On this day, the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the concentration camp at Treblinka is resumed—but not without much bloodshed and resistance along the way.
On July 18, 1942, Heinrich Himmler promoted Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolf Hess to SS major. He also ordered that the Warsaw ghetto, the Jewish quarter constructed by the Nazis upon the occupation of Poland and enclosed first by barbed wire and then by brick walls, be depopulated—a “total cleansing,” as he described it. The inhabitants were to be transported to what became a second extermination camp constructed at the railway village of Treblinka, 62 miles northeast of Warsaw.
Within the first seven weeks of Himmler’s order, more than 250,000 Jews were taken to Treblinka by rail and gassed to death, marking the largest single act of destruction of any population group, Jewish or non-Jewish, civilian or military, in the war. Upon arrival at “T. II,” as this second camp at Treblinka was called, prisoners were separated by sex, stripped, and marched into what were described as “bathhouses,” but were in fact gas chambers. T. II’s first commandant was Dr. Irmfried Eberl, age 32, the man who had headed up the euthanasia program of 1940 and had much experience with the gassing of victims, especially children. He was assisted in his duties by several hundred Ukrainian and about 1,500 Jewish prisoners, who removed gold teeth from victims before hauling the bodies to mass graves.
In January 1943, after a four-month hiatus, the deportations started up again. A German SS unit entered the ghetto and began rounding up its denizens—but they did not go without a fight. Six hundred Jews were killed in the streets as they struggled with the Germans. Rebels with smuggled firearms opened fire on the SS troops. The Germans returned fire—machine-gun fire against the Jews’ pistol shots. Nine Jewish rebels fell—as did several Germans. The fighting continued for days, with the Jews refusing to surrender and even taking arms from their Germans persecutors in surprise attacks.
Amazingly, the Germans withdrew from the ghetto in the face of the unexpected resistance. They likely did not realize how few armed resisters there were, but the fact that resistance was given at all intimidated them. But there was no happy ending. Before this new incursion into the ghetto was over, 6,000 more Jews were transported to their likely deaths at Treblinka.