REVEALED: a secret diary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

By Martin Smith | 17 June 2021

“These bandits offered armed resistance.” That is how this photo of three heroic Jewish ghetto fighters is captioned in the report compiled by Nazi SS general Jürgen Stroop, commander of the operation to crush the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The woman on the right has been identified as Hasia Szylgold-Szpiro.

The Sixth Day: 24. 4. 43

Quiet until 12 o’clock. “Alarm”, the Germans are in our building, luckily it passes and we sleep on. Our schedule is turned upside down, we sleep during the day, cook and eat at night.

So begins the diary of an unknown woman, written in one of the secret bunkers established by the Jewish fighters during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when the barely armed resistance organisation in the ghetto held off the might of the Nazis’ genocidal war machine for four weeks in April and May 1943.

The history and heroism of the uprising is recorded in the accounts of key participants, including Marek Edelman in The Ghetto Fights and Yitzhak “Antek” Zuckerman in A Surplus of Memory. Their memoirs view the uprising through the eyes of the thousand or so organised fighters and were written after the event.

This diary, on the other hand, is a first-hand account written day by day in “real time” by one of the 40,000 or so ghetto inhabitants who – because of the difficulty of obtaining even home-made weapons – resisted by digging into bunkers and secret hiding places to make it as difficult as possible for the Nazis to find and kill them. They held out until after the Nazis had razed the entire ghetto to the ground.

The discovery of the diary

This diary was obtained by Adolf Abraham Berman, a member of the leftwing Zionist Left Poale Zion party and a founder of the Anti-Fascist Bloc, the precursor of the Jewish Combat Organisation – Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB).

Berman went to work clandestinely during the uprising on the so-called “Aryan side” of Warsaw – outside the ghetto set up by the Nazis to contain the city’s Jewish population. He served in an underground resistance organisation, the Polish Council for Aid to Jews. He passed relief funds to Jews in hiding and to the Jewish resistance in concentration camps and ghettos across Nazi-occupied Poland.

Berman also helped to save written records of the resistance in the ghetto. The anonymous diary we look at below was part of his collection. Berman survived the war and the artefacts he had gathered are now held in the archive of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).

Although we know very little about the author of the diary, researchers believe she was a woman who lived in a bunker on 32 Mila Street, very close to 18 Mila Street, the ZOB’s headquarters during the uprising.

The diary is written in Polish on five pieces of graph paper. The surviving segments of the diary record the events of 23, 24, 26, 27, 29 and 30 April and 2, 7 and 10 May 1943. The diary graphically describes the horrific living conditions in the bunkers and the perpetual state of fear their inhabitants had to endure.

But it is also a powerful testimony to the spirit of human resistance and bravery. The bunker inhabitants had no control of events in the ghetto and were cut off from other bunkers – the diarist couldn’t even contact her brother who was in hiding in a bunker a few houses away.

These Jewish resisters knew they were facing death. The Nazis had already seized thousands of ghetto inhabitants and taken them to the Treblinka extermination camp. Those who resisted had no prospect of defeating the Nazis militarily and faced death at their hands in the ghetto. But rather than simply be taken away and killed, the ghetto resisters chose to hold out as fiercely and as long as possible, to go down fighting.

The aim was to make a political statement, to act as a beacon of resistance and an example to Jewish – and, importantly, to non-Jewish people – across Poland and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe. They wanted to show that the Nazis could and must be fought, whatever the odds. Our diarist, like tens of thousands of others, chose resistance.

A brief history of the Warsaw Ghetto

Before we look at the diary, it is worth considering a very brief history of the Warsaw Ghetto and the uprising. The Nazis established the ghetto in Warsaw, forcing Jewish people from across the city into its confined area, and then sealed them in on 15 November 1940.

At its height the population of the ghetto included more than half a million Jewish people and 200-300 Roma inhabitants, making it the largest ghetto set up by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The ghetto covered an area of just 1.3 square miles, with an average of 9.2 people living in a room. By August 1941, the daily food ration for Jews in the ghetto was just 177 calories per person – around a tenth of the necessary minimum daily calorie intake.

More than 80,000 Jewish people died in the ghetto from starvation or disease. Economic activity in the ghetto was minimal, although there were a number of important factories employing Jewish workers. Most families survived by smuggling food from the “Aryan” side into the Ghetto or obtaining it on the black market.

Those individuals who were involved in running the ghetto, working in the workshops or in “illegal” trades, and those who had some savings were generally able to survive longer.

Despite the terrible deprivations and dangers, Jewish political groups continued to organise and educate large numbers of people. These groups included:

    • The Bund (General Jewish Workers Union) – a large Jewish socialist party that was opposed to Zionism

    • Left Poale Zion – a small left-Marxist Zionist party

    • HeHalutz – an umbrella group of Zionist youth movements including Hashomer Hatzair, HeHalutz Hatzair and Gordonia.

    • Two liberal-conservative Zionist parties.

    • The radical right Revisionist party.

    • There were also Communist Party and Trotskyist cells in the ghetto, which were influential despite their small size.

These groups produced pamphlets and newspapers, held meetings and developed self-help organisations. It is clear from records and testimonies that before 1942 these groups had no way of knowing that the Nazis planned to entirely wipe out Europe’s Jewish population – the so-called “Final Solution”.

They were not naive and clearly understood the Nazis’ murderous intent, but were anticipating that Nazis would launch murderous pogroms and massacres. The industrial nature and scale of the Holocaust was unprecedented and was not apparent in the early years of the Nazi occupation.

So the political groups organising resistance began by preparing to counter pogroms and massacres. But both Marek Edelman and ZOB courier Simcha Rotem (known as “Kazik”) later recalled that reports of the mass gassing of Jews in the Chelmno extermination camp in early 1942 brought about a realisation of that the Nazis were intent on destroying the European Jewish population as a whole.

This brought about a significant shift in tactics from the political groups, but they were unable to convince the Judenrat, the Nazi-imposed Jewish leadership of the ghetto to organise resistance or procure arms to fight the Nazis.

In the summer of 1942 the Grossaktion Warschau, the mass deportations of Jewish people from the ghetto to Treblinka took place. Between 23 July 1942, the religious Jewish fast-day of Tisha B’Av, and the high holy day of Yom Kippur on 21 September 1942, around 300,000 Jews were deported to the Treblinka death camp. All but a few thousand were murdered within hours. A further 3,000 people were shot on the ghetto streets. Fewer than 50,000 Jews were left in the ghetto.

Ghetto fighter Chaim Kaplan later recalled:

The terrible events have engulfed me … I have no words to express what has happened to us since the day the expulsion was ordered … with one stroke of the pen the face of Warsaw was changed.

They made an end to its pedlars; its beggars and paupers and down-and-outers were collected; its stores were closed; its streets were emptied. Everywhere there is the silence of the graveyard.

The uprising

The ZOB was formed on 28 July 1942 – just six days after the Grossaktion Warschau was launched. It was made up of all the main political groups with the exception of the Revisionists, who created their own fighting group – the Jewish Military Union Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy (ZZW).

Young people, including teenagers, were the core participants of the organisation. ZOB leader Mordechai Anielewicz was just 24 when he led its members into battle. Between the end of July 1942 and January 1943 the group produced anti-Nazi propaganda, set up fighting groups and took part in weapons training.

The biggest problem the resistance groups faced was the procurement of weapons and ammunition. This period saw the ZOB replace the Judenrat as the de-facto leadership of the ghetto.

From 22 September until 17 January there were no deportations out of the ghetto. Then, without warning, on the morning of the 18 January 1943 the Nazis entered the ghetto, rounding up 5,000 Jews and shooting dead another 600.

The Nazis’ action was halted when hundreds of members of the ZOB, armed only with pistols and Molotov cocktail bombs, attacked the Nazis. They forced the Nazis out of the ghetto – a huge moral and psychological victory, despite the loss of many ghetto fighters.

The ZOB and the ZZW used the Nazi withdrawal to prepare for the battle ahead. A desperate campaign to raise money and arms was organised and, as with all liberation movements, ZOB fighters removed traitors and spies from the ghetto.

As the ghetto residents became convinced that all Jewish people were going to be deported and murdered by the Nazis, they created an underground city, building a warren of bunkers and hideouts that could accommodate all 40,000 surviving inhabitants. Food was hoarded, wells were dug in basements and lookouts were set up.

As the anonymous diarist notes, the purpose was to defy the Nazis for as long as possible, with little hope of survival. She does cling onto the hope that if the ghetto was able to hold out for long enough then it might be possible for the Allies – Britain, the US and the Soviet Union – to drop weapons for the fighters or perhaps bomb the city. But despite the fact that the Allies knew about the uprising, to their eternal shame they provided no military aid.

On 18 April 1943, news arrived that the Germans had stationed an army in Warsaw and it seemed that the Nazis planned to liquidate the ghetto. The members of the underground resistance movements went onto high alert. That night the ghetto was surrounded.

Ghetto fighter Tuvia Borzykowski later recalled:

No one slept that night. Everybody spent the time packing the most necessary articles, linen, bedding, food and taking it down to the bunkers. The moon was full and the night was unusually bright. There was more movement in the courtyards and streets than by day.

On 19 April 1943, on the eve of the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover), the Nazis entered the ghetto. The ZOB fighting units took up defensive positions and Jewish families hid themselves in the bunkers. For 27 days the resistance fought back. Then the Nazis literally burned the ghetto to the ground, using poison gas to unearth the hidden resisters and dynamite to destroy the bunkers.

An aerial photo shows the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto after the uprising. Pic credit: USHMM

There are no agreed figures for the numbers killed, but at least 7,000 Jews died in the uprising, with another 42,000 Jews eventually captured and deported to the death camps.

Hundreds of Jews did manage to escape the ghetto, however, with some later taking part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. By the end of WW2 it is estimated that around 20,000 Jews were living in hiding on the “Aryan” side of the city.

On 16 May 1943, the Nazis destroyed the Great Synagogue on Warsaw’s Tłomackie Street – an act staged by the Nazis to mark what they believed would be the end of the ghetto uprising.

General Jürgen Stroop, the commander of the Nazi SS responsible for crushing the uprising, added a caption to the photo album and journal he produced, documenting the destruction of the ghetto: “There is no longer a Jewish quarter in Warsaw.”

But the resistance did not end on 16 May. Sporadic resistance by the ghetto inhabitants and destruction of bunkers by the Nazis continued until 5 June 1943.

This photo, taken for Nazi SS commander Stroop’s report, shows part of one of the bunkers.

The diary in context

Now we will look at the diary itself, setting the writer’s notes in the context of the events of the uprising.

23.4.43

There is a terrible lack of air. People fall down, partly unconscious, on the ground. The enemy bombards us with grenades without rest and the sounds of machine-gun fire are heard without end…Hell has come to earth. Dante’s inferno – unbelievable and indescribable…

The young men of the resistance have come to visit us. With our mouths open we listen to the young men’s stories. The organisation has been dissolved. Everyone works on his own and his own risk.

By this point in the uprising, the pitched battles above ground were largely over. The fighting units now entered their own bunkers and only came out at night to conduct guerrilla-type operations. On this day the Nazis divided the ghetto into 24 districts and specially trained assault search parties were given until 4pm to destroy the resistance.

The Warsaw Ghetto diary page for 24 April 1943. Pic credit: Dream Deferred

The diary continues:

The Sixth Day: 24.4.43

Quiet until 12 o’clock. “Alarm”, the Germans are in our building, luckily it passes and we sleep on. Our schedule is turned upside down, we sleep during the day, cook and eat at night…All young people go out to the courtyard, the building is in flames…We look through the window and see that the Ghetto is burning, entirely in flames.

The diarist would not have known, but by this time the Nazis were developing new strategies to defeat the uprising. On this day Stroop ordered his 24 assault units into the ghetto, simultaneously attacking it from all sides. In his journal, Stroop describes the ruthlessness of the operation and the scale of the opposition stating:

Since some of the Jews resisted, I ordered the buildings burned down. Only after the streets and the courtyards were ablaze did the Jews come out of the housing blocks. Many were on fire, and they tried to save themselves by jumping from windows and balconies into the street below…

Again and again, one could observe that the Jews and bandits [Stroop’s term for the ghetto fighters], notwithstanding the gigantic conflagration, preferred to back into the fire rather than fall into our hands. The Jews continued to shoot almost to the end of the operation.

Stroop also states that on this day he arranged trains to take the captured Jewish people “to TII”, the Treblinka extermination camp.

Now the diarist writes in even more horrific conditions.

The Eighth Day: 26.4.43

Our building continues to burn. The building on the side of Zamenhof Street, where the people were in hiding, is also on fire. People are running away from there and are coming to us, a difficult (catastrophic) situation is developing.

As the bunkers are discovered and the fires spread, overcrowding of the remaining bunkers becomes a major problem. One survivor’s testimony states that 250 people found shelter in a bunker designed for just 50 people while another records 150 crammed into a cellar intended for 20. It wasn’t just a question of overcrowding: food and water supplies were in short supply.

Stroop notes:

Results of today’s operation: 30 Jews transferred, 1,330 Jews removed from bunkers and immediately destroyed; 362 Jews shot in battle…This brings the total figure of Jews apprehended to 29,186. Further countless Jews have undoubtedly perished in 13 demolished bunkers and in the fires.

The diarist writes:

Tuesday 27 April 1943

The owners of the bunkers sit down for the first time for a conference. The topic for discussion is the people who arrived from other bunkers and have nothing to eat…the decision was made: every day an additional bowl of soup and a cup of coffee will be given out per person…

Next, several people were chosen to impose order, and in addition guard duty was established…The enemy is all around our building looking for us. Our means of defence is to maintain the greatest silence.

This diary entry confirms several testimonies that claim the bunkers were organised along democratic and cooperative principles. This democratic impulse in part reflected the way tenements in the ghetto were organised – these often housed people employed in the same workplaces, originally living in the same local areas and people from the same Jewish religious sects. It was also in part a reflection of the influence of the left in its many different guises and the incredible selfless idealism of the bunker resisters.

The diarist writes:

Evening Wednesday 28 April 1943

Ten days of battling our bloodiest enemy who seeks to annihilate us completely. He started with grenades and tanks, and winds up with setting our houses on fire. But we have the endurance and we hope that we will survive. We fight for justice and the right to life…

Thursday 29 April, 1943

It was a very dangerous night the enemy threw a grenade at our basement…What is left to be done – to leave and risk your life or to die here?

The destruction of the bunkers went on unabated. On this day Stroop reported that 36 new bunkers had been located, 2,359 Jewish people were captured and 106 fighters killed in battle. He also noted that captured bunker dwellers explained that they hadn’t been outside for ten days and that food was running short. His report ends, “Total number of Jews apprehended or destroyed: 35,760.”

The diarist continues:

Friday, 30 April 1943

The emotional state of people was critical. They can’t withstand the situation; they lie on the ground in a partial state of unconsciousness. The children have especially been affected…

Our lives are currently in danger and the quality of life is very low. People are half naked, badly dressed, they run by in a melancholy manner along the stone floor, they are not able to live and they are not able to die. I myself am surprised how it is possible that we have been able to live and survive 3 weeks in such conditions…

The whole ghetto is a sea of flames…The only thing left to us is our shelter. Of course it is not a safe place for the long term. We live by the day, the hour, the minute.

Stroop’s journal noted three salient points on this day. The first was that the Nazis’ operations had been extended around the clock, day and night, giving the bunker dwellers no respite.

Second, that “the Jews continue to remain in bunkers two or three metres underground” and they could only be discovered by torturing captured ghetto inhabitants to extract the locations.

Finally, there was still significant fighting taking place and the Nazis had been forced to bring up artillery to quell the ghetto fighters in one bunker.

The diarist continues:

Morning, Sunday 2 May 1943

Our operation begins with cleaning up the blood in front of our shelter…I am on guard duty right now, and have still two hours left. Below I sketch the diagram of our bunker with all the entrances. The idea of constructing [a] bunker came up after the January Aktion…Construction work lasted six weeks. During construction we also secured food supplies…Everything we brought into the bunker was a masterpiece.

The diarist’s sketch plan of her bunker on Mila Street. The captions show an underground entrance and another entrance through a hatch, a well and toilet, bunks for sleeping, four electric stoves, the main ventilator and a protective dike on the left outside the wall which stretches all the way to a gate. Pic credit: Dream Deferred

After a gap of five days, the diarist is able to start recording events once more:

7 May 1943

Finally after five days I hold a pencil again. We went through five difficult and tragic days…Our living conditions were very bad from the moment we entered but especially since the time 45 people were accepted as guests. Most of them didn’t have any clothes or food. The problem got even worse on Monday when the power station turned off the electricity.

Stroop’s journal noted that 49 bunkers were uncovered and blown up that day, but the resistance was still strong. Stroop also declared that his troops had found the bunker used by the “so-called party leadership”. The Nazis had discovered the bunker that was the ZOB’s headquarters at 18 Mila Street. The next day the Nazis would use tear gas to force the occupants to surrender.

Marek Edelman and a handful of fighters escaped through the sewers to the “Aryan” side of the city. Mordechaj Anielewicz and more than 50 other ghetto fighters committed suicide rather than surrender.

After another pause, the diarist begins again:

10 May 1943

Three days have gone by, 3 days without warm food…During my four-hour-long watch I lay against the hatch and listened to a conversation outside. The conversation between the Germans was full of irony and sadism…

The bunker is partially covered with rubble. The people inside summon courage and calmly look death in the eye…

I go out onto the street [it is] burning! Everything around us is on fire [whole streets]…Screams of pain and cry, houses and bunkers are burning, everything, everything is in flames. Everyone seeks rescue, everyone wants to save his life.

People are suffocating because of the smoke. All shout for help. Many, almost everyone call upon God, “God show your power, have mercy on us.” God is silent as a Sphinx and does not reply. And you the nations who are silent, don’t you see how [they] seek to destroy us. Why are you silent?

This is the last entry of the diary.

No one knows what happened to the brave woman who recorded the last days of the uprising from her bunker, but her diary will be pored over by historians of the Holocaust. It is a testament to the bravery, ingenuity and determination of tens of thousands of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto to resist the Nazis’ final solution.

The final word goes to one of ZOB’s leaders, Yitzhak Zuckerman, known as “Antek”, who was asked what military and strategic lessons could be learned from the uprising. He replied:

I don’t think there’s any need to analyse the Uprising in military terms. This was a war of less than a thousand people against a mighty army, and no one doubted how it was likely to turn out. This isn’t a subject for study in a military school. Not the weapons, not the operations, not the tactics.

If there’s a school to study the human spirit, there it should be a major subject. The really important things were inherent in the force shown by Jewish youths, after years of degradation, to rise up against their destroyers and determine what death they would chose: Treblinka or uprising. I don’t know if there is a standard to measure that.

Surviving Jewish ghetto fighters at the site of the destroyed ZOB headquarters at 18 Mila Street, after the war.

A massive thank you goes to the staff at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, who kindly translated the diary, and to Jacek Szymanski who translated the diagram of the bunker. This piece is based on a longer academic article written by the author. If you would like a copy and or a full translation of the diary please leave a comment below or get in touch via our contact page.

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