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Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 70 Years Later
"They were so weak. They allowed everything to happen — to be done to them. They were people with whom there was no common ground, no possibility of communication. That is how contempt is born. I could never understand how they could just give in as they did.”
These are the words of SS Hauptsturmführer Franz Stangl, commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka killing centers. Stangl would feel the might of Jewish resolve when Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal captured him in 1967. It was after that, when he was in prison in Düsseldorf, that Stangl spoke those sentences to investigative journalist Gitta Sereny. Stangl knew that his statement was untrue; he knew that some Jews did take up arms against the Nazis. Stangl knew this because concentration camp uprisings happened at places to which he was directly connected: Sobibor and Treblinka.
This April marks the 70th anniversary of the 1943 uprisings in the Warsaw Ghetto and at Treblinka, Auschwitz and Sobibor. The revolts, although sequential, were not coordinated, Holocaust experts agree. Nor were the uprisings successful by any standard metric. They did not change the course of the war or the mass killings. They did not even change the course of most participants’ lives; many were caught and killed.
But they happened. “And for every revolt we know of, there were many others planned,” explains Rachel Lithgow, executive director of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation. “From diaries and testimonies of survivors and even testimonies of soldiers after the war, we know that there were resistance movements in every ghetto and concentration camp.”
The story of Jewish resistance is an undertold part of the Holocaust. “Historian Yehuda Bauer notes that Jewish resistance was ‘considerably more widespread than assumed,’ ranging from armed resistance to spiritual resistance, and from organized to semi-spontaneous resistance,” says Jonathan Friedman, Ph.D, director of Holocaust and genocide studies at West Chester University. “There were hundreds of Jewish partisan fighters in the forests of Poland and Belarus, including the Bielski group, which was a combination resistance cell and rescue effort that numbered around 1,200.”
“Portraying the Jews as being docile lambs being led to slaughter is not telling the whole story of the Holocaust,” explains Lithgow. “When I hear the question, ‘Why didn’t the Jews fight back?,’ I say, ‘Let me tell you something: They did.’ ”
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s research shows that Jews participated in armed resistance in more than 100 ghettos in Poland and the Soviet Union. The Armée Juive (Jewish Army) operated in southern France, and Jews fought in resistance groups in Belgium, France, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece and Slovakia. Thousands of other Jews escaped from the ghettos into the forests, where they joined Soviet partisan units or formed their own groups to harass the Nazis.
This militarism doesn’t jibe with Stangl’s statement, an echo of propaganda and racism that positioned Jews as passive, even delicate, intellectuals. That image somehow became widely accepted, Lithgow says. But it is not the whole truth — and never was. “There was a very strong tradition in Europe of Zionist youth movements. These were strong, young people who were not going to go gently into these camps.”
Many Jews served in their countries’ armies during World War I or after it. Peter Black, senior historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, says that in Poland from 1933 to 1937, at least one year of military service was compulsory for every male, including Jews. “There were thousands of Polish Jews who had training with weapons, which is important,” Black says. “But equally important was learning how to act as a cohesive unit in which orders are given and obeyed. That’s the basis of an army — and a resistance.”
These factors coalesced into the uprisings in the Warsaw Ghetto, Treblinka and Sobibor. Although the three were not directly connected, the timing was not completely coincidental. “Prior to March 1942, most Jews in the Generalgouvernement part of Poland were in ghettos or forced labor camps,” Black explains. “Then came Operation Reinhard.”
Operation Reinhard was the Nazi plan to exterminate all of the Jews in Poland. Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka II, the addition to the original Treblinka labor camp, were built as killing centers, designed not for labor but for mass murder. The three centers opened in the spring of 1942 and the Nazis began to transport Jews to them. If people thought they could survive the war in ghettos, the liquidation operation marked a new, deadly phase. This helped to spark the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began in April 1943. By the spring of 1943, the Nazis closed Belzec. After killing approximately 434,500 Jews, they considered the job done for that area. Any remaining prisoners were shot or shipped to Sobibor.
That’s where the next round of revolts occurred. “Treblinka survivors contend that the idea of a revolt among prisoners in the camp occurred even before the Warsaw uprising in the spring of 1943, and fears of the camp’s liquidation helped to create a sense of urgency,” says Friedman. “In Sobibor, similar fears stoked the rebellion, as did the arrival of prisoners from the recently liquidated Belzec killing center.”
On Aug. 2, 1943, a group of Treblinka inmates seized weapons from the camp’s armory. Although they were quickly discovered, the rebellion continued. According to Holocaust museum records, hundreds of prisoners stormed Treblinka’s gate; 300 escaped. Approximately two-thirds were recaptured. They were immediately murdered.
On Oct. 14, 1943, a group of approximately 20 Sobibor prisoners initiated their uprising. The rebellion was led by Leon Feldhendler, a Polish Jew, and Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky, a Russian Jew and Red Army lieutenant being held as a prisoner of war at Sobibor. Throughout the day, Jewish prisoners laboring in Sobibor’s sorting center and workshops acted in unison to quietly murder the Nazis guarding them. At dusk, half of the prisoners stormed the camp’s gates. The Holocaust museum’s records state that close to 300 prisoners escaped. Most were recaptured; approximately 50 survived.
Treblinka and Sobibor were closed in November 1943. By October 1944, only one concentration camp remained: Auschwitz. On Oct. 7, Jewish prisoners who were part of the organized resistance at Auschwitz set fire to one of the crematoria. According to research at the Holocaust museum, prisoners attacked the guards with hammers, axes and stones. Several hundred escaped; almost all were recaptured, and an additional 200 conspirators inside Auschwitz were killed. Four Jewish women from the Resistance — Ester Wajcblum, Ella Gärtner, Regina Safirsztain and Róza Robota — were kept alive. They were brutally tortured for months, but never revealed the names of their co-conspirators. Finally, in January 1945, weeks before Auschwitz’s liberation, the four women were hung. According to Holocaust museum records, Robota smuggled a final message to the members of Auschwitz’s resistance. “Hazak v’ematz,” it read. “Be strong and have courage.”
“Of course the people in charge of the camps wouldn’t tell the stories of weak, helpless, stupid Jews of inferior birth fighting against and, in some cases, killing the mighty Nazis,” Lithgow says. “That’s our job.”
Melissa Jacobs is the senior editor of Inside, where this piece first appeared.