Today is Holocaust Memorial Day and this year people are focusing on the 70th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. So why is this event such an important one in human history?
The largest Jewish ghetto was established by the Nazis in the Polish capital of Warsaw in 1940. It saw 30% of the population of the city (400,000 people) confined to a space equal to 2% of its space (or 3.4 kilometers squared).
The ghetto was used like a ‘holding pen’ in the Nazi funnelling system for death camps. While they were in the ghetto, Jews faced a lack of everyday needs. Imagine being locked into small section of your city when that portion may not have everything you need to survive; unemployment was endemic and food was rationed. Apart from death by the Nazis (either in the ghetto or once they were transferred to Treblinka and other death camps) the biggest cause of mortality was famine and disease. The lack of food within the walls of the small space led most inhabitants to have a daily diet ration of less than 200 calories per day. That is the equivalent of 2.5 large apples or less than half of a 100g individually-portionned bag of chips. Over 100,000 people died in the ghetto in this way and almost all of the rest were eventually transferred to death camps. It was common to find people dying from starvation on the streets of the ghetto since there was no one to help them. And let’s be honest, if you only had 200 calories worth of food, would you be able to share it?
During one of the final round-ups by Nazis of Jews in Warsaw, the ghetto inhabitants did resist and this is known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, from approximately April to May, 1943. The resistance lasted for a few short months until the Nazis blew up the ghetto building by building and the rest of the inhabitants were transferred to death camps.
Why is this such a big deal? I think it’s a big deal because this instance shows the lack of humanity seen in the Nazis, who corralled humans like they were animals and funnelled them into death factories. But I also think it’s a big deal because it shows the resistance of the imprisoned Jews. They were eating 200 calories per day; imagine how weak they would have been and yet they still fought back. If you were to spend even one day on 200 calories, I guarantee you, you wouldn’t have the energy to do much. And yet their resistance was so great that the Nazis had to fight back by blowing up the land, building by building.
Often online, you see details of the Holocaust mentioned in the same paragraph with Israel’s creation of an apartheid or Al-Nakba. Even though I agree that these two aforementioned events are also horrific, I think it is worthwhile to let this instance of human horror and human resistance stand on its own, within the context in which it was created: with Nazi Germany trying (and, unfortunately, almost succeeding) to kill all of Europe’s Jews.
I chose four of my preferred (is that an appropriate word here, probably not) photos for illustrating the Warsaw Ghetto and the Uprising. Here’s why I chose them:
1) The first photo (at the top, above) is from 1948 and was taken by Dawid Chim. It shows post-war children walking through the empty field that was once the Warsaw Ghetto. When you remember that the ghetto was formed from a downtown section of a capital city, it does a great job of illustrating how the ‘scorched earth’ policy of the Nazis in reaction to the Uprising was put into effect. [Source: Lightbox, Time Magazine’s Blog]
2) The second photo was taken in 1940-1941 and it shows the walls erected to separate the ghetto from the rest of Warsaw. For me, it reminds me of how tragic it would have been to know you were so close to people who had food. [Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum]
3) The third photo was taken in the ghetto between 1940 and 1943 and it shows a fellow resident giving money to two emaciated children on the sidewalk. It shows someone who has nothing, giving something. Although there’s no information about the children, one can assume that their parents may have died. If you were living in the ghetto on 200 calories a day could you take care of orphans, even if you wanted to? [Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum]
4) The fourth photo shows a child dying of starvation in the middle of the sidewalk while residents of the ghetto walk by. At first it seems as if they are doing nothing and then you realize that they can do nothing. It was taken in 1941 by a German soldier. [Source: Yad Vashem]