Buildings destroyed by the SS during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

Jewish Uprisings in Ghettos and Camps, 1941–44

Resistance in Ghettos

Between 1941 and 1943, underground resistance movements developed in approximately 100 ghettos in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe (about one-fourth of all ghettos), especially in Poland, Lithuania, Belorussia, and the Ukraine. Their main goals were to organize uprisings, break out of the ghettos, and join partisan units in the fight against the Germans.

Haika GrosmanThe Jews knew that uprisings would not stop the Germans and that only a handful of fighters would succeed in escaping to join the partisans. Still, some Jews made the decision to resist. Weapons were smuggled into ghettos. Inhabitants in the ghettos of Vilna, Mir, Lachva (Lachwa), Kremenets, Czestochowa, Nesvizh, Sosnowiec, and Tarnow, among others, resisted with force when the Germans began to deport ghetto populations. In Bialystok, the underground staged an uprising just before the final destruction of the ghetto in September 1943. Most of the ghetto fighters, primarily young men and women, died during the fighting.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising in the spring of 1943 was the largest single revolt by Jews. Hundreds of Jews fought the Germans and their auxiliaries in the streets of the ghetto. Thousands of Jews refused to obey German orders to report to an assembly point for deportation. In the end the Nazis burned the ghetto to the ground to force the Jews out. Although they knew defeat was certain, Jews in the ghetto fought desperately and valiantly.

Resistance in Camps

Under the most adverse conditions, Jewish prisoners succeeded in initiating resistance and uprisings in some Nazi camps. The surviving Jewish workers launched uprisings even in the killing centers of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Treblinka Uprising 

About 1,000 Jewish prisoners participated in the revolt in Treblinka. On August 2, 1943, Jews seized what weapons they could find—picks, axes, and some firearms stolen from the camp armory—and set fire to the camp. About 200 managed to escape. The Germans recaptured and killed about half of them.

Sobibor Uprising

On October 14, 1943, prisoners in Sobibor killed 11 SS guards and police auxiliaries and set the camp on fire. About 300 prisoners escaped, breaking through the barbed wire and risking their lives in the minefield surrounding the camp. Over 100 were recaptured and later shot.

Prewar portrait of Ala GertnerOn October 7, 1944, prisoners assigned to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after learning that they were going to be killed. The Germans crushed the revolt and murdered almost all of the several hundred prisoners involved in the rebellion.

Other camp uprisings took place in the Kruszyna (1942), Minsk-Mazowiecki (1943), and Janowska (1943) camps. In several dozen camps prisoners organized escapes to join partisan units. Successful escapes were made, for example, from the Lipowa Street labor camp in Lublin.

Despite being vastly outgunned and outnumbered, some Jews in ghettos and camps did resist the Germans with force. The spirit of these efforts transcends their failure to halt the genocidal policies of the Nazis.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Resistance comes in many forms, both violent and non-violent. Consider the many factors which may lead an individual or group to resist an oppressive regime. Investigate these factors in other periods of persecution.
  • What risks might a group or individual face when resisting the actions of government or society?