Looking back at the Warsaw Uprising, a heroic but tragic rebellion against Germany that occurred 75 years ago.
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This year on Aug. 1, for a few moments, sirens wailed throughout the city of Warsaw, and all activity in Poland’s capital came to a standstill. This was a citywide commemoration of a heroic, but, ultimately, failed rebellion that occurred 75 years ago: the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
This event is not to be confused with the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that occurred a year earlier in 1943, an event that has become, perhaps, the primary — certainly, a legendary — example of Jewish resistance to the Nazis during World War II. These are two separate events, generally related by the location of each and the fact that they were grassroot battles against the Nazi occupiers of Poland. It is, however, interesting to see how the two events intersected for Polish Jews.
I thought about this anniversary after finding an obituary for a remarkable Jewish fighter, Marek Edelman, in the Oct. 15, 2009, issue of the JN in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. Edelman was not a Detroiter, but he was a remarkable man who should be remembered. Edelman was not only one of the Jews who fought in 1944, he was one of the very few to have also fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I would think this qualifies him as a hero, let alone a genuine tough guy.
The Warsaw Uprising was a 63-day battle that began on Aug. 1, 1944. The city had been occupied since 1939, shortly after World War II began, but it appeared that its ordeal under Nazi control was about to end. The Soviet Union’s Red Army was on Warsaw’s doorstep having pushed the German Army back from 1,000 miles into Russian territory.
The Poles had anticipated its liberation for nearly five years and were eager to fight back against their oppressors. While occupied, underneath Warsaw, literally, in the sewer system, as well as in clandestine places above ground, the Poles, including a good number of Jews, had prepared for this moment. Weapons and ammunition were in hidden caches. There were rudimentary arms factories under the city. Printing presses were ready to produce leaflets and newsletters for the Polish public. Military units were organized. On Aug. 1, the Polish resistance began its attacks on the German military in spectacular fashion.
But, it was a doomed uprising. The Red Army stayed outside Warsaw and offered no assistance. The Poles fought desperately, especially, after it was clear that the Nazis would indiscriminately kill women and children as well as Polish fighters. After 63 days, the German Army crushed the resistance. Hitler was so angry that he ordered Warsaw be leveled. Eighty percent of the city was turned into rubble.
A side note: If you go to Warsaw today, you will see that the Poles rebuilt most of the old city. You will also see small brass plaques on pocked-marked walls around the city, noting where the Nazis executed Poles on the streets. The Warsaw Uprising Museum is also a must-see and a most moving experience. As you walk though it, there is a constant heartbeat in the background wherever you are.
Although information from the Warsaw Uprising as it was occurring was sparse, there were reports in the JN that cited the battle and Jewish participation. An article in the Aug. 18, 1944, issue cited “The Jewish Flag Waving Proudly in Warsaw Street Battling.” Two weeks later, in the Sept. 1 issue of the JN, a report was titled: “Young Jews Battling Nazis in Warsaw Appeal for Help.”
The Warsaw Uprising was both heroic and tragic. It was nothing short of a miracle that Marek Edelman survived both battles. It is good to remember that the uprisings happened because of the bravery of people like him.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.