This week in Jewish history | Warsaw Ghetto sealed off - World Jewish Congress

This week in Jewish history | Warsaw Ghetto sealed off

This week in Jewish history | Warsaw Ghetto sealed off

Street scene in the Warsaw ghetto showing a section of the wall blocking a major thoroughfare. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum (c) Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

On 15 November 1940, German authorities in occupied Poland sealed off the main Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw in, which they sealed off from the rest of the city using a ten-foot-high wall topped by barbed wire. 

Warsaw, the capital of Poland, was a major center of Jewish life and culture before the start of World War II. The Jewish community was the largest in Europe, second only to New York City. The German occupation of Warsaw began in late September 1939, when Poland capitulated to the Germans and Soviets who had attacked it. By the end of 1940, nearly 400,000 Jews were forced tin to the Warsaw Ghetto, which was closely guarded. Jews were required to have a permit to leave and anyone who attempted to do so clandestinely faced severe penalties, including even death.

The creation of the ghetto was preceded by several months of organization, preparation, and propaganda. The Nazis isolated the Jewish population by introducing and consistently expanding antisemitic decrees, including compelling Jews to wear an armband with the Star of David on their right forearm. Starvation and disease were rampant in the ghetto.  Treblinka death camp murdered approximately 35,000 Jews inside the ghetto.

In January 1943, SS chief Heinrich Himmler 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. Consequently, the German plans to liquidate the ghetto were postponed. 

A few months later, Himmler launched a special operation to liquidate the ghetto in honor of Hitler’s upcoming birthday. Jewish resistance fighters, armed with only the most meager weapons at their disposal, hurled themselves at the far more numerous German and auxiliary forces who had come to organize their deportation. Several hundred Jewish insurgents as well as thousands of Jews who sought shelter in bunkers and other hideouts managed to hold out for several weeks but were eventually overcome as the ghetto was set ablaze and burned to the ground. Tens of thousands who were captured 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.  

Many Jews, perhaps as many as 20,000 Warsaw Jews, continued to hide on the so-called Aryan side of Warsaw after the liquidation of the ghetto. A number of them took part in the abortive Warsaw Rising that commenced on 1 August 1944.