John Radzilowski, Ph.D., about Comparing the Ghetto Uprising to the September Campaign
The first question to ask is why this comparison is being made at all, since the two situations were completely different. The destruction of Poland was a major objective of Nazi foreign policy (not to mention Soviet foreign policy). The Nazis and Soviets deployed huge armies with air, mechanized, and naval assets. The Ghetto Uprising was a very small action by comparison.
There is no need to demonstrate the heroism of one ethnic group by denigrating the heroism of another, especially when we consider that in both instances Poles and Jews fought together against a common enemy. There were Jewish soldiers in the Polish army in 1939 (and thereafter) and during the Ghetto Uprising 55 fighters of the Polish Home Army lost their lives assisting the Ghetto fighters (primarily the ZZW and Bund).
The final German effort to liquidate the Ghetto began April 19, 1943, which is considered the start of the Uprising. Significant resistance continued until about April 23 (4 days) but fighting then continued as the Germans tried to burn out the Jewish survivors from their underground bunkers. The ZOB commander died on May 8 and on May 16, Stroop blew up the Tlomacki Synagogue to signal the end of the Uprising: 29 days. German casualties were estimated by the Poles to be about 1,000 (dead and wounded; note that this is much higher than the German estimate).
Germany attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. General Kleeberg’s Group Polesie surrendered on Oct. 6, which ended significant resistance (36 days). (Resistance would have been prolonged by several weeks if Stalin’s troops had not intervened to help his friend Adolf Hitler.) Fighting continued in forest areas, however, until December 1939 or January 1940, with small groups of soldiers being led in partisan operations by lower-level officers such as the legendary Major Hubal. If we use the same standard to judge the end of resistance as we do in the case of the Ghetto, Polish resistance then lasted almost five months.
Total German casualties to organized Polish resistance were about 48,000 (dead and wounded; this estimate may be low) through October 6, not to mention nearly 900 tanks, 500 aircraft, and one ship. (This amounted to about one fourth of all German tanks and one-fifth of all German aircraft.) Soviet losses were at least 1,000, but probably more, considering the fierce battles around the Sarny forts, the operations of Group Polesie, and the battle for Grodno.
It also should be stressed that although Polish units were forced to lay down their arms due to lack of ammunition and overwhelming opposition, Poland itself never surrendered.
We may compare this with other Nazi victims:
§ Belgium (May 10 to 26, 1940 or 16 days; formal capitulation)
§ Denmark (April 9 or 0 days, no resistance offered)
§ France (May 10 to June 17, 1940 or 37 days; formal capitulation on June 2)
§ Greece (April 6 to April 23 or 17 days [this came after fighting the Italians for 5 months]; armistice signed)
§ Netherlands (May 10 to May 14 or 4 days; army surrendered but Dutch Royal family escaped to Britain)
§ Norway (April 9 to June 10 or 61 days; Norwegian King and gov’t escaped to Britain)
§ Poland (Sept. 1, 1939 to Oct. 6 or 36 days; no formal capitulation).
§ Yugoslavia (April 6 to April 17, 1941 or 11 days; formal capitulation)
In the French campaign of 1940 (which lasted almost the same amount of time as the Polish campaign), Allied forces outnumbered the Germans in manpower, tanks, aircraft, and ships. They had to defend a single border that was heavily fortified along most of its length. In addition, the Germans’ strength was lessened by the need to commit troops to occupy Poland and Denmark to continue operations in Norway. Following the Allied defeat, there was no immediate effort to carry on partisan warfare in Western Europe against the occupiers. This only emerged later in the war.
In 1939, Poland faced almost the entire might of the German army including all its armored and air forces, the forces of Slovakia (a German ally), and some 50 divisions of the Red Army after Sept. 17. Poland was attacked from all directions and had minimal fortifications. Prior to the Battle of Stalingrad (1942), German army publications regularly described the Polish campaign in 1939 as the toughest battle of the war.
In short, there is no reason to denigrate the soldiers of the army who fought alone in 1939 without help from any ally or friend. The resistance of the Ghetto fighters was heroic in its own right and there is no need to set up a false competition or comparison between the two.
Although the Poles were not able to save the majority of Jews, many Jews were saved. The percentage of Jews rescued in Warsaw was similar to that percent rescued in Holland.
The Poles helped the Ghetto fighters. Poles gave arms and aid to the ZZW and Bund but did not trust the ZOB for a variety of reasons. The Poles only had enough weapons to arm 1 in 10 of their own underground forces, which is about the same percentage as Jewish fighters in the Ghetto.
John Radzilowski, Ph.D.
Center for Nations in Transition
Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
University of Minnesota