In 1939, about 365,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, Poland, making up nearly one third of the city’s population. With the German invasion of Poland, the Jewish population of Warsaw increased to 400,000 as refugees flooded into the city. In October 1940, Jews from all over the city were ordered by Nazi Governor General Hans Frank to move into a small area of just 1.3 square miles, which was then cut off from the rest of the city by an 11-foot-high brick wall topped with broken glass. Armed guards made escape nearly impossible. 

Overcrowding and lack of food led to widespread disease and starvation. Cut off from all supplies, the Jews were provided about 200 calories per person per day, compared to over 2,000 calories for ordinary Germans. Still, the almost a hundred thousand Jews who died there were quickly replaced with Jews deported to the Ghetto from other towns in the Warsaw district.

The engineer Adam Czerniakow was the head of the ghetto’s governing Jewish Council (called Judenrat). On July 22, 1942 Czerniakow received instructions to submit 8,000 people for deportation, evidently to a death camp.  He refused to sign the deportation order. The Judenrat was then directed by the Nazi authorities to have the ghetto police provide 6,000 Jews per day for deportation “to the East”.  Exemptions were to be made for Jews working in German factories, Jewish hospital staff, members of the Judenrat and Jewish police and their families. Failure to comply would result in the execution of hostages, including Czerniakow’s own wife.   

Czerniakow initially attempted to obtain exemptions for a number of people. But his efforts to persuade the Nazi authorities to spare the children’s orphanage run by Janusz Korczak failed. Czerniakow returned to his office and took a cyanide tablet. He left a suicide note to his wife saying “They ask me to kill children of my nation with my own hands.  I have nothing to do but to die.” To another member of the Judenrat he wrote: “I am powerless, my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this. I can no longer bear all this. My act will prove to everyone what is the right thing to do.” 

After July 23, 1942, the mass deportation commenced. In the seven-week period, 75 percent of the ghetto population were expelled from their homes and transported to the Treblinka death camp. After the mass deportations, the ghetto continued to exist in restricted borders.  It resembled a labor camp in structure and the Nazi administration. The final destruction of the Warsaw ghetto began on April 19, 1943 with the Jewish rebellion known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.A last attempt to avoid deportation, the leaders of the uprising held out until May 16, 1943, when the rebellion was crushed and the surviving Jews who were captured were executed or sent to concentration camps.


Additional Links:

In Memory of Janusz Korczak (1878-1942)

Adam Czerniaków

Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow

Ghetto Diary of Mary Berg: Part I

Ghetto Diary of Mary Berg: Part II

Ghetto Diary of Mary Berg: Part III

Ghetto Diary of Chaim Kaplan: Part I

Ghetto Diary of Chaim Kaplan: Part II