18 Mila St. in 1943, became the headquarters for Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. After the German army had conquered Poland, the Germans began gathering and segregating Polish Jews into ghettos. Initially, the Warsaw ghetto was isolated by barbed wire, but eventually a 10 foot high brick wall that ran nearly 11 miles circled the ghetto. At one point the ghetto, which occupied no more than 840 acres, housed nearly a half million people. Disease, and particularly typhus, had caused many deaths before the first major deportations began in the summer of 1942. By January of 1943 only 55 to 60,000 Jews remained in the Warsaw ghetto. Also, by January 1943 the Jewish resistance organizations that had been developing came to understand that the deportations were being carried out for the purpose of extermination, and not relocation as the Germans had stated. The resistance fighters obviously knew that they could not defeat the German army. Exterminating European Jewry was a Nazi priority, even though by 1943 they were fighting a war on multiple fronts.
The Germans were determined to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto ,and in January 1943, started deportations again. The surviving population of Jews hid in underground bunkers as best they could, and on January 9, 1943 the Jewish resistance movements finally fought back. With very limited weaponry smuggled in from beyond the ghetto walls, they were able to force the Germans back and minimize deportations.
On April 19, 1943, Passover eve the Germans came to the ghetto with a large force consisting of tanks ,artillery , machine guns and at least 2000 men. The Jewish resistance was poorly armed, mostly with handguns, and Molotov cocktails. They did possess some grenades, and also a few rifles, and a machine gun. The fighting was desperate. Again, at this point the resistance was not fighting to win, but fighting for their dignity, and fighting with desperation and pent up rage.
There were several different Jewish resistance organizations in the Warsaw ghetto. These organizations were to some extent formed around political and social positions prior to, and during the war.There were communists, Bundists, Zionists, etc. The most prominent of these organizations was the Jewish Combat Organization or ZOB , whose commander was Mordechai Anielewicz.
From April 19 to May 8 Anielewicz was the most prominent resistance commander. After the initial 3 days of fighting the Germans changed strategy,and decided to burn the ghetto down;building by building, and block by block. When his bunker was finally surrounded by the Germans on May 8, 1943 he and most of the rest of his command committed suicide rather than be captured by the Germans. Anielewicz was much admired and respected. In December 1943, a young Kibbutz in southern Israel changed it’s name to Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in his honor. A number of survivors of the resistance eventually came to live in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. Ironically, in 1948 when Israel had declared its independence this kibbutz,and it’s survivors of World War II , were one of the first places to be attacked by the invading Arab armies. Just three years after the end of World War II these people were at war again. Fortunately, the defenders of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai were able to slow down the Egyptian army in its advance to Tel Aviv, giving people in Tel Aviv time to organize their defense. The five days that the kibbutz held out was one of the critical moments in the 1948 war for Israel Independence.
In 1969 I had the opportunity to visit Kibbutz yad Mordechai with a youth group from the United States. We toured the 1948 battlefield, and the battlefield Museum. We met a number of Holocaust survivors who had not only fought in the resistance of World War II, but at that point had already fought in the 1948 war ,1956 war, and Six-Day War of 1967.
Today, the Kibbutz displays a large sculptor of Mordechai Anielewicz. It’s the largest producer of honey in the state of Israel, and also produces a wide variety of olive oils and fruit jams.
Leon Uris wrote a very good book about the Warsaw ghetto uprising – Mila 18, he also wrote Exodus,a book about the 1948 war for Independence.
I have often wondered, why the resistance didn’t start sooner. At the time the Warsaw ghetto revolt began in January 1943, many of the resistance fighters and survivors in the ghetto were also wishing that they had started the resistance much earlier.
I think the answer lies in the fact that the Jewish community really could not absorb or comprehend the extent of Hitler’s final solution. The deportations from the Warsaw ghetto in the summer of 1943 were supposed to be about relocation and labor camps. Furthermore, the people in the ghetto had very minimal arms.
The biggest factor, however, is that prior to 1943, leadership in the ghetto felt that their decisions in relation to German demands, was between survival and death. By 1943 the remaining people in the ghetto understood that their choice was only how to die… Many of them chose to die fighting.