April 19th marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which occurred during World War II. To remember and honor those events this this article attempts to recapture the human drama of the courageous Polish Jews who rose against Nazi oppression. We highlight the defining movements of the story through the art and narrative of the Batchelder Honor book The War Within These Walls, written by Aline Sax, illustrated by Caryl Strzelecki, and translated by Laura Watkinson. To help readers understand the broader context of the story, we’ve provided a brief historical note at the beginning of each section.
Historical Context: In concert with Soviet Russia, Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939 and swiftly gained complete control of the nation by October 6th. Almost immediately Nazi leaders began to concentrate the Polish Jewish population into urban ghettos.
It was September 1939 when the Germans invaded
our country. A month later, they marched into
Warsaw and took up residence as if they would
The war seemed to be over. But after the dust of
the bombings had settled, a very different war
began . . . a war against some of us.
It started with harassment, humiliation.
Every day, people were stopped, shot,
beaten to death,
kicked to death,
hounded to death,
frozen to death.
Death became everyday life.
The Germans laughed while the bystanders remained silent.
Historical Context: German soldiers initially focused on harming individuals for horrific treatment, but it became clear very quickly that they were focused on humiliating, dehumanizing, and oppressing all Jews in every conceivable aspect of life. Posters appeared through the ghetto specifying basic components of life denied to the Jewish people in Warsaw.
Then the posters came.
The individuals became an entire group.
An entire people.
Possessions, houses, women were requisitioned.
I had to wear an armband, too.
I was no longer allowed to go out with my friends.
I was not permitted to sit with them on a bench or to play soccer in the park.
I had never felt so Jewish before. . . .
The lines on the map turned into lines of soldiers, and then lines of barbed wire.
Historical Context: Nazi soldiers forced 300,000 – 400,000 Jews into Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto, an area of just over two square miles. Residents lived, on average eight to a room and subsisted on a mere 184 calories per day. Typhus epidemics erupted as a matter of routine. Yet, despite these brutal conditions, residents found ways to conduct cultural events and mustered enough of their food resources to support public soup kitchens.
Warsaw grew more and more crowded.
Day in, day out, long lines of people streamed
into the ghetto. All of the Jews from the entire
city of Warsaw, the outlying districts, and the
villages around the city were “relocated,” as the
Germans put it. All of them, within these walls.
Our apartment was taken over.
We carried our most precious belongings into the kitchen.
Strange voices and new smells filled the other rooms.
Strangers wormed their way into our lives
and dragged us roughly into theirs.
And, in our hallway, a woman brought a baby into the world.
All the doors were kept open.
For more light.
More noise . . .
We did not speak.
We peered into each other’s lives,
yet ignored each other’s discomfort.
We never became neighbors.
Historical Context: Initially many of Warsaw’s Jewish residents believed that they would be “resettled” and that the ghetto was just a temporary hardship until they moved. This belief persuaded many to not resist while they remained Warsaw. But as time passed rumors began to swirl that those who were sent away by the Nazis were not being resettled after all but sent to Treblinka where they were being exterminated.
They’re taking us to camps to murder us.
My fear was put into words.
Those words sounded even harsher from
other mouths than they had in my head.
They meant to murder all of us.
German soldiers forced their way into houses,smashed furniture to pieces,
yelled for documents. People were pushed down the stairs.
Children were grabbed by their hair if they walked too quickly.
Old people were beaten if they walked too slowly.
The trains were freight cars.
There were no seats.
There was no air.
Anyone who fled was shot.
Anyone who did not obey was shot.
Anyone who protested was shot.
As the ghetto emptied and the shouts and the shots still
echoed around the walls, our last hopes vanished.
Historical Context: On April 19th Jewish residents living in the Warsaw ghetto launched a fierce resistance effort. Lasting for 27 days, two groups fought Nazi soldiers in direct resistance to “resettlement.” During the revolt some 13,000 Jewish residents died, about half of these were either burned alive or died from suffocation.
“They’re going to murder us all,” I whispered.
He just kept on looking right at me.
“Not if we stop them,” he replied.
His voice sounded a long way off.
“We have to fight back. Now.
They won’t be expecting it.”
Fight back? Against the Germans? How?
By spitting at them?
The young man read my thoughts. “We have
weapons,” he said. “But we need more people.
Young, healthy people.” His eyes bored into mine.
Slowly my old fury came bubbling back up.
We won’t allow ourselves to be slaughtered, I’d always
thought. Would I finally be able to do something, to
We fought. For days.
We fought as no Jew had fought before.
But it was not enough.
Not nearly enough. . . .
We were not fighting to win.
We were fighting for an honorable death.
For days, we fought for every bunker,
for every basement. One by one, we
had to surrender our hiding places.
When the Germans blew up the
bunkers, we had to retreat even deeper
into the ground.
Then it was silent.