UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay

A Fight to The Death

Book Essay on: Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
( New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 277pages.
UCSB: DS135.P62 W2728 1994

by Jessica Contreras
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Amazon.com book listing

About Jessica Contreras

I am a fourth year history major who has studied primary British history. I have studied abroad at the University of Sussex, England where I focused on 19th and 20th century British history. I have always been interested in history from the early modern era to the current era and constantly strive to learn more whether it be American history or Russian history.

Abstract (back to top)

I chose to write about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising because I was pleasantly surprised to learn that those in the ghetto fought against what was happening to them despite the miniscule chance of their success. In Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Israel Gutman outlines the various groups inside and outside of the ghetto that played a role in fighting the Nazis in 1943. He concluded that it was the different factions uniting that made the resistance possible. He details the odds that they faced, but does not expand upon the legacy of the uprising or reasons why the Jews waited so long to resist. Gutman only briefly covers what became of the key figures of the resistance movement such as Mordecai Anielwicz. He spends a great portion of the book setting the context of what the residents of the ghetto were experiencing and what the Nazis were planning before delving in to the resistance itself.

Essay (back to top)

Israel Gutman’s study of the Warsaw ghetto uprising takes an in depth look at the variety of groups that participated in the resistance. He also speculates as to the causes for the rebellion and why revolt occurred so late after the deportations began. Gutman structures his writing chronologically for the most part; only backtracking a few times to help contextualize events. The main drawback to his work and how it is organized is that he does not arrive at the main topic of his work, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, until midway through the book. He does use a wide variety of primary and secondary sources from both survivors and Nazis, including underground and mainstream newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s, memoirs and journals from survivors and resistance leaders, official Nazi reports, and the research of fellow historians such as Emanuel Ringelblum. The main thesis of Gutman’s Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is that the youth movements were vital to the rebellion and struggle for survival in the Warsaw ghetto. The youth movements enabled the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto to hold on to life a few precious months longer, have the opportunity to choose to die with dignity, and even allowed some to escape and survive. The differing groups united under the common goal of survival allowed the story of the uprising to take effect on people despite its lack of success and the lack of emphasis Gutman places on its legacy. By going more in depth regarding reasons why the Jews waited so long to resist, Gutman would have further helped to change the image of the Jews from passive victims to defiant scapegoats who were willing to fight.

Gutman attempts to answer numerous questions regarding the uprising. Those that he does not directly answer he establishes enough historical context supplemented with journal entries and newspaper documentation that allow readers to draw their own conclusions. For example, the question of how those in the ghetto were able to effectively communicate with the outside world is difficult to answer. For starters, communication was strained at best and not particularly effective due to the many constraints put on the movements and interactions of the Jews in the ghetto. Though smugglers were able to find ways in and out of the walled-in area, the feat was extremely difficult and hazardous. The same methods were used by the rebels to smuggle in weapons and information but those who were caught paid with their lives, making rebellion an even more costly alternative. Messengers also risked their lives to shuttle information between those on the outside of the ghetto walls and those unfortunate enough to be within them. These messengers risked not only being caught and killed by the S.S., but also being spotted by a civilian who would be likely to report them for a reward.

There was obviously a decent amount of communication between the different groups and makeshift squads because the tactics used by the youth movement fighters changed based on the Nazis’ tactics and the forces that they were up against. For example, on the first few nights of the uprising the rebels set up posts from which they based their attacks. In the days that followed, as the Nazis caught on to the tactic, so the rebels instead began using surprise attacks and employing mobile units from which to attack the Nazi soldiers.

The Jews in the ghetto had few weapons and used homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails to ambush the Nazi barricades; making the odds of their success more unlikely. The little training that the renegades did have was held weekly in private homes. They trained in guerrilla tactics, what would be of best use to them on the streets, and practiced on the one smuggled gun that they had possession of at the time.

A recurring problem that the resisters within the ghetto found is that there was an overwhelming lack of direct assistance from those outside of the ghetto walls ranging from fellow residents of Poland to the Allied nations. A common complaint found in the journal entries included in Gutman’s text is that despite the dire situation that the Jews within the ghetto faced and the outside world’s knowledge of their inhumane living conditions, there were so few who would make the risk of coming to their aid. This is not to say that no Jews in the ghetto were aided by Poles. Individual families risked everything by hiding Jews in their homes. A group named Zegota existed solely to help Jews who had escaped the ghetto and those who were attempting to hide amongst the non-Jewish Poles. Zegota, however, functioned only as a rescue organization, hiding and acquiring false papers for Jews, but not actively fighting the Nazis.

Gutman’s work addresses the fact those resisting did not have one cohesive background or ideology. Those taking part in the rebellion came from differing interest groups such as communists, Zionists, ZOB (Jewish Fighting Organization) members, ZZW (Jewish Fighting Union) members, workers, and ordinary citizens who were ready to fight. Though it was not one analogous group or ideology, the numerous groups united under one cause: survival. This motley crew was led by Mordecai Anielwicz who targeted not only the Nazis but also the members of the Judenrat, or Jewish council, who lived inside of the ghetto and helped implement German orders that would ultimately bring about the death of the ghetto residents.

According to Gutman’s research there were no unwilling participants in the uprising when it began on a large scale on April 19, 1943. This is likely due to the fact that there had been several expulsions from the ghetto prior to this date and those who remained were mostly workers and younger men, who were the most prone to put up a fight. The residents who were not physically fighting or firing weapons had worked in large and small groups to construct bunkers where they hid during expulsions and “actions” in the ghetto. The bunkers ranged in size from being able to accommodate a few people to the large Mila 18 which housed 120 Jewish resistance fighters and leaders (Gutman, 240).

A further question that is left for readers to answer is what the goals of the resisters were. Did they hope to keep the Nazis at bay until the war ended? Were they hoping that they would overpower the Nazis and be let free? The more likely possibility is that they were simply fighting with the hope that each day or survival would bring them closer to freedom and the ability of being able to return to their homes. The content of the journal selections that Gutman includes are mostly focused on the uprising and the events leading up to it rather than what the future held. Perhaps the pervasive lack of hope led to the absence of speculation on what was to come in the near future, or perhaps those thoughts are contained in passages that Gutman omitted from his focused study.

The story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising epitomizes how people can resist their oppressors in the face of adversity even when there is little hope of success. Gutman largely underestimates the value of the legacy of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and makes surprisingly little mention of it in his account of the uprising. He mentions that word of the events in Warsaw spread to other ghettos where Jews were being held as well as to work camps and concentration camps. Gutman also states that rumors of what had taken place in Warsaw had traveled as far as both the western and eastern Fronts and to Jewish communities as distant as Palestine and the United States (Gutman, 255).

The Warsaw Uprising helped the world to see the Jews as fighters instead of passive victims who had resigned to their fates. Also, Gutman claims that word of the uprising spread to Treblinka death camp where it led to plans for revolt and weapon accumulation at the camp. Unfortunately, he gives no further details about whether an uprising was ever able to gain sufficient momentum at all. Also, there is no discussion about how the Nazis learned from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or if they adapted their strategies to the new realization that the Jews were willing to resist violently even in the face of certain death. It would be arrogant to the point of foolishness if the Nazis did not alter the way that they conducted their “actions” against the Jews after the struggle that they had to go through in Warsaw. Gutman includes a report from SS General Jürgen Stroop who was in charge of the clearing of the ghetto during the uprising, but the account is merely a report of the numbers of German officers and soldiers lost as well as the Jewish casualties (with great exaggeration).

A further point that this book does not go into depth in to is the reasons why the Jews in the ghetto waited so long to resist. The intense isolation and absence of family are mentioned as some of the reasons for the lack of insurrection prior to the April uprising. Also hypothesized is the complete hopelessness felt by the residents of the ghetto and the lack of encouragement or help from the outside world. Not mentioned is the animalistic survival instinct that emerges in individuals in life-threatening situations. When an isolated person’s life is in jeopardy they will almost certainly only do what is necessary to keep themselves alive, without concern for those around them. The fact that those living in the ghetto had been starving for many months would have only exacerbated the instinctive trait of keeping oneself alive.

This book is significant in that it shows a historical event that exemplifies the strength of the human spirit and the ability to unite when necessary and rise against those who are doing harm in the world. It also helps to show that the Jews were not passive in their persecution and did indeed fight against the Nazis in many different ways, from hiding from them to mounting rebellions that had little chance of success. Resistance also shows how disloyal the Nazis were amongst themselves; firing officers and counselors because they saw the inefficiency in deporting all of the Jews when workers were needed for the war effort. Also, the Nazi tendency to manipulate the truth into lies as General Stroop did in his accounts of the uprising; exaggerating the number of German injuries and casualties to justify his need for so many troops against an almost unarmed group of starving Jews. This book is significant because it tells the story of the brave men and women who gave their lives to give hope to the rest of their brethren who were struggling to survive, how they did so, and the incredible odds that they faced.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)

Book Reviews

  • Thomas T. Spencer , Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman, The History Teacher, JSTOR Vol. 31, No. 1 (Nov., 1997)

    Spencer’s review of Gutman’s work is fair and accurate. He highlights the fact that Gutman helps to break the belief that the Jews were passive against the Nazis. Spencer also notes that one of the many reasons why the uprising was not successful was the lack of cooperation between the resistance groups on different sides of the ghetto walls.

  • Michael R. Marrus, Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust, Journal of Contemporary History, JSTOR Vol. 30, No. 1 (Jan., 1995)

    Marrus mentions Gutman’s study of resistance and his belief that the Jewish Council members were hindering the resistance movement by cooperating with the Nazis. Marrus also cautions against placing too much or too little emphasis on how important the various instances of resistance were to the whole of World War II.

  • Jan Peczkis, A Broad-Based but ZOB-Centered History of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Personal Review, Amazon Aug. 22, 2009.

    This book review is more cynical in tone and seems less than scholarly. Peczkis writes that Gutman places too much credit for the resistance movement on the ZOB. She also claims that the Polish people that helped the Jews in the ghetto only did so for financial gain.

Books and Articles

  • Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

    As the source of my paper this book contains many first hand accounts and includes documents from Nazis that were involved.

  • Ronnie S. Landau, The Nazi Holocaust Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992

    Contains vital statistical information on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and also information and first-hand accounts of the many other uprisings that occurred during the Nazi regime.

Relevant Websites

  • Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum, Deconstructing Memory and History: The Jewish Military Union (ZZW) and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs March 2006

    This site recommends the memoir of survivor Simcha "Kazik" Rotem. The authors stress how important the few that participated in and survived the resistance consider recounting their stories to future generations.

  • Public Collaboration, The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia December 2008

    A good source for general figures and dates that will help readers to understand the scope of the uprising. Also a good site for photos of the ghetto, Nazi documents, and numerous links to other sites with applicable photos.

  • unknown, Facts & History in the Shoah, or Holocaust, Shoah Education accessed February 2010

    Website breaks down the Holocaust into easily researchable sub-headings such as Children & Shoah, Civil Liberties, War Crimes Trial, and many others. Great resource for establishing context. Great resource for information on the ghettos, their locations, conditions within them, how they were formed and dissolved, and general synopsis of the story of each one.

  • University of South Florida, A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust, University of South Florida 2005

    Site organizes events in the various ghettos via an easy to read timeline complete with dozens of links to outside sources. Timeline is general and broad in scope but some external links are specific to certain topics such as nutrition in the ghettos. Most links are for photographs of ghetto conditions only.

(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Jessica Contreras on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
back to top, to Hist 133D homepage, 133B+D Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage