Thursday, August 27, 2015

Warsaw Ghetto ~ Fear and Terror in the Social Imagination

I lived in Warsaw Poland for more than ten years. When I arrived in the late 90s, I was surprised to see so much residue of WWII.  I first started my higher education program at Stazic Palace; I was surprised to still see bullet holes in the steps of my university and on the iron fences and walls throughout the city.

During my studies, I went to Sobibor Poland where one of the Nazi extermination camps was located. There I met Tovi Blatt a camp survivor. It was horrifying to listen to him speak about the Nazi atrocities standing together at the same train platform. Today, the once Nazi terror site in Sobibor is a beautiful woods and hardly imaginable as a death camp.

The city of Warsaw, the capital of Poland, flanks both banks of the Wisla River. A city of 1.3 million inhabitants, Warsaw was the capital of the resurrected Polish state in 1919. Before World War II, the city was a major center of Jewish life and culture in Poland. Warsaw's prewar Jewish population of more than 350,000 constituted about 30 percent of the city's total population. The Warsaw Jewish community was the largest in both Poland and Europe, and was the second largest in the world, second only to New York City.

Following the Nazi German invasion of Poland on 31 August 1939, the Nazi German “Blitzkrieg” swept through Poland, and reached the southern and western parts of the city on 8 and 9 September 1939. Within a few days (until 28 September) the Nazi Germans had surrounded the city from all sides, and launched deadly air attacks, and artillery shelling, which caused heavy damage to buildings, and significant loss of life. 
Less than a week later, Nazi German officials ordered the establishment of a Jewish council (Judenrat) under the leadership of a Jewish engineer named Adam Czerniaków. 

As chairman of the Jewish council, Czerniaków had to administer the soon-to-be established ghetto and to implement Nazi German orders. On November 23, 1939, Nazi German civilian occupation authorities required Warsaw's Jews to identify themselves by wearing white armbands with a blue Star of David. The Nazi German authorities closed Jewish schools, confiscated Jewish-owned property, and conscripted Jewish men into forced labor and dissolved prewar Jewish organizations.

On October 12, 1940, the Nazi Germans decreed the establishment of a ghetto in Warsaw. The decree required all Jewish residents of Warsaw to move into a designated area, which Nazi German authorities sealed off from the rest of the city in November 1940. The ghetto was enclosed by a wall that was over 10 feet high, topped with barbed wire, and closely guarded to prevent movement between the ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. Not only were there Polish Jews, but many Jews from Germany and Denmark were sent to Warsaw and or to Nazi camps in Poland. The population of the ghetto, increased by Jews compelled to move in from nearby towns, was estimated to be over 400,000 Jews. 

Nazi German authorities forced ghetto residents to live in an area of 1.3 square miles, with an average of 7.2 persons per room. Food allotments rationed to the ghetto by the Nazi German civilian authorities were not sufficient to sustain life. In 1941 the average Jew in the ghetto subsisted on 1,125 calories a day. Czerniaków wrote in his diary entry for May 8, 1941: “Children starving to death.” Between 1940 and mid-1942, 83,000 Jews died of starvation and disease. 
In January 1943, SS and police units returned to Warsaw, this time with the intent of deporting thousands of the remaining approximately 70,000-80,000 Jews in the ghetto to forced-labor camps for Jews in Lublin District of the Government General. On April 19, 1943, a new SS and police force appeared outside the ghetto walls, intending to liquidate the ghetto and deport the remaining inhabitants to the forced labor camps in Lublin district. For months after the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, individual Jews continued to hide themselves in the ruins and, on occasion, attacked Nazi German police officials on patrol. Perhaps as many as 20,000 Warsaw Jews continued to live in hiding on the so-called Aryan side of Warsaw after the liquidation of the ghetto. 

On August 1, 1944, the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa; AK), a non-Communist underground resistance army with units stationed throughout Nazi German-occupied Poland, rose against the Nazi German occupation authorities in an effort to liberate Warsaw. The impetus for the uprising was the appearance of Soviet forces along the east bank of the Wisla River. The Soviets failed to intervene; the Nazi Germans eventually crushed the revolt and razed the center of the city to the ground in October 1944. Though they treated captured Home Army combatants as prisoners of war, the Nazi Germans sent thousands of captured Polish civilians to concentration camps in the Reich. 166,000 people lost their lives in the uprising, including perhaps as many as 17,000 Polish Jews who had either fought with the AK or had been discovered in hiding. 

When Soviet troops resumed their offensive on January 17, 1945, they liberated a devastated Warsaw. According to Polish data, only about 174,000 people were left in the city, less than six per cent of the prewar population. Approximately 11,500 of the survivors were Jews. 


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