Military history



The night of 21 June 1944 belonged to the Soviet partisans of Belarus. Three years earlier the Wehrmacht had quickly overrun Belarus on its way to Moscow—which it never quite reached. The Soviets were now advancing toward the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, and onward toward Warsaw and Berlin. Army Group Center of the Wehrmacht was back in Belarus, but in retreat. Red Army commanders had planned a massive summer offensive, beginning on the third anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, timed to remind the Germans of their own disastrous ambitions. The Soviet partisans had laid thousands of explosive charges on rail lines in Belarus. When Soviet soldiers attacked, German troops could not be reinforced, nor could they quickly retreat. So the day of 22 June 1944 belonged to the soldiers of the First, Second, and Third Belarusian Fronts of the Red Army. They and two other army groups assembled well over a million troops, more than twice as many as the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Center could muster. The offensive, Operation Bagration, delivered one of the most important Soviet victories in the war.1

Two weeks earlier, the Americans had joined the battle for Europe. Having gained mastery over the Japanese fleet in the Pacific, the United States opened a major European front in the war on 6 June 1944. The US Army landed (along with the British and other western Allies) 160,000 men on the beaches of Normandy. Yet American power was also on display in the depths of Belarus, where motorized Soviet units, equipped with American trucks and jeeps, encircled hapless German forces. German encirclement tactics had been mastered, accelerated, and turned against the Germans themselves. The Soviet breakthrough in Belarus was more dramatic than the American advance through France. German soldiers were outnumbered and its officers outsmarted. German commanders had expected the Soviet offensive to pass through Ukraine rather than Belarus. The Germans lost some four hundred thousand missing, wounded, or killed. Army Group Center was smashed. The way to Poland was open.2

Quickly the Red Army crossed the Molotov-Ribbentrop line and entered the region that had been the Lublin district of the General Government. Vasily Grossman, a Soviet writer following the Red Army as a journalist, contemplated what the Germans had left behind. The Red Army discovered the camp at Majdanek on 24 July 1944. In early August, Grossman found a still greater horror, one that might have defied a poorer imagination. Coming upon Treblinka, he realized quickly just what had happened: the Jews of Poland had been murdered in gas chambers, their bodies burned, their ashes and bones buried in fields. He walked upon “earth that is as unsteady as the sea,” and found the remnants: photographs of children in Warsaw and Vienna; a bit of Ukrainian embroidery; a sack of hair, blonde and black.3


By this time, Polish lands had been under German occupation for nearly four years. For the Jews of Warsaw, or almost all of them, Operation Bagration was the liberation that never came. The remains of more than a quarter-million Warsaw Jews were among the ashes and bones that Grossman found at Treblinka.

In 1939, the occupiers of Poland had been two, German and Soviet. For the non-Jewish Poles in Warsaw who were conspiring to resist German rule, Operation Bagration portended the arrival of a very questionable ally. It meant the second incursion of the Red Army into Polish territory during the Second World War.

This was the difference between Polish and Polish-Jewish experiences of the war. Non-Jewish Poles suffered horribly from both German and Soviet occupations, but comparably from each. Non-Jewish Poles who wished to resist could sometimes make choices: about which occupier to resist, and in what circumstances.

Surviving Polish Jews had every reason to prefer the Soviets to the Germans, and to see the Red Army as liberators. Many of those sixty thousand or so Jews who were still alive in the Warsaw ghetto after the Large Action of summer 1942 did choose to resist. But they could not choose the time and the place of their resistance. All they could do was fight.



Warsaw was the center of urban resistance to Nazi rule in occupied Europe. In the two years between September 1942, by which time Treblinka had taken the lives of most of the Jews of Warsaw, and September 1944, when its workings were described by Grossman in his article “Treblinka Hell,” both Poles and Jews led uprisings against the German occupation, separately but also together, in uprisings of April 1943 and August 1944.

The consequences of Jewish and Polish resistance in Warsaw were much the same: destruction. By the time the Red Army (and Grossman) arrived in the city in January 1945, it was rubble and ash. Half of the population was dead, and the survivors were gone. Grossman reached for a literary reference that his readers would have known: the last remaining people, Jews and Poles he found living together in the remains of one building, were Warsaw “Robinsons”: like Robinson Crusoe, the hero of the novel by Daniel Defoe, left on an island by himself for years, lost to civilization. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who lived during the war in Warsaw, spent some of his time writing literary criticism of the same novel. For him, Robinson Crusoe was the “legend of the island,” the idea that moral flaws come from experience, that if we were left alone we might be good. In this essay, and in his poetry about Poles and Jews in Warsaw, he suggested the contrary, that the only hope for ethics was that each remember the solitude of the other.4

In Warsaw during the Second World War, Poles and Jews were alone in some of the same ways, beyond help from the outside world, even from those whom they regarded as friends and allies. They were also alone in different ways, confronting different fates in the same war. They shared a city that had been the center of both Polish and Jewish civilizations. That city is now gone; what remains of it is legend, or rather two legends, one Polish, one Jewish, between solidarity and solitude, each aware of the other but alone in the postwar world.


Polish and Jewish conspiracies against German rule, distinct but connected, had begun much earlier, with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.

On 7 September 1939, in the basement of a bank, eight men and women, most of them Free Masons, began the conspiracy that would become the Polish underground army. Known at first as the Servants of the Victory of Poland, it was led by a general with orders to organize a national underground. By 1940, when the Polish government had established itself in exile in France, the armed underground at home was given the name Union of Armed Struggle. In 1940 and 1941, its main task was to unify the hundreds of smaller resistance groups that had formed in Poland, and to collect intelligence for the Polish government and its allies. The Union of Armed Struggle was active in the German zone of occupation; attempts to create a network under Soviet occupation were thwarted by the NKVD. After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Polish resistance was able to operate in all of the territories of occupied Poland.5

In early 1942 the Union of Armed Struggle was transformed into a Home Army. The Home Army was meant to be the counterpart of the Polish Army fighting abroad with allies on the western front. Like the Polish government, by now in exile in London, the Home Army was to represent all political and social forces in the country. It was to fight for the restoration of Poland within its prewar boundaries, as a democratic republic with equal rights for all citizens. Most Poles who chose resistance did find their way to the Home Army, although the extreme communist left and the extreme nationalist right founded their own partisan forces. The communists organized a People’s Guard, later known as the People’s Army, which was closely connected to the Soviet Union and the NKVD. The nationalists, who regarded the communists and the Soviets as a greater enemy than the Germans, fought within the ranks of the National Armed Forces.6

Jewish resistance in Warsaw followed a different path, even though this was not clear at first. In the early months of the German occupation of Poland, in 1939, Jewish resistance as such seemed to make little sense. It was not evident, at first, that the fate of Polish Jews was to be much different from that of non-Jews. Many of the Warsaw Jews who felt most threatened by the German invasion fled to the Soviet occupation zone of Poland, whence many of them were deported to Kazakhstan. The establishment of the ghettos in 1940 did not necessarily convey to Polish Jews that their fate was worse than that of non-Jewish Poles, who were at the time being shot and sent to concentration camps in large numbers. In 1940 Poles from beyond the ghetto were sent to Auschwitz, whereas Jews were generally not. But the ghettos did mean that any Jewish resistance would have to be a response to particularly Jewish predicaments. When the Germans forcibly separated Jews from non-Jewish Poles in Warsaw in October 1940, they were creating a new social reality, creating categories that would define different fates.7

The ghetto did not, however, bring agreement to Jews about how and whether to take action against the Germans. Polish Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had prior political commitments, arising from the vibrant intra-Jewish political life of interwar Poland. Jews had taken part in local and national elections in Poland, as well as in their own communal elections. Parties were legion and party loyalties ran deep. At the far right of the spectrum were the Revisionist Zionists, who had been preparing themselves before the war for armed resistance against the British in Palestine. They were among the first to believe that armed struggle against the Germans was necessary and possible in the conditions of the ghetto. Revisionists and members of their youth organization Betar learned from party comrades as early as summer 1941 of the killings of Jews in Vilnius. They also heard, more or less as it happened, about the liquidation of the ghetto in Lublin in spring 1942. They had some sense of the spread of the Final Solution, from east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line to west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, from bullets to gas.8

It took the Large Action in Warsaw of July-September 1942 to prompt the Revisionists to form a Jewish Military Union. Its military commander was Paweł Frenkel; the members of its political committee were Michał Strykowski, Leon Rodal, and Dawid Wdowiński. It was anchored in prewar traditions of cooperation with the Polish state, which might explain why it was well armed. In the late 1930s, the Polish regime had hoped to export much of its Jewish population to the Near East. Polish leaders thus developed close relationships with the Revisionist Zionists, who hoped to lead much of the Polish-Jewish population to Palestine. The Revisionists were willing to use violence to create a Jewish state, an approach with which Polish authorities sympathized. Before the war, the Revisionist Zionist youths of Betar had been preparing themselves in prewar Poland to fight for Palestine. Like the young men of Irgun, the resistance organization in Palestine that some of them joined, they were sometimes trained by the Polish Army. Inside the ghetto in 1942, the Revisionists also collected money, and robbed rich Jews, to purchase arms from outside the ghetto.9

Whereas the history of the Jewish Military Union is one of a militarist right-wing political party adapting itself to conditions even harsher than those it had ever anticipated, the history of the other resistance group in the Warsaw ghetto, the Jewish Combat Organization, is one of multiple centrist and left-wing political parties deciding that only military action could serve Jews.

Like the right-wing Jewish Military Union, the Jewish Combat Organization arose as a result of the Large Action. The very old and the very young were almost all deported and dead. It seems likely that the deportations, although they touched all groups, eliminated what had been the conservative center of Jewish politics: the religiously Orthodox and politically accommodationist Agudas Israel. Its platform before the war had been cooperation with the Polish government in exchange for communal and religious autonomy. This compromising approach had been tested by anti-Semitic violence and anti-Semitic legislation in Poland in the late 1930s, but it had remained popular among the older generations of Warsaw Jewish believers—who by now were almost all dead at Treblinka. Nothing in Poland had prepared Agudas for the Nazis, who repaid compromises with murder.10

After September 1942, the Warsaw ghetto was essentially a Jewish labor camp inhabited predominantly by young men. Fathers who might earlier have feared to endanger their families no longer had that reason for restraint. Left-wing politics came to the fore. The Jewish Left in prewar Poland had been divided over a number of fundamental issues: whether to leave for Palestine or stay in Poland, whether to trust or distrust the Soviet Union, whether to agitate in Yiddish or Polish or Hebrew, and so on. The most radical form of left-wing politics, communism, reappeared among Warsaw Jews at this time. Stalin, who had dissolved the Communist Party of Poland in 1938, permitted its reconstitution as the Polish Workers’ Party in January 1942. Some of its Polish-Jewish activists then smuggled themselves into the Warsaw ghetto, where they urged armed resistance. The largest Jewish socialist party, the Bund, was much less inclined to use violence. In general, these organizations continued their work as distinct entities. In the three months after the Large Action, general accord about the need for armed resistance was reached. The Jewish Combat Organization was established in December 1942. As a group of politicians with little or no military background and no weapons to speak of, its first need was arms. Its first action was to ask for them, from the Home Army.11

Beyond the ghetto, the Large Action forced the Home Army to undertake a Jewish policy. The Polish resistance had already taken some clear stands in 1941, condemning for instance guard duty at concentration camps as “national treason.” But the Home Army, before summer 1942, tended to treat the plight of Poland and that of Poles as one and the same. Prompted by the mass shootings of Polish Jews in the east, the Home Army created a Jewish section in February 1942. It collected evidence of the killings that was transmitted to the Allies and the BBC in April 1942. The deportations of summer 1942 prompted Catholic Poles to organize a rescue organization, which by December was sponsored by the Polish government under the cryptonym Żegota. (Poles were subject to the death penalty for assisting Jews.) Some Home Army officers took part. Home Army intelligence officers supplied identification documents for Jews in hiding beyond ghetto walls. When the Jewish Combat Organization requested weapons in December 1942, the Home Army offered to help Jews escape from the ghetto, perhaps to fight later on. This offer was declined by the Jewish Combat Organization. Its leaders wanted to fight, and so denied themselves an exit strategy.12

Warsaw Home Army commanders had strategic concerns that militated against giving the Jews any weapons at all. Although the Home Army was moving in the direction of partisan action, it feared that a rebellion in the ghetto would provoke a general uprising in the city, which the Germans would crush. The Home Army was not ready for such a fight in late 1942. Home Army commanders saw a premature uprising as a communist temptation to be avoided. They knew that the Soviets, and thus the Polish communists, were urging the local population to take up arms immediately against the Germans. The Soviets wanted to provoke partisan warfare in Poland in order to weaken the Germans—but also to hinder any future Polish resistance to their own rule when it came. The Red Army’s task would be easier if German troops were killed by partisan warfare, as would the NKVD’s if Polish elites were killed for resisting Germans. The Jewish Combat Organization included the communists, who were following the Soviet line, and believed that Poland should be subordinated to the Soviet Union. As the Home Army command could not forget, the Second World War had begun when both the Germans and the Soviets had invaded Poland. Half of Poland had spent half of the war inside the Soviet Union. The Soviets wanted eastern Poland back, and perhaps even more. From the perspective of the Home Army, rule by the Soviets was little better than rule by the Nazis. Its goal was independence. There were hardly any circumstances that would seem to justify a Polish independence organization arming communists inside Poland.13

Despite these reservations, the Home Army did give the Jewish Combat Organization a few pistols in December 1942. The Jewish Combat Organization used these to win authority and power in the ghetto. To resist the Judenrat and a Jewish police force armed only with clubs, pistols and audacity were enough. By killing (or trying to kill) Jewish policemen and Gestapo informers in late 1942 and early 1943, the Jewish Combat Organization created the sense that a new moral order was arising in the ghetto. Józef Szerzyński, the Jewish police chief, was shot in the neck, although he failed to die. The Jewish Combat Organization did assassinate Jakub Lejkin, who led the police during the major deportation action, and later Mieczysław Brzeziński, who had driven his fellow Jews onto the trains at Umschlagplatz. The Jewish Combat Organization printed leaflets, explaining that collaboration with the enemy was a crime punishable by death. The Jewish Combat Organization thus supplanted the Judenrat, whose head was forced to admit that he no longer had “authority in the ghetto, here there is another authority.” Without an effective Jewish administrative and coercive apparatus, the Germans could no longer do as they pleased in the ghetto.14

German decisions about the fate of the ghetto and its remaining inhabitants were influenced by considerations that Jews could not possibly have understood. For the Germans, the Warsaw ghetto had first been a transit point for envisioned deportations to the Lublin district, Madagascar, or the Soviet Union; then a temporary labor camp; and then a transit point for deportations to Treblinka. In late 1942 and early 1943 it was again a labor camp, provisional and reduced in size, whose workers were those who had been selected for labor during the Large Action. Though Himmler never wavered in his determination to kill the Jews under German rule, other authorities wished, at this point at least, to keep some Jewish laborers alive. Hans Frank was worried about labor shortages in his General Government. Many Poles were working in Germany, so Jewish labor had become more important in occupied Poland. The Jews were working for the German war economy, so the Wehrmacht, too, had an interest in their remaining alive.15

Himmler was capable of making compromises. In early 1943 he meant to allow most of the surviving Jews of the Warsaw ghetto to live a bit longer, but also to eliminate the ghetto itself, which he saw as a center of political resistance, disorder, and disease. Himmler intended to kill the Jews who were living illegally in the ghetto without labor documents. Then he wanted to deport the remaining Jews as laborers to other concentration camps, where they would continue to work. Visiting Warsaw, Himmler ordered on 9 January 1943 that the ghetto be dissolved. The eight thousand or so Jews who were there illegally were to be shipped to Treblinka and gassed, and the rest, about fifty thousand, were to be sent to concentration camps. But when the Germans entered the ghetto nine days later to carry out Himmler’s orders, Jews hid or resisted. A few Jews fired on the first Germans to enter the ghetto, surprising them and leading to panic. The Germans killed some 1,170 Jews on the streets and deported perhaps five thousand. After four days the Germans had to withdraw and reconsider. Home Army commanders in Warsaw were impressed. The arms that they had given the Jewish Combat Organization had been put to good use.16

This was not the first instance of Jews resisting Germans in Poland. There were a large number of people of Jewish origin within the Home Army itself. Although this was a fact known to Home Army commanders, it was almost never discussed. Many of the people of Jewish origin in the Home Army regarded themselves as Poles rather than as Jews. Others kept their Jewish identities secret, on the grounds that it was best in wartime Warsaw not to spread the news of one’s Jewishness. Although anti-Semites in the Home Army were a minority, just one betrayal could mean death. What was new in January 1943 was that Jews had used arms against the Germans as Jews, in an open act of Jewish resistance. This worked powerfully against the anti-Semitic stereotype, present in the Home Army and in Polish society, that Jews would not fight. Now the Warsaw command of the Home Army gave the Jewish Combat Organization a substantial proportion of its own modest arms cache: guns, ammunition, explosives.17

In Berlin, Himmler was furious. On 16 February 1943 he decided that the ghetto must be destroyed not only as a society but as a physical place. That neighborhood of Warsaw was of no value to the racial masters, since houses that had been (as Himmler put it) “used by subhumans” could never be suitable for Germans. The Germans planned an assault on the ghetto for 19 April. Again, its immediate purpose was not to kill all the Jews but, rather, to redirect their labor power to concentration camps, and then to destroy the ghetto. Himmler had no doubt that this would work. He was thinking ahead to the uses of the site: in the long term it would become a park, in the meantime a concentration camp until the war was won. Jewish laborers from Warsaw would be worked to death at other sites.18

Right before the planned assault on the Warsaw ghetto, German propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels made his own special contribution. In April 1943, the Germans had discovered Katyn, one of the sites where the NKVD had murdered Polish prisoners of war in 1940. “Katyn,” declared Goebbels, “is my victory.” He chose 18 April 1943 to announce the discovery of the corpses of Polish officers. Katyn could be used to create problems between Soviets and Poles, and between Poles and Jews. Goebbels expected, and quite rightly, that the evidence that the Soviet secret police had shot thousands of Polish officers would make cooperation between the Soviet Union and the Polish government-in-exile more problematic. The two were uneasy allies at best, and the Polish government had never gotten a satisfactory reply from the Soviets about those missing officers. Goebbels also wished to use Katyn to display the anti-Polish policies of the supposedly Jewish leadership of the Soviet Union, and thus to alienate Poles from Jews. So went the propaganda on the eve of the German attack on the Warsaw ghetto.19

The Jewish Combat Organization had made its plans as well. The Germans’ abortive January 1943 ghetto clearing had confirmed Jewish leaders’ expectation that a final reckoning was coming. The sight of dead Germans on the streets had broken the barrier of fear, and the second transfer of arms from the Home Army had also increased confidence. The Jews in the ghetto assumed that any further deportation would be straight to the gas chambers. This was not quite true; if they had not fought they would have been sent, most of them, to concentration camps as laborers. But only for the next few months. The surviving Warsaw Jews were fundamentally correct in their judgments. The “last stage of resettlement,” as one of their number had written, “is death.” Few of them would die in Treblinka, but almost all of them would die before the end of 1943. They were right to think that resistance could scarcely reduce their chances of survival. If the Germans won the war, they would kill remaining Jews within their empire. If they continued to lose the war, the Germans would kill Jewish laborers as a security risk as the Soviets advanced. A distant but approaching Red Army meant a moment more of life, as the Germans extracted labor. But a Red Army at the doorstep would mean the gas chamber or a gunshot.20

It was Jewish certainty of common death that enabled cooperative Jewish resistance. So long as German policy had allowed Jews to believe that some would survive, individuals could hope that they would be the exceptions, and social divisions were inevitable. Now that German policy had convinced all remaining Jews in the Warsaw ghetto that they would die, Jewish society in the ghetto evinced an impressive unity. Between January and April 1943, Jews built themselves countless bunkers in cellars, sometimes linked by secret passages. The Jewish Combat Organization established its command structure. The overall commander was Mordechai Anielewicz; the three leaders in three defined sectors of the ghetto were Marek Edelman, Izrael Kanał, and Icchak Cukierman (who was replaced at the last moment by Eliezer Geller). It bought more arms and trained its members in their use. Some Jews, working in German armaments factories, managed to steal materials for improvised explosives. The Jewish Combat Organization learned of German plans to attack the ghetto a day in advance, and so when the Germans came, all were ready.21


Some members of the Home Army, in surprise and in admiration, called it the “Jewish-German War.”22

When the SS, Order Police, and Trawniki men entered the ghetto on 19 April 1943, they were repulsed by sniper fire and Molotov cocktails. They actually had to retreat from the ghetto. German commanders reported twelve men lost in battle. Mordechai Anielewicz wrote a letter to his Jewish Combat Organization comrade Icchak Cukierman, who at the time was beyond the ghetto walls: the Jewish counterattack “had surpassed our wildest dreams: the Germans ran away from the ghetto twice.” The Home Army press wrote of “immeasurably strong and determined armed resistance.”23

The right-wing Jewish Military Union seized the heights of the tallest building in the ghetto and raised two flags: the Polish and the Zionist, white eagle and yellow star. Its units would fight with great determination near their headquarters, at Muranowska Square. On 20 April, the SS and Police Leader for Warsaw district, Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, was relieved of duty. His replacement, Jürgen Stroop, took a telephone call from an enraged Himmler: “You must take down those flags at any cost!” The Germans did take them down, on 20 April (Hitler’s birthday), although they took losses of their own in doing so. On that day the Germans managed to enter the ghetto and remain, although their prospects for clearing its population seemed dim. Most Jews were in hiding, and many were armed. The Germans would have to develop new tactics.24

From the first day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jews were killed in battle. Jews who were unable to work, when discovered by the Germans, were also killed. The Germans knew that they had no use for the people whom they found at the hospital on Gęsia Street, the last Jewish hospital in Warsaw. Marek Edelman found there dozens of corpses in hospital gowns. In the gynecology and obstetrics sections, the Germans murdered pregnant women, women who had just given birth, and their babies. At the corner of Gęsia and Zamenhof Streets, someone had placed a live infant at the naked breast of a dead woman. Although Jewish resistance looked like a war from the outside, the Germans were not following any of the laws and customs of war inside the ghetto walls. The simple existence of Jewish subhumans was essentially criminal to the SS, and their resistance was an infuriating act that justified any response.25

Stroop decided that the only way to clear the bunkers and houses was to burn them. Since Himmler had already ordered the physical destruction of the ghetto, burning down its residences was no loss. Indeed, since Himmler had not known just how the demolition was to be accomplished, the fires solved two Nazi problems at once. On 23 April 1943, Stroop’s men began to burn down the buildings of the ghetto, block by block. The Wehrmacht played little role in the combat, but its engineers and flamethrowers were used in the destruction of the residences and bunkers. Edelman recalled “enormous firestorms that closed whole streets.” Suffocating Jews had no choice but to flee their bunkers. As one survivor remembered: “we wanted to get killed by shooting rather than by burning.” Jews trapped on the upper floors of buildings had to jump. The Germans took many prisoners with broken legs. These people were interrogated and then shot. The only way that Jews could escape the arson was to flee from one bunker to another during the day, or from one house to another during the night. For several days the SS would not feel safe moving through the streets of the ghetto in darkness, so Jewish fighters and civilians could use the dark hours to move and regroup. But so long as they could not stop the burning, their days were numbered.26

The Germans had attacked the ghetto on 19 April 1943, the eve of Passover. Easter fell on the following Sunday, the 25th. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz recorded the Christian holiday from the other side of the ghetto walls, recalling in his poem “Campo di Fiori” that people rode the carousel at Krasiński Square, just beyond the ghetto wall, as the Jews fought and died. “I thought then,” wrote Miłosz, “of the loneliness of the dying.” The merry-go-round ran every day, throughout the uprising. It became the symbol of Jewish isolation: Jews died in their own city, as Poles beyond the walls of the ghetto lived and laughed. Many Poles did not care what happened to the Jews in the ghetto. Yet others were concerned, and some tried to help, and a few died trying.27

A full year before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began, the Home Army had alerted the British and the Americans to the gassing of Polish Jews. The Home Army had passed on reports of the death facility at Chełmno, and Polish authorities had seen to it that they reached the British press. The western Allies took no action of any consequence. In 1942 the Home Army had informed London and Washington of the deportations from the Warsaw ghetto and the mass murder of Warsaw Jews at Treblinka. To be sure, these events were always presented by the Polish government as an element in the larger tragedy of the citizens of Poland. The key information, however, was communicated. Poles and Jews alike had believed, wrongly, that publicizing the deportations would bring them to a halt. The Polish government had also urged the Allies to respond to the mass killing of Polish citizens (including Jews) by killing German civilians. Again, Britain and the United States did not act. The Polish president and the Polish ambassador to the Vatican urged the pope to speak out about the mass murder of Jews, to no effect.28

Among the western Allies, only Polish authorities took direct action to halt the killing of Jews. By spring 1943 Żegota was assisting about four thousand Jews in hiding. The Home Army announced that it would shoot Poles who blackmailed Jews. On 4 May, as the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto fought on, Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski issued an appeal: “I call on my countrymen to give all help and shelter to those being murdered, and at the same time, before all humanity, which has for too long been silent, I condemn these crimes.” As Jews and Poles alike understood, the Warsaw command of the Home Army could not have saved the ghetto, even if it had devoted all of its troops and weapons to that purpose. It had, at that point, almost no combat experience itself. Nevertheless, seven of the first eight armed operations carried out by the Home Army in Warsaw were in support of the ghetto fighters. Two Poles died at the very beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, trying to breach the ghetto walls. Several further attempts to breach the walls of the ghetto failed. All in all, the Home Army made some eleven attempts to help the Jews. Soviet propagandists, seeing an opportunity, claimed that the Home Army denied aid to the fighting ghetto.29

Aryeh Wilner, whom the Poles of the Home Army knew as Jurek, was an important liaison between the Jewish Combat Organization and the Home Army. He was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but not before passing on an important message, almost a legend in itself, to his Polish contacts. It was he who spread the description of Jewish resistance that the Home Army would approve and itself publish: that the Ghetto Uprising was not about preserving Jewish life but about rescuing human dignity. This was understood in Polish Romantic terms: that deeds should be judged by their intentions rather than their outcomes, that sacrifice ennobles and sacrifice of life ennobles eternally. Often overlooked or forgotten was the essence of Wilner’s point: Jewish resistance in Warsaw was not only about the dignity of the Jews but about the dignity of humanity as such, including those of the Poles, the British, the Americans, the Soviets: of everyone who could have done more, and instead did less.30

Shmuel Zygielbojm, the representative of the Bund to the Polish government-in-exile in London, knew that the ghetto was going up in flames. He had a clear idea of the general course of the Holocaust from Jan Karski, a Home Army courier who had brought news of the mass murder to Allied leaders in 1942. Zygielbojm would not have known the details, but he grasped the general course of events, and made an effort to define it for the rest of the world. In a careful suicide note of 12 May 1943, addressed to the Polish president and prime minister but intended to be shared with other Allied leaders, he wrote: “Though the responsibility for the crime of the murder of the entire Jewish nation rests above all upon the perpetrators, indirect blame must be borne by humanity itself.” The next day he burned himself alive in front of the British parliament, joining in, as he wrote, the fate of his fellow Jews in Warsaw.31

The Jews of Warsaw fought on, without hope. By May 1943 Stroop’s reports to his superiors had become calm and methodical, a matter of numbers. An unknown number of Jews had burned to death or committed suicide in bunkers; about 56,065 had been captured, of whom about 7,000 were shot on the spot; 6,929 more were sent to Treblinka, and the rest, the large majority, assigned to labor duty at camps such as Majdanek. On 15 May Stroop declared victory in the Warsaw ghetto by dynamiting the Tłomackie Synagogue. Now the Germans began to destroy what was left of the ghetto, as Himmler had ordered. All the remaining buildings were brought down, the cellars and sewers filled. On 1 June 1943, Himmler gave the order to build a new concentration camp, on the ghetto’s smoldering ruins.32


Some Jews did survive the ghetto uprising, but found a hard welcome beyond the ghetto. In 1943 the Home Army was even more concerned about communism than it had been in 1942. As a result of an arrest and a plane crash in summer 1943, a more sympathetic Polish commander and prime minister were replaced by less sympathetic ones. Despite its promises to do so, the Home Army never organized a Jewish unit from veterans of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Over the course of 1943, units of the Home Army sometimes shot armed Jews in the countryside as bandits. In a few cases, Home Army soldiers killed Jews in order to steal their property. On the other hand, the Home Army did execute Poles who turned in Jews or tried to blackmail them.33

The same German labor campaign that provoked the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising also reoriented the Polish resistance. During the same January 1943 visit to Warsaw when he had first demanded the liquidation of the ghetto, Himmler had also ordered massive roundups of Poles for labor. The random hunts for workers that followed were massively disruptive to Polish society, as women and children suddenly found themselves without husbands and fathers. In the first three months of 1943, about three thousand Poles from Warsaw were sent to Majdanek. They were joined there that May by thousands of Warsaw Jews, transported from the Warsaw ghetto after the defeat of the uprising. Warsaw Poles and Jews, separated by ghetto walls in 1941 and 1942, found themselves enclosed within the same barbed wire in 1943. Majdanek was by then a labor camp with a gassing facility attached, like Auschwitz although on a far smaller scale. About fifty thousand Polish Jews died there, along with perhaps ten thousand non-Jewish Poles.34

Knowledge of deportations to places like Majdanek inclined men and women to join the Home Army. Since they could be seized as laborers and sent to a concentration camp at any moment, life underground could seem safer than open life in Warsaw. The underground also offered camaraderie as an antidote to fear, and revenge as a salve to helplessness. The Germans had tried to prevent organized resistance to their labor roundups by killing the Polish educated classes, in the tens of thousands at the time of the 1939 invasion, and then in the thousands in the AB Aktion of 1940. The planners of those actions had in mind precisely the problem that they experienced now: treating Poland as a pool of mindless labor would bring resistance if anyone was alive who could lead Poles against Germans. Yet the Polish educated classes were far larger than the Germans had assumed, and in conditions of oppression there was no shortage of people willing to take command.

Home Army commanders preferred to remain underground, organize, gather men and arms, and await the best moment for a general uprising. Such patience and calculation were increasingly difficult in 1943. The Soviets in their radio and printed propaganda were urging Poles to begin an uprising as soon as possible. Poles, aware of the fate of the Jews in their country, were afraid that they too could be exterminated should German rule continue. A particular shock was the implementation of Generalplan Ost in part of the Lublin district of the General Government. Though that massive German colonization plan had generally been deferred, Odilo Globocnik carried it out. Beginning in November 1942 and continuing through the first half of 1943, the Germans emptied three hundred Polish villages around Zamość in order to re-create the area as a racially German colony. About one hundred thousand Poles were deported in this Zamość Action, many to Majdanek and Auschwitz. Because the Zamość Action began just as Operation Reinhard was concluding, and in the same district where Operation Reinhard had begun, many Poles saw it as the beginning of a Final Solution to the Polish problem. This was not quite correct, since Generalplan Ost envisioned the destruction of most but not all Poles; but it was a logical conclusion in the circumstances.35

So as German labor policies shifted, and Warsaw Jews rebelled, many Poles in Warsaw and elsewhere also shifted toward a more decisive form of resistance. Whereas Jews in the ghetto saw no choice but to throw themselves into an all-or-nothing struggle, non-Jewish Poles had some ability to modulate their resistance along a certain scale between underground conspiracy and open battle. In March 1943 the Home Army emerged from the shadows, and turned to assassinations and partisan warfare. Its attempts to aid the ghetto fighters were among its earliest, and still quite amateurish, public acts of armed resistance. With time the operations became more effective. German policemen were shot, as were Polish citizens who collaborated with the Gestapo. During the month of August 1943 the Germans recorded 942 instances of partisan resistance in the Warsaw district of the General Government, and 6,214 such incidents in the General Government as a whole.36

The Home Army’s shift to armed resistance was bound to provoke a German response. A cycle of terror and counterterror continued for the next year. On 13 October 1943 the Germans began to apply the technique of blockades, perfected in the Warsaw ghetto during the Large Action of summer 1942, to neighborhoods in the rest of Warsaw. Men were seized at random for public reprisal shootings, designed to cow the population and quell the growing resistance. At a time and place announced in advance, those arrested were taken in groups of five or ten, blindfolded, and executed by firing squad. The men tended to call out “Long live Poland!” before they were shot; and so then the Germans gagged them, or put sacks over their heads, or plastered their mouths shut. Poles did indeed gather to watch the shootings, but it was not at all clear that they were learning the lessons that the Germans wished for them to learn. After the shootings, women would gather earth soaked with blood, place it in jars, and take it with them to church.37

The Germans accepted the propaganda failure, but continued to kill Poles in Warsaw in large numbers: sometimes people who were involved with resistance, sometimes random hostages. They moved their execution site to the terrain of the former ghetto, where the shootings would not be seen. The major prison where Poles were held was also within the walls of the former ghetto. A large number of Poles would be shot on most days of autumn 1943 in the former ghetto along with a few Jews discovered in the ruins. On 9 December 1943, for example, 139 Poles were shot along with sixteen Jewish women and a Jewish child. On 13 January 1944, more than three hundred Poles were shot. These shootings in the ghetto were still technically “public,” although no one was actually allowed to watch them. The families were informed of the fate of their loved ones. After 15 February 1944 Poles simply disappeared from their homes or their streets, and were shot in the ghetto, with no public record of the event. Some 9,500 people were shot in the ghetto ruins from October 1943 through July 1944, some of them Jewish survivors, the majority non-Jewish Poles.38

Blindfolded and bound, these Poles could not have known that they had been delivered for death to Himmler’s newest concentration camp. Opened on 19 July 1943 within the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto, Concentration Camp Warsaw was one of the ghastliest creations of Nazi rule.39

First the Germans had forced Jews to live in a defined area of Warsaw and called it a ghetto. Then they had ordered deportations from neighboring regions to the overcrowded ghetto, ensuring tens of thousands of deaths by starvation and disease. Then they had deported more than a quarter of a million Jews from the ghetto to the gas chambers of Treblinka, shooting some seventeen thousand more during these deportations. Then they had liquidated the ghetto, their own creation. They suppressed the resistance that this brought, shooting some fourteen thousand more Jews. Then they had burned down the buildings of the Warsaw ghetto. Finally they built a new camp within this nonplace.

This was Concentration Camp Warsaw. It was an island of very conditional life located within an urban zone of death. All around were blocks and blocks of burned buildings, with human remains rotting within. Encircled broadly by the walls of the former ghetto, Concentration Camp Warsaw was encircled narrowly by barbed wire and watchtowers. The inmates were a few hundred Poles and a few hundred Jews. These were not, for the most part, Polish Jews but, rather, Jews from other parts of Europe. They had been deported from their home countries to Auschwitz, selected for labor there rather than gassed, and then sent to Concentration Camp Warsaw. They came from Greece, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and in 1944 from Hungary. The conditions that they found in Concentration Camp Warsaw were so appalling that some of them asked to be sent back to Auschwitz and gassed.40

The Jewish laborers of Concentration Camp Warsaw were to perform three major tasks in the ruins: destroy the buildings in the former ghetto that still stood after the arson of April and May 1943; search for valuables that Jews might have left behind; and bait Jews still in hiding to come and surrender themselves. Some of the Jewish laborers were also sent, in their striped uniforms and wooden shoes, to labor beyond the walls of the former ghetto. Friendships grew up between these foreign Jews and Poles in Warsaw, despite barriers of language. One of these laborers remembered a scene beyond the ghetto walls: “A Polish boy, maybe fourteen years old, badly dressed, was standing just next to us with a little basket, in which there were a few small apples. He looked at us, thought for a moment, and then grabbed his little basket and threw it to us. Then he ran to the other boys selling food, and suddenly bread and fruit rained down on us from all sides. At first the SS-men guarding us didn’t know what to do, they were so surprised by this unexpected expression of solidarity. Then they began to scream at the boys and point their machine guns at them, and to beat us for accepting the food. But that didn’t hurt us, we paid no attention. We waved our thanks to those boys.”41

After October 1943, the Jews of Concentration Camp Warsaw were forced to perform yet another task: the disposal of the bodies of Poles taken from Warsaw and executed in the ruins of the ghetto. Poles were brought in trucks in groups of fifty or sixty to the terrain of the former ghetto, where they were executed in or near Concentration Camp Warsaw by machine gunners of the local SS and another police unit. Jewish prisoners then had to form a Death Commando that would eliminate the traces of the execution. They would build a pyre from wood taken from the ruins of the ghetto, and then stack bodies and wood in layers. Then the Jews poured gasoline on the pyres and lit them. Yet this was a Death Commando in more than the usual sense. Once the bodies of the Poles were burning, the SS-men shot the Jewish laborers who had built the pyre, and tossed their bodies into the flames.42

Miłosz’s poem “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” written in 1943, speaks of an unearthly power able to undo the grey of rubble and soot and distinguish “the ash of each man.” No earthly agent could sort the Jewish ashes from the Polish ones.

In summer 1944 in such a city, resistance was all but inevitable. Its form and its direction were not. The commanders of the Home Army, and the Polish government in London, had a very difficult decision to make. Their people suffered more than those of any Allied capital, but they faced an unforgiving strategic position. Poles had to consider the present German occupation in light of the threat of a future Soviet occupation. After the success of the Red Army’s Operation Bagration in late June, German soldiers could be seen streaming through Warsaw in July. It seemed as if the Germans were about to be defeated, which was good news; it also seemed that the Soviets would soon replace them in Warsaw, which was not. If the Home Army fought the Germans openly, and succeeded, they might greet the arriving Red Army as masters of their own house. If they fought the Germans openly, and failed, they would be prone and powerless when the Soviets arrived. If they did nothing, they would have no bargaining position with the Soviets—or with their western Allies.43

Although their British and American allies could afford to have illusions about Stalin, Polish officers and politicians could not. They had not forgotten that the Soviet Union had been an ally of Nazi Germany in 1939-1941, and that its occupation of eastern Poland had been ruthless and oppressive. Poles knew about the deportations to Kazakhstan and Siberia; they knew about the shootings at Katyn. Stalin broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government over the Katyn discovery, which was one more reason not to trust the Soviet Union. If Stalin would use his own massacre as a reason to end relations with the Polish government, how could he be expected to negotiate in good faith about anything? And if the Soviet Union would not recognize the legitimate Polish government during a common war against Nazi Germany, what were the chances that it would support Polish independence when the war was over and the Soviet position much stronger?

The British and the Americans had larger concerns. The Red Army was winning the war against the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, and Stalin was a more important ally than any Polish government. It was more comfortable for the British and the Americans to accept the mendacious Soviet version of the Katyn massacre and blame the Germans. It was much easier for them to encourage their Polish ally to compromise than it was to try to prevail upon Stalin. They wanted the Poles to accept that the Germans rather than the Soviets had killed the Polish officers, which was false; and would have preferred that Poland grant the eastern half of its territory to the Soviet Union, which was an unlikely action for any sovereign government.

For that matter, London and Washington had already agreed, in late 1943, that the Soviet Union would reclaim the eastern half of prewar Poland after the war. The western Soviet border accorded Stalin by Hitler was confirmed by Churchill and Roosevelt. London and Washington endorsed the Molotov-Ribbentrop line (with minor changes) as the future Soviet-Polish frontier. In that sense Poland was betrayed not only by the Soviet Union but also by its western Allies, who urged Poles to make compromises at a time when less was to be gained by them than Poles might have thought. Half of their country had already been conceded, without their participation.44

Left alone by its allies, the Polish government in London ceded the initiative to the Polish fighters in Warsaw. Seeing little other hope to establish Polish sovereignty, the Home Army chose an uprising in the capital, to commence on 1 August 1944.

The Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 took place within the framework of Operation Tempest, a long-planned national uprising that was meant to give Polish forces a prominent role in the liberation of prewar Polish territory. By late July, however, Operation Tempest had already failed. The Home Army had planned to engage German units as they retreated from the Red Army in what had been eastern Poland. It had been impossible to make prior political arrangements with the Soviet Union about the terms of this cooperation, since Stalin had broken diplomatic relations. Polish commanders did make local agreements with Soviet counterparts in summer 1944, but at a heavy price. Negotiation meant leaving hiding places and revealing identities, and the Soviets exploited Polish vulnerability to the maximum. Poles who revealed themselves to join the common fight against Germans were treated as people who might resist future Soviet rule. The Soviet Union never had any intention of supporting any institution that claimed to represent an independent Poland. The Soviet leadership and the NKVD treated every Polish political organization (except the communists) as part of an anti-Soviet plot.45

In July 1944, Polish units were allowed to assist the Red Army in attacks on Vilnius and Lviv, the major cities of prewar eastern Poland, but were then disarmed by their ostensible Soviet allies. The Polish soldiers were given the choice of Soviet command or prison. After the disarmaments, the NKVD arrested everyone with a political past. Soviet partisans were allowed to take part in the victorious campaign against the Germans; Polish partisans were not. Indeed, in some cases Soviet partisans were turned against the Polish fighters. The partisan unit of Tuvia Bielski, for example, took part in the disarming of the Home Army. The tragedy of Operation Tempest was triple: the Home Army lost men and its arms; Poland’s government saw its military strategy fail; and Poles lost their lives or their freedom fighting for lands that Poland could not regain in any event, since Churchill and Roosevelt had already ceded them to Stalin.46

Still, news from Germany gave some hope to Polish commanders in Warsaw. On 20 July 1944, German military officers tried (and failed) to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The news led some Home Army commanders to believe that Germany had lost the will to fight, and thus that a bold blow might drive them from Warsaw. On 22 July the Soviets gave another prod to the Polish resistance by unveiling, in Lublin, their own provisional government for Poland. The laboratory of Nazi exterminatory policies now became the center of a future communist puppet government. Stalin was claiming the authority to determine who would form the Polish government. If the Home Army did nothing, his clients would be installed in Warsaw, and Poland would shift directly from Nazi to Soviet occupation. As in 1939, so in 1944, the fact that the Poles had Western allies meant little or nothing. It was clear by July 1944, with the Red Army already occupying more than half of prewar Poland, that the country would be liberated by Soviet force of arms. In late July the Americans were a month away from Paris (where they would support a French uprising); there was no chance that US forces would liberate any of Poland. Any political resistance to Soviet plans would have to come from the Poles themselves.47

On 25 July 1944, the Polish government granted the Home Army in Warsaw the authority to begin an uprising in the capital at a time of its choosing. Warsaw itself had originally been excluded from the planning for Operation Tempest; the Warsaw district of the Home Army had sent many of its arms to the east of the country, where they were now lost to the Soviets. The logic of an immediate uprising in Warsaw was not easy for everyone to follow. The command structure of the Polish Army fighting on the western front, under General Władysław Anders, was excluded from the discussions. Given German anti-partisan tactics, an uprising looked like suicide to many. The Germans had been killing Poles in massive reprisals throughout the war; if an uprising failed, reasoned some commanders in Warsaw, the entire civilian population would suffer. The argument in favor of the uprising was that the rebellion could not fail: whether or not the Poles defeated the Germans, the Red Army was moving fast and would arrive in Warsaw in a few days. On this logic, which prevailed, the only question seemed to be whether Poles would first make an effort to liberate their own capital.48

The Poles were caught between an approaching Red Army and occupying German forces. They could not defeat the Germans on their own, so they had to hope that the Soviet advance would prompt a German retreat and that there would be some interval between the Wehrmacht’s withdrawal and the Red Army’s arrival. Their hope was that the interval would not be too brief, so that they could establish themselves as the Polish government before the Soviets arrived.

In fact, the interval was too long.

Polish soldiers in uniforms and armbands began their assault on German positions in the afternoon of 1 August 1944. The vast majority were from the Home Army; smaller units of the far-right National Armed Forces and the communist People’s Army also joined the fight. On this first day of the Warsaw Uprising, the Home Army secured a great deal of the downtown and Old Town of the city, but failed to capture most of the essential military targets. The Germans had made few preparations, but were not caught completely by surprise. It had been hard to disguise the mobilization going on within the city itself. German forces had gone on alert at 4:30, half an hour before the uprising began. The Poles chose to attack in daylight on a long summer afternoon, and for that reason took many casualties. The inexperienced and lightly armed troops had an especially difficult time with guarded and fortified objectives. Nevertheless, the mood among the fighters and in the city itself was euphoric.49


When and where Polish power replaced German power in those early days of August 1944, surviving Jews emerged from their places of shelter among Poles. Many asked to be allowed to fight. As Michał Zylberberg recalled: “A Jewish perspective ruled out passivity. Poles had taken up arms against the mortal enemy. Our obligation as victims and as fellow citizens was to help them.” Other combatants in the Warsaw Uprising were veterans of the ghetto uprising of 1943. Most of these Jews joined the Home Army; others found the People’s Army, or even the anti-Semitic National Armed Forces. Some Jews (or Poles of Jewish origin) were already enlisted in the Home Army and the People’s Army. Almost certainly, more Jews fought in the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 than in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943.50

In early August, as the Home Army failed to take the important German positions in Warsaw, its soldiers did register one victory. Officers gathered volunteers for a dangerous attack upon a heavily guarded position. On 5 August, Home Army soldiers entered the ruins of the ghetto, attacked Concentration Camp Warsaw, defeated the ninety SS-men who guarded it, and liberated its remaining 348 prisoners, most of them foreign Jews. One of the Home Army soldiers in this operation was Stanisław Aronson, who had himself been deported from the ghetto to Treblinka. Another recalled a Jew who greeted them with tears on his cheeks; yet another, the plea of a Jew for a weapon and a uniform, so that he could fight. Many of the liberated Jewish slave laborers did join the Home Army, fighting in their striped camp uniforms and wooden shoes, with “complete indifference to life or death,” as one Home Army soldier recalled.51

Now Himmler again saw an opportunity, as he had during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to demonstrate his strength and to win a symbolic victory. Despite Polish expectations, the Red Army had ceased its rapid advance. With the Wehrmacht stubbornly holding its positions at the Vistula River, just east of downtown Warsaw, the uprising would be a matter for the SS and the German police. These were Himmler’s institutions, and Himmler wished to make this his uprising, to show Hitler one more time that he was the ruthless master of the situation.52

Unlike the Ghetto Uprising, however, this campaign would require reinforcements. Following the German withdrawal from Belarus, experienced anti-partisan units were available. Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the chief of German anti-partisan formations and a veteran of the partisan warfare in Belarus, was given overall command in Warsaw. Other veterans of the anti-partisan warfare in Belarus were also summoned. The SS Commando Dirlewanger was dispatched from northeastern Poland, the Kaminskii unit from southwestern Poland. They were reinforced by a police unit sent from Poznań and a few hundred foreign fighters, mostly Azerbaijanis who had defected from the Red Army. About half of the people who fought in Warsaw in German uniforms did not speak German. This probably made the action that followed no more bloody, but it did make it more confusing, even for the Germans themselves.53

Kaminskii and his Russians were given personal permission from Himmler to loot, and they accepted this part of their assignment with gusto. They entered Ochota, a southwesterly neighborhood of Warsaw, on 9 August 1944. Over the course of the next ten days, they concentrated on theft, but also killed several thousand Polish civilians. As one of Kaminskii’s officers recalled, “Mass executions of civilians without investigation were the order of the day.” The soldiers also became known for systematic rape. They burned down the hospital of the Marie Curie Institute, killing everyone inside, but scrupulously raped the nurses ahead of time. As one of Kaminskii’s men characterized the Ochota campaign, “they raped nuns and plundered and stole anything they could get their hands on.” German commanders complained that Kaminskii and his men were concerned only with “robbing, drinking, and raping women.” Bach had Kaminskii apprehended and executed: not for the killing or the sexual violence but for his habit of stealing for himself rather than for the coffers of the Reich.54

The comportment of the SS Special Commando Dirlewanger was even worse. Its men were now a motley group of criminals, foreigners, and SS-men released from punishment camps. Dirlewanger was indiscipline itself; even Himmler had to order him twice to go to Warsaw. The unit was fresh from its Belarusian campaigns, where it had killed tens of thousands of civilians in the countryside and the towns. Now it would kill more civilians in a large city. The most infamous Waffen-SS unit in Belarus now became the most infamous Waffen-SS unit in Poland. The Dirlewanger unit was the bulk of a combat group under the command of Heinz Reinefarth, the SS and Police Chief for the Warthegau, the largest district of occupied Poland annexed to Germany.55

Reinefarth received an extraordinary three-part order from Himmler: all Polish combatants were to be shot; all Polish noncombatants, including women and children, were also to be shot; and the city itself was to be razed to the ground. The police formations and the SS Special Commando Dirlewanger carried out these orders to the letter on 5 and 6 August 1944, shooting some forty thousand civilians in the course of those two days alone. They had a military objective: they were to march through the west-central Wola neighborhood and relieve German headquarters in the Saxon Gardens. They lifted the Home Army’s barricades on Wola Street by marching Poles in front of them and forcing them to do the work, using women and children as human shields in the meantime, and raping some of the women. As they moved west they destroyed each and every building, one by one, using gasoline and hand grenades. Wola Street ran just south of the terrain that had been the ghetto, and indeed through some of its most southerly extremes, so their work of destruction brought an adjoining neighborhood to ruins.56

The men of the Dirlewanger Brigade burned down three hospitals with patients inside. At one hospital, wounded Germans who were being treated by Polish doctors and nurses asked that no harm come to the Poles. This was not to be. The men of the Dirlewanger Brigade killed the Polish wounded. They brought the nurses back to camp that evening, as was the custom: each night selected women would be whipped by officers and then gang-raped before being murdered. This evening was unusual even by those standards. To the accompaniment of flute music, the men raised a gallows, and then hanged the doctors and the naked nurses.57

As houses burned in Wola, people sought refuge in factories, which then became convenient killing grounds for the German SS and police units. At one factory, two thousand people were shot; at another, five thousand more. Wanda Lurie, one of the few survivors of the mass shootings at the Ursus factory, was expecting a child. “I went in last and kept back, always lagging behind in the hope that they would not kill a pregnant woman. However, I was taken in the last group. I saw a heap of bodies about a meter high.” She lost her children. “The first salvo hit my elder son, the second me and the third my younger children.” She fell wounded, but was able later to dig herself from the pile of bodies. She later gave birth to a healthy baby. The mass killing slowed on 6 August, possibly because bullets were short and were needed elsewhere.58

The massacres in Wola had nothing in common with combat. The Germans lost six dead and killed about twenty Home Army soldiers while murdering at least thirty thousand people. The ratio of civilian to military dead was more than a thousand to one, even if military casualties on both sides are counted. On 13 August Bach countermanded Himmler’s killing orders, and the organized shooting of civilians in large numbers came to a halt. Many more Poles would be killed, however, in more or less unplanned ways. When the Germans took the Old Town, they killed seven thousand wounded in field hospitals by gunfire and flamethrowers. Some thirty thousand civilians would be killed in the Old Town before the uprising was over.59

In the Wola neighborhood, where the worst of the killing took place, the bodies had to be found and removed. The Germans assembled a group of Polish slave laborers, whom they called the Cremation Commando. Between 8 and 23 August 1944, these people were ordered to pick through the ruins of the Wola neighborhood, extract the rotting bodies, and burn them on pyres. In Wola, the remnants of the ghetto were all around them. The laborers marched along Wola, Elektoralna, and Chłodna Streets, now from east to west, following in reverse the route the German police and the Dirlewanger Brigade had taken. Their first five pyres were just to the east of the ghetto, their next thirteen just to the west. The Polish slave laborers (one of whom was Jewish) burned the bodies while their SS guards played cards and laughed.60


The Warsaw Uprising did not defeat the Germans, and it was little more than a passing annoyance to the Soviets. The Red Army had been halted, by unexpectedly strong German resistance, just beyond Warsaw. The Germans were making a last stand in Poland, the Wehrmacht at the Vistula, the SS and the police in Warsaw. Despite what some Poles had hoped, the Nazi regime had not collapsed after the assassination attempt on Hitler. Instead, the Germans had consolidated the eastern front. Operation Bagration had broken Army Group Center, but not the Wehrmacht itself. It had brought Vasily Grossman to the site where Warsaw’s Jews were killed, but not to Warsaw itself. Meanwhile, the Red Army’s Ukrainian Front was engaged in major operations elsewhere, to the southeast. Stalin had no pressing need to take Warsaw just then, in August 1944.

It made perfect Stalinist sense to encourage an uprising, and then not to assist one. Right to the last moment, Soviet propaganda had called for an uprising in Warsaw, promising Soviet assistance. The uprising came, but the help did not. Though there is no reason to believe that Stalin deliberately halted military operations at Warsaw, the delay at the Vistula suited Stalin’s political purposes. From the Soviet perspective, an uprising in Warsaw was desirable because it would kill Germans—and Poles who were willing to risk their lives for independence. The Germans would do the necessary work of destroying the remnants of the Polish intelligentsia and the soldiers of the Home Army, groups that overlapped. As soon as the Home Army soldiers took up arms, Stalin called them adventurers and criminals. Later on, when the Soviet Union gained control of Poland, resistance to Hitler would be prosecuted as a crime, on the logic that armed action not controlled by the communists undermined the communists, and that communism was the only legitimate regime for Poland.

The British and the Americans were all but unable to provide meaningful help to the Poles in Warsaw. Winston Churchill, whose own personal obstinacy was a crucial element of the war, could do little but urge Britain’s Polish allies to compromise with the Soviets. In summer 1944 Churchill had been advising the Polish prime minister, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, to visit Moscow and seek some arrangement that would allow the restoration of Soviet-Polish diplomatic relations. When Mikołajczyk arrived in Moscow in late July 1944, he was told by the British ambassador to concede everything: to give up the eastern half of the country, and to accept the Soviet version of the Katyn massacre (that the Germans, not the Soviets, were guilty). As Mikołajczyk knew, Roosevelt also preferred not to question the Soviet account of Katyn. The beginning of the Warsaw Uprising found Mikołajczyk in Moscow. In this unexpected position, Mikołajczyk was forced to ask Stalin for help, which Stalin refused to give. Churchill did then ask Stalin to aid the Poles. On 16 August Stalin brushed him off, saying that he had no intention of helping a “foolish adventure.”61

Great Britain had gone to war five years earlier on the question of Polish independence, which it was now unable to protect from its Soviet ally. The British press often echoed the Stalinist line, presenting the Poles as adventurous and wayward, rather than as British allies seeking to take back their own capital. Both George Orwell and Arthur Koestler protested: Orwell speaking of the “dishonesty and cowardice” of Britons who denied the responsibility of the Allies to help the uprising, and Koestler calling Stalin’s inaction “one of the great infamies of the war.”62

The Americans had no better luck. If American planes could be refueled on Soviet territory, then they could fly missions from Italy to Poland, bombing German positions and supplying the Poles. On the same day that Stalin rebuffed Churchill, 16 August 1944, American diplomats added Polish targets to Operation Frantic, the bombing campaign in eastern and southeastern Europe. Stalin denied his American ally permission to refuel for such missions. An American junior diplomat, George Kennan, saw where the logic led: the refusal was “a gauntlet thrown down with malicious glee.” Stalin had in effect told the Americans that he would be taking control of Poland, and preferred that the Polish fighters die and the uprising fail. A month later, when the uprising was effectively defeated, Stalin showed his strength and intelligence, and muddied the historical record. In mid-September, when it could make absolutely no difference to the outcome in Warsaw, he finally allowed American bombing runs and carried out a few of his own.63

By then, the Home Army controlled so little of Warsaw that supplies fell to the Germans. Polish troops had fallen back to a few pockets of resistance. Then, like Jewish fighters before them, they tried to escape through the sewers. The Germans, prepared for this by their own experiences of 1943, burned or gassed them out.

In early October 1944, Himmler told Paul Geibel, the SS and Police Chief for Warsaw, that Hitler had no fonder wish than to destroy the city. Stone should not be left upon stone. The wish was also Himmler’s own. The war as such was clearly lost: the British had liberated Antwerp, the Americans were approaching the Rhine, and the Soviets would soon besiege Budapest. But Himmler saw an opportunity to fulfill one of his own war aims, the destruction of Slavic and Jewish cities integral to Generalplan Ost.

Himmler issued orders, apparently on 9 and 12 October, that the entire city of Warsaw be destroyed, building by building, block by block. At this point huge swaths of the city were already in ruins: the ghetto, the adjoining Wola neighborhood, and buildings hit by German bombs in September 1939—or for that matter in August 1944, when German planes bombed Warsaw from its own airport. But most of the city was still standing, and many of its inhabitants were still present. Now the Germans evacuated the survivors to a temporary camp at Pruszków, whence some sixty thousand people would be sent to concentration camps, and some ninety thousand more to forced-labor assignments in the Reich. German engineers equipped with dynamite and flamethrowers, and aware of the experience of the destruction of the ghetto, would burn down their businesses and schools and homes.64

Himmler’s decision to destroy Warsaw served a certain vision of the Nazi East, but it did not serve the German military cause in the Second World War. Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski did show signs of wanting to recruit the Home Army as a future ally in a final struggle against the Soviets; he reversed Himmler’s killing orders in mid-August without (it seems) having the proper authority to do so, and then agreed to negotiate with the Home Army command as with a defeated adversary in late September. By the terms of the surrender of 2 October 1944, Home Army officers and soldiers, men and women alike, were to receive the rights accorded to prisoners of war by international law. For the same reasons, Bach opposed Himmler’s preferred conclusion of the uprising, the total destruction of the city.

It is very unlikely that Bach could have found many allies in Warsaw, for the same reason that he found few in Belarus: the actions of Dirlewanger’s men and other German anti-partisan formations had been too unforgettably bloody. The German reaction was so unbelievably destructive that Polish fighters had no alternative but to await Soviet liberation. As one Home Army soldier put it in his poetry: “We await you, red plague / To deliver us from the black death.” Like Bach, the Wehrmacht opposed Himmler’s policy. German troops were holding the Red Army at the Vistula River, and hoped to use Warsaw as a fortress, or at least its buildings as shelters. None of this mattered. Bach was transferred; the army was ignored; Himmler had his way; and a European capital was destroyed. On the day before the Soviets arrived, the Germans torched the last library.65

No other European capital suffered such a fate: destroyed physically, and bereft of about half of its population. Perhaps 150,000 Polish noncombatants were killed by the Germans in August and September 1944 alone, during the Warsaw Uprising. A similar number of non-Jewish Poles from Warsaw had already been killed in concentration camps, at execution sites in the ghetto, by German bombing, or in combat. Warsaw Jews died in higher absolute numbers and in much higher proportions. The percentage of Jews from Warsaw who died, more than ninety percent, exceeds that of non-Jews, which was about thirty percent. Only the fate of cities further east, such as Minsk or Leningrad, bore comparison to that of Warsaw. All in all, about half of the inhabitants of the city perished in a city whose prewar population was about 1.3 million.66

The distinction between Poles and Jews was for some victims artificial. Ludwik Landau, for example, might have been killed by the Germans because he was a Home Army officer and an effective propagandist for an independent Poland. As it happens, he was killed as a Jew. Some fates were permanently entangled. The Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum secretly created archives in the ghetto, on the basis of which a future history of Jews in wartime Warsaw would be possible. He was taken to a concentration camp after the defeat of the Ghetto Uprising, but was then rescued with the help of a Home Army officer. He was sheltered in Warsaw by Poles, until a Pole gave him away to the Germans. Then he and the Poles who had given him refuge were shot in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. The Home Army hunted down and killed the Pole who had betrayed them.67

Nevertheless, when the uprising was over and German power replaced Polish, the plight of the Jews was again distinct. After the destruction of the city, they had, quite literally, no place to hide. They did their best to disappear within the columns of exiled civilians or, in some cases, to find and join Soviet forces. Before the Warsaw Uprising, there were probably still some sixteen thousand Jews hiding with Poles beyond the walls of the former ghetto. Afterward, perhaps twelve thousand were still alive.68


The Germans had won the second battle for Warsaw, but the political victory fell to the Soviets. The Germans had applied the same tactics they had used in Belarus, ordered by much the same chain of command: Himmler-Bach-Dirlewanger. This time, anti-partisan warfare worked: not because the patriots of the Home Army were less determined than the Belarusian partisans but because they were more isolated. The Soviet Union supported communist partisans whom it could control, and opposed noncommunist fighters whom it could not. Polish troops were fighting against the Germans, but also for their own liberty. This was their doom. Stalin was happy to support the much smaller People’s Army, a communist force that also fought in the uprising. Had it been the People’s Army rather than the Home Army that had led the uprising, his attitude might have been entirely different.

Yet that would have been an entirely different Poland. The People’s Army did have some popular support, but far less than that enjoyed by the Home Army. Polish politics had shifted to the left during the war, as was the case throughout occupied Europe. Yet communism was not popular. Poles had experienced Soviet communism during the war itself, in the eastern half of the country. No sovereign Poland would become communist. The Warsaw Uprising, destroying as it did many of the brightest and the bravest of a generation, did indeed make further resistance much more difficult. But the Warsaw Uprising also, as some of its more clearsighted (and coldblooded) commanders expected, brought Stalin’s ruthlessness to the attention of the Americans and British. The American diplomat George Kennan was right: Stalin’s cynical treatment of the Home Army was a slap in the face to his British and American allies. In this sense the Warsaw Uprising was the beginning of the confrontation that was to come when the Second World War was over.


While the Red Army hesitated just east of the Vistula River from early August 1944 through mid-January 1945, the Germans were killing the Jews to its west. During those five months, the Red Army was less than a hundred kilometers from Łódź, by this point the largest concentration of Jews left in occupied Poland, and less than a hundred kilometers from Auschwitz, where Polish and European Jews were still being gassed. The Red Army’s halt at the Vistula doomed not only the Polish fighters and the civilians of Warsaw but also the Jews of Łódź. Their numbers had been much reduced by a series of deportations to Chełmno between December 1941 and September 1942. But in 1943 and 1944 the number of Jews had been relatively stable: some ninety thousand Jewish laborers and their families. The German civilian authorities, who sometimes preferred death through labor, had a longer hold here than elsewhere. Łódź Jews were building weapons, so the Wehrmacht also preferred that they survive.

Most of the remaining Łódź Jews died in the interval between the beginning of Operation Bagration and the final Soviet advance over the Vistula. The day after Operation Bagration, on 23 June 1944, the civilian authorities in Łódź yielded to Himmler and the SS, and allowed the liquidation of the Łódź ghetto. For a brief period the gassing facility at Chełmno was reopened, and some 7,196 Jews from Łódź were asphyxiated there between 23 June and 14 July. Then the facility at Chełmno was finally closed. The Jews of Łódź, meanwhile, knew that the Red Army was close by. They believed that if they could just remain in the ghetto for a few more days or weeks, they would survive. On 1 August, the day that the Warsaw Uprising began, the Łódź Judenrat was informed that all Jews would be “evacuated.” The German mayor of the city even tried to persuade Jews that they should hasten to board the trains before the Red Army arrived, because the Soviet soldiers would take revenge on people who had spent the war making weapons for the Germans. As the Warsaw Uprising raged, and the Red Army waited, some sixty-seven thousand Jews of Łódź were deported to Auschwitz in August 1944. Most of them were gassed upon arrival .69


When Soviet soldiers finally crossed the Vistula and advanced into the ruins of Warsaw on 17 January 1945, they found very few buildings still standing. The site of Concentration Camp Warsaw, however, was still available. The Soviet NKVD took over its facilities, and used them for familiar purposes. Home Army soldiers were interrogated and shot there by the Soviets in 1945, as they had been by the Germans in 1944.70

On 19 January 1945, two days after reaching Warsaw, Soviet soldiers were already in Łódź. On 27 January they reached Auschwitz. From there it would take them a little more than three months for them to reach Berlin. As the Red Army moved forward, SS camp guards were driving Jews from Auschwitz to labor camps in Germany. In these hurried and brutal marches, thousands more Jews lost their lives. These marches, which left surviving Jews in Germany itself, were the last of the Nazi atrocities. The Belarusian Front of the Red Army began to shell Berlin on 20 April 1945, Hitler’s birthday; by early May it had met the Ukrainian Front in the German capital. Berlin fell, and the war was over. Hitler had ordered subordinates to apply a scorched earth policy to Germany itself, but he was not obeyed. Although much young German life was wasted in the defense of Berlin, Hitler could effect no further policies of mass killing.71

In these last few months of war, from January to May 1945, the inmates of the German concentration camps died in very large numbers. Perhaps three hundred thousand people died in German camps during this period, from hunger and neglect. The American and British soldiers who liberated the dying inmates from camps in Germany believed that they had discovered the horrors of Nazism. The images their photographers and cameramen captured of the corpses and the living skeletons at Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald seemed to convey the worst crimes of Hitler. As the Jews and Poles of Warsaw knew, and as Vasily Grossman and the Red Army soldiers knew, this was far from the truth. The worst was in the ruins of Warsaw, or the fields of Treblinka, or the marshes of Belarus, or the pits of Babi Yar.

The Red Army liberated all of these places, and all of the bloodlands. All of the death sites and dead cities fell behind an iron curtain, in a Europe Stalin made his own even while liberating it from Hitler.

Grossman wrote his article about Treblinka while Soviet troops were paused at the Vistula, watching the Germans defeat the Home Army in the Warsaw Uprising. The ashes of Warsaw were still warm when the Cold War began.

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