The story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising has been well documented. But the details are often lost. There were two uprisings.
In January 1943, German SS and police began a wave of mass deportations, planning to send thousands of the ghetto’s remaining Jews to forced-labor camps in the Lublin District of the General Government.
A small group of Jewish fighters, armed with pistols, infiltrated a column of Jews being forced to the Umschlagplatz (transfer point). At a prearranged signal, this group broke ranks and fought their German escorts. Although most of the Jewish fighters died in the battle, the attack disoriented the Germans, giving the Jews a chance to disperse.
Encouraged by the apparent success of the resistance, people in the ghetto began to construct subterranean bunkers and shelters. They were preparing for an uprising should the Germans attempt a final deportation of the remaining Jews from the ghetto.
Then, on April 19, 1943, the eve of the Passover holiday, the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto began the next act of armed resistance against the Germans. Lasting twenty-seven days, this act of resistance came to be known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
And despite years in a starvation-menu ghetto and no access to weapons fought the Nazis for nearly a month, until artillery leveled the ghetto. It was a total modern Masada. Just unbelievable bravery against overwhelming odds with captured and handmade weapons. (This may have been where the lipstick-casing-as-cartridge-case story came from.)
It is grimly amusing to note that the Warsaw inmates, with their pathetic weaponry, held off the German army for 27 days, while the French army fell in 24 days.
Young Jewish women, like Ester Wajcblum, Ella Gärtner, and Regina Safirsztain, had obtained small amounts of gunpowder from the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, a munitions factory within the Auschwitz complex. This gunpowder was smuggled to the camp’s resistance movement. Róza Robota, a young Jewish woman who worked in the clothing detail at Birkenau was one of the smugglers.
Under constant guard, the women in the factory stole small amounts of gunpowder, wrapped it in bits of cloth or paper, and then hid it on their bodies. They then passed it along the smuggling chain. Once she received the gunpowder, Róza Robota passed it to the Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommando were a special squad of prisoners who were forced to work in the camp’s crematoria. Using this gunpowder, the leaders of the Sonderkommando planned to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria and then launch the uprising.
On October 7, 1944, prisoners assigned to Crematorium IV at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center, the members of the Sonderkommando at Crematorium IV rose in revolt. The Germans crushed the revolt. Nearly 250 prisoners died during the fighting and guards shot another 200 after the mutiny was suppressed. Several days later, the SS identified four Jewish female prisoners who had been involved in supplying explosives to blow up the crematorium. All four women were executed.
But once again, the German war machine had to pause to deal with a Jewish uprising.
On October 14, 1943, prisoners in Sobibor killed 11 members of the camp’s SS staff, including the camp’s deputy commandant Johann Niemann.
A group of Polish Jews led by Leon Feldhandler formed a secret committee to plan a mass escape. However, its members lacked any military experience and made little progress.
When a group of Jewish Red Army POWs arrived in a transport from Minsk, the committee turned to them for advice. Lieutenant Alexander Pechersky developed a plan. The Soviet POWS would secretly kill some of the SS officials, taking their weapons and uniforms. Then, when the approximately 600 prisoners assembled for evening roll call, the POWs masquerading as camp personnel would kill the guards at the gate and on the towers. The revolt was set for a day when Sobibor’s commandant would be away.
Close to 300 prisoners escaped, breaking through barbed wire and risking their lives in the minefield surrounding the camp. Only about 50 would survive the war.
On 2 August 1943, the prisoners at the Treblinka Extermination Camp, fearing that the camp would be dismantled, and the remaining prisoners killed, a resistance group within Treblinka organized a revolt. They seized arms, set camp buildings on fire, and rushed the main gate. Despite facing machine guns, several hundred prisoners were able to break out of the camp. More than half were then traced and killed by Nazi authorities. Half remained at large.