Warsaw was built on the banks of the Vistula River. The city has been capital of various reorganizations of Poland's territory since the 16th century, when Zygmunt III, commemorated in the famous Zymunt Column, moved the capital of Poland from Krakow.
The history of Warsaw spans over 1400 years. In that time, the city evolved from a cluster of villages to the capital of a major European power, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Under the patronage of its kings, it developed into a center of enlightenment and otherwise unknown tolerance. Fortified settlements founded in the 9th century form the core of the city, in today's Warsaw Old Town.
The city has had a particularly tumultuous history for a European city. It experienced numerous plagues, invasions, and devastating fires.
The most destructive events include the Deluge, the Great Northern War (1702, 1704, 1705), War of the Polish Succession, Warsaw Uprising (1794), Battle of Praga and the Massacre of Praga inhabitants, November Uprising, January Uprising, World War I, Siege of Warsaw (1939) and aerial bombardment—and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Warsaw Uprising (after which the German occupiers razed the city).
The city has hosted many crucial events in the history of Poland. It was the site of election of Polish kings, meeting of Polish parliament (Sejm), and events such as the Polish victory over the Bolsheviks at the Vistula, during the Battle of Warsaw (1920), and today the frequently attacked city has grown to the multicultural capital of a modern European state and a major commercial and cultural centre.
In Warsaw, the Nazis established the largest ghetto in all of Europe. 375,000 Jews lived in Warsaw before the war – about 30% of the city’s total population. Immediately after Poland’s surrender in September 1939, the Jews of Warsaw were brutally preyed upon and taken for forced labor.
- In 1939 the first anti-Jewish decrees were issued. The Jews were forced to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David and economic measures against them were taken that led to the unemployment of most of the city’s Jews.
- A Judenrat (Jewish council) was established under the leadership of Adam Czerniakow, and in October 1940 the establishment of a ghetto was announced. On November 16 the Jews were forced inside the area of the ghetto.
- Although a third of the city’s population was Jewish, the ghetto stood on just 2.4% of the city’s surface area. Masses of refugees who had been transported to Warsaw brought the ghetto population up to 450,000.
Surrounded by walls that they built with their own hands and under strict and violent guard, the Jews of Warsaw were cut off from the outside world. Within the ghetto their lives oscillated in the desperate struggle between survival and death from disease or starvation.
The living conditions were unbearable, and the ghetto was extremely overcrowded. On average, between six to seven people lived in one room and the daily food rations were the equivalent of one-tenth of the required minimum daily calorie intake.
Economic activity in the ghetto was minimal and generally illegal, smuggling of food being the most prevalent of such activity. Those individuals who were active in these illegal acts or had other savings were generally able to survive longer in the ghetto.
The walls of the ghetto could not silence the cultural activity of its inhabitants, however, and despite the appalling living conditions in the ghetto, artists and intellectuals continued their creative endeavors. Moreover, the Nazi occupation and deportation to the ghetto served as an impetus for artists to find some form of expression for the destruction visited upon their world. In the ghetto there were underground libraries, an underground archive (the “Oneg Shabbat” Archive)youth movements and even a symphony orchestra. Books, study, music and theater served as an escape from the harsh reality surrounding them and as a reminder of their previous lives.
The crowded ghetto became a focal point of epidemics and mass mortality, which the Jewish community institutions, foremost the Judenrat and the welfare organizations, were helpless to combat.
- More than 80,000 Jews died in the ghetto. In July 1942 the deportations to the Treblinka death camp began. When the first deportation orders were received, Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Judenrat, refused to prepare the lists of persons slated for deportation, and, instead, committed suicide on July 23, 1942.
The Warsaw ghetto uprising
- Poland was home to around two million Jews in 1939 and following the Nazi invasion, large parts of the country were immediately incorporated into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles from these areas were then forcibly moved from their homes so that Lebensraum (living space) would become available for ethnic Germans.
- The initial destination of these displaced people was the Generalgouvernement, an area under civil administration situated between the Soviet and Nazi occupied zones, which included the Polish capital city of Warsaw.
- Such overcrowding of the Warsaw ghetto was a common feature with several generations of the same family often living in just one small room.
- A lack of basic amenities resulted in filthy conditions both in houses and on the ghetto streets, which in turn led to the inevitable spread of lice and of diseases such as typhus. Malnutrition was the norm and many people starved to death.
Whilst some ghettos were open, permitting residents to move beyond the boundaries during hours when a curfew was not in place, the majority were closed, with high walls, barbed wire and armed soldiers preventing anyone from leaving. As the war progressed and the Nazi campaign against the Jews twisted brutally towards a policy of annihilation, many ghettos that had previously been open were sealed.
This was the case in Warsaw, which was sealed in mid-November 1940 and from which deportations began in earnest in the summer of 1942. Between July and September, an estimated 265,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to the Treblinka extermination camp and upwards of 11,000 more were sent to labour camps. Between 55,000 and 60,000 Jews remained in the ghetto.
Although the Jews taken away during the summer months were told they were being resettled for work purposes, few people who remained in the Warsaw ghetto were under any illusion as to the true fate of the deportees. In the autumn of 1942, a decision was made amongst members of numerous self-defence groups and political factions to try and resist future deportations.
- Two such groups determined to oppose the Nazis were the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW).
- They managed to smuggle some weapons into the ghetto via links with the Polish underground and when the SS began a surprise deportation on 18 January 1943, ZOB and ZZW members launched an attack, taking the soldiers by surprise.
Fighting lasted for several days until the SS eventually withdrew. It was a significant victory for the resisters in the ghetto, who perceived that their actions had prevented a mass deportation. The Nazis, however, were furious and under orders from Heinrich Himmler (pictured), preparations began for the complete destruction of the ghetto.
On the morning of 19 April 1943, the eve of Passover and also of Hitler’s birthday, SS forces closed in to commence liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. Since January, the resistant factions in the ghetto had amassed more weapons and dug underground bunkers, where many Jews now took shelter.
- Upon entering the ghetto the SS found the streets largely deserted, rendering round ups impossible.
- Around 750 Jews who were not in hiding attacked the soldiers with pistols, hand grenades and homemade explosives, though their weapons were rudimentary compared to the German machine guns, tanks and flamethrowers.
- See more at: History in an Hour- The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising