Depictions of Warsaw 1939-1945
Depictions of Warsaw 1939-1945
On 22 August 1939 Hitler briefed fifty of his officers about the prospect of war:
It was clear to me that a conflict with Poland had to come sooner or later. I had already made this decision in the spring, but I thought that I would first turn against the West in a few years, and only after that against the East. … I wanted first of all to establish a tolerable relationship with Poland in order to fight first against the West. This plan appealed to me but could not be executed, as fundamental points had changed. It became clear to me that Poland would attack us in the event of a conflict with the West.
Essentially all depends on me, on my existence … There will probably never again be a man with more authority than I have. … But I can be eliminated at any time by a criminal or a lunatic. … [Mussolini’s] existence is also decisive. If anything happens to him, Italy’s loyalty to the alliance will no longer be certain.
We have nothing to lose; we have everything to gain. Because of our restrictions our economic situation is such that we can only hold out for a few more years. … We have no other choice, we must act. Our opponents will be risking a great deal and can gain only a little. … Our enemies have leaders who are below the average. No personalities. No masters, no men of action.
Besides the personal factors, the political situation is favourable to us. In the Mediterranean, rivalry between Italy, France, and England. In the Far East, tension between Japan and England. In the Middle East, tension that causes alarm in the Mohammedan world.
England and France have undertaken obligations that neither is in a position to fulfill. … The West has only two possibilities for fighting against us:
Blockade: It will not be effective because of our autarky and because we have sources of supply in Eastern Europe. Attack in the West from the Maginot Line (in France, near Switzerland): I consider this impossible.
Another possibility would be the violation of the Dutch, Belgian, and Swiss neutrality. I have no doubt that all these states, as well as Scandinavia, will defend their neutrality with all available means. England and France will not violate the neutrality of these countries. Thus in actual fact England cannot help Poland.
The enemy has another hope, that Russia would become our enemy after the conquest of Poland. The enemy did not reckon with my great strength of purpose. Our enemies are kleine Würmchen (‘small worms’). I saw them in Munich.
Stalin’s Secret Speech
On 19 August 1939, a few days before Hitler’s briefing, Stalin allegedly gave a secret speech to the Politburo (‘Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’):
The question of war and peace has entered a critical phase. If we conclude a mutual assistance pact with France and Great Britain, Germany will back off from Poland and seed a modus vivendi with the Western Powers. War would be avoided, but further events could prove dangerous for the USSR.
If we accept Germany’s proposal and conclude a non-aggression pact with her, she will certainly invade Poland, and the intervention of France and England is then unavoidable. In this case we will have a great opportunity to stay out of the conflict, and we could plan the opportune time for us to enter the war.
Our choice is clear. We must accept the German proposal and politely send the Anglo-French mission home. … Our immediate advantage will be to take Poland all the way to the gates of Warsaw, as well as Ukrainian Galicia.
We must, however, envisage the possibilities that will result from the defeat as well as from the victory of Germany. In case of her defeat, a Sovietisation of Germany will unavoidably occur and a Communist government will be created. … Our goal is that Germany should carry out the war as long as possible so that England and France grow weary and become exhausted to such a degree that they are no longer in a position to put down a Sovietized Germany.
At the same time we must carry on active Communist propaganda in the Anglo-French bloc, and predominantly in France. We must expect that in that country in times of war, the Party should quit the legal means of warfare and turn underground. … If this preparatory work is fulfilled properly, the safety of Soviet Germany will be assured, and this will contribute to the Sovietisation of France.
If Germany should prove to be victorious, she will leave the war too weakened to start a war with the USSR within a decade at least. … There is one additional thing that will strengthen our safety. In a conquered France, the French Communist Party will be very strong.
Comrades, it is in the interest of the USSR that a war breaks out between the Reich and the capitalist Anglo-French bloc. … [I]t is imperative that we agree to conclude the pact proposed by Germany, and then work in such a way that this war, once it is declared, will be prolonged maximally.
The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact
On 24 August 1939 Vyacheslav Molotov, the Russian foreign minister, and his German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Stalin had mentioned this pact in his speech and was present at its signing in Moscow. Publicly, he said the pact would help protect ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians living in Poland. His plan to expand the USSR westward remained a secret.
The pact stipulated ten years of non-aggression between Germany and Russia, and neutrality if one of them declared war on a third country. It also included a secret protocol that divided eastern Europe into a German and a Soviet sphere of influence. The German sphere encompassed Danzig, Lithuania, and the western half of Poland. The Soviet sphere contained Finland, Estonia, Latvia, part of Romania, and the eastern half of Poland. Warsaw, the capital of Poland, would be split along the Vistula River into a German and a Soviet half. At the signing of the pact, Molotov remarked that “Poland has ceased to exist.”
Hitler’s plan was to turn the German sphere into Lebensraum (‘living space’) for ethnic Germans, which meant the destruction of existing cities and inhabitants:
Even if war breaks out in the West, the destruction of Poland remains the primary objective. A quick decision, in view of the season. I shall give a propagandist reason for starting the war – never mind whether it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked afterward whether he told the truth or not. In starting and waging war it is not right that matters, but victory. Close your heart to pity! Act brutally! Eight million people must obtain what is their right.
Whoever has pondered over this world order knows that its meaning lies in the best by means of force. … My only fear is that at the last moment some Schweinhund will make a proposal for mediation. … The way is clear for the soldier after I have taken the political preparations.
In the last days of August 1939 a groups of Nazi operatives executed the secret Operation Himmler (named after its originator, Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the SS), which was also known as Operation Canned Meat. Disguised as Poles, they staged several attacks on German buildings and infrastructure near the Polish-German border. The Nazis brought with them corpses of concentration camp victims dressed in Polish uniforms. They shot the corpses and left them at the scene, so that it would seem as if the Poles were perpetrators killed by Germans defending the infrastructure. Hitler then publically blamed Poland for the attacks and used them as a casus belli for an invasion. He told his generals:
Our strength lies in our speed and our brutality. I have issued a command – and I will have everyone who utters even a single word of criticism shot – that the aim of the war lies not in reaching particular lines but in the physical annihilation of the enemy. … Poland will be depopulated and settled with Germans.
On 1 September Germany invaded Poland from three sides with over 1.5 million soldiers. They attacked from the west (the main offensive), from the north via East Prussia, and from the south aided by Slovak units. The three assaults were to converge in Warsaw. The Polish army, surprised and outmatched, fell back in a fighting retreat.
Before noon that day the British government warned that it would carry out its obligation to protect Poland, with which it had a military alliance, as did France. Up until then Hitler had hoped that a conflict with Britain and France could be avoided and that he would be left to destroy Poland in peace. But on 3 September, after Hitler had refused to withdraw his troops, France and Britain declared war on Germany. Goebbels reflected on the expanding war in his diary:
[Hitler] believes that the war in the west will fizzle out. But since I know Churchill is part of the government, I don’t believe that anymore. But we will persevere and win the war no matter what.
The Soviet Invasion
On 17 September the Soviet Union followed Germany into war by invading Poland from the east. The Soviet government did not officially declare war. Instead, it announced that it was trying to protect Ukrainians and Belarusians living in Poland from the chaos caused by the German attack. Initially some Poles believed that the Red Army was coming to fight the Nazis, but it quickly became clear that the hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were in the process of annexing the eastern half of Poland.
In the midst of the invasion Soviet forces encountered a German brigade near the Polish city of Brest-Litovsk, which according to the secret protocol lay in Soviet territory. Their respective commanders settled on entering the city from opposing directions, after which the German troops would return west. When the Soviets arrived, however, they found that the Germans had installed a headquarters and were looting the city. After an exchange of formalities, the two sides amicably decided to hold a joint parade to celebrate their victories over Poland. German and Soviet troops marched under improvised victory arches decorated with swastikas and hammer and sickles. Afterward the Soviets took control of the city.
The Creation of Gestapoland
Nearly a month into the war German and Soviet representatives revised the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The borders between the two spheres were changed so that Lithuania would belong to the Soviet Union, while the central part of Poland came under German control. The western and northern parts of the German-occupied area of Poland, including Warsaw, were annexed into Nazi Germany. The rest became the so- called General Government, a German colony where Himmler wanted to move millions of unwanted people, including the Jews and most of the Poles. “Himmler is presently shifting populations”, Goebbels noted in January 1940. “Not always successfully.”
Informally, the General Government was known as Restpolen, Gangergau, Gestapoland or Frank-Reich. The latter name was derived from its governor, Hans Frank, who took up residence in Kraków. Frank saw the Poles as fit only for exploitation:
Poland can only be administered by utilizing the country through means of ruthless exploitation, … reducing the entire Polish economy to absolute minimum necessary for bare existence of the population, closing of all educational institutions, especially technical schools and colleges in order to prevent the growth of the new Polish intelligentsia. Poland shall be treated as a colony; the Poles shall be the slaves of the Greater German World Empire.
Before long, the General Government was ruled completely by ethnic Germans. They were supported by between 350,000 and 1,080,000 soldiers and policemen stationed in the area.
When a journalist asked Frank to compare the General Government to the annexed part of Czechoslovakia, he replied:
In Prague big red posters were put up on which one could read that seven Czechs had been shot today. I said to myself: If I had to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not be sufficient to manufacture the paper.
The Battle of Warsaw
Warsaw was one of the primary targets of the German invasion. Since the first hours of the war, the Luftwaffe bombarded both its military and its civilian facilities. Civilians were strafed with machine gun fire in order to inspire terror.
Two week into the war German troops laid siege to the city. However, Polish reinforcements breached the German encirclement and joined the city’s defending forces. Warsaw’s anti-air artillery eventually crumbled, which enabled the Luftwaffe to send more bombers. On 25 September, “Black Monday”, heavy artillery and 1,200 aircrafts bombarded the city.
As the siege continued, the situation for the city’s inhabitants became increasingly dire. Between 40,000 and 50,000 civilians died, ten percent of the city was destroyed, and another forty percent damaged. On 28 September the Polish garrison capitulated. They secretly destroyed their weapons or hid them for later use. German forces captured 140,000 Polish troops and entered Warsaw on 1 October, starting a period of occupation. Hitler ordered all the church bells of the Reich to be rung in celebration between noon and one o’clock each day for one week.
This is Hell
“Warsaw: this is Hell”, Goebbels wrote in his diary after visiting the capital a month after its capture. “A city reduced to ruins. Our bombs and shells have done a thorough job. No house is undamaged. The populace is apathic, shadowy. The people creep through the streets like insects.” According to Goebbels, Hitler, too, was disgusted by the Poles:
The Führer’s verdict on the Poles is damning. More like animals than human beings, completely primitive, stupid, and amorphous. And a ruling class that is an unsatisfactory result of a mingling between the lower orders and an Aryan master-race. The Poles' dirtiness is unimaginable. Their capacity for intelligent judgement is absolutely nil.
The Führer has no intention of assimilating the Poles. They are to be forced into their truncated state and left entirely to their own devices… [N]ow we know the laws of racial heredity and can handle things accordingly.
The Nazis’ racial policy was based on religion, not race, because being a Jew or an Aryan was determined by the religion of one’s ancestors. This matter predated the war: the Nazis had discussed how to categorize half-Jews and quarter-Jews as early as 1935. Kurt Blome, the Deputy Reich Health Leader, had argued that partial Jews should be treated as full Jews, because “among half-Jews the Jewish genes are notoriously dominant”.
It was such ideas that shaped the Nazis’ actions in Poland. In October 1939 Hitler held a celebratory speech in which he declared that the time had come for “a new ordering of ethnographic relations, which means a resettlement of the nationalities so that, after the conclusion of this development, better lines of demarcation are given than is the case today.” The next day he ordered Himmler to bring back to the Reich eligible German citizens and ethnic Germans, eliminate harmful “alien parts of the population”, and create new German colonies.
An Intellectual Desert
Himmler, in turn, told Frank that the General Government would serve as a dumping ground for all Poles except those used as slaves in the Reich. According to Himmler the Poles should be turned into a “leaderless labouring class”. His plans for the Jews were even more radical: “I hope to see the term ‘Jew’ completely eliminated through the possibility of some large scale emigration of all Jews to Africa or some other colony.” Jews and Poles alike were to be kept uneducated, according to a memo he wrote in May 1940:
The non-German population of the eastern territories must not receive any education higher than that of an elementary school with four grades. The objective of this elementary school must simply be to teach simple arithmetic up to 500 at the most, how to write one’s name, and to teach that it is God’s commandment to be obedient to the Germans and to be honest, hard-working, and well-behaved. I consider it unnecessary to teach reading.
Consequently, Frank closed Polish universities, colleges, and secondary schools and placed cultural institutions under the control of German administrators. His rationale was similar to Himmler’s: “The Poles do not need universities or secondary schools: the Polish lands are to be changed in to an intellectual desert.” He further clarified that the “Pole must feel that we are not building him a legal state, but that for him there is only one duty, namely to work and to behave himself.” The Nazis also seized large businesses, firms, factories, and estates without compensation. SS agents toured asylums and hospitals and marked many patients for death. By contrast, tens of thousands of children with apparent Aryan qualities were abducted and sent to German families and so-called Lebensborn (‘fount of life’) facilities for Germanisation.
Warsaw had always been singled out by the Nazis. A few months before the war Hitler was presented with the so-called Pabst Plan, a Nazi plan to reconstruct Warsaw as a Nazi model city which outlined the destruction of Warsaw and the removal of its native Polish population of around 1.3 million people. The Jews of Warsaw, who formed one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, were to be resettled first. Once rid of its population, the capital would be rebuilt as a German-styled provincial town in the General Government. Up to 130,000 ethnic Germans would live on the left bank of the Vistula, supported by 80,000 Poles toiling in a slave labour camp on the other side of the river.
Although the Pabst Plan was never implemented, it informed the Nazis initial conduct in Warsaw. After the Nazis took over the city, they claimed two large sections of Warsaw’s city centre and declared them “Germans only”. One section centred on Pilsudski Square, which was renamed to Adolf Hitler Platz exactly one year after the start of the war. (In 1946 it was again renamed, to Victory Square.) This area was densely packed with administrative buildings. The other section ringed the Gestapo Headquarters at Schuch Avenue and was the official police district.
The Warsaw Ghetto
In addition to their general oppression of Warsaw’s Poles, the Nazis gradually isolated its Jews from the rest of the population and stripped them from their rights. To this end they issued a series of decrees, the most important of which were:
October 1939: Jews could no longer withdraw gold or securities and only limited amounts of cash. Jewish teachers were prohibited from teaching in Polish schools.
November 1939: A curfew was imposed on all Jews in Warsaw.
December 1939: Jews aged twelve and up were required to wear an armband with a blue Star of David. Jewish stores were marked with the same sign. All Jewish educational institutions were closed. Jews had to declare all their property.
January 1940: All Jews between the ages of twelve and sixty were sent to re-education camps. Every synagogue in Warsaw was closed.
In February 1940: Jews were forbidden to travel between cities by train.
July 1940: Jews were denied access to parks, municipal areas, and designated streets.
October 1940: Jews in Warsaw were transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto; Jews found outside the ghetto were to be executed.
The construction of the Warsaw Ghetto was ordered by Frank in May 1939 and completed in November. It was the largest of the around 800 ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe. Its 380,740 inmates resided in a 3.4-square-kilometre area surrounded by a high wall with barbed wire and overseen by around 200 guards. Chłodna Street divided the area into the so-called Large Ghetto on the north side and the extremely crowded Small Ghetto on the south side. Sturmbahnführer Max Jesuiter outlined the ghetto in purple on a map of Warsaw.
To regulate the ghetto, the Nazis established a Jewish police force and a Jewish Council headed by Adam Czerniaków, a Polish-Jewish engineer and senator. One of the chief tasks of the Council was the distribution of food, which was strictly regulated in the General Government. In Warsaw the rations were determined by this table:
Racial Group Daily Ration (Calories)
Aryans Germans Reichsdeusch (Germans from the Reich) 2,613
Volksdeutsch (ethnic Germans) 2,613
Non-Germans Suitable for Germanisation 669
Mischlings (mixed race) 669
Non-Aryan Untermenschen Non-Germans unsuitable for Germanisation 184
Jews defined by descent 184
Gypsies, imbeciles, incurables 184
Because of these extremely meagre rations all but the wealthiest Jews had to smuggle food into the ghetto in order to avoid starvation. Food was paid for with goods manufactured in illegal workshops. When the Nazis learned about the smuggling, they ordered the Judenrat to heighten the wall at its own expense. Despite the smuggling, undernourishment was rampant and thousands died of disease. Czerniaków noted: “In the public assistance shelters, mothers are hiding dead children under the beds for eight days in order to receive a larger food rations.”
Czerniaków tried, often unsuccessfully, to obtain small concessions and improve conditions in the ghetto by exploiting the divisions within the German authorities. Because of his stubbornness he was arrested and tortured in November 1940 and again in April 1941. He was critical of Chaim Rumkowski, the authoritative leader of the Jewish Council of the Łódź ghetto, who he called “a conceited and witness man. A dangerous man too since he keeps telling the authorities that all is well in his preserve.”
Within the ghetto there were Jewish organisations besides the Jewish Council, such as Aleynhilf, an independent Jewish relief organisation whose members included former politicians, intellectuals, social workers and rabbis. Aleynhilf facilitated the smuggling of food and cultural activities in the ghetto. As the influence of the Jewish Council grew, Aleynhilf became increasingly critical, often overlooking the welfare activities of the council. One German commissar observed with satisfaction that the inmates complained more about the Jewish council than about the German authorities.
Although Germany and the Soviet Union were formally allies, Hitler saw Bolshevism as “the most recent and most nefarious manifestation of the eternal Jewish threat”. Ignoring the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and many of his advisors, in December 1940 he authorized an invasion of the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa, as it was called, started on 22 June 1941 with the Luftwaffe bombing cities in Soviet-occupied Poland and artillery barrages striking Soviet defences on the entire front. It was a surprise attack that paralyzed much of the Red Army, including the Soviet High Command, which was unable to oversee the catastrophe. Molotov’s reaction could be heard over half a million loudspeakers in public spaces across Moscow:
Today at four o’clock in the morning, without addressing any grievances to the Soviet Union, without a declaration of war, German forces fell on our country … an act of treachery unprecedented in the history of civilized nations. The Germans – not the German people but their bloodthirsty leaders – had broken their faith with the Russians, who had fulfilled all their obligations under the Pact of Friendship… The Red Army and the whole of the nation will wage a victorious Patriotic War for our beloved country, for honour, for liberty… Our cause is just. The enemy will be beaten. Victory will be ours.
In the course of 1941 Germany captured most of Soviet-controlled Europe and part of the Soviet Union itself. But the German forces were delayed many times and they failed to capture Moscow. The quick victory Hitler had hoped for proved impossible and the Soviet Union, despite its territorial losses, started mounting counteroffensives. By the end of the year Hitler found himself fighting a war of attrition, which Germany was ill-prepared for.
The Final Solution
Operation Barbarossa greatly accelerated the Nazis’ “war of destruction” targeted at Soviet and European Jews. Men, women, and children were henceforth killed ruthlessly, sometimes thousands at a time, by firing squads that moved through Ukraine, Latvia, and other eastern European countries. By the end of 1941, between 600,000 and 800,000 Jews had been killed in this “Holocaust by bullets”.
The Nazis’ plans for the destruction of the Jews of Europe were further formalized during the secret Wannsee Conference in January 1942. By then Hitler had decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe immediately rather than after the war, which was bound to take longer than anticipated because of the slow progress of Operation Barbarossa and the United States’ declaration of war against Germany in December 1941. The Nazis at the conference decided that the most efficient way toward total destruction was to “evacuate” all Jews in German territory to extermination camps in the General Government, where they would be out of sight of the general German population. Once the deportation process was complete, the SS would complete the extermination of the Jews.
A few days after the Wannsee Conference, Frank gave a briefing on his policy on Jews:
As far as the Jews are concerned, I want to tell you quite frankly, that they must be done away with in one way or another. The Führer said once: should united Jewry again succeed in provoking a world war, the blood of not only the nations which have been forced into the war by them, will be shed, but the Jew will have found his end in Europe.
Gentlemen, I must ask you to rid yourselves of all feeling of pity. We must annihilate the Jews, wherever we find them and wherever it is possible, in order to maintain here the structure of the Reich as a whole. This will, naturally, be achieved by other methods than those pointed out by Bureau Chief dr. Hummel. Nor can the judges of the Special Courts be made responsible for it, because of the limitations of the framework of the legal procedure. Such outdated views cannot be applied to such gigantic and unique events. We must find at any rate, a way which leads to the goal, and my thoughts are working in that direction.
The Jews represent for us also extraordinarily malignant gluttons. We have now approximately 2,500,000 of them in the General Government, perhaps with the Jewish mixtures and everything that goes with it, 3,500,000 Jews. We cannot shoot or poison those 3,500,000 Jews, but we shall nevertheless be able to take measures, which will lead, somehow, to their annihilation, and this in connection with the gigantic measures to be determined in discussions from the Reich.
In July 1942 the Nazis began secretly preparing for mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, a newly-build extermination camp north-east of Warsaw. By then the ghetto was terribly overcrowded, with more than 430,000 inmates. The German authorities ordered the Judenrat (‘Jewish Council’) to provide lists of persons and maps of residencies. Then they told Czerniaków that all Warsaw Jews were to be “resettled” in the East at a rate of 6,000 people per day, starting immediately. If the deportations were impeded in any way, his wife would be shot. Czerniaków managed to obtain exemptions for a small group of people but could not safe the ghetto’s orphans. The next day he committed suicide. In his final letter he told his wife, “They are demanding that I kill the children of my people with my own hands. There is nothing for me to do but die.”
Between then and late September approximately 265,000 ghetto inmates were sent to Treblinka and exterminated. Many others died in forced-labour camps and during the frequent pogroms in the ghetto. Janusz Korczak, the director of the ghetto’s orphanage and a well-known children’s author, was offered sanctuary but refused, insisting that he would go with the children.
It was during these deportations that Jan Karski, a Polish resistance movement fighter, infiltrated the ghetto to witness what was happening to the Jews. He recalled:
Everywhere there was hunger, misery, the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries and gasps of a people struggling for life against impossible odds.
To pass that wall was to enter into a new world utterly unlike anything that had ever been imagined. The entire population of the ghetto seemed to be living in the street. There was hardly a square yard of empty space.
Frequently we passed by corpses lying naked in the streets. “What does it mean?” I asked my guide. “Why are they lying there naked?” “When a Jew dies,” he answered, “his family removes his clothing and throws his body in the street. If not, they have to pay the Germans to have the body buried… Besides, this saves clothing. Here, every rag counts.”
He relentlessly pointed out every macabre example of the zone’s bestial conditions… “Remember this,” he repeated over and over, “Remember this!”
Afterward Karski was brought to Washington by Poland’s ambassador to the US. There he relayed his experiences to a number of notable American Jews. One of them was Felix Frankfurter, a Justice of the Supreme Court. After listening to Karski, he said he was unable to believe him. When the ambassador protested, Frankfurter explained: “I did not say that this young man is lying. I said I that am unable to believe what he told me. There is a difference, Mr. Ambassador.”
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
By the end of 1942 there were less than 60,000 Jews left in the ghetto. Their situation seemed hopeless and many of them joined the growing Jewish resistance movement. During a roundup in January 1943 resistance fighters launched a surprise attack on the Jewish Police, which allowed a few deportees to escape. Shortly after the incident the Nazis suspended the deportations. Himmler saw the ghetto a security risk ordered its final “liquidation”.
Most of the inmates had heard about the extermination camps and went into hiding. Meanwhile resistance fighters collected weapons, built defensive structures, and executed or imprisoned collaborators. In the midst of this all, a group of Polish-Jewish historians led by Emanuel Ringelblum worked on a project called Oyneg Shabes (‘Sabbath Delight’). Their aim was to create for posterity a written account of their times and lives, realizing they might not survive the war to tell others directly. To this end they collected diaries, drawings, newspapers, official decrees, posters, and other documents.
In April 1943 police and SS units tried to re-establish Nazi control but they were ambushed by resistance fighters and had to withdraw. In response Himmler placed SS commander Jürgen Stroop in charge of supressing the uprising. Himmler told him to proceed with “the greatest harshness, ruthlessness and toughness”. Stroop sent in over 2,000 heavily armed troops to burn down the ghetto building by building. The complete destruction of the ghetto became imminent and Oyneg Shabes decided to hide their archives in cans and boxes, which they buried at three different locations. Two parts of the archive were recovered after the war; the third has never been found.
Despite the Germans’ overwhelming force the Ghetto Uprising lasted until 16 May. Approximately 13,000 Jews died during or shortly after the uprising and around 40,000 survivors were sent to extermination camps. The ghetto itself was completely destroyed. To mark his victory, Stroop blew up the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, which had once been the largest in the world:
What a marvellous sight it was. A fantastic piece of theatre. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device which would detonate all the charges simultaneously. [Max] Jesuiter called for silence. I glanced over at my brave officers and men, tired and dirty, silhouetted against the glow of the burning buildings. After prolonging the suspense for a moment, I shouted Heil Hitler and pressed the button.
Stroop was proud of the destruction of the ghetto and created an illustrated report titled Es gibt keinen jüdischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr! (‘The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is No More!’). He had 56.065 copies made, all on expensive paper. Himmler received a special leather-bound copy.
Shortly after, Frank, who worked in the Nazi headquarters in Kraków, reflected on the economic effects of the ghetto’s destruction in a separate report:
The Jewish settlement is essentially empty… It is not yet possible to say what the economic effects of decreasing Warsaw’s population by about 400,000 are going to be. These economic disadvantages must be accepted, however, because the extinction of Jewry is unconditionally required for political reasons.
After the Ghetto Uprising Himmler ordered a concentration camp to be built in Warsaw. KZ Warschau was established in a closed-off section of the city, part of which had belonged to the ghetto. It contained barracks with space for 41,000 inmates, gas chambers, and crematoria. The camp was used mainly to detain or kill Poles and political opponents. It was operational until August 1944.
In late 1943 the tide of war changed and the Soviet Union began recapturing Germany-held territory. In the summer of 1944 the Red Army crossed the old Polish border. The Soviet Foreign Office announced that it would “squash the enemy” and “help the Polish people to re-establish an independent, strong, and democratic state.” It also stated that the “Soviet Government does not wish to acquire any part of Polish territory or to bring about any changes in the social order.” On 30 July it broadcast a Polish-language message for the people of Warsaw:
Warsaw is shaking to the foundations from the roar of guns. Soviet troops are advancing forcefully and approaching Praga. They are coming to bring you freedom. When driven out of Praga, the Germans will try to defend themselves in Warsaw. They will want to destroy everything. In [Białystok] they went on a rampage for six days, murdering thousands of your brothers. Let’s do everything in our power to prevent them from repeating the same in Warsaw. … Strike at the Germans! … Assist the Red Army in their crossing of the Vistula. Send them information. May your million-strong population become a million soldiers, who will drive out the German invaders and bring freedom.
The Polish government-in-exile had been planning a large uprising in Warsaw. Its aim was to strike the occupying German forces and to manifest Polish sovereignty. Already the Germans had already recognized Warsaw as a hotbed of resistance. Its citizens had refused, for instance, orders to help the Germans fortify the city. Frank said:
In this country, we have one point from which every evil emanates. That point is Warsaw. If we didn't have Warsaw in the General Government, we wouldn’t have four-fifths of the difficulties with which we must contend.
The Warsaw Uprising began on 1 August when Soviet forces drew close to Warsaw. Tens of thousands of Polish fighters attempted to liberate the capital in what was the largest single offensive by a resistance movement during the war. Often the much better equipped Germans were able to defend their positions but the resistance fighters managed to capture several important targets.
Himmler was outraged when he learned that the Home Army had staged an uprising. When he briefed Hitler about it, he suggested to finally crush the Poles:
The moment is a difficult one. [But] from a historical point of view, the action of the Poles is a blessing. We shall finish them off … Warsaw will be liquidated; and this city, which is the intellectual capital of a sixteen-to-seventeen-million-strong nation that has blocked our path to the east for 700 years, ever since the first battle of Tannenberg, will have ceased to exist.
Meanwhile Władysław Raczkiewicz, the president-in-exile of Poland, tried to secure aid for the Polish insurgents, who lacked supplies and military equipment. He sent a message to Churchill on 3 August 1944:
For the last two days Warsaw fights. To save the city, it is indispensable that a large quantity of equipment be dropped this very night at places indicated. … It is to be feared that without your decision giving this operation priority for tonight … it may fail to take place [and] my Nation … would never forget that it was left unaided at the most critical moment by its British ally. I appeal to our friendship … and your deep understanding of soldierly solidarity.
Churchill ordered the RAF do drop supplies and telegraphed Stalin the next day:
At the urgent request of the Polish underground army, we are dropping subject to the weather about 60 tons of equipment into the south-western quarter of the city, where, it is said, a Polish revolt against the Germans is in fierce struggle. They also say that they appeal for Russian aid, which seems very near.
I think the information given to you by the Poles is greatly exaggerated and unreliable. … The Home Army consists of a few detachments misnamed divisions. They have neither guns, aircraft, nor tanks. I cannot image detachments like those taking Warsaw.
After four days of fighting, the Germans began receiving reinforcements and recaptured parts of the city. Behind the lines they started looting, raping, and mass-murdering civilians in what became known as the Wola Massacre. Between 20,000 and 100,000 people were killed, their property was stolen, and the district systematically burnt down. Himmler had ordered these atrocities to be carried out, hoping they would crush the insurgents’ will to fight. Instead, it hardened the resolve of the resistance fighters, who captured the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto and liberated 350 Jews from a concentration camp.
The insurgents were counting on the Red Army to help them in their fight against the Germans, but the Soviet forces stationed in the vicinity of the city without providing any aid. As a result the fighting, which was meant to last only a few days, continued throughout August. On 2 October the Polish forces, lacking water and food, finally capitulated to the Germans.
Approximately 9,000 German soldiers, 16,000 Polish resistance fighters, and 150,000 to 200,000 civilians had been killed, the latter group mostly during mass executions. Urban combat had destroyed about a quarter of the city’s buildings, but for Himmler this was not enough:
The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation.
While the Red Army remained stationed nearby for another 100 days, German troops systematically levelled what remained of the Warsaw. When Soviet troops finally captured the city on 17 January 1945 84% of the city’s buildings were in ruins. Only about 174,000 people were left in the city, less than 6% of the pre-war population.