The Warsaw Ghetto was established by a decree dated October 2, 1940
by Dr. Ludwig Fischer, the German Governor of the Warsaw district.
Within eight days, Jews had been rounded up and herded into the ghetto.
By November 15, the Ghetto was closed. No Jews were permitted to
leave, under threat of death. In the ensuing weeks and months more
Jews were imprisoned as well as Jews deported from all points of Europe
to the ghetto in Warsaw, the largest of several ghettos throughout Poland.
Four hundred thousand men, women and children were crowded within the
walls of one gigantic prison, covering an area somewhat larger than one
square mile. The Germans kept the food rations at below subsistence
level. They were slowly starved to death, and many died in the streets.
Disease was rampant.
The ruling body of the Ghetto, the Judenrat, led by Adam Czerniakow, were appointed by
the Germans and given the responsibility of conducting their own internal affairs, such as
issuing birth and death certificates, food ration cards, collecting taxes and so on. While the
Jews believed they had autonomy, it was merely an illusion. The Germans ordered the
members of the Judenrat to obey all German commands, and warned them that if they did
not obey their representatives could be easily be replaced with those chosen by the
Germans. Therefore, the Judenrat's allegiance was not to the Jews, but to the Germans.
The main activity of the Judenrat was to supply the Germans with Jews for forced labor
camps. As a result the Judenrat held enormous power over the life and death of their
Jewish compatriots. Armed with a list of names of the registered occupants of the Ghetto,
the Judenrat selected Jews for "resettlement" - but in reality they were being sent to the
extermination camps. Corruption was rampant, where wealthy Jews were able to pay the
Judenrat large amounts of money in order to be exempted from deportation. Instead, poorer
Jews were sent to their deaths.
The delivery of Jewish quotas to the Germans were carried out by the Jewish Auxiliary Police,
or Blue Police. When Germans first started recruiting Jews to the force, they were swamped
with men vying to register. To those Jews who were accepted, it meant freedom from Nazi
persecution, assault, or deportation to labor or death camps. The Jewish Police enjoyed
greater privileges. They came from every walk of life - college-educated men,
professionals, white collar workers, sons of wealthy entrepreneurs. The prize they all sought
was nothing more than a black cap with a blue Star of David. As soon as they donned the
"uniform" they were transformed into degenerate monsters and used bribery, blackmail, and
extortion to extract money from their Jewish victims. The Germans did not pay them wages.
Life in the ghetto was self-sufficient. The Jews had to smuggle food or die. It was relatively
easy to procure food just by bribing the ghetto sentries, who merely looked the other way.
Many children of the ghetto sneaked out during the night to smuggle food. There was the
constant danger that if any of the children were caught in the act, the Germans would have
shot them on sight.
In the deepest part of the Warsaw Ghetto, as if in the depths of hell, existed throngs of
people everywhere, and often it was impossible to maintain one's equilibrium as though one
were carried upon waves of human misery. Old and young, mothers tried to sell rags. Dead
bodies lay on the sidewalks covered with newspapers. They were left there because relatives
wanted to avoid paying a funeral fee. Beggars were everywhere. Despite the grotesque
ugliness pervading within the ghetto walls, an intellectual and cultural life flourished.
Education, though conducted in secret, was widespread. Students listened in rapt attention
to their professors' lectures temporarily oblivious to the gunshots and screams from the
outside. Artistic performances took place in Sztuka Concert Hall, where Maira Eisenstadt
sang. Piano concertos were given by Ludomir Rosycki, and Pola Brawn delivered witty
reviews of life in the Ghetto complete with vicious barbs against the hated Germans. The
Jewish Underground press thrived, though it was declared by the Germans to be illegal. The
press represented every Jewish political faction - the nationalistic Zionist movement, the
Socialist Bund, and the Jewish Communists, among others. Circulation was small, usually in
the hundreds because printing presses had been confiscated by the Germans. Copies were
made on two mimeograph machines that some Jews had stolen and hid.
Mass deportations were conducted on a regular basis under the guise of relocation to labor
camps. Initially, none of the Jews suspected that the real destination were the death camps.
Thousands had gone voluntarily believing that they would be sent to labor camps. When
suspicions began to spread throughout the Ghetto, fewer Jews were willing to report for
"relocation". The Germans had to use enticements such as additional food rations, or
marmelade, to lure the Jews to go willingly. Many fell for the trick and died in the gas
To the outside world it seemed as though the Jews passively accepted their fate, and even
willingly submitted to it. In reality, the isolation of the Jews within the Ghetto walls made it
virtually impossible for them to know what was really going on. Although rumors circulated,
no one wanted to believe that the German Kultur could ever resort to such beastly murders.
Even the British government refused to believe it, when the Polish Underground sent secret
messages reporting on the German atrocities against the Jews in the Ghettos.
In this pit of human misery, Jewish culture and education thrived and became the center of
their activities. While it gave Jews the illusion of normality, they squandered precious time
that could otherwise have been applied to strengthening an armed resistance. Many Jews
trusted that if they were to remain obedient to German commands, they might be able to
survive until the Allies came to liberate them, or other believed in Divine Providence as their
only salvation. Despite this passivity, there existed a Jewish Underground, created for the
purpose of saving as many Jews as possible from annihilation, or die trying. They had
many contacts with their counterparts in the Polish Underground. Similar but smaller uprisings
also took place at ghettos in Bialystock, Czestochowa, Bedzin, Krakow, and Lodz.
The liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto was ordered by SS Brigadier-General Stroop. In
January 1943, German soldiers stormed into the Ghetto with objective of its total annihilation.
They were surprised by the existence of a formidable Jewish armed resistance - and had to
retreat - temporarily. On April 19, the Germans made a second attempt, this time storming in
with an army of over 2,000 soldiers, all heavily armed. They systemically slaughtered
thousands of Jewish civilians including members of the Jewish Underground.
Of 500,000 inhabitants in the Warsaw Ghetto, 14,000 were killed during the fighting or
burned alive in their houses, 7,000 were sent to the death camps at Treblinka, and the
remainder were deported to camps at Majdanek. All perished.
In 1939 there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland, with 360,000 in Warsaw alone. After the war,
there remained 25,000 Jewish survivors. The world looked the other way. Nations refused to
believe what was happening in Poland. But the Polish Govenment-in-exile knew about these
atrocities, and appealed continuously to Western Allies to intervene, to no avail.