On January 18, 1943, the Germans rounded up seven thousand Jews and sent them to the extermination camp at Treblinka; they killed six hundred more Jews right in Warsaw. But on that day, an uprising began. In the beginning, the Jewish Fighting Organization had about 600 volunteers; the Jewish Military Association had about 400, and there were thousands more in spontaneous small groups. The Jews had only ten handguns, but the Germans did not realize how under-armed the Jewish fighters were.
After four days of fighting, the Germans on January 21 pulled back from the ghetto, to organize better. Another diary written in the Warsaw ghetto exulted:
In the four days of fighting we had made up for the same of Jewish passivity in the first extermination action of July, 1942. Not only the Germans were shocked by the unexpected resistance, Jews too were astonished. They could not imagine until then that the beaten, exhausted victims could rise against a mighty enemy who had conquered all of Europe. Many Jews who were in the streets of Warsaw during the fighting refused to believe that on Zamenhof and Mila Streets Jewish boys and girls had attacked Germans. The large-scale fighting which followed convinced all that it was possible.
On February 16, 1943, Heinrich Himmler ordered that the Warsaw ghetto be exterminated on April 19. The plan was to give Hitler a Judenrein Warsaw as a present for his April 20 birthday.
On that night of April 19, the Warsaw Jews partook of the Passover Seder. Since September 1939, they had eaten the bitter herbs of slavery. Now, they were drinking the wine of freedom.
The Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, wrote in his diary, “the joke cannot last much longer, but it shows what the Jews are capable of when they have arms in their hands.” The Nazis brought in tanks. The Jews were ready with explosives. First one tank and then a second were immobilized in the middle of the street, in flames, their crews burned alive. [Uprising leader Emanuel] Ringelblum recalled:
Now the fighters as well as the non-combatant Jews who have crawled out of their hiding places have reached the pinnacle of jubilation….According to one eyewitness account, “The faces who only yesterday reflected terror and despair now shone with an unusual joy which is difficult to describe. This was a joy free from all personal motives, a joy imbued with the pride that that ghetto was fighting.”
Another eyewitness describes the confusion in the German ranks: “There runs a German soldier shrieking like an insane one, the helmet on his head on fire. Another one shouts madly ‘Juden…Waffen…Juden… Waffen!’” [Jews…weapons!]
(For a 2001 essay that Glenn Reynolds and I wrote on Jewish resistance at Warsaw and elsewhere, click here.)