The Warsaw Ghetto II

Although Jewish fighters had successfully beaten off von Sammern-Frankenegg’s ill-coordinated assaults, they remained extremely short of arms and ammunition. Further appeals were made to the Polish Home Army, but they only offered to help evacuate Jewish fighters from the ghetto and have them join up with Home Army units in the forests around Warsaw. This was something that the fighters had no intention of doing at this stage of the battle.

Stroop reorganized the units that he inherited from von Sammern-Frankenegg and put together a fresh assault during the afternoon of 19 April. To liquidate the ghetto, Stroop had at his disposal 36 officers and 2,054 men from several parts of the Third Reich’s armed services. The main assault forces consisted of Waffen-SS troops from two training units. These men had received about a month’s training, though their NCOs and officers were all seasoned combat veterans. SS Panzer Grenadier Training Battalion III Warschau numbered 444 men and supplied replacements to the 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Division Totenkopf. The 386-man SS Cavalry Training Battalion Warschau (part of the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer) was well armed and ideologically conditioned for the task at hand. The Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) provided two small units for the operation: 1st Battalion, SS Police Regiment 22 (97 men) and 3rd Battalion, SS Police Regiment 23 (137 men). The regular German Army was also involved in the battle, providing a light flak battery and two combat engineer units. Perhaps the most feared of the units that Stroop deployed were the 337 men of the Trawniki 1st Battalion, an auxiliary SS unit composed mostly of Latvians, many former Soviet prisoners-of-war noted for their barbarity towards the Jews. Trawnikis staffed concentration camps under regular SS officers and NCOs and had a well-deserved reputation for violence and murder. Stroop was particularly pleased with his Trawnikis, noting that they couldn’t speak Polish, so they could not communicate with the Jews.

Stroop’s men assaulted the gate area at the intersection of Zamenhof and Goose Streets. This time, instead of blindly marching into the ghetto, Stroop ordered a careful advance, with units covering each other as they moved forward by rushes. The idea was to deal with one strongpoint at a time, then move on to the next, street fighting as they went.

Before the troops went in, Stroop ordered a short artillery barrage, causing a serious distraction that allowed his forward units to move into position unmolested. The Germans then erected a temporary barricade out of hundreds of mattresses taken from a warehouse on the corner of Goose and Cordial Streets. By now the Jewish fighters had opened up a heavy fire, and grenades and Molotov cocktails soon set the barricade on fire, the SS retreating with one man wounded. In their fury, some SS entered the ghetto hospital and began shooting the patients in their beds.

It was during that first day that two Jewish boys climbed up on to a tall building in Muranowski Square and hoisted the Polish national flag and the Star of David banner of the ZZW. The flags managed to fly for four days, despite repeated German efforts to capture the building upon which they flew, the flags clearly visible to the rest of the Polish population in Warsaw. It was a call to arms to all Poles, regardless of their religion. The last thing Himmler wanted was the non-Jewish Poles joining in the revolt against the harsh German occupation of their country.

Stroop had discovered, much to his shock and disgust, that the Germans who were supposed to have managed and overseen the armaments factories inside the ghetto had actually allowed the Jewish workers a great deal of autonomy in running the concerns. This meant that in the months leading up to the uprising, Jews had access to chemicals for manufacturing explosives, and even army clothing and equipment. Large amounts had been stolen and cached ready for use when the rebellion broke out. ‘The managers knew so little of their own enterprises that the Jews were able to produce arms of every kind,’ wrote an amazed Stroop to Himmler, ‘especially hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, etc., inside these shops.’

The factories and enterprises became strongpoints during the uprising, the Jews setting up resistance bases and continuing to manufacture weapons and explosives during the course of the struggle.

Stroop changed his tactics, deploying units separately through previously defined fighting zones. In this manner, the Germans ‘combed out’ each sector of the ghetto, killing or rounding up Jewish fighters as they went. The fighters were forced from their positions on the rooftops to the basements, bunkers and sewers. The fighters, largely composed of young Jews aged between 18 and 25, kept popping up to fight. Some decided to fight their way out of the ghetto. The SS recorded one incident where a group climbed from a sewer basin in Prosta on to a truck and escaped with the vehicle. The group, which numbered thirty to thirty-five people, was well armed. One fighter threw two hand grenades while the rest, armed with carbines, pistols and one light machine gun, climbed on to the truck and drove off. The Germans never recovered the truck or apprehended the fighters.

The SS closed off the sewer system to try and prevent Jews from escaping into the rest of Warsaw, and then attempted to flood the system. But the Jews managed to blow up the turn-off valves, defeating Stroop’s attempt to drown them beneath the city.

During 20 and 21 April, following bitter fighting, the SS gained control of most of the residual ghetto. The basement and sewer bunkers that the Jews had constructed were large and well-equipped, with enough space for entire families to shelter. Some had washing and bathing facilities, toilets, arms and munitions storage bins and food stocks for several months. SS and army troops stormed one bunker after another, using maximum force and causing maximum destruction and casualties.

Resistance in the factory complexes was also fanatical. One particularly difficult strongpoint was located inside the Army Quartermaster’s Office. SS troops tackled it on 18 April by bringing forward Wehrmacht combat engineers armed with flamethrowers. Artillery was also used against the building. But the Jewish fighters inside wouldn’t give up, the whole edifice eventually being burned to the ground on 19 April with the fighters still inside.

After five days of fighting, the ghetto was badly damaged, many buildings were on fire or already gutted shells, the rattle of small arms echoing down the ruined streets, the occasional thump of a grenade or IED booming across the city. The Germans discovered that flamethrowers were particularly effective at dealing with Jewish positions. Stroop was under considerable pressure from above to contain the revolt and crush all resistance as quickly as possible. The whole episode was becoming an embarrassment for the SS, and particularly for Himmler. They all knew that only a few hundred poorly armed Jews were running rings around the much-vaunted SS. Even the regular army was starting to make disparaging comments about the fighting abilities and leadership of the SS. More than one was comparing what was occurring inside the Warsaw Ghetto to the monumental battle for Stalingrad, coining the name ‘Ghettograd’.

Although the Germans managed to overrun Cordials Street, they were met by heavy resistance off Muranowski Square on the ghetto’s northern edge. The building where the flags flew became a ‘fort’ to Stroop. Trying to take it cost Stroop one officer killed and fifty-two men wounded. Stroop changed tactics and decided to concentrate his efforts on capturing the smallest part of the ghetto, the Brushmaker’s District. When the SS tried to storm through the main gate, the Jews detonated a huge IED that they had buried there, killing and wounding many SS. The Germans pulled back in some disarray.

On 22 April, following days of bitter fighting, Stroop offered the Jewish fighters surrender terms, which they disdainfully rejected by opening fire on the two SS officers who came forward under a white flag to offer them. They remained under no illusions about what would happen to them if they fell into German hands, regardless of Stroop’s attempts to trick them into giving up. Stroop, with Himmler breathing down his neck, and aware of how his predecessor von Sammern-Frankenegg had fallen from grace, urged on his troops to complete the destruction of the ghetto with renewed brutality. The fate of von Sammern-Frankenegg would stand as a stark warning of the consequences of failure before Himmler. Just two days after Stroop’s surrender offer to the ghetto defenders, von Sammern-Frankenegg was court martialled for ineptitude and accused of ‘defending Jews’, an interesting charge considering that he had been responsible for shipping over 250,000 of them east from Warsaw for ‘resettlement’. Found guilty, von Sammern-Frankenegg was transferred to a frontline anti-partisan unit and later killed in an ambush in Croatia in September 1944.

On 22 April, after reorganizing his men, Stroop launched another attack on the Brushmaker’s District, but the defending Jewish units concentrated all of their firepower on the SS force. Stroop was rapidly becoming disillusioned with combat operations. It was clear that the Jews were using the kinds of tactics that the Soviets had utilized so successfully at Stalingrad against the overwhelming manpower and firepower of the German Sixth Army. The Soviets called it ‘hugging the enemy’, conducting very close-quarters street fighting where the Germans could not use their support weapons or aerial superiority without fear of hitting their own men, and simultaneously draining away the Germans’ numerical strength and morale. Stroop quickly determined that to continue to launch conventional attacks on the various sectors of the ghetto would only result in ‘Ghettograd’ and his probable removal from command.

Himmler was also growing increasingly nervous about the revolt. On 23 April, he ordered Stroop to clear the ghetto with ‘the greatest severity and ruthless tenacity’. This was good news for Stroop as it freed him from any concerns about causing damage to the city and its infrastructure. He quickly formulated a fresh plan and telephoned Kruger in Krakow. ‘I have therefore decided,’ said Stroop, ‘to embark on the total destruction of the Jewish quarter by burning down every residential block, including the housing blocks belonging to the armament enterprises.’ Kruger approved.

Stroop’s new method for ending the revolt was to burn down all of the houses and buildings inside the ghetto using flamethrowers and to dynamite basements, cellars and sewers in an effort to eradicate what both sides termed ‘bunkers’. Massive fires swept through the ruined ghetto streets, with many Jews perishing in the flames or being shot down by German troops as they fled the conflagrations.

The sewer system proved difficult to capture. SS, Police or Wehrmacht troops entering sewers were often met by heavy fire. The Germans resorted to hurling smoke grenades down open manholes in an attempt to force the Jews out. In a more coordinated effort, 193 sewer entrances were opened at the same time and smoke bombs thrown in. Many of the ghetto fighters suspected gas and fled to the centre of the ghetto, while explosives or gunfire killed numerous others.

After a few days the ghetto was reduced to a pile of smoldering ruins. It looked as though it had been carpet-bombed by aircraft. On 27 April, Stroop ordered a large, well-coordinated mopping-up operation. A force of 320 German and Latvian SS, two tanks and some half-tracks managed to clear out most of the remaining pockets of resistance around Muranowski Square. But the Germans continued to be ambushed from behind, often by Jews dressed in captured SS uniforms, which made the Germans very nervous and hesitant. One tank was knocked out in an ambush and the Jews managed to hold out until nightfall before either being killed or retreating.

Whilst the fighting continued, the German destruction policy had netted results. Thousands of Jews fled the fires and were rounded up by the SS for immediate transportation to the east. By 2 May, Stroop was able to report to Kruger that he had apprehended a total of 40,237 Jews.

On the same day, the Germans assaulted Mark Edelman’s position. Army engineers managed to blow a way into the large bunker. Taking charge, Edelman organized its defence. The fighting lasted for seventy-two hours, with seven German casualties reported. Half of the Jewish fighters were killed and the rest managed to escape. On 6 May, the Germans withdrew from the vicinity and Edelman and the survivors moved to another bunker on Pleasant Street, a vast underground complex that had been carefully constructed over the space of a year. Here, Mordechai Anielewicz and 300 ZOB and ZZW fighters were holed up. The bunker was soon completely surrounded by the SS. Many of the fighters, including Anielewicz, killed themselves with poison on 8 May to avoid capture, while Edelman and a handful of survivors somehow made it out and escaped apprehension and death.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising officially ended on 16 May 1943. The occasion was marked when Stroop personally pushed the plunger to trigger explosives that the SS had rigged in Warsaw’s Great Synagogue. With the synagogue’s symbolic destruction, Stroop could report to Himmler that Jewish resistance in Warsaw had been brought to an end. The SS and Wehrmacht had destroyed a total of 631 ‘bunkers’ throughout the ghetto. With typical Teutonic efficiency, the SS collected and catalogued all the weapons that they had captured or recovered after the battle. It was not an impressive haul, considering the doggedness of the resistance that the Germans had encountered. Of course, many weapons were not recovered, being buried under collapsed buildings, destroyed by fire or taken out of the ghetto by the surviving fighters. The SS listed just seven Polish, one Russian and one German rifle captured, along with fifty-nine pistols of various makes, several hundred hand grenades, Molotov cocktails and home-made explosives. The SS also recovered 1,240 German uniforms that the resisters often used to travel around the ghetto during the fight or to launch ambushes against the SS.

The destruction to the centre of Warsaw was staggering – just eight buildings were left intact after the uprising. Sporadic resistance continued and it was not until 5 June that the last shots were exchanged between the remnants of the ghetto fighters and German forces.

For those Jews who were captured or remained in the ghetto at the conclusion of the uprising, their fate was transportation to camps in the east. Over 13,000 ghetto inmates had perished during the uprising and 50,000 were herded onto cattle trains and shipped out. Of 7,000 Jews who had been transported to Treblinka II on 19 April, shortly before the uprising started, many would be involved in fomenting a fresh revolt that occurred in the camp on 2 August 1943. According to SS records, the Germans lost seventeen men killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and 101 wounded, though these figures may be on the conservative side.

The non-Jewish Polish population of Warsaw, with some notable exceptions in the Home Army, did not rise up in support of the ghetto fighters. ‘The Polish population by and large welcomed the measures taken against the Jews,’ alleged Stroop in his official report to Himmler. How much truth there was in Stroop’s statement cannot be ascertained. It was certainly true that Poles had killed Jews en masse under German encouragement earlier in the occupation. At Radzilow, Polish peasants had murdered 800 Jewish inhabitants. And at nearby Jedwabne, the entire Jewish population had been herded into the only synagogue and burned alive. It had been fear of a Polish-led pogrom that had first fired the ghetto Jews into forming self-defence militias. But though most Poles passively watched the events of 1943, they would rise up in Warsaw in 1944, with tragic consequences.

Stroop records that a total of 265,000 ghetto Jews were transported from Warsaw to Treblinka between 22 July and 12 September 1943,24 closing the ghetto. Himmler was pleased with Stroop’s leadership during the operation to liquidate the ghetto and he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class.

For the major perpetrators, justice for the uprising came in many forms. The Polish underground instituted the British-sponsored Operation Bürkl in October 1943, deliberately targeting Franz Bürkl, a senior Nazi official in the General Government, who was cut down by assassins from the Polish Home Army in Warsaw. As mentioned, Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg was killed in an ambush in Croatia by Yugoslav partisans in 1944. Odilo Globocnik committed suicide in May 1945 to avoid war crimes charges. Jürgen Stroop, the man who had orchestrated the crushing of the uprising with the utmost brutality, was arrested by the US Army in 1945 and subsequently handed over to the Poles. Stroop was hanged in Warsaw in March 1952, totally unrepentant to the end. Another Warsaw Ghetto administrator, SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Conrad, whom the ghetto inmates had nicknamed ‘The King of the Ghetto’ as he had consistently enriched himself by stealing valuables off the Jews, was also hanged by the Poles in Warsaw in 1952. But by and large the SS and Trawnikis who did the actual killing either didn’t survive the war or managed to reintegrate into post-war society and never faced prosecution. The brave and determined stand of the Warsaw Jews showed the world that the Jews were not prepared to submit to destruction without a fight, and the fight had both alarmed and deeply unsettled the Germans. But the Germans also learned many valuable lessons from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, lessons that they would put to good use when it came to liquidating the other major Jewish ghettos.

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