The Holocaust in Poland: Warsaw Ghetto (October 1940-May 1943)

Figure 1.-- This devastating photo of a starving Jewish boy in Poland during comes from the files of Julius Streicher, the editor of the pornographic tabloid "Der Strümer". Streicher was compiling photographs from the ghettos and concentration camps which could be used as a record of the NAZI achievement--the extermination of the Jewish people. He sent his photrapher to Poland to capture images like this. This photograph is not identifiefd, but we believe was taken in the Warsaw Ghetto. The starving boy is about 11 years old, but looks almost twice his age because of the terrible suffering he has had to undergo. He wears typical schoolboy clothes--shirt, shorts with suspenders, long black stockings with a Leibchen, and (in order to keep warm) heavy woolen socks on top of the stockings. His shoes have practically fallen apart and seem to be held together with some sort of tape around the instep. The emaciation of course comes from a starvation. The NAZIs allowed very little food ino the Ghetto.

Warsaw was the cultural center of Jewish life in Poland. About 30 percent of the city's population was Jewish. It was the largest Jewish community in Europe.Frank ordered all Warsaw Jews on October 3 to move to the predominately Jewish part of the city which was now called the Warsaw Ghetto (Otober 3). He then ordered it to walled off. The entarnces were then sealed off from the rest of the city and closely guarded by the NAZIs. Jews had previously moved throughout the city without restruction. There had been about 0.25 million Jews in the Jewish section. Now 0.15 million more had to find acommodation there as well as for those arriving in future transports. Many within the Ghetto had to move. Jews had to abandon their property except what they could carry on bring in a hand cart. The Germans administering the Ghetto delighted in humilitaing the Jews in the initial phase of the Ghetto. Jews would be ordered to kiss the pavement or search for bits of paper in mud, all the time being beaten. [Gilbert, p. 345.] Much worse was to come. Some 500,000 Polish Jews were are forced into the Warsaw ghetto. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the single most important Jewish act of defiance against the NAZIs (April 1943).


Warsaw is located along both banks of the Vistula River in central Poland, primarily on the western bank. Warsaw along with Krakow are the two cities most associated historically with Poland. Both have served as capitals of Poland. Jews appeared in the city (15th century), but the population was relatively small for several centuries. Warsaw became the capital of Poland (1596). Poland disappeared in the Polish Partitions (1772-95). Warsaw along with most of eastern and central Poland were absorbed into the Tsarist Empire, although the constitutional arrangements varied over time. The population of Warsaw and especially the Jewish population grew substantially as Poland began to industrialize (19th century). The Germans after heavy fighting occupied Warsaw during World War I (1915). The German administered the area of Poland captured from the Russians as the Government General which included Warsaw. Warsaw became the capital of Poland when the country emerged as an independent state following World War I (1919). It was a major European city with a population of 1.3 million people. Warsaw was the cultural center of Jewish life in Poland. About 30 percent of the city's population or 350,000 peoplewas Jewish. It was the largest Jewish community in Europe, second only to New York City in the world. Jews lived throughout Warsaw. The heaviest concentration was in the north of the city. Here mamy Jews lived in apartments and there were streets which were almost ebtirely populated by Jews.

German Invasion (September 1939)

Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland (September 1). The outnumbered and out-gunned Polish Army had no chance. Germany virtually surounded Poland. Not only was a there a western border, but East Prussia meant the Germans could attack from the north and the German conquest of Czechoslovakia meant they could attack from the south as well. Not only were the Poles outgunned by the Germans, but their battle plan was faulty. Rather than concentrating their forces, they tried yo defend all of Poland. German armies sliced into Poland and within a week the main Polish armies were destroyed or badly mauled in battles along Poland's borders. This allowed German forces to rapidly advance toward Warsaw. The German forces first reached the southern and western parts of the city (September 8-9). They soon surrounded the city, but declined to enter the city and engage in street fighting which would have proved costly. The Poles then attempted to fall back to the Vistula, but the Soviet invasion (September 17) made any hope of continued resistance impossible. Warsaw continued hold out for 3 weeks. The Germans subjected Warsaw to heavy Luftwaffe attacks and as the Wehrmacht closed in on the city, artillery bombardment. There were no bomb sheters for civilian defense. As a result of the constant bombardments from the air and by artillery fire, large numbers of civilians fled the city. The Germam bombardment thus caused substantial damage and heavy loss of life. The NAZIs were to compalain later in the War that the Allied bombardment of Germany was barbaric. There was no consideration of this as they mrthodically reduced the great city of Warsaw. The Germans entered Warsaw on after its surrender (September 29).

Government General

Hitler was insistent that Poland should be wiped off the map. After seizing Poland (September 1939), the Nazis created the so-called Generalgouvernement (General Government). This wasNAZI occupied Poland. The term Generalgouvernement was selected as it was the term the Germans used for the administration they set up in the Polish territory seized from the Russians during World War I (1915). The General Government was divided into four districts: Krakow, Warsaw, Radom, and Lublin. The Governor-General, Frank, was located in Krakow. It was an autonomous part of "Greater Germany", similar to the status of occupied Czechoslovakia (Bohemia and Moravia). The NAZI General Government was central Poland. Western Poland (the Polish Corridor, Lodz and Polish Silesia were annexed into the German Reich. Eastern Poland was seized by the Soviets. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler by decree ordered the Polish voivodeships of Eastern Galicia (with a largely Ukrainian population) were added to the Government General as Galicia District. The NAZIs administed the Government General differently than other areas, in part because they could not find ny suitable Polish Quislings. I was not administered as a pupper state like Slovakia and Bohemia-Moravia. The NAZIs were not really interested in finding Poles to collaborate with. The NAZIs avoid even using the term Poland. The purpose of the occupation was to destroy Poland and much of the population that could not be aranized. There were no Polish puppet offucials.

Hans Frank: General Govenor

Hans Frank was a lawyer who defended Hitler and other NAZIs in criminal peosecutions during the Weimar era. After seizing power, Hitler appointed Frank Minister of Justice in Bavaria. This was part of the pricess of destroying E=Weimar's independent judiciary. Hitler appoited Frank General Govenor (Generalgouverneur für die besetzten polnischen Gebiete) (October 26, 1939). e continued in this post until the Red Army drove the NAZIs out of Poland. As Govenor General he oversaw one of the most brutal occupation regimes in history. An estimated 6.5 million Poles perished during the War, about a quarter of the population. After the War Frank denied responsibility for the Holocaust claiming that the killing was done in secret by the SS. It is difficult to believe that he did not have a full understanding of what transpired, but even if the Holocaust is not considerd, his reign in Poland was horific resulting in the death of over 3 million non-Jewish Poles. Frank ruled as absolute dictator, subject only to the Führer's authority. To add to his authority, he was granted the SS rank of Obergruppenführer.

NAZI Star of David Badges (November 1939)

NAZI officials ordered Warsaws Jews to to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David so they could be easily identified (November 23, 1939). Men, women and children over 10 years of age weee required to wear the arm bands. Jews found wiyhout them could be shot. The NAZI regulations about these badges varied from jurisdictions to jurisdiction. In many cases they were Star of Savids sewn on to the front and back of outer garments. In Warsaw it was the white and blur=e arm bands. The NAZIs had discovered that in the process of supressing German Jews that unexpected problem was thst Jews were unexpectedly difficult to identify. They did not look like the cartoons in Julius Stricher's pornographic Der Strümer. This in planning how to deal with Jews in occupied countries it was decided to force them to wear these badges so they cpuld more easily be uidentified..

NAZI Anti-Jewish Actions

NAZI officials proceeded to take a series of actions to supress Warsaw's Jewish community. The Star of David badge order was of course the most obvious administrative action taken against Warsaw Jews. District Governor Ludwig Fischer issued a number of economic decrees designed to seize the property of Jews and essentially impoverish them. One decree prohibited non-Jews from buying or leasing Jewish enterprises without obtaining a special permit (October 17, 1939). This was to make sure it was the NAZIs who looted Jewish property. Decrees concerning money and bank accounts were issued (November 1939). Jewish bank accounts were blocked. And Jews were required to deposit any cash they may have in these blocked accounts. Jews could withdraw no more than 250 zloties per week from these accounts. This essentially ended Jewish economic activity in Warsaw. The regulations made it impossible to openly conduct business outside the Jewish community. Jews owning shops and enterprises had to put signs indicating that they were Jewish owned (December 1). This of course simplified the process of seizing Jewish property. The NAZIs soon began seizing Jewish enterprises without compensation. An exception at first was made fir small shops in the largely Jewish sections of the city. Jewish managers and staff were fired from Warsaw business enterprises. Sometimes the new owners retained some Jewish employees with needed skills. The city's large Jewish population was quickly reduced to poverty. Most began selling their possessions to buy food and other necesities. Those Jews without tradeable possessioins faced starvation. Officials closed Jewish schools, and confiscated busines and othe Jewish-owned property. They dissolved Jewish community and social organizations. NAZI authorities conscripted Jewish men into forced labor. Jews were prohibited from riding on trains. Radios were also confiscated from all Poles, in effect closing them off from the outside world.

The Judenrat and Welfare Organizations

Warsaw Mayor Stefan Starzynski appointed Adam Czerniakow, an engineer, as Chairman of the existing Jewish Council (September 23, 1939). This was just before Warsaw fell to the Germans. One of the first actioins the Germans took after entering the city was to disband the large number of Jewish social and commumity institutions. The Germans permitted only two Jewish institutions--the Judenrat and Welfare Institutions. The Judenrat (Jewish council) was a new agency. the Germans created to control the Jews in Wassaw. It replaced the existing Jewish Community Council. German security police picked up Adam Czerniakow and took him to the Gestapo and Police Headquarters on Aleja Szucha (October 4). The Germans told him that he would head the new Judenrat and to appoint 24 other Jews to serve on it. The Judenrat headquarters was establish on Grzybowska Street. Some of the leading members included: Jaszunski, Sztoclcman, Milejkowski, Lichtenbaum, Zabludowski, Kobryner, Zundelewicz, Rozensztat, Kupczyker, Zygielbojm, Sztokhamer, Dr. Szoszkies, and Gepner. The Germans used the Judenrat as the sole official body allowed the Jews. All contacts Warsaw Jews had with the Germans had tto go through the Judenrat. The Judenrat was allowed to hire a staff to fulfill its administrative resomsibilities. That staff eventually anounted to 6,000 people. Their job would be to administer the planned ghetto and to implement any German orders concerning Warsaw Jews. As a result of German actions against Jews, firing them from business and seizing their shops and property, Warsaw Jews were rapidly impoverished. With the increase in people requiring assistance, it soon became clear that welfare institutions were needed to meet their needs. The American Joint Distribution Committee sponsored ZTOS (Jewish Mutual Aid Society). They were soon providing assistance to 250,000 Jews. It provided arange of assistance, but by far the most important was suppoting soup kitchens. They provided soup and a pieve of bread to anyone lining up by its kitchens. Eventually ZTOS operated over 100 soup kitchens in the Jewish sections of Warsaw.

Polish Attacks (March 1940)

Polish crininal gangs began attacking Jews (March 1940). As Jews had to wear azrm bands, they were easily identified. This occurred in part because they did not think the police would intervene if the victim was a Jew. Individual Jews were openly robbed in the streets without interference. These attacks reached a peak during Easter. Some describe it as a virtuazl pogrom which went on for 8 days. Finally NAZI authorities stoped the attacks.

Ghetto Order (October 1940)

The SS began to set up a ghetto in Warsaw soon after the occupation (November 1939). It quickly became obvious that this was a more complicated process than they had anticipated. The military governor, General Karl Ulrich von Neumann-Neurode, stopped the SS operation. NAZI officials ordered Waldemar , the official in charge of evacuation and relocation in the Government General beginning planning for a Warsaw Jewih ghetto (February 1940). NAZI oficialdom did not use the medieval term ghetto. They referred to the ghettoes as Jüdischer Wohnbezirk (Jewish Quarter). Schön considered Various options, including moving Warsaw Jews to the Praga suburbs. Frank decided that all Warsaw Jews to move to the predominately northern Jewish part of the city which was now called the Warsaw Ghetto (Otober 3). The NAZIs announced to Warsaw Jews that a ghetto was being established and they would have to move there (October 12). This was the Jewish Day of Atonement. The NAZIs then published maps showing the streets that would make up the ghetto area. This affected not only Jews, but other Poles as well. An estimated 113,000 non-Jewish Poles had to abandon their homes. Most were apartment renters. The NAZI decree establishing the ghetto required all Jews in Warsaw to move into the area designated for the ghetto. Jews had to abandon their property except what they could carry on bring in a hand cart. There had been about 0.25 million Jews in the Jewish section. Now 0.15 million more had to find acommodation there as well as for those arriving in future transports. Many within the Ghetto had to move. The Germans administering the Ghetto delighted in humilitaing the Jews in the initial phase of the Ghetto. Jews would be ordered to kiss the pavement or search for bits of paper in mud, all the time being beaten. [Gilbert, p. 345.] Much worse was to come.

Sealing the Ghetto (November 1940)

Frank ordered the Ghettp to be walled off (mid-November). Jews had previously moved throughout the city without restriction. The construction of the wall took several months. The contract was given to Schmidt & Münstermann . This same company would subsequently get the contract to build the Treblinka death camp. The wall encloseing the Warsaw Ghetto was over 3.5 meters high. It was topped by broken glass set in mortar and barbed wire giving it a menacing look. The entrances were closely guarded by the NAZIs. This sealed off Warsaw's Jews from the rest of the city. Guards prevented Jews from leaving the Ghetto or communicating with the rest of the city. The NAZIs formally sealed the Ghetto (November 1940). The Ghetto’s interactions with the rest of Warsaw were handled by the Transferstelle. This was a SS controlled German authority that handeled the exchange of goods of goods, both into and out of the Ghetto. The first Transferstelle director was Alexander Palfinger, He was succeeded by a man named Bischof.

Opperation of the Ghetto (1940-42)

The initial population of the Ghetto was Warsaw's Jewish population of 350,000 people. NAZI officials drove Jew in towns and villages around Warsaw into the ghetto, bring the population to 400,000. These Jews were cramed into an area of 1.3 square miles. There were an average of 7.2 persons per available room in the Ghetto. Some 500,000 Polish Jews were eventually forced into the Ghetto. The Ghetto was administered by the Judenrat which was completely dominated by the Germans. From the very beginning, obtaining adequate food was the major problem facing residents of the Warsaw and other ghettos. The Food delivered by the NAZIs was inadequate to sustain health and in many cases even life. After the Germans established the Ghetto, the confined Jews set up various organizations to attempt to meet the needs of those confined in the Ghetto. Some of the most important was the Jewish Mutual Aid Society, the Federation of Associations in Poland for the Care of Orphans, and the Organization for Rehabilitation. These groups did what they could to help the city's Jews suffering from the inadequate rations delived by NAZI authorities. These welfare groups received financial support from the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The NAZIs cut this support as America and Germany moved toward war with the United States (late 1941).


The Germans attempted to starbe the ghetoized Jews. It was one of the reasons that the ghettoes were established. As a result, trading became a very important aspect of ghetto life. And food became the most important item in the life of the ghetto residents. And the commercial life in the ghetto primarily resolved around obtaing food. It was not the only item in demand. Warm clothing was alo prized, but food was the most important. Ghetto residents were always hungary because the Germans allowed so little food into the ghetto. The Judenrat issued the inhabitants ration cards. An adult requires about 3,500 calories daily. Privlidges Jews and key workers were allocated 1,000 calories. Everybody else was allocated only 300 calories. This mean starvation. To avoid starvation, Jews had to trade for food. n the Warsaw ghetto there were a few depressing stores that managed to continue operating, but they had little to offer. The commercial life of the ghetto revolved around street trading. Various residents had some money or valuables they could traded for food smuggled into the ghetto. Much of this was done by children, usually under the age of 12 years smuggle food into the ghetto. Much of the smuggling was done by children under the age of 12 because they did not have to wear the Jewish armband and thus were not so easily spotted by the Germans. They could also squeeze into small spaces. Adults caught smuggling were shot or hanged. The food the children smuggled helped keep he family alive abd any excess could be easily trded on the streets. Ghetto Jews set up workshops to produce all kinds of items including pots and pans, brushes and buttons, clothes and mattresses, dolls and other toys, anything that could traded for food. Larger workshops were organised for Jews to work on orders from the Germans, but until the transport liquadation period began, smuggling remained the chief form of trade with the outside and food was the primary item. There was a huge disparity between prices in the ghetto and outside which formed the basis for trade. Only as time went on, the Jews had less and less they could offer in trde and the prices demanded increased.

Transports (July-September 1942)

As bad as life was and the rate of death within the Ghetto, it did not meet NAZI goals. The NAZIS (SS and security police units, and other auxiliaries) executed an action to forcibly deport Jews from the Ghetto (July 22-Seotember 12, 1942). They deported about 265,000 Jews. Many Jews were aware of what deportation meant and hattempted to hide. The Germans killed about 35,000 Jews within the Ghetto during this operation. The transports took the deportees to the Treblinka deat camp. Very few survived. Only about 80,000 Jews were left in the Ghetto after this operation.

Treblinka II

Treblinka was one of the most terrible death camps in terms of the number of Jews killed. It was was a camp located about 100 km northeast of Warsaw, close to the village of Małkinia Górna. Treblinks was designed and built for the sole purpose of killing people. It was a very small camp as the victims were not to be housed there--only killed. It was one of the four secret camps of Operation Reinhardt (the others were Belzec, Sobibór and Majdanek). The NAZIs killed more than 0.75 million Jews at Teblinka. Some estimates are as high as 0.85 million Jews. Almost all of the victims were Jews. A small number of Gypseys (Roma) were also killed here. The Jews killed at Treblinka were primarily Polish Kews from the Warsaw Getto and more than a hundred villages in the area around Warsaw. But not just Polish Jews were killed at Trblinka. Jews from as far as Greece were murdered there. Jews stage a revolt at Treblinka (August 2, 1943). They killed a few Germans and a few of the Jews managed to escape. Most were subsequently executed. The gassings at the camp, however, stopped (October 1943). Reblinka I was a forced labor camp used to support the killing operatioin at Terblinka I.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (January-May 1943)

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the single most important Jewish act of defiance against the NAZIs. We have found various estimates of the number of Jews remaining in the Ghetto. Estimates vary widekt, 35,000 to 80,000 survivors of the earlier transports. They were used for various slave labor projects. Surprisingly the Germans gave them permission to build some bomb shelters. Presumably their labor was useful. SS and police units returned to Warsaw Ghetto (January 1943). There orders were to transport the remaining Jews to forced-labor camps specifically for Jews in Lublin District. The Jews in the Ghetto understandably assumed that this was another transport to Treblinka. They resisted the SS and police with small arms that they had managed to smuggle in from the city. After seizing about 5,000 Jews, the relatively small SS and police force, suspended the deportation operation and withdrew. At the time, because of the Stlingrad crisis, combat units were not available to back up the small deportation force. A stronger SS and police force deployed outside the ghetto walls (April 19, 1943). This time they arrived with heavy weapons. They were ordered to liquidate the ghetto and deport the remaining Jews to the forced labor camps in Lublin district as originally intended. The Ghetto Jews again resistance the Germans and managed to inflicting casualties on the much better armed SS and police units. Organized resistance broke down after a few days, but the Jews continued to resist deportation as individuals or in small groups for four weeks. Finally the NAZIs terminated the action (May 16). The SS and police deported approximately 42,000 Warsaw ghetto survivors to the forced-labor camps at Poniatowa and Trawniki and to the Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp. At least 7,000 Jews died in the fighting or while hiding in the Ghetto. The NAZIs sent the remaining 7,000 Jews to the Treblinka death camp.

Surviving Jews in Warsaw

A small number of Jews managed to survive in the ruins of the Ghetto. There were occasional reports of attacks on police patrols. In addition there were about 20,000 Jews who never entered the Ghetto and survived by passing themselves as Christians are hiding in the city.

Warsaw Uprising

The most dramatic resistance effort by the Polish Home Army was the uprising against the NAZIs in Warsaw when the Soviets neared the Vistula (July 1944). After Operation Bagration (June-July 1944), Warsaw on the Vistula was the principle barrier standing between thev Red Army and Berlin. The Poles did not greet the Red Army in the same way that populations in the West cheered the Americans and British. They had no illusions about what would follow in the wake of the Red Army, a Stalinist dictatorship. The Home Army (loyal to the London goverment-in-exile) decided on a desperate gambit at the Red army apprpached the Vistula. They would stage an insurrection and free Warsaw. The Home Army rebelled (August 1) anticipating the support of the Red army. Instead Stalin ordered the Soviet troopds to stop on the far side if the Vidtula. The German reaction was savage. On one day alone the SS rounded up and shot 25,000 Polish men women and children. The Americans offered to drop supplies, but Stalin refused permission for the flights to use needed Soviet air bases to refuel for the return trip. Thev Poles fought valiantly on, finally capitulating (October 2). The Germans at Hitler's orders virtualy razed the city. The Soviets finally took Warsaw with little resistance from the Germans (January 1945). [Davies]

An Unfinished Film

'An Unfinished Film' is a documentary released in 2011. It uses four cans of film taken by the Germans (1942). The footage is for a film titled 'The Ghetto'. It was a NAZI propaganda film. It was filmed is the Warsaw Ghetto. The film shows how tghe Germans wanted to depict Ghettomlife. Mixed in with actul nfootage from the ghetto is faked film supposing to show rich Jews eating in expensive restaurants. The documentary adds eye witness accounts to explain the reality of Ghetto life. Many scenes show the Jewish children in the Ghetto. This is an important new source of film material about the Warsaw Ghetto.


Bartoszewski, Wladyslaw, and Antony Polonsky. The Jews in Warsaw: A History (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991).

Davies, Norman. Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw (Viking, 2004). Davies is critical of The allies, President Roosevelt in particular for allowing Stalin to swollow up Poland. Like other authors making similar charges, Davies does not explain just what could have been done to have prevented it. Davies is, however, on firmer ground when he criticised Churchill and Roosevelt for not making a personal appeal to Stalin for permission to deliver supplies to the Home Army fighting in warsaw.

Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century Vol. 2 1933-54 (William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1998), 1050p.

Gutman, Israel. The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

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Created: 10:18 PM 3/19/2008
Last updated: 8:08 AM 4/20/2011