The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in its main phase began on 19 April 1943 and ran into mid-May. But it was preceded by a shorter episode of armed Jewish resistance, and today is the anniversary of the day on which that started. Robert Rozett describes it:
In January 1943 there were only 60,000 Jews left in the Warsaw Ghetto.
They were what remained of the approximately 440,000 Jews who had been confined there. One-fifth had died of disease and starvation during the past two years, and the previous summer some 265,000 had been deported to the Treblinka extermination camp, and over 30,000 to other camps.
At the start of the great deportation, the head of the Jewish Council, Adam Czerniakow, had committed suicide rather than comply with German demands to provide census information about the ghetto, realizing the Germans would use it for the coming Aktion. His death, however, did nothing to stop the trains from rolling out of Warsaw.
With Czerniakow dead, in the wake of the deportations a new de facto leadership emerged in the ghetto – the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), headed by Mordecai Anielewicz. The ZOB was a coalition primarily of various Zionist youth movements and the Jewish socialist Bund.
Alongside it there was a smaller armed underground group, the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) which represented the Revisionist Zionists.
On Monday, January 18, 1943, 70 years ago, German forces entered the ghetto to round up Jews for transport.
They planned to take about 8,000 people, but the ghetto population believed the final destruction of the ghetto was at hand. To the great surprise of the German forces, they met armed resistance.
A group of Hashomer Hatsair members, led by Anielewicz and armed with pistols they had received from the Polish Home Army, intercepted a column of Jews being led by a German force and fired upon the solders. In a nose-to-nose battle, most of the underground contingent was killed, but Anielewicz managed to overpower the soldier with whom he was struggling and he escaped unharmed.
The news of the clash spread quickly to other cells of the underground and they too began to resist. Yitzhak Zuckerman, with a party from the Dror Youth Movement, lay in wait for the German force on Zamenhof Street, and when they approached fired a volley at them.
During four days the Germans tried to round up Jews and were met by armed resistance. The ghetto inhabitants went through a swift change.
With the news of the first incident of fighting they stopped responding to the Germans' calls that they gather in the Umschlagplatz. They began devising hiding places, and the Germans had to enter many buildings and ruthlessly pull out Jews. Many were killed in their homes when they refused to be taken.
On the fourth day, having only managed to seize between 5,000 [and] 6,000 Jews, the Germans withdrew from the ghetto. The remaining inhabitants believed that the armed resistance, combined with the difficulties in finding Jews in hiding, had led to the end of the Aktion. As a result, over the next months the armed under-grounds sought to strengthen themselves and the vast majority of ghetto residents zealously built more and better bunkers in which to hide.
All of this would be put to the test on April 19, 1943, when the Germans reentered the ghetto, this time to liquidate it completely.
The four days of Jewish armed resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto in January 1943 is much less known than the April uprising, but its significance was great at the time and remains consequential.