‘Stroop,’ hissed Heinrich Himmler like a snake down the telephone line from Berlin, ‘you must at all costs bring down those two flags.’
SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop straightened himself, his gloved hand tightening around the receiver in anger.
‘Zu befehl, Herr Reichsführer,’ he snapped back stiffly, before replacing the telephone in its cradle. Walking a few hundred yards from his command post to the ‘front line’, Stroop narrowed his blue eyes and stared up at a tall building in Warsaw’s Muranowski Square. Black smoke was drifting across the sky from the many burning buildings, but in the breaks between each gust Stroop could make out the two flags that had Germany’s second most powerful man in a rage. Two young Jewish boys who had fearlessly braved the German gunfire had erected the flags the day before. One was the red and white Polish national flag, the other the banner of the Jewish resistance organization known as ZZW (Jewish Military Union). It consisted of a blue Star of David on a white background, today’s Israeli flag. Stroop, personally appointed by Himmler to crush the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, pulsed with fury. He knew the power of flags. ‘It reminded hundreds of thousands of the Polish cause, it excited them and unified the population of the General Government, but especially Jews and Poles,’ he wrote afterwards. A flag was worth a hundred machine guns in a situation like this. Stroop would topple those flags, just like he would crush the Jews who had had the temerity to make a stand against the Third Reich. The ragtag army of Jewish ‘terrorists’ who had already managed to throw the Germans out of the ghetto would be utterly destroyed. This was Stroop’s almost pathological determination. That he was also fighting women and children made no impression on him in the slightest. With such cold-hearted warriors, Himmler prosecuted his destruction of the Jews.
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of the many ghettos created for the Jews by the Germans. A tiny part of the Polish capital that measured only 1.3 square miles had been fenced and walled off and housed between 300,000 and 400,000 people in squalid, overcrowded conditions. Disease and malnutrition had already killed thousands before the Nazis decided to reduce the population dramatically by shipping tens of thousands of inmates east under Aktion Reinhard. SS-und-Polizeiführer Odilo Globocnik, Nazi police leader in the Lublin district of the General Government, had been ordered to progressively clear the ghetto, assisted by the head of the SiPo and SD in Warsaw, SS-Standartenführer Ludwig Hahn.
Globocnik’s surname gave away his non-German origins. Born in Trieste in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1904 to parents of Slav origin, Globocnik served in the Austrian and Yugoslav armies before becoming a member of the banned Austrian Nazi Party. To say that Globocnik was a fanatical Nazi would have been an understatement, and he served time in prison for his political beliefs and activities, which endeared him to Himmler. A key player in the German takeover of Austria in 1938, Globocnik was rewarded by promotion to Gauleiter of Vienna, a position he utilized to both persecute Jews and enrich himself. Caught by SS investigators with his hand in the till in 1939, Globocnik was convicted of foreign currency speculation, dismissed from his position and reduced to a corporal in the Waffen-SS. Sent to the front in Poland, Himmler ensured that his old friend was rapidly reinstated as a top Nazi leader less than a year later, when he appointed Globocnik SS-Brigadeführer and assigned him to Lublin province as Higher SS and Police Leader. Himmler placed him in charge of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and a series of other major Jewish population centres, and Globocnik excelled at these tasks.
The aristocratic SS-Oberführer Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, who had been in command of the Warsaw area since 1941, commanded Grossaktion Warschau on the ground, as the Germans termed the ghetto clearances. Globocnik maintained overall charge from a safe distance.
The turning point for the ghetto inhabitants occurred on 18 April 1942, when the SS began a process of executing inmates it deemed ‘undesirables’ before commencing with its clearance of the ghetto. On 22 July, the head of the Judenrat, or Nazi-appointed Jewish Council, Adam Czerniakow, was called to a meeting headed by the German ‘Resettlement Commissioner’ SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, where he was informed that mass deportations to camps in the east would commence shortly. Czerniakow, feeling that he was helpless to protect his people from what looked to be an increasingly homicidal Nazi programme, committed suicide rather than cooperate and was replaced by Marc Lichtenbaum. It made no difference to Höfle’s timetable. Over eight weeks during the summer of 1942, cattle trains left the ghetto railway collection point twice daily, carrying between 5,000 and 7,000 people on each occasion east to camps, primarily the extermination centre known as Treblinka II. The SS recorded that a total of 310,322 Jews were ‘evacuated’ from the ghetto when this action ended on 3 October 1942. Although the population of the ghetto was greatly reduced, the Germans planned a second round of deportations for later in the year, and it was at this point that some of the more militant Jews decided to act.
The Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) was formed in October 1942 with the intention of resisting further deportations. Led by an idealistic 24-year-old named Mordechai Anielewicz, its members were under no illusions as to their fate should they rise up against the SS police state. But they felt that they had nothing to lose, as the news filtering back from the eastern camps suggested that the Germans were murdering the evacuees. The ZOB received some weapons, ammunition and supplies from the well-organised Polish Home Army, a non-Jewish national resistance movement that was heavily supported by Britain. But the weapons were nowhere near plentiful enough for the ZOB to be considered a serious threat to the Germans. The ZOB only had 220 committed fighters in Warsaw, who were armed with a miscellany of handguns, grenades, rifles and home-made Molotov cocktails.
Anielewicz divided the ghetto into sectors, sending his small number of fighters to garrison each one. So short were they of arms that each sector only had three rifles, and within the entire Warsaw Ghetto the ZOB possessed just two land mines and one sub-machine gun with limited ammunition. More weapons would be smuggled into the ghetto once the revolt started, some were captured from the Germans and a few were even manufactured in secret arsenals, but the ZOB would remain vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the Germans throughout the revolt.
A second ghetto resistance organization, the right-wing ZZW, received large quantities of arms, ammunition and supplies from the Polish Home Army’s affiliated National Security Corps (PKB), and on several occasions the Home Army would launch attacks on German forces that were assaulting the ghetto, trying to take some of the pressure off the ZOB and ZZW forces inside the walls that were resisting bravely. One PKB unit led by Henryk ‘Bysty’ Iwanski even fought inside the ghetto. Many of the resisters would be young women, who, the Germans noted grimly, fought as fiercely as their menfolk.
Himmler, who visited Warsaw in January 1943, ordered that the numerous armaments factories that had been established inside the ghetto, along with their Jewish labourers and machines, should be transferred to Lublin. The process began early on the morning of 18 January, when the temperature was minus 20°C. Grey army trucks loaded with 200 SS and 800 Ukrainian and Latvian SS auxiliaries roared into the centre of the ghetto. The round-up was timed to catch the 35,000 Jewish slave labourers on their way to work in the factories. The SS fired indiscriminately into the crowds before beginning to corral large numbers of people preparatory to marching them to the railhead. The sudden Nazi Aktion caught the Jewish resistance organizations completely off-guard. Trying to recover, they broke out their meagre supply of weapons or armed themselves with pipes, sticks and bottles. The Germans soon had long columns of Jews being herded towards the train depot when Anielewicz’s fighters suddenly opened fire. Whilst the stunned SS reacted to completely unexpected Jewish resistance, another group of SS stormed a building where a ZOB commander, Yitzhak Zuckerman, and forty of his fighters were holed up. Zuckerman had placed two armed lookouts in the large building’s foyer and they carefully took no notice as the SS swaggered through the main door and started for the staircase. Suddenly, one of the lookouts pulled out a revolver and shot two of the Germans in the back. The rest of the SS men, shocked and suddenly wrong-footed by this act of resistance, retreated from the building in some disarray, with the rest of Zuckerman’s fighters in pursuit. One more SS man was wounded in the intense gunfight that followed.
At Gestapo headquarters, there was considerable consternation. The Aktion was a complete failure, the Germans only managing to snatch 5,000 Jews instead of the 50,000 they had planned. Von Sammern-Frankenegg was humiliated. The Germans were aware that Poland’s resistance organization, the Home Army, numbered over 380,000 well-armed personnel, and throughout the occupation they feared what would happen if it rose against Nazi rule. The fear was that this sudden resistance by Jewish ‘terrorists’, as the SS labelled them, could spread to the non-Jewish Polish population. The Home Army was indeed watching events in Warsaw with interest, and was impressed by the bloody nose that a handful of poorly armed Jewish fighters had managed to inflict on Hitler’s ‘master race’. But the Home Army would refuse all entreaties to join in with the ghetto rising, preferring to wait until events favoured them – that is, until the Red Army arrived close to the Polish capital, an event that in January 1943 was judged to be a long time off. The Jewish leadership demanded weapons and ammunition to supplement what they had bought or manufactured, and in February the Home Army gave the ZOB fifty pistols and some hand grenades.
The ZOB organised itself for the defence of the Warsaw Ghetto. The problem for the fighters was that the ghetto was not contiguous; rather, since the mass deportations of 1942, large areas were empty of people and businesses. The ghetto was now divided into three separate parts, separated by depopulated zones. The ZOB split into three regiments, one for each sector, with the regiments subdivided into squadrons of varying sizes. Nine squadrons under the command of Anielewicz garrisoned the large centre ghetto, eight under Zuckerman the area of the Tobbens and Schulz armaments factories, and five under Mark Edelman in the smaller Brushmaker’s District on the western edge of the centre ghetto. In total, the ZOB fielded about 500 fighters.
During the daytime, the fighters joined the other ghetto Jews in labouring in the big German armaments factories that had been established inside the ghetto, while at night they practised fighting techniques and gathered supplies. Such was the dire shortage of weapons that at this stage only one-in-ten of the fighters actually had a firearm. Messages were sent again to the Polish Home Army asking for more weapons, whilst teams went around the ghetto collecting old bottles and burned-out light bulbs to be converted into Molotov cocktails. Drainpipes were cut up and converted into rudimentary grenades and a trickle of guns were bought off the Polish black market and smuggled into the ghetto.
The ZOB and ZZW had also conducted some house-cleaning. They had executed those members of the quisling Jewish Ghetto police that remained, and also any Gestapo or Abwehr intelligence agents that had infiltrated the ghetto, a number that sadly also included a member of the Judenrat.
The Jewish resistance leaders knew that the Germans would return and avenge their loss of face, as well as try to round up the workers they demanded. So it was essential that the fighters construct bunkers from which to mount a prolonged defence of the ghetto. Anielewicz criticized the bunker mentality of many of his co-leaders, and instead pressed that the Jews use the upper storeys and roofs of tall residential buildings to dominate the Germans. His argument prevailed and ZOB units took post high up over the streets, as well as helping to construct bunkers and tunnels down below.
Von Sammern-Frankenegg was under considerable pressure from his superiors to get on with clearing the ghetto. Perhaps overconfident of his troops’ ability to complete the task, and with little combat experience of his own, von Sammern-Frankenegg decided to break into the ghetto on 19 April and complete the task that he had been set. On the morning of 19 April, the ZOB and other Jewish resistance groups were on high alert after word had reached them of German troops massing near the ghetto entrances. This time the Jews would not be taken by surprise. From their posts on the edge of the Brushmakers’ District, Jewish lookouts reported an awe-inspiring and terrifying sight. Hundreds of SS troops were forming up into companies, the ring of their jackboots on the streets was loud and portentous, while behind them came a fleet of army trucks, a couple of tanks, some armoured half-tracks, light artillery pieces and motorcyclists. The Germans clearly meant business. Even further back, the lookouts reported SS ambulances and field kitchens setting up. Communications trucks with tall radio masts were also observed. For the handful of Jewish fighters it was a terrible moment – these poorly armed civilians, with only the most rudimentary training, were about to face highly disciplined and motivated SS troops who outnumbered them many times over and had an awesome array of support weapons available. As the lookouts watched and listened to the crunch of marching boots, the growl of diesel and petrol engines and the squeal of tank tracks on city roads, the SS started singing. The Nazi Party anthem, the Horst Wessel song, carried into the ghetto – the sound of death approaching.
The SS assault commenced at precisely 6.00am – though perhaps the word ‘assault’ is a little misleading. Maybe von Sammern-Frankenegg thought that a show of force would cow the Jews into submission, for the 1,000-man SS column came on in parade ground formation, marching six abreast. What the SS didn’t realize was that they were marching straight into a trap. The walling in of the ghetto actually created problems for the Germans when it came to storming the place, for it meant any attacking force would have to be funnelled through one of the gates into the ghetto. The Jewish resistance leaders realized that they could turn this to their advantage, and they stationed most of their fighters and weapons to cover these gates. They had also buried in the roads home-made Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that could be set off electrically. Once the SS had been permitted to advance through the gate and down the main street, lined on each side by tall buildings, the IEDs were detonated with devastating results. Several SS men were literally blown to pieces and the explosions and flying shrapnel wounded many. From the tall buildings, the Jews unleashed heavy fire. The Germans were stuck inside a man-made canyon, and any movement forwards or backwards attracted fire. About 500 yards away, near the north end of Cordial Street, an identical battle was soon raging. The SS also attempted to breach the ghetto wall on Muranow Street, while yet more SS tried to get onto Zamenhof Street, the main route to the railway terminus where the Jews would be loaded onto trains and shipped east. Four Jewish units defended Zamenhof Street, determined to prevent any more of their people from being sent out of the ghetto by train.
Cordial Street was swept by Jewish fire, and grenades were hurled down at the SS. In desperation, von Sammern-Frankenegg only made things worse by ordering forward reinforcements, which simply increased the number of targets for the Jewish fighters. German casualties mounted. Fighters on Zamenhof Street even managed to knock out a German tank with firebombs and explosive charges.
Von Sammern-Frankenegg watched his force being poleaxed by the Jews from the safety of a nearby hotel balcony. This sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen to the SS. Moving inside, he walked up to the tall, lean officer whom Himmler had sent to find out what was going on.
‘We can’t get into the Ghetto,’ said von Sammern-Frankenegg, shaking his head with disbelief as he spoke. SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop curled his lip in disgust at his colleague’s defeatist attitude. ‘What are your casualties?’ Stroop enquired.
‘Twelve dead at the last report. The Jews have also wrecked a panzer and burned out two half-tracks,’ replied von Sammern-Frankenegg in a low voice.
A few minutes earlier, Stroop had been on the phone with von Sammern-Frankenegg’s superior in Krakow, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Kruger. Kruger was furious with the aristocratic von Sammern-Frankenegg’s desultory performance and talked of having him arrested for impugning the honour of the SS.
‘I’m assuming command,’ snapped Stroop coldly to von Sammern-Frankenegg. ‘Mobilize all forces at once.’ Stroop was cut from very different cloth to von Sammern-Frankenegg, and had the personal confidence of not just Kruger but Heinrich Himmler himself.
Born into a strict, even fanatical, Catholic family in 1895, Stroop had served as a combat soldier during the First World War. He received the Iron Cross 2nd Class for bravery in 1915, and after the war took a job in a land registry. He joined the Nazi Party in 1932 and was soon commissioned in the SS, working in Münster and Hamburg. During the German occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938, Stroop, by now an SS-Standartenführer, continued to impress his superiors. In Poland in 1939–40, Stroop commanded the notorious Selbstschütz in Poznan, where the unit committed numerous atrocities. Between July and September 1941, Stroop commanded an infantry regiment of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf on the Eastern Front, being awarded the Clasp to his Iron Cross 2nd Class and the Infantry Assault Badge. Promoted to SS-Brigadeführer on 16 September 1942, Stroop commanded the SiPo and SD of the Higher SS and was Police Leader in Russia South, later becoming SS and Police Leader in Lvov in February 1943. It was from this post that Himmler selected the 48-year-old Stroop, who remained a virulent and extremely vocal anti-Semite until his death, to suppress the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt.