Eighty years ago today, the half-starved Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto rose up against their German tormentors, holding out for 27 days before the SS destroyed the entire area. In this 2017 essay, Jared Sorhaindo reflects on his visit to the part of Warsaw where the ghetto once stood, the ghetto’s history, and how Warsaw’s non-Jewish residents related to both the ghetto’s inhabitants and the uprising.
The Polish underground did report about what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, in detail—the ghettoization, the shootings, the deportations, the exterminations. The Polish government-in-exile in London was updated regularly. . . . Generally speaking, the Polish government-in-exile did not want to highlight Jewish suffering too much, because it would, in their estimation, minimize the agonies of the Polish nation, which were shattering and enormous.
It seems unlikely that the Poles could not have blown up railway tracks or even attacked the death camps themselves if they had so chosen. The constant excuse was that the Polish underground had to husband its resources for a final confrontation with the Germans and could not spare them to save the Jews. The Polish underground and government were fearful that the Germans would move on to the non-Jewish Poles once they had finished with the Jews, so they had to prepare for this eventuality with all the force they could muster. The unspoken assumption, of course, was that the Jews, although Polish citizens, were not really Poles, and therefore were not worth full-throated, or any-throated, Polish resistance.
The Polish underground largely held the Jews in contempt, seeing them as going to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter. They did not, they said, want to waste arms on such people. So despite the repeated calls for help by Warsaw’s Jewish underground, the [Polish Home Army] only provided a handful of revolvers, some of which were defective.
Many Poles, however, were profoundly distressed by what was happening to their Jewish neighbors. [In 1942], the Polish government-in-exile set up the Council to Aid Jews (Polish: Rada Pomocy Żydom, code name Żegota), which helped thousands of Jews to survive through providing false documentation, food, medicine, and shelter.