximity because of religious, social and cultural requirements…The essential distinction was that whilst Jews may have previously chosen to live in specific neighbourhoods, the creation of the ghetto forced them to do so.[6]

In fact, the word ‘ghetto’ actually represented the enclosing of Jews into a confined area.  The word was employed mainly in Italy, especially in 16th century Venice, which housed a large population of Jews.[7]

In the 20th century, the reintroduction of Jewish ghettos took shape in Poland subsequent to the Nazi invasion.  The initiation of this ghetto policy is traced back to Heydrich’s conference with the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen on 21 September 1939.

At this conference, Heydrich laid down instructions for the ‘immediate (within three to four weeks) concentration of Jews “in ghettos” in cities in order to facilitate “a better possibility of control and later deportation”’.[8]

On the same day, following the conference, Heydrich sent a letter to the Einsatzgruppen leaders, which demanded the establishment of Jewish Councils (Judenrat) in the ghettos, a body that had no power except as derived from the Nazis.[9]

Apparently, ‘…the Germans had learned the virtues (from their point of view) and techniques of operating through Jewish leaders…imposed and manipulated by the Germans’.[10]

In 1940-41, ghettoisation in the Generalgouvernement saw, amongst others, the establishment of ghettos in Lodz, Warsaw, Cracow, Radom and Lublin.[11]

However, this process was not as swift as Heydrich had originally envisaged.  The local German authorities, to which Heydrich left ghettoisation administration, differed in their desired approach by way of two somewhat contrasting policies.

‘Attritionists’ saw the decline and elimination of the Jewish populace as the desired aim. Their vision saw ghettos as concentration camps in aid of overall extraction of Jewish wealth through the mechanism of deliberate starvation.

On the other hand, ‘productionists’ saw the ghettos as a basis for cost free labour, whereby, the Jews could become self sufficient (and so not a burden on the Reich) and even contribute to the overall German war effort (at least until deportation).[12]

It was this latter view that gradually prevailed until the so-called ‘final solution’.  In order to gain an idea of the detestation that Nazi ideology held for the Jews we must highlight that:

…there was no budget for genocide. The Jews were to pay for their own destruction. In the Reich, emigration had been possible – for a price. In the ghettos, the inmates were forced to finance the erection of the walls and fences that surrounded them, to buy the food, fuel and medicine they consumed, eventually even to discharge the fares for the trains that deported them to the death camps. Denied the right to sustain themselves and their families by engaging in financially productive employment and their professions, or to operate their previously owned businesses, their only legitimate source of income was to utilise what little remained of their monetary and material capital not already embezzled by the invaders, or to become labourers, working for, at best, a pittance. The Jews were not kept alive to work – they worked in order to remain alive.[13]

It is clear that Nazi Germany (in their economic intent) did not want the so-called ‘Jewish problem’ to affect their resources in the slightest.  This chilling state of affairs owed much to the Nazi ideology of Race, which we shall duly consider.  But first, it is our purpose to recall the conditions and events that took place in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The pre-war Jewish population in Warsaw numbered in excess of 350,000 and represented 30 percent of the city’s aggregate.  The largest ghetto in Nazi occupied Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto was established by decree on 12 October 1940.[14]

Prior to this, Jews were removed from all positions of authority and a number of decrees were issued (in November 1939) stripping them of their civil and human rights.  Such decrees ranged from imposing the mandatory wearing of distinctive armbands through to crippling economic rulings.[15]

The actual creation of the ghetto meant that 113,000 Poles had to be evacuated with 138,000 Jews taking their place.  Consequently, 30 percent of Warsaw’s population was confined in only 2.4 percent of the city.

This meant that the density amounted to 9.2 people per room and 128,000 people per square kilometre.

Furthermore, on November 16 1940, the ghetto was sealed.  Walls 3 metres high, topped with barbed wire, marked the 18 kilometre designated boundaries of the ghetto.[16]

Once the ghetto was sealed the mortality rate soared owing to starvation and disease.

In August 1939, for example, 360 deaths were verified, whereas, in August 1941 as many as 5,560 deaths were recorded.[17]

The Nazis had imposed starvation rations, which allowed the Jews only 184 calories a day compared to 699 calories for Poles and 2,613 calories for Germans.

The official Jewish rations represented only 15 percent of the required daily intake for survival.[18]

The creation of the ghetto and its enclosure prevented Jewish access to food channels.  The newly established Nazi Transferstelle exclusively controlled the movement of material in and out of the ghetto.  Such were the conditions imposed on the Jewish population that they were compelled to resort to smuggling.

The smuggling campaign elevated the status of ‘professional’ smugglers to comprise a new ‘elite’.  Their operations were extremely dangerous and it was not uncommon that they paid the ultimate price.  The Jews and the various ghetto authorities naturally supported the enterprise; even elements of the Polish and German police were found susceptible to bribes.[19]

There is no doubt that the German campaign of starvation and terror served to demoralise the ghetto populace to a degree.  However, it is a misconception that the Jewish inhabitants submissively accepted their fate, as oppression often breeds resistance.  In truth, ‘a substantial part of the ghetto inhabitants refused to be mere victims’.[20]

Resistance does not merely take the shape of an armed struggle, but also, incorporates political, cultural and economic elements based on physical survival in collective action.

Courtyard Committees brought under the ZTOS network were representative of the important self-help effort that had evolved out of ghetto circumstances.

They proved effective in unofficially assessing financial resources and imposing taxes on tenants for the benefit of the whole.

The important funds raised by this venture contributed to a range of charitable projects; prominently aiding the rise of communal soup kitchens to feed the indigent.[21]

Resistance also took the form of determined devotion to religious and cultural practices, clandestine libraries and school education for deprived ghetto children, smuggling and an array of artistic activities.  Furthermore, underground cells of youth movements and parties monitored developments and established an underground press. [22]

At first, these politically motivated underground cells did not openly challenge the Nazi occupant forces.  However, when the first reports came through about the massacres at Ponary and other killing sites in Eastern Europe, a new idea surfaced.

It was becoming apparent that, ‘the Germans had embarked upon the total destruction of the Jews and that therefore the Jews had no choice other than to stand up and fight, even if this offered no prospect of survival’.[23]

Consequentially, the Great Deportation in the summer of 1942 crystallised this idea and the underground cells turned ‘militant…to set the example of an armed rebellion undertaken for reasons of principle, without realistic expectation of success’.[24]

By the end of October 1942, the ZOB had strengthened and expanded to include underground cells of all political persuasions.  Representatives from such cells combined to form a ZOB command with an agenda to defend the ghetto and punish collaborators.  The resistance duly assassinated collaborators in the Jewish police and Judenrat.[25]

By the end of December 1942, weapons from the Polish Home Army (though not many) were smuggled into the ghetto.  The resistance had planned to initiate reprisals on the Jewish police on 22 January 1943.[26]

However, this was not possible as the Germans began the second wave of deportations on 18 January 1943.  It was on this date that the true insurgency began as ZZW and ZOB fighters engaged the Nazis while the Jews ordered to assemble (for deportation) went into hiding.

Despite heavy resistance losses, Sammern-Frankenegg ordered his men out of the ghetto on 20 January and the deportations were halted.[27]

This result was a huge psychological victory for the resistance, as they took control of the ghetto, earned Polish underground praise and ‘legends about “hundreds” of dead Germans and the “tremendous” power of the ZOB started circulating throughout Warsaw’.[28]

Of course, the eyes of retrospection cannot trick us into believing that the resistance had a chance against the might of the Nazi forces; however, the Jews found hope in their desperation.

In anticipation of the final deportation, in the last few months of the ghetto’s existence, the Warsaw populace were heavily engaged in building sophisticated bunkers and communication trenches.[29]

The final liquidation or ‘Great Action’ began on 19 April 1943 and the Jews put up determined resistance.  However, Jurgen Stroop (Sammern-Frankenegg’s replacement with experience in partisan revolts) opted to torch the entire ghetto, resulting in its obliteration.

On 16 May 1943, with the symbolic destruction of the Great Warsaw Synagogue, Stroop announced the end of the Grossaktion.  His report claimed that 56,065 Warsaw Jews had been ‘dealt’ with, including those who had been killed or captured for deportation to concentration and extermination camps.[30]

The above only highlights a portion of the overall Nazi campaign of Genocide.  The theoretical underpinning of such a campaign was driven by the Nazi ideology of race.

While in prison for treason, Hitler developed this ideology in his political autobiography Mein Kampf.  He developed a pseudo-scientific, social Darwinian account of human history that integrated shades of Malthusian economics.

Hitler had convinced himself that he had found the key to understanding this complex world, and his conclusions on an intrinsic racial hierarchy and living space led him to include Roma, Slavs, African Germans, and especially the Jews as the Nazi party’s racial enemies.[31]

The aftermath of the Holocaust has left a profound effect on the postwar world.  Wyman and Rosenzveig have addressed this question in detail as their work inspects the reactions of 22 countries and the United Nations to the Holocaust since 1945.

Some have denationalised the Holocaust, some have trivialised it, some have denied it, some have rationalised it, but all have universalised it while some have assumed all positions.[32]

Of course, the aftermath also brought with it a legal response in the form of trials, the most famous being the IMT and NMT Nuremberg Trials.  However, for the purposes of this essay, we shall focus on the fate of the main perpetrators and those in relation to the Warsaw Ghetto.

It is widely held that on 30 April 1945, as the Third Reich collapsed around him, Hitler committed suicide by gunshot and cyanide poisoning.[33]

In British custody, awaiting trial at Nuremberg, Himmler opted for the same fate on 23 May 1945, committing suicide via cyanide.[34]

On the other hand, on June 4 1942, Heydrich died in obscure fashion eight days after Operation Anthropoid, a failed assassination attempt.[35]

On September 20 1943, following his guilty court-martial verdict ‘for defending Jews’ Sammern-Frankenegg was killed in a partisan ambush near Klasznic.[36]

Hans Frank was tried at Nuremberg and found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.  He was executed on October 16 1946.[37]

Hofle was arrested in 1961 and pending trial committed suicide in Vienna on 20 August 1962.[38]

Shortly after capture by the British, Globocnik also committed suicide via cyanide.[39]

Finally, the orchestrator of the Warsaw liquidation Jurgen Stroop was sentenced to death at the Dachau trials, however, he was then extradited to Poland where he was again found guilty of war crimes, sentenced to death on 8 September 1951 and executed at the scene of the crime.[40]

On 10 September 1952, a rather unique treaty (Reparations Agreement) was signed where West Germany agreed to pay Israel reparations for Jewish slave labour, persecution and stolen property.[41]

Germany has endeavoured to reconcile its Third Reich past and often view the Holocaust as an aberration of German history and culture.[42] The Warschauer Kniefall on 7 December 1970 symbolised this very stance.

On May 14 1948, the state of Israel was born.  Wyman & Rosenzveig state, ‘by the early 1950s the war crimes trials, the displaced persons problem, and the issue of Jewish statehood had been essentially resolved’.[43]

This statement fails to account for the lasting impact that the Holocaust had on demographics in Western Asia, considering that the Genocide itself took place in Europe.

It has been stated that ‘perhaps the most remarkable aspect of life in the ghettos was the determination of the Jews to record their experiences’.[44]

In the midst of their hopeless and desperate state of affairs, such determination was born of a desire that the whole world should know of the suffering of the Jews of Warsaw, and that never again should any peoples have to endure such.

However, in a letter to Nicolas Demeunier, Thomas Jefferson communicated a depressing reality:

What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, and death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him thro’ his trial, and inflict on his fellow men a bondage…which is fraught with [yet] more misery…[similar to]… that which he rose in rebellion to oppose.[45]

In the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, Richard Falk, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Palestine, likened Gaza’s troubles to the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto.[46] The inauguration of Genocide Memorial Day marks the first anniversary of the Gaza massacre, and one cannot help but draw attention to the sad irony that continues to subsist.

Warsaw Ghetto


[1] B.Brecht, Poems 1913-1956, John Willett & Ralph Manheim, (eds.), Erich Fried (2nd edition ed.), (New York: Methuen, 1976), p.247.
[2] D. Sommerville, The Complete Illustrated History of World War Two: An Authoritative Account of the Deadliest Conflict in Human History with Analysis of Decisive Encounters and Landmark Engagements (Lorenz Books, 2009), p.5.
[3] D.L.Niewyk & F.R Nicosia, The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust, (Columbia University Press, 2000), p.45.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, pp.45-52.
[6] ARC, Ghettos, [online] (2005). Available from [Accessed 28 January 2010].
[7] See R. Calimani, The Ghetto of Venice, (Katherine Silherblatt Wolfthal trans.) (New York: Evans, 1987). For other theories on the origin of the word ‘ghetto’, see
[8] C.R.Browning & J.Matthaus, The Origins of the Final Solution – The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939 – March 1942 (UNP, 2004), p.111.
[9] Y.Gutman, The Jews Of Warsaw 1939-1943 (I.R.Friedman trans.) (IUP, 1989), p.14.
[10] C.R.Browning & J.Matthaus, The Origins of the Final Solution – The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939 – March 1942, n.8 above,  p.111.
[11] Ibid, pp.111-138.
[12] Ibid, p.113.
[13] ARC, Ghettos, n.6 above.
[14] USHMM, Warsaw, [online] (Holocaust Encyclopaedia, 2009).  Available from [Accessed 28 January 2010].
[15] ARC, Warsaw Ghetto [online] (2005).  Available from [Accessed 27 January 2010].
[16] Y.Gutman, The Jews Of Warsaw 1939-1943, n.9 above,  pp.60-61.
[17] Ibid, p.65.
[18] Ibid, p.66.
[19] Ibid, p.66-72.
[20] U. Keller, The Warsaw Ghetto in Photographs: 206 views made in 1941, (CDP, 1984), p.xiv.
[21] Ibid, p.xv.
[22] Ibid, pp.xv-xvii.
[23] ARC, Warsaw Ghetto, n.15 above.
[24] U. Keller, The Warsaw Ghetto in Photographs: 206 views made in 1941, n.20 above, p.xvii. The Grossaktion Warsaw (beginning on 22 July 1942) was the Nazi operation of mass extermination of Jews. The Nazis would deport Warsaw inhabitants en masse from the Umschlagplatz (collection points) to the Treblinka extermination camps. This operation formed a part of the wider Operation Reinhard headed by Globocnik.
[25] M.Edelman, The Ghetto fights [online] (1987).  Available from [Accessed 27 January 2010].
[26] Ibid.
[27] J.Guttman, World War II: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising [online] (Weider History Group, 2009), p.3. Available from [Accessed 27 January 2010]
[28] M.Edelman, The Ghetto fights, n.25 above
[29] ARC, Warsaw Ghetto Uprising [online] (2005).  Available from [Accessed 27 January 2010].
[30] J. Stroop, The Stroop Report: The Warsaw Ghetto is no more [online] (AICE, 2010). Available from [Accessed 28 January 2010].
[31] USHMM, Nazi Ideology and the Holocaust, (2009), p.11-20. People with physical and mental diseases were deemed hereditarily unfit and so a biological threat to the nation.
[32] See D.S. Wyman & C.H. Rosenzveig, The World reacts to the Holocaust, (JHU Press, 1996).
[33] A.Joachimsthaler, The Last Days of Hitler – The Legends – The Evidence – The Truth, (Brockhampton Press, 1999), pp.160-167.
[34] J.C.Fest, The Face of the Third Reich: Practitioners and Technicians of Totalitarian Rule [online]. Available from [Accessed 28 January 2010].
[35] See R.J.Defalque, ‘The Puzzling Death of Reinhard Heydrich’ (2009) 27 Bulletin of Anaesthesia History 1.
[36] D. Dor (ed.) Brave and Desperate  (Israel: Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, 2003), p.166.
[37] Heart, Hans Frank [online] (HEART, 2007). Available from [Accessed 29 January 2010].
[38] ARC, Hermann Hofle [online] (2005). Available from [Accessed 29 January 2010].
[39] See J.Poprzeczny, Odilo Globocnik, Hitler’s man in the East, (McFarland, 2004).
[40] See I.Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998).
[41] F.Honig, ‘The Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany’ (1954), 48 The American Journal of International Law 4, pp.564-578.
[42] D.S. Wyman & C.H. Rosenzveig, The World reacts to the Holocaust, n.32 above, p.xiii.
[43] Ibid., p.xix.
[44] ARC, Ghettos, n.6 above.
[45] T.Jefferson, ‘Letter to Jean Nicolas Demeunier’, in Public and Private Papers (Library of America, New York: Vintage Books, 1990), pp.265-266.
[46] J.Lynn, UN Investigator sees evidence of war crimes in Gaza [online] (Reuters, 2009). Available from [Accessed 29 January 2009].
{jathumbnail off}
Help us reach more people and raise more awareness by sharing this page