Military history

“THE WARSAW GHETTO IS NO MORE”

More than one eyewitness has commented on the spirit of resignation with which so many Jews met their deaths in the Nazi gas chambers or in the great execution pits of the Einsatz squads. Not all Jews submitted to extermination so gently. In the spring days of 1943 some 60,000 Jewswalled up in the Warsaw ghetto—all that remained of 400,000 who had been herded into this place like cattle in 1940—turned on their Nazi tormentors and fought.

Perhaps no one has left a more grisly—and authoritative—account of the Warsaw ghetto rebellion than the proud S.S. officer who put it down.* This German individual was Juergen Stroop, S.S. Brigadefuehrer and Major General of Police. His eloquent official report, bound in leather, profusely illustrated and typed on seventy-five pages of elegant heavy bond paper has survived. It is entitled The Warsaw Ghetto Is No More.69

By the late autumn of 1940, a year after the Nazi conquest of Poland, the S.S. had rounded up some 400,000 Jews and sealed them off within a high wall from the rest of Warsaw in an area approximately two and a half miles long and a mile wide around the old medieval ghetto. The district normally housed 160,000 persons, so there was overcrowding, but this was the least of the hardships. Governor Frank refused to allot enough food to keep even half of the 400,000 barely alive. Forbidden to leave the enclosure on the pain of being shot on sight, the Jews had no employment except for a few armament factories within the wall run by the Wehrmacht or by rapacious German businessmen who knew how to realize large profits from the use of slave labor. At least 100,000 Jews tried to survive on a bowl of soup a day, often boiled from straw, provided by the charity of the others. It was a losing struggle for life.

But the ghetto population did not die fast enough from starvation and disease to suit Himmler, who in the summer of 1942 ordered the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto to be removed altogether “for security reasons.” On July 22 a great “resettlement” action was instituted. Between then and October 3 a total of 310,322 Jews, according to Stroop, were “resettled.” That is, they were transported to the extermination camps, most of them to Treblinka, where they were gassed.

Still Himmler was not satisfied. When he paid a surprise visit to Warsaw in January 1943 and discovered that 60,000 Jews were still alive in the ghetto he ordered that the “resettlement” be completed by February 15. This proved to be a difficult task. The severe winter and the demands of the Army, whose disaster at Stalingrad and whose consequent retreats in southern Russia gave it first claim to transportation facilities, made it difficult for the S.S. to obtain the necessary trains to carry out the final “resettlement.” Also, Stroop reported, the Jews were resisting their final liquidation “in every possible way.” It was not until spring that Himmler’s order could be carried out. It was decided to clear out the ghetto in a “special action” lasting three days. As it turned out, it took four weeks.

The deportation of more than 300,000 Jews had enabled the Germans to reduce the size of the walled-in ghetto and as S.S. General Stroop turned his tanks, artillery, flame throwers and dynamite squads on it on the morning of April 19, 1943, it comprised an area measuring only 1,000 by 300 yards. It was honeycombed, though, with sewers, vaults and cellars which the desperate Jews had converted into fortified points. Their arms were few: some pistols and rifles, a dozen or two machine guns that had been smuggled in, and homemade grenades. But they were now on that April morning determined to use them—the first time and the last in the history of the Third Reich that the Jews resisted their Nazi oppressors with arms.

Stroop had 2,090 men, about half of them Regular Army or Waffen-S.S. troops, and the rest S.S. police reinforced by 335 Lithuanian militia and some Polish police and firemen. They ran into unexpected resistance the first day.

Hardly had operation begun [Stroop reported in the first of his many teletyped daily reports], than we ran into strong concerted fire by the Jews and bandits. The tank and two armored cars pelted with Molotov cocktails … Owing to this enemy counterattack we had to withdraw.

The German attack was renewed but found heavy going.

About 1730 hours we encountered very strong resistance from one block of buildings, including machine-gun fire. A special raiding party defeated the enemy but could not catch the resisters. The Jews and criminals resisted from base to base and escaped at the last moment … Our losses in first attack: 12 men.

And so it went for the first few days, the poorly armed defenders giving ground before the attacks of tanks, flame throwers and artillery but keeping up their resistance. General Stroop could not understand why “this trash and subhumanity,” as he referred to the besieged Jews, did not give up and submit to being liquidated.

Within a few days [he reported] it became apparent that the Jews no longer had any intention to resettle voluntarily, but were determined to resist evacuation … Whereas it had been possible during the first days to catch considerable numbers of Jews, who are cowards by nature, it became more and more difficult during the second half of the operation to capture the bandits and Jews. Over and over again new battle groups consisting of 20 to 30 Jewish men, accompanied by a corresponding number of women, kindled new resistance.

The women belonged to the Chalutzim, Stroop noted, and had the habit, he said, of “firing pistols with both hands” and also of unlimbering hand grenades which they concealed in their bloomers.

On the fifth day of the battle, an impatient and furious Himmler ordered Stroop to “comb out” the ghetto “with the greatest severity and relentless tenacity.”

I therefore decided [Stroop related in his final report] to destroy the entire Jewish area by setting every block on fire.

He then described what followed.

The Jews stayed in the burning buildings until because of the fear of being burned alive they jumped down from the upper stories … With their bones broken, they still tried to crawl across the street into buildings which had not yet been set on fire … Despite the danger of being burned alive the Jews and bandits often preferred to return into the flames rather than risk being caught by us.

It was simply incomprehensible to a man of Stroop’s stripe that men and women preferred to die in the flames fighting rather than to die peacefully in the gas chambers. For he was shipping off the captured whom he did not slaughter to Treblinka. On April 25 he sent a teletype to S.S. headquarters reporting that 27,464 Jews had been captured.

I am going to try to obtain a train for T2 [Treblinka] tomorrow. Otherwise liquidation will be carried out here tomorrow.

Often it was, on the spot. The next day Stroop informed his superiors: “1,330 Jews pulled out of dugouts and immediately destroyed; 362 Jews killed in battle.” Only thirty prisoners were “evacuated.”

Toward the end of the rebellion the defenders took to the sewers. Stroop tried to flush them out by flooding the mains but the Jews managed to stop the flow of water. One day the Germans dropped smoke bombs into the sewers through 183 manholes but Stroop ruefully reported that they failed to “have the desired results.”

The final outcome could never be in doubt. For a whole month the cornered Jews fought with reckless courage though Stroop, in one daily report, put it differently, complaining about the “cunning fighting methods and tricks used by the Jews and bandits.” By April 26 he reported that many of the defenders were “going insane from the heat, the smoke and the explosions.”

During the day several more blocks of buildings were burned down. This is the only and final method which forces this trash and subhumanity to the surface.

The last day was May 16. That night Stroop got off his last daily battle report.

One hundred eighty Jews, bandits and subhumans were destroyed. The former Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no longer in existence. The large-scale action was terminated at 2015 hours by blowing up the Warsaw synagogue …

Total number of Jews dealt with: 56,065, including both Jews caught and Jews whose extermination can be proved.

A week later he was asked to explain that figure, and he replied:

Of the total of 56,065 caught, about 7,000 were destroyed in the former ghetto during large-scale operation. 6,929 Jews were destroyed by transporting them to Treblinka; the sum total of Jews destroyed is therefore 13,929. Beyond that, from five to six thousand Jews were destroyed by being blown up or by perishing in the flames.

General Stroop’s arithmetic is not very clear since this report leaves some 36,000 Jews unaccounted for. But there can be little doubt that he was telling the truth when he wrote in his handsomely bound final report that he had caught “a total of 56,065 Jews whose extermination can be proved.” The gas chambers no doubt accounted for the 36,000.

German losses, according to Stroop, were sixteen killed and ninety wounded. Probably the true figures were much higher, given the nature of the savage house-to-house fighting which the general himself described in such lurid detail, but were kept low so as not to disturb Himmler’s fine sensibilities. The German troops and police, Stroop concluded, “fulfilled their duty indefatigably in faithful comradeship and stood together as exemplary models of soldiers.”

   The “final solution” went on to the very end of the war. How many Jews did it massacre? The figure has been debated. According to two S.S. witnesses at Nuremberg the total was put at between five and six millions by one of the great Nazi experts on the subject, Karl Eichmann, chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo, who carried out the “final solution” under the prodding hand of its originator, Heydrich.* The figure given in the Nuremberg indictment was 5,700,000 and it tallied with the calculations of the World Jewish Congress. Reitlinger in his prodigious study of the Final Solution concluded that the figure was somewhat less—between 4,194,200 and 4,581,200.71

There were some ten million Jews living in 1939 in the territories occupied by Hitler’s forces. By any estimate it is certain that nearly half of them were exterminated by the Germans. This was the final consequence and the shattering cost of the aberration which came over the Nazi dictator in his youthful gutter days in Vienna and which he imparted to—or shared with—so many of his German followers.

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