First and second attack
Early in the morning German troops march in two columns into the central ghetto in order to commence the deportation of its inhabitants on the orders of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. The operation is led by Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, SS and police leader in the Warsaw District. At 33 Nalewki St. and the intersection of Zamenhofa and Miła Streets, the attackers encounter strong resistance from units of the Jewish Combat Organization (Polish: Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB) under the command of Mordechaj Anielewicz. Shots are fired and grenades are thrown at the Germans. Reinforcements in the form of a tank and armoured cars do little to help. Having sustained substantial losses, the German troops withdraw from the ghetto.
The second attack begins about 8:00. It is led by SS Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, sent to Warsaw to take over command. Under pressure from the attacking German troops, ŻOB fighters are forced to leave their posts on Nalewki and Zamenhofa Streets.
In the afternoon, fighting starts around the fortified positions of the Jewish Military Union (Polish: Żydowski Związek Wojskowy, ŻZW) in Muranowski Square. The fighters, equipped with machine guns, are commanded by Paweł Frenkel. On the roof of one of the apartment buildings, most likely the number 7–9, two banners wave in the wind: white-and-red and white-and-blue.
Most of the population of the ghetto goes down into previously prepared bunkers. The attackers manage to capture only a small number of the Jews. In the evening, the Germans retreat. The inhabitants of the ghetto rejoice.
According to official reports, German casualties on that day amount to one killed and 24 wounded.
Nine assault units enter the ghetto at 7:00. Once again there is ferocious combat in Muranowski Square, defended by ŻZW fighters. The defenders of the ghetto suffer many losses and are forced to change positions repeatedly.
Some of the insurgents pass through the tunnel to the “Aryan side”. They hide in one of the flats of the apartment building at 6 Muranowska St.
In the early afternoon fighting starts around the brush makers' shops on Świętojerska St. Led by Marek Edelman, the defenders detonate an explosive charge, which temporarily stops the attackers. Appeals to the local residents to leave the combat zone prove unsuccessful. Antiaircraft guns open fire towards insurgent positions, which forces the defenders to move. Michał Klepfisz from the Bund is killed. The attack breaks down due to gathering darkness.
Germans appear around Többens and Schultz's workshops in the ghetto, encountering resistance from eight ŻOB units and one unit of ŻZW.
The “Aryan side”
On 19 April at 19:00 a unit of the Warsaw Kedyw attempts to blow up a section of the wall around the ghetto at the corner of Bonifraterska and Sapieżyńska Streets. The operation, prepared for several days, ends in failure. In the resulting clash with the Germans and the blue police, the Home Army sustains significant losses.
Articles on the defence of the ghetto appear in Polish underground press. The first report is published by “Dzień Warszawy”, a daily issued by the Government Delegation for Poland (Polish: Delegatura Rządu na Kraj).
Members of the Jewish National Committee (Polish: Żydowski Komitet Narodowy, ŻKN) and Icchak Cukierman, member of ŻOB, frantically organize help for the fighters. The earliest ŻOB reports on the fighting in the ghetto are issued.
The Germans change tactics. Smaller units comb the central ghetto, trying to eliminate any resistance points and bunkers. The defenders are shot on the spot or brought to the Umschlagplatz.
The operation at the brush makers' shop on Świętojerska St. continues. Unable to suppress the resistance, on the orders of Stroop the Germans set fire to buildings. In the night, ŻOB forces break through into the central ghetto and reach the bunker at 30 Franciszkańska St. In a teletype message to Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger, SS and police leader in the General Government (GG), Stroop mentions the participation of women in the fighting.
Preparations are underway to “evacuate” workers from the Többens and Schultz workshops to the Umschlagplatz. Most of them, seeing no hope of finding a hiding place, come voluntarily. They will be deported to a labour camp in Poniatowa in the Lublin district.
Setting fire to residential buildings becomes the German forces main combat method. More and more apartment buildings are in flames. Residents try to save themselves by jumping out of windows.
“Thursday was a day of huge fires that engulfed Świętojerska, Franciszkańska, Wałowa and Nalewki Streets, and in the afternoon also Zamenhofa St. The fires were caused by fragmentation and incendiary shells fired by German artillery” [ŻOB bulletin No. 5].
Stroop's report from the day reads: “Masses of Jews, entire families, were aflame and jumped from windows or let themselves down by means of sheets tied together. Steps were taken for these Jews as well as those remaining to be liquidated at once.”
Despite the raging fire, single outposts continue to repel the Germans. Fighting continues in all parts of the ghetto. The insurgents move from place to place. Over a dozen bunkers are captured and blown up. The Germans execute about 200 Jews, and escort over a thousand to the Umschlagplatz.
ŻOB fighters listen to a report about the “heroic struggle of the Warsaw ghetto”, aired by the London-based “Świt” radio station.
Another group of ŻZW fighters passes to the “Aryan side”, to 6 Muranowska St. From there, some of them will get to Michalin.
The ghetto inhabitants try to save themselves by going down into the sewers. Knowing that, the Germans pump gas into the manholes.
Stroop divides the ghetto into 24 sections that are to be systematically combed by reinforced assault troops. Their objective is to detect and stifle resistance. The Germans detect 48 bunkers, execute 200 people and drive hundreds of others to the Umschlagplatz. Among the executed are members of the Jewish Council.
Life in the bunkers becomes increasingly difficult. A young woman named Maryla, hiding in one of them, writes in her diary: “While a few days ago I still thought ahead into the next few weeks of my life, now I face the possibility of dying in the next hour or at any moment. While two days ago I was still terrified whenever I remembered that this new upheaval surprised me completely unprepared to go into the shelter, since counting on another way to save myself, I failed to prepare provisions, and the ones we have here, even with our quite meagre appetites, shrink hopelessly day by day, this thought does not bother me at all today, because the recent horrific experiences made me ready for the most desperate deeds, or to put an end to this life when I have had enough of it.”
The “Aryan side”
An appeal to the Poles from ŻOB is issued. In the following days it will be distributed to the population of Warsaw.
Through a liaison, Icchak Cukierman receives a letter from Mordechaj Anielewicz, which ends with the words: “the dream of my life has come true. Jewish self-defence of the Warsaw ghetto has become a fact. Jewish armed resistance and retaliation have become a reality. I have been witness to the magnificent heroic struggle of the Jewish fighters.”
German authorities warn that “entrance to the former Jewish district is strictly forbidden” and anyone caught in that area will be shot. At the same time a hunt for Jews hiding on the “Aryan side” is in progress.
The Home Army and other organizations carry out several minor combat operations at the walls of the ghetto.
At 10:00, 24 assault troops enter the ghetto from all sides, hoping to launch a surprise attack on the concealed Jews. The Germans become more efficient at detecting bunkers. They enter the premises of the Werterfassung warehouses in Niska and Pokorna Streets. Faced with resistance, they set fire to the buildings. Combat groups on Leszno St. fend off attacks.
“Jews and bandits" Stroop writes "preferred to go back into the fire than fall into our hands. The Jews kept shooting, almost to the end of the operation.” Bringing in a bomb squad proves necessary. 330 people are shot on the spot, many die in the flames, and more than 1,800 Jews are led to the Umschlagplatz. Stroop assures that the operation will be completed on Easter Monday.
At 13:00 seven assault units, a total of about 500 people, enter the ghetto to begin a methodical search of their assigned sections. Fire is an integral part of the operation. In many areas, resistance continues, but it is brutally stifled. Bunkers are blown up and filled in. Over 270 people are shot and 1,690 are captured to be deported to the Treblinka death camp. Many people die in the demolished bunkers.
The defenders stay hidden in their bunkers, which they only leave after dark. ŻOB liaisons dispatched to the “Aryan side” through the sewers are killed.
At 10:00 assault troops start a second sweep of the buildings searched on the previous day. Everywhere they turn, they meet with resistance, which they suppress immediately. Stroop reports: “It appears ever more clearly that the time has come for the most relentless Jews and bandits, those most capable of resistance.” Conditions in the shelters deteriorate, there is increasingly less air, water and food. More buildings are set on fire. Over 1,330 Jews are killed in mass executions and 362 die when bunkers are discovered. The pacification action, contrary to Stroop's forecasts, is not concluded on this day.
Combat is ferocious; some of the fighters are independent battle groups not affiliated with any underground organizations in the ghetto.
The ghetto is constantly in flames.
Assault troops split into smaller groups and search the ghetto for bunkers. In the vicinity of Niska St, the assault group clashes with the defenders.
Several bunkers on Leszno St. fall. Among those who perish is the heroic liaison of ŻOB Chana Płotnicka. At the same time, workers from the shops are being deported to the Lublin district.
The brutality of the attackers increases. On this day, as Stroop reports, about 550 out of 2,500 Jews captured are put to death on the spot. This is the largest number of victims, in a single day, since the outbreak of the uprising. The number of people killed in the bunkers cannot be ascertained.
In the afternoon, an assault unit surrounds the apartment building at 6 Muranowska St, where some ŻŻW fighters are hiding in one of the flats. Stroop reports on the shooting of 24 and capture of 52 “bandits” and the execution of one of the founders and leaders of the organization. The Germans seize 3 rifles, 12 pistols, 100 grenades and pieces of military equipment.
“In the meantime, the battle tempest, which yesterday threatened to drown anything that remained alive, quieted down slightly. From the depths of our hideout, now and again we hear footsteps as groups of men pass by and our blissful ignorance allows us to believe, based on previous experiences, that Werterfassung (groups collecting valuable belongings under SS direction) is working” – these are the final words in the diary of the young woman Maryla. Her bunker is detected and its residents are led to the Umschlagplatz and transported to Majdanek. Nothing more is heard about the author of the diary.
Assault troops comb the ghetto. Stroop reports that “strong resistance was encountered and stifled.” The number of detected bunkers rises.
An unknown woman hiding in one of the bunkers in Miła Street writes in her diary: “This is our tenth day in the bunker. Ten days of fighting with our deadliest enemy, who intends to wipe us out completely. They start with grenades and end with burning down houses. We have our perseverance and our hope of survival. We fight for justice and for the right to live. Meanwhile, the bombing and gunfire have subsided and the danger turned away from us. People are washing themselves, cups of coffee are handed out, food is being cooked – all of it is done in peace. All the people and guards are working courageously, everything according to the directions of the command of the bunker. The day has passed without surprises.”
1,655 Jews are captured, 110 of whom, according to Stroop's report, are “shot in combat”. In addition, many people perish in burning houses and exploded bunkers. The operation ends at 22:00.
One of the assault groups set fire to Hallman's shop at 59 Nowolipki St. More bunkers are discovered. Stroop reports the capture of 2,359 Jews, of whom 106 are shot on the spot.
Symcha Ratajzer and Zalman Friedrich leave the ghetto through a tunnel under Muranowska St. on a mission to organize the evacuation of the fighters.
The Home Army press organ, “Biuletyn Informacyjny” publishes the article “Ostatni akt wielkiej tragedii” (“The Final Act of the Great Tragedy”). It contains an appeal for help for fugitives from the ghetto.
Stroop feels compelled to admit that “despite the fact that huge blocks of houses were completely burned down, Jews still survive in bunkers located 2–3 metres underground,” which are very difficult to detect. The Germans wipe out 30 bunkers and destroy all escape routes to the “Aryan side”. 1,599 Jews are captured, 179 of whom are “shot in combat”. 3,855 people are loaded onto trains at the Umschlagplatz.
A 40-person group of ŻOB fighters under the command of Eliezer Geller, from the area of Többens and Schultz's shops, try to get out of the ghetto. They go down to the sewage mains on Leszno St. Several hours later they come out on the corner of Ogrodowa and Żelazna Streets. They are transported out of Warsaw by car.
A group of about 40 ŻZW fighters is detected in Michalin by the military police and attacked. 12 insurgents die while the rest disperse and get back to Warsaw on their own.
Stroop reports to his superiors that 37,359 Jews have been captured since the operation began. He assures them the operation will continue the next day.
The Germans enter the ghetto at 9:00. The operation carried out by ten units and a special combat group lasts until 22:00. 1,026 people are pulled out of bunkers and sewers, 245 of whom are killed by the Germans on the spot. If there is a suspicion that a bunker may be concealed somewhere, bomb technicians set off explosives. Entrances to the sewers are filled in to prevent the escape of any remaining insurgents.
Ghetto fighters attempt attacks on Germans carrying out the search. For the first time small German scout troops remain inside the ghetto for the night. An exchange of fire with the defenders ensues.
Meanwhile a hunt for fugitives is underway on the “Aryan side” and outside Warsaw.
A sweep of the ghetto begins at 10:00. One of the objectives is a complex of workshops on Stawki St. Any resistance encountered is ruthlessly subdued, the defenders either shot dead or brought to the Umschlagplatz. The Germans set fire to more houses and detect 24 bunkers. There is a clash with a group trying to escape from the ghetto. Four officers of the Order Police and three blue policemen are wounded.
The operation is supervised by Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger, Higher SS and Police Leader in the General Government, recently arrived from Kraków.
Leon Najberg reaches Muranowski Square from the territory of the brush makers' shop. He finds nothing but charred ruins.
The operation begins at 9:00. 1,492 people are captured, 95 put to death on the spot. Stroop reports: “In most cases the Jews offered armed resistance before they left the dugouts. We had two cases of injury. Some of the Jews and bandits fired pistols from both hands.” Here the report once again mentions the participation of women in combat.
Among the detected bunkers is the shelter at 30 Franciszkańska St, the hiding place of ŻOB combat groups from the area of the brush makers' shop. Many of the defenders are killed in a desperate battle. Others move to the bunkers at 22 Franciszkańska St. and 18 Miła St. The one on Franciszkańska St. provides shelter to about 50 members of ŻOB.
A shortage of ammunition and food leaves the insurgents helpless in the face of German tactics involving e.g. the systematic torching of buildings. The situation of the fighters deteriorates significantly; during the day they must remain hidden in their bunkers. For several days there has been no contact with the “Aryan side”.
The main German forces are directed to the Többens and Schultz workshops to “clean out” the buildings and destroy them. The buildings are set on fire to force the Jews out hiding. Of the 2,283 captured people, 204 are shot on the spot. Clashes with desperate defenders ensue.
During the night German scouting parties remain in the ghetto and battle the insurgents.
The Germans destroy 40 bunkers with explosives, arrest 1070 people and kill 126 on the spot. Stroop reports: “Today, again, the Jews resisted in several places before they were captured.” Deportation of workers from the Többens workshop on Prosta St. (known as the large Többens) to labour camps begins.
A sweep of houses destroyed by fire in previous days is underway. Out of 47 detected bunkers, the Germans drive out 1,553 people, 356 of whom are shot on the spot.
The hunt for fugitives on the “Aryan side” intensifies. The participation of the blue police is ongoing, on which Stroop comments: “they take pains to deliver to my office every Jew who turns up within the city, because they are eager to receive monetary rewards.”
The Germans enter the ghetto at 10:00 and leave at 21:00. They raid 49 bunkers. Over a thousand people are captured and 255 are killed.
The Germans locate the ŻOB command bunker at 18 Miła St. Inside it are over 100 insurgents and several dozen other people. Built by smugglers after the great deportation action in the autumn of 1942, the large bunker is located beneath apartment buildings bombed in September 1939. It has a reliable water and power supply. From the beginning of May, ŻOB members only come up to the surface at night.
In the morning, SS-men block all entrances to the ŻOB command bunker. They throw in smoke bombs and pump in gas. Arie Wilner and Lutek Rotblat urge others not to give up. Some of the defenders commit suicide, some die of suffocation. Stroop reports that 60 people are captured and 140 are executed, including a “Deputy Leader of the Jewish Military Organization”.
Only a few fighters manage to escape from the trap through an accidentally discovered passage. They share the news of the fall of the command to others they meet among the ruins.
Resistance is also offered by residents of other bunkers. The Germans drive out 1,091 Jews from 43 bunkers, including armed women. 280 people are shot. Two SS-men are killed, two others are injured.
The poet Władysław Szlengel dies in a discovered bunker at 36 Świętojerska St.
More buildings are set on fire. Stroop declares that he is “determined to end the grand operation only when the last Jew is executed.”
The Germans detect 42 bunkers and kill 319 people. ŻOB members await assistance from the “Aryan side”.
Symcha Ratajzer goes down into the sewers with Polish guides. He manages to establish contact with his companions. Among them is a group of survivors from the bunker at 18 Miła St.
The ghetto is searched by assault troops. Stroop reports: “The Jewish resistance we face was no weaker today.”
At 5:00 a ŻOB combat group of approximately 50 people comes out of the manhole on Prosta St. Most get on a truck provided by people associated with PPR. Among them are Marek Edelman, Cywia Lubetkin and Hirsz Berliński. About a dozen people stay in the sewers. The Germans arrive too late, but manage to capture several fighters.
The truck stops in a forest near Łomianki, where a group of fighters from the workshops is hiding. Most of them will later be transported to the vicinity of Wyszków and join partisan activities. Some will return to Warsaw.
Spontaneous combat groups form in the ghetto. Leon Najberg joins one of them, consisting of 25 people hiding in the former brush makers' shop.
From the early morning German scouting parties scour the burnt-out ruins of the ghetto. Assault troops step in afterwards. 913 people are captured, including 53 who are murdered on the spot. Stroop complains about the lack of smoke candles, which makes it impossible to “once more, smoke out the sewers systematically”.
German troops detect 30 bunkers and kill 133 of the 663 people captured.
The Germans set fire to buildings on Prosta St. in the small ghetto. The buildings are blown up. Transports from the Umschlagplatz are sent to the Treblinka extermination camp.
Assault units hunt down 234 people and kill 155. All of the captured people are deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.
“The recently apprehended Jews and bandits belong to so-called combat groups. All of them are young men and women between 18 and 25 years of age.” When another bunker is seized, “real armed combat” ensues, Stroop reports. The insurgents defend themselves with pistols and grenades. One of the girls being led out pulls out a grenade, releases the safety catch and throws it into the attackers. This probably happens at 3/5 Bonifraterska St.
During the night Soviet aircraft drop bombs on Warsaw, causing severe losses.
An appeal from the District Governor of Warsaw to the people of Warsaw is posted all over the city. It states that Jews are responsible for the mass murder of Polish officers in Katyń, and the ghetto was destroyed because it was a communist base. The proclamation concludes with an appeal to denounce fugitives: “Whoever notifies the authorities of the whereabouts of a communist agent or Jew, only fulfills his reasonable duty to himself and his loved ones.”
During the night there are skirmishes between members of small combat groups and German scouting parties. Three SS-men and one officer of the Order Police are wounded. In one of the bunkers, the Germans discover about 100 people and stockpiled weapons. More apartment buildings are blown up. The last of the fighters search for a way out to the “Aryan side”. Knowing that, the Germans throw 183 smoke candles down manholes.
The Polish underground press still publishes articles about the struggle in the ghetto. Under the title “Gloria victis!”, a journalist from “Nowy Dzień” writes: “The defence of Nalewki St. will go down in history alongside the defence of Zaragoza, Alcázar, Westerplatte, Stalingrad, and every other place held for the price of blood.”
Assault troops only encounter isolated Jews in the ruins. The last inmates of the ghetto defend themselves with bottles of gasoline, pistols and grenades. 68 people are shot and 87 are captured.
The last buildings in the ghetto and the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa St. are destroyed.
Stroop reports: “180 Jews, bandits and subhumans were eliminated. The former Jewish residential district ceased to exist. The grand operation concluded with the blowing up of the Warsaw synagogue at 20:15. [...] The overall number of captured and surely exterminated Jews is 56,065.” The entire ghetto, with the exception of 8 buildings, is torn down.
The only people remaining in the ruins are survivors of combat groups and residents of undetected bunkers.