Warsaw Ghetto and the Real Cost of Imperialist War

In September 1939 Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany from the West and Stalinist Russia from the East. Warsaw – a city with a large Jewish population which was further swelled by Jewish refugees fleeing or being expelled from other cities and towns – came under the control of the Nazi administration. In October 1940 the Warsaw Ghetto was established where the Jewish population, now around 450,000, was to be concentrated over just 3.4 square kilometres (1.3 square miles). Subjected to dire living conditions and forced labour, within the next two years some 100,000 died of starvation and disease. Once Germany began its doomed invasion of the USSR, and the USA officially joined the war, the prospects for a German victory dwindled. The increasingly desperate situation on the frontlines only intensified the repressions on the occupied territories. In July 1942, the rounding up of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began and over the next few months they were systematically sent to the death camps.

The uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, which broke out on 19 April 1943, was a response to the final push to deport the remaining Jews to the death camps. The suppression of the ghetto lasted a month during which some 13,000 died as a result of the fighting. Most of the survivors were then deported. In this context, we present below a translation of a document written by a socialist participant of the uprising. It does not draw any political conclusions, but as an eye-witness report it is of historical interest for its presentation of the events. Of course, the idea that small groups of workers taking part in the uprising was equivalent to the Jewish proletariat “leading” it in any meaningful sense, ignores some of the political forces involved and has to be seen mostly as an attempt to put some positive spin on otherwise tragic reality.

The original document comes from the pages of Robotnik, the paper of the Workers’ Party of Polish Socialists (Robotnicza Partia Polskich Socjalistów, RPPS) about which we have written previously and whose limitations we have criticised (see: leftcom.org). As an organisation it served as a political orphanage for former members of the official “Communist” Party (which had been dissolved) and particularly the “Socialist” Party (from which they were excluded). The RPPS recognised the need for world war to be met by world revolution, but in the end they could not escape their own social-patriotic origins (the group’s involvement in a popular front coalition would eventually lead to its destruction as an independent political force just as open class struggle in Poland was again emerging out of the war).

Notably, in that same issue of Robotnik, the RPPS comments on another world event which took place just a day before the final suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto: the dissolution of the Communist International (Comintern). The authors clearly saw it as an attempt by Stalin, who in their words "gave up on world revolution even before the first Five Year Plan", to appease his new allies in Britain and the USA. They recognised that while initially the Comintern was a revolutionary body, "after the fall of the revolutionary wave ... the thesis of building socialism in one country won ... the Comintern was given the guiding principle of mobilising the masses against war with the USSR". Instead, harkening back to the original spirit of the Comintern, they posed their alternative:

We, from the beginning of this war, bet on a good horse. We bet on independent revolutionary strategy, on independent revolutionary tactics. ... We have no doubt that the revolutionary proletariat of the West is taking the same road. We have no doubt that this war will end in a revolutionary transformation. We have no doubt that on the ruins of fascism, hitlerism, and all other imperialisms, as well as on the withered remains of all opportunist internationals, will bloom again the victorious red banner of socialist revolution with the indelible call: workers of the world, unite!

Komintern Rozwiązany, Robotnik

Some of the workers who took part in the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto might have once held similar hopes. As Marek Edelman, another participant of the uprising and member of the Bund, recalled:

[On 1 May 1943] the partisans were briefly addressed by a few people and the Internationale was sung. The entire world, we knew, was celebrating May Day on that day and everywhere forceful, meaningful words were being spoken. But never yet had the Internationale been sung in conditions so different, so tragic, in a place where an entire nation had been and was still perishing. The words and the song echoed from the charred ruins and were, at that particular time, an indication that socialist youth was still fighting in the ghetto, and that even in the face of death they were not abandoning their ideals.

The Warsaw Ghetto: The 45th Anniversary of the Uprising

We know what happened. On the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Warsaw concentration camp was opened. Following another ill-fated uprising in 1944, Warsaw itself was razed to the ground. The war ended in a new re-division of the world among the great imperialist powers which formed the foundations of the international order we still see today. The uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto was not the spark for any wider class movement. In fact, as Edelman soberly pointed out, it was an act of desperation:

We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning. We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths. We knew we were going to die. Just like all the others who were sent to Treblinka.... Their death was far more heroic. … It was easier to die fighting than in a gas chamber.

Resisting the Holocaust: Fighting Back in the Warsaw Ghetto

80 years on, as commemorations take place, we are likely to see various ruling class factions, among them those already involved in current wars and those planning the future ones, make political capital out of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance. Stripped of context and reduced simply to notions of “heroism”, anyone and everyone can find solace in it. For us, as sabre-rattling, war propaganda and military production intensify once again, this “historical episode”, as the authors of the document translated below sum it up, is a timely reminder of the real cost of imperialist total war. Only the working class can prevent the horrors yet to come, by putting an end to the capitalist system which spawns them.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
April 2023

The Ghetto Fought Under the Lead of the Jewish Proletariat

Recollections and Comments from a Participant in the Fight

The echoes of Jewish shots coming from the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto cannot pass us by without wider recognition. We should all get acquainted with the source, course and meaning of this last act in German-Jewish relations.

At the conference of all the firms employing Jewish workers, called a few weeks before the beginning of the "final contest", the total "de-Jewification" of Warsaw was announced with a deadline for the near future. The fascist Kulturträgers(1) recommended that their Jewish victims adopt an attitude which would avoid the "needless spilling of blood". So already then resistance was expected.

The old bandit, but young general, Stroop(2) appointed a three day deadline for carrying out this action, yet for five weeks we had the daily opportunity to ascertain the real value of the swastika army. Because in this whole bloody row, one key aspect emerges: the German fascists had such great trouble with the ultimate subjugation of the ghetto not because of Jewish heroism, but because of their own cowardice. The Hitlerite can be threatening only as an executioner in a camp or a jail, and he much prefers that role to open combat with a courageous enemy. We have to remember this, and even the longest of lists of their achievements will not fool us here.

But let us try to answer why the Jews did not fight when their number counted almost half a million people.

Almost immediately after the appearance of posters from the Judenrat, signed by Czerniaków(3), its then president, about the "resettlement of the Jewish population to the East", it was clear that the "evacuees" would never come back. Relatively accurate information coming from the Treblinka Ghetto(4) only confirmed this assumption. At the time however none of the Jews took the position of active resistance. What is more, in the first phase of the action the Germans did not occupy themselves directly with the "liquidation". They were relieved from this task by the so-called Jewish Police, which was quickly growing in numbers. It has to be admitted, they accomplished their designated tasks with the zeal of the majority of the "navy-blue heroes"!(5) For example, they uncovered many hideouts that the Germans could never trace by themselves. In a word, these "security guards" once again proved that the psyche of a policeman is composed of elements common to all policemen of the old social order. In the relations among people of the ghetto, an attitude prevailed which could be described as the personal pursuit of survival, for any price and using any means available to the individual.

In record time people adapted to the changed conditions of life. They took positions in German workplaces. For the price of saving their life they agreed to vegetate in overcrowded barrack apartments; so that they would receive their, not even daily, portion of poor quality and extremely "thin" soup, they gave away their labour and agreed to the departure of those closest to them to certain death. People agreed to all this quickly and meekly. It appeared that Jewish society grew into these new conditions for the price of receiving an identity card(6), testifying the usefulness of certain individuals to the war organisation of the Third Reich.

Despite this attitude, the deportation of Jews did not spare any social layer. In the first instance it was the poor who were liquidated, and a significant section of the intelligentsia, which was not suited for the fight for survival under any conditions. The fact that out of 400,000 people only about 30,000 remained, less than 10%, speaks to the scale of the purge.

Those who remained were without doubt the cleverest element, on the one hand able to accommodate to changing conditions of life, on the other – ready for everything. A SMALL BUT ORGANISED GROUP OF TRANSPORT WORKERS (carters, porters, etc.) played an important role.

Seemingly the current of life, just in a changed channel, was returning to its level. There was stabilisation. The materially richer Jewish petty-bourgeoisie, by taking over the goods of the "evacuees" (despite German confiscations and the special activity of the Werterfassung)(7), undertook efforts at making survival easier.

The first dissonance in this new state of affairs was the incident in the area of Niska-Dzika-Stawki.(8) An accosted group of transport workers put up resistance. There were casualties on the German side. The Jewish workers then acquired weapons from the Germans. Yet in the unequal fight, they were forced to retreat. To confuse the pursuers, fleeing through ruins that only they were familiar with, they started defensive, localised, fires. The first battle was won.

In the midst of mostly monotonous life, the news started circulating, sometimes elevated to the stuff of heroic legends. The further episodes of fights are well known in the ghetto. There occur assassinations, targeted especially at particularly hated Germans (some – like those on Kirchenmayer and Fischer from the so-called Sonderdienst – unfortunately failed)(9) and for the acquisition of material means. There was a rush to create the most necessary shelters (some with deep wells, tunnels, and even secured with uncovered electric lines).

At the moment of the main German offensive, the Jews were nearly ready. At any rate to the degree they could be on their own. The exploits of the transport workers, the organised counter-attack of the brushmakers, the burned out tanks and armoured cars, the disarmament of SS-men – these were the phases of the fight led by the Jewish proletariat. Due to the passivity of petty-bourgeois Jewish society and the lack of support, and even partial misinformation, from the other side of the wall – the Jewish uprising was only a historical episode.

Robotnik, paper of the RPPS
20 June 1943


(1) A “Kulturträger” is someone who transmits cultural ideals from one generation to the next.

(2) Jürgen Stroop was the SS commander responsible for the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto.

(3) Until July 1942 (when he committed suicide), Adam Czerniaków was the head of the Judenrat, an administrative body mediating between Jews and the Nazi authorities.

(4) The Treblinka Ghetto was, as it turned out, an extermination camp where between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews and 2,000 Romany were killed.

(5) Reference to the colour of the uniforms that the Polish Police wore in German-occupied Poland.

(6) Initially those Jews employed in German workplaces were given identity cards which spared them from deportation. Eventually even this was ignored.

(7) The Werterfassung was a German unit for the confiscation of valuable goods from the ghetto inmates (gold, jewellery, furs, clothes, furniture, etc.).

(8) Streets in the vicinity of the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw, the collection point near the railway station where Jews were assembled for deportation.

(9) Ludwig Fischer became the Governor of the Warsaw District under the German occupation and oversaw the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Sonderdienst was the Nazi paramilitary police reserve in occupied Poland.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023