On 19 April 1943, Jewish inmates staged a revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto, in what would become the largest act of armed resistance during the Holocaust.
Jews were confined inside German-controlled ghettos as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Nearly 500,000 were forced inside the Warsaw ghetto, where disease and starvation were rampant.
Between July and September 1942, the Nazis deported some 265,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp. As the deportations continued, the Jewish Military Union (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy, ŻZW) – led by Pawel Frenkiel – and the Jewish Fighting Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB) – led by the 23-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz and other leaders of Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard) – influence grew within the wall ten feet high and eleven miles brick wall of the ghetto.
In January 1943, Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS, visited the Warsaw Ghetto and ordered the deportation of 8,000 Jews. Expecting mass deportations to continue, residents hid, and Jewish resistance fighters sprang into action, the German deportation effort had ended, leading the ŻOB to fortify hideouts and strengthen fighting units in preparation for the next battle.
On 19 April, the eve of Passover, Himmler launched a special operation to clear the ghetto in honor of Hitler’s upcoming birthday on 20 April. Despite being outgunned by the 2,000 SS men with tanks, rapid-fire artillery, and ammunition trailers, the Jewish resistance fighters, armed with pistols, a few rifles, one machine gun, and homemade bombs, destroyed several tanks, and temporarily held off SS units who were forced to withdraw from the ghetto.
On the third day of the battle, Germans SS officers shifted tactics and attempted to burn down the ghetto, but they still did not manage to overtake the ŻOB headquarters until 8 May. Many Jews hiding there surrendered, while many prominent members of the ŻOB, Anielewicz likely included, took their own lives to avoid being captured alive.
With the battle ending about a week later, SS Major General Jürgen Stroop, who supervised the dynamiting of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, wrote in his report: “The Warsaw Ghetto is no more.”
Approximately 7,000 Jews perished during the uprising. The nearly 50,000 who survived were sent to extermination or labor camps. Of those, the Germans shot 7,000 and transported 7,000 to the death camp at Treblinka and 15,000 to Majdanek. The remainder were sent to forced-labor camps.