Białystok Ghetto Uprising remembered 78 years on
Commemorations have taken place across Białystok to mark events 78 years ago today when around 300 Jewish insurgents put up a desperate fight against German police units during the final liquidation of the Białystok ghetto.
The unsuccessful insurgency was the second largest armed uprising fought by Jews against the Germans after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Set up by the Germans on 26 July 1941 as a prison for the Jews of Bialystok and the surrounding area, the Bialystok Ghetto housed about 42,000 people.
Before the war, the Jewish population of Białystok made up 43 percent of the total population.
When the Soviets occupied the city from September 1939 to June 1941, this number was increased by Jews coming from the General Government.
In total, around 50,000 people were crowded into the ghetto, which covered around one third of the city’s area and was separated from the rest of the city by a three-metre-high fence topped with barbed wire.
The commemorations took place at the monument to the Great Synagogue on Suraska street, where flowers were laid, and at the plaque commemorating Jewish resistor Icchock Malmed, which is located on the street named after him.
The main anniversary celebrations commenced at noon at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes on Mordechaj Tenenbaum Square.
The very first days of the German occupation in June 1941 were tragic for the Jewish community. On 27 June, the Germans murdered about 2,000 Jews, most of them burned alive in the Main Synagogue, while the rest were shot. In the first month of the German occupation, approximately 5,000 Jews perished.
For two years, the borders of the ghetto became an open-air prison.
Almost immediately after the ghetto was closed, underground resistance cells began to form. Left-wing organisations set up the United Anti-Fascist Bloc. Jews with right-wing views gathered around an organisation called the Second Block.
The Germans set about liquidating the ghetto earlier in February 1943. They initially demanded that the Judenrat produce a list of 32,000 people for deportation. After negotiations, this was reduced to 6,300.
In total, the Germans deported around 10-12,000 Jews, and shot another one thousand.
At that time, the first act of resistance also took place. On 5 February 1943, armed with a vial of acid, Icchok Malmed attacked a German officer, who, blinded, fatally shot a policeman who was with him.
In retaliation, one hundred people were shot, mainly the inhabitants of the tenement house at 39 Kupiecka Street where Malmed lived. His wife and child were also killed in the execution.
Malmed was captured and hanged on 8th February. To commemorate his deed, Kupiecka street was renamed Icchoka Malmeda in 1946.
These events made at least a certain section of the Jews in the ghetto aware of the need to prepare themselves for the inevitable moment of final judgement.
The operation on the German side was to be commanded by German extermination specialists. They included Franz Konrad, who had taken part in the pacification of the Warsaw Ghetto.
The chief of the Bialystok Gestapo, Fritz Friedl, was responsible for the liquidation of the ghetto and was dibbed Friedle the Beast. After the war, he testified in court in Bialystok that he had "never insulted a single Jew". He was sentenced to death and was hanged in 1952.
Their insurgents’ plan was to force through the fence of the ghetto on Smolna Street and break through the German positions to Knyszyńska Forest. There the insurgents were to seek shelter.
The imbalance between the forces was overwhelming. The Jews were armed with twenty-six rifles, including one machine gun, about one hundred pistols and Molotov cocktails.
Against them stood a much larger force made of an SS police battalion, two Hilfspolizei battalions made up of Russians and Ukrainians collaborating with the Germans, and other forces. They were supported by tanks and artillery.
On the night of 15 August, German units surrounded the ghetto in three rings. The closest to the fence were units with light automatic weapons, the second ring consisted of units equipped with heavy machine guns, the third had field artillery and Hilfspolizei formations on horseback.
Around 6-7 a.m. the ghetto walls were covered with announcements about the evacuation of all ghetto inhabitants to Lublin. All Jews were to be ready to leave the ghetto at the gate in Jurowiecka Street by 9 a.m.
The Jewish combat groups started to act. The main force of fighters, about two hundred people, were to attack the Germans with their only machine gun at the weakest part of the fence on Smolna Street.
In order to distract some of the enemy forces, they planned to attack four other places in the ghetto at the same time.
The fighters’ plans were thwarted by the attitude of the Jews crowded on nearby Jurowiecka Street, who, contrary to plans, did not join the fight, nor try to force through the fence.
The Germans opened fire on the crowd with machine guns. The battle for the fence was lost and many fighters died.
Heavy fighting lasted 24 hours, while for the next three days sporadic fighting occurred around the Jewish district.
Both leaders, Tenenbaum and Moszkowicz, died probably by suicide on the last day of the uprising. Only a few Jewish fighters managed to break through to the surrounding forests.
The pacification of the uprising on 20 August allowed the Germans to complete the liquidation of the Białystok ghetto.
As many as 30,000 Jews were deported to the German death camps in Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz, where almost all of them died in the gas chambers. Many other thousands were sent to labour camps.
Out of almost 50,000 Jews of the Białystok ghetto only a few hundred survived.