It was the spring of 1943. In the confines of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, whispers of impending deportation spread like wildfire. Members of the underground resistance movement went on high alert. The moment they had expected with a mix of anxiety and turmoil was almost here.

Others, to maintain a semblance of normalcy, began to prepare for Passover – the cherished Jewish holiday commemorating the exodus of Jews from Egypt. Amid the uncertainty, the scent of freshly baked matzo permeated the air. Wine was carefully procured, and food items were koshered. On the eve of Passover on April 19, just a day before Adolf Hitler’s birthday, families gathered around tables for their traditional seder meal. Underlying the bonhomie was a palpable fear.

There were knocks on people’s homes. “Get ready to hide,” young Jewish people told their neighbours in urgent, muffled tones, “they will be here anytime.” As the evening drew to a close, the German army enclosed the Warsaw Ghetto. The rebellion that erupted in the following weeks would etch a sombre but indomitable chapter in human history.

“Rumblings of gunshots close by didn’t make us interrupt our meal. All we did was to move the table to the middle room where we couldn’t hear the noise so clearly,” Sewek Okonowski, an inhabitant of the ghetto who later perished, wrote in his diary about that day. “None of us believes in God and we didn’t gather at this table due to a religious commandment… We simply sought illusion and oblivion.”

Throughout the night, an extraordinary scene played out as thousands of individuals crawled through ceilings and attics into hidden bunkers and shelters meticulously constructed for this very occasion.

With the break of dawn, more than 1,000 soldiers under the Schutzstaffel, the paramilitary arm of the Nazi party, and the police roared through the streets of the ghetto in armoured cars and tanks, wielding formidable weaponry including machine guns, flame-throwers, and small cannons. Convinced that the liquidation of the last surviving 50,000 Jews of the ghetto would unfold swiftly, the Germans hoped the news would be the perfect birthday present for their Fuhrer.

However, other plans lay in wait. Instead of submission, the ghetto’s populace rose in rebellion. The Jewish numbers, both of people and weaponry, were not a patch on the might of their adversaries yet armed with little more than determination and a cache of pistols, homemade grenades, and Molotov cocktails, the young Jewish men and women put up a spectacular offensive.

“The ghetto has risen. The ghetto has risen – a few hundred men, armed only with revolvers, stood up to fight the oppressor, to defend the remnants of human honour,” wrote an inhabitant called Marylka, whose diary was recovered after the war near the Majdanek camp. Little is known about her fate. She could have been consigned to a labour camp and survived, or perished in a gas chamber, or met her end within the confines of the ghetto.

The rebellion was the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which lasted nearly four weeks and went down in history as the largest uprising by Jews during the Second World War. It was also the first significant urban revolt against German occupation in Europe. Eighty years have since passed and the Polish capital is commemorating the will of those who refused to bend to tyranny.

“There’s a phrase we hear over and over again, that the Jews went like sheep to the slaughter. But that’s not true. You’ve just got to look at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and debunk the myth that the Jews were passive,” Rachel Einwohner, a political sociologist who studies social movements and professor at the Purdue College of Liberal Arts, told Scroll in an interview.

National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The first permanent Jewish settlement mushroomed in Warsaw in the 15th century. Over the years, Warsaw emerged as the nerve centre of Jewish life and culture in Europe. The community thrived and evolved into a diverse tapestry, embracing in its fold orthodox Hasidic Jews as well as fully assimilated Jewish intellectuals. Its members represented a wide spectrum of social classes, ranging from affluent factory owners to impoverished labourers.

Before the Second World War, there lived 380,000 Jews in Warsaw, the highest number in Europe, second in the world only to New York. By 1939, one-third of Warsaw’s population was Jewish. But everything would change after German troops invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, marking the beginning of the War. Within weeks, Poland was defeated after continuous artillery bombardment and air attacks. By the end of the month, Germany had seized complete control of the territory.

Over the next weeks, a string of decrees and ordinances were put in place in the country, aimed at scooping out the very humanity of Jews. The Nazi regime stamped out all kinds of pre-war Jewish organisations, shut down Jewish schools, and forced men into labour. In a move that would identify them and set them apart, they were made to wear white armbands and the star of David.

The ghetto wall and Lubomirski palace in Warsaw. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-134-0791-29A / Knobloch, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

It was in this climate that the construction of the ghetto began in early 1940 in Muranów, the northwest part of the city centre, which had been inhabited by Jews since the 19th century. A 10-foot-high boundary wall, topped with barbed wire, rose along the four-square-kilometre periphery of the neighbourhood, making it the largest ghetto in German-occupied Europe. In the following year, Jews from neighbouring towns were brought to the ghetto, and the non-Jewish population was packed off to the other side of the wall, to what they called the “Aryan” side. Trapped within the ghetto now were 460,000 people.

Overcrowding and limited resources meant food rationing. By the end of the year, only up to 400 calories per person per day were allocated (current standards recommend a daily calorie intake of 2,000-2,500). Sanitary conditions in the ghetto were appalling, and infectious diseases burned through the population. Within two years, the ghetto lost 100,000 people to disease and starvation.

So much of what happened in German-occupied Warsaw is known thanks to a man called Emanuel Ringelblum who was a historian and social activist. Even before he found himself in the ghetto, he had started taking notes for himself and chronicling the war. “He interviewed people and also encouraged them to keep their own diaries. Eventually, his project ended up becoming a huge archive containing some 30,000 pages of documents,” said social historian Maria Ferenc, assistant professor at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, where she coordinates the research project, Encyclopedia of the Warsaw Ghetto. Ringelblum and his family escaped the ghetto, but the Gestapo discovered their hiding place and killed them.

The year 1942 opened on a sinister note. A closed group of 15 top Nazi and government officials met at a villa in Wannsee, in the southwestern part of Berlin to discuss what they called the “final solution of the Jewish question”. Though veiled in euphemism, the message was clear as light to everyone present: it was time to set in motion the complete physical annihilation of European Jews. The SS estimated that 11 million Jews would be obliterated, including those outside of the occupied territory.

That summer, the anti-Semitic campaign intensified. In just two months, German police and SS units shepherded 265,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the railway station where they were stuffed into trains bound for Treblinka – a forest more than 50 miles northeast of Warsaw – where the Nazis had set up a killing centre. Within the boundary walls of the ghetto, they killed roughly 35,000 Jews. Now, the population of the once-heaving ghetto dwindled to 60,000 or so Jews.

In January of the following year, the officials returned with the intention to deport thousands of them to forced labour camps in Lublin. The Jews in the ghetto had now become wise to their ways. They no longer had any doubt that the trains loaded to the gunwales were taking them to their deaths. The Jews put up a small resistance this time, and the SS and police units managed to whisk away only a few thousand Jews before they stopped the operation and retreated.

By the time the Germans surged through the ghetto again in April, members of the underground movement were ready to mount a counter-attack. For months, two groups had been planning the armed rebellion independently: the Jewish Fighting Organisation and the Jewish Military Union. About 700-800 people joined the struggle, knowing that nothing would come out of it.

“In one of the attics, we are suddenly surrounded. Nearby in the same attic are the Germans and it is impossible to reach the stairs. In the dark corners of the attic, we cannot even see one another... We do not even pause to consider how it happens that Michał Klepfisz jumps straight onto the German machine pistol firing from behind the chimney. We only see the cleared path. After the Germans have been thrown out, several hours later, we find Michał’s body perforated like a sieve from two machine-pistol series.” 

Marek Edelman wrote this in his moving memoir The Ghetto Fights. Both Edelman and Klepfisz were part of the underground resistance. Only one of them survived.

Such accounts – of survivors and of those who perished – have been the spine of the research of historians stitching together the narrative of life in the ghetto before and after the rebellion. All the accounts point to one thing – the uprising was destined to fail.

Why then did it happen? This question challenges the very essence of sociological theories on the conditions that birth revolutions. Einwohner points to three factors – material resources for the protests: this could be money or an able, willing, healthy population with enough food in their bellies; and in this case, weapons. Then, there’s the concept of political opportunity, which simply means the potential of the protests to lead to a shift in power in the broader system. And last, which makes the protest worth it: hope, what Einwohner calls the “We Shall Overcome” belief. But here, in the besieged ghetto, amid a scarcity of resources, a dearth of opportunity, and a palpable absence of hope, the Uprising did unfurl. “That to me is an interesting puzzle,” she said.

Another question then arises: What is it that made them take on the Goliath anyway? “We’re all going to die, they thought, but we can choose the way we die. And we’re going to die with dignity,” Einwohner added.

“Why is this night different from other nights?” At the Polin Museum in Warsaw, these words uttered during the Passover meal are engraved in Hebrew on a giant door, which is an entryway into the four horrific weeks of the Uprising. The museum has put up a haunting temporary exhibition for the 80th anniversary of the Uprising this year. The show, “Around Us a Sea of Fire”, commemorates the bravery and silent rebellion of civilians who did not fight or pick up arms but resisted the Germans by hiding in dark, airless bunkers when the fighting broke out. Their story of resilience and grit has rarely been told. The moving title is based on the words of an inhabitant who is only known by his surname, Maur, who perished in the ghetto.

“We must not forget that only 2% of the ghetto inhabitants were fighters in the underground movement who planned the armed resistance. Others were civilians. We decided to present their story because it has been overshadowed by the armed resistance,” exhibition curator Zuzanna Schnepf-Kołacz told me. “Rather than following the German orders to assemble at collection points, they stayed in hiding. Their silent resistance was as important as armed combat,” she added.

These were the people who worked day and night to build bunkers under the building cellars or in attics. Some of the shelters were very advanced, with numerous rooms and spaces. They had functioning kitchens and water installations. Some were connected to urban sewers which could be used as an escape from the ghetto.

A recreation of the ghetto, at the exhibition.

The exhibition is an immersive experience; as you transition from one dimly lit chamber to the next, you are gripped by a sense of suffocation. Eyes take long to adjust to the blur in the final room which evokes the feeling of being trapped in an inferno. Looking at artifacts from the ghetto such as barbed wire, metal gate fragments, water fixtures, tiles, and bricks, as well as everyday items like combs, keys, nameplates, razor blades, and iron plates, you cannot help but shudder. Additionally on display are shell casings unearthed during archaeological excavations at the museum’s location, which was once the beating heart of the thriving Muranów district.

From moving and powerful testimonies of the inhabitants, we glean that amid all the violence and despair, there was love and desire; kindness and bitterness; resignation and hope. The exhibition hinges on these very words that carry us through the horrors of those four weeks.

One person spoke of the shelter as a “sinking boat”; another likened the feeling of complete helplessness to that of “an animal struggling to free itself from a trap”. We learn, for instance, how when a woman gave birth at the end of the Uprising, all the hungry and dying people came together to feed the newborn. “If someone didn’t have another shirt,” wrote one of the survivors, “those who had more would share with him. Each and every person was responsible for themselves and for their immediate neighbours.”

With time, things kept escalating. The Germans realised that people were hidden in the labyrinth of bunkers, underground tunnels, sewers, and passages between tenement buildings, and drilled holes to start letting gas in. Some people committed suicide instead of being gassed alive. Some managed to escape.

The coup de grace came when the Nazis started setting the ghetto on fire, one hapless building after another. Testimonies of people reveal the extent of the destruction. “The stench of burning is spreading across the adjacent quarters of the city. After a few weeks, the whole of Warsaw is saturated with dust and soot. At night, the burning ghetto - akin to a huge bloodshot eye - gazes towards the city and awaits rescue, in vain,” wrote a Szymon Gliksman.

It’s true that outside the ghetto, it was not a bed of roses for the Poles. However, from the vantage of the ghetto, they were out of harm’s way. “People were sitting on the roofs… Poles who were curious to see what was happening on our side,” wrote a person named Symcha Binem Motyl. “They were watching us as if they were Romans at the time of Nero watching ‘human torches’ of Christians being burnt alive… all I wanted to know was what they were thinking, to be able to see what was reverberating in their souls.”

Finally, on May 16, the Nazis blew up the Great Synagogue on Tlomackie Street, marking a symbolic end to the Uprising. “The Jewish residential quarter in Warsaw has ceased to exist. The area of the ghetto, except for a few buildings, has been burnt down and razed to the ground.” wrote Jürgen Stroop in his report. Stroop was the leader of the suppression of the Uprising.

In the months following the complete dissolution of the Warsaw ghetto, some individual Jews persevered by concealing themselves amid the ruins in pathetic conditions. “Shadows are roaming around the ghetto. People are coming out of the underground burrows, shelters, and bunkers. They are wandering amid the smouldering ruins, peeping inside, entering burnt-out basements, looking for food and water,” a survivor named Ryszard Walewski wrote.

National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Walking around Warsaw today is like passing through a gigantic memorial. Every turn, every corner, every bend in the city, is a living, breathing catalogue of the dead. Ghosts of the past don’t just linger here, they walk ramrod straight alongside the life of today. You stumble upon a manhole through which a group of insurgents emerged to the other side; outside the Polin Museum, a colossal memorial honours the Uprising’s heroes. Just a few metres away, a mound stands atop the remains of a bunker where 80 members of the Jewish combat organisation met their tragic end by choosing to take their own lives rather than falling into the hands of the Nazis.

Indeed there is beauty in Warsaw – subtle yet glorious. The delightful harmony of strawberry pink or mint green pastels on blocky buildings that look like layers of cake you could gobble up; the façades bearing intricate golden handiwork that gleams in the golden rays of the late afternoon sun; elsewhere, the very same rays stream through leaves across vast stretches of green so that by the time they hit the ground they are soft and diffused; Chopin’s benches scattered across the city – push a button and hear his music come to life.

But passing through the streets, you are once again reminded of the horrors that unfurled here. “The wind is howling… There are corpses everywhere in the streets, in the gutters and courtyards,” wrote one Leon Najberg. “Only the trees, lime trees saved from the fire, are blooming as if nothing happened in the garden... among the ruins and rubble, amidst this great cemetery that the ghetto has become.”

The bunker at Miła 18 was the headquarters of the Jewish Combat Organisation. When the Nazis found it, members of the organisation committed mass suicide. This is a memorial at the same location.