Tisha B’Av in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942
Before the Germans captured the city of Warsaw in the 1939 Blitzkrieg, there were 360,000 Jews in the Polish capital. Its Jews were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, which was established on November 15, 1940.
Disease and starvation claimed many of the ghetto’s inhabitants, but the population was maintained by the continual influx of Jewish refugees. Warsaw’s Jewish population soon reached 460,000. The Jews of the Ghetto initially did not realize that they were being forced into what was a holding pen for the slaughterhouse — Treblinka, the death camp that would execute 800,000 people, the vast majority Jews, within just a few months.
On July 22, the eve of Tisha B’Av 1942, the death sentence for Warsaw’s Jews was issued. In the early morning hours, the Judenrat was convened, and the authorities for “Resettlement Affairs” ordered the “resettlement in the east of all Jews residing in Warsaw regardless of age and sex.” The order called for 6,000 Jews per day to be rounded up and deported.
A week before the announcement of the deportations, rumors had already spread in the ghetto, and the Jews were gripped with terror. The head of the Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, asked the Nazi officials for an explanation, but received nothing but denials.
On July 22, at 7:30 in the morning, Czerniakow, along with the members of the Judenrat, were told that the deportations were to begin the next day — Tisha B’Av, and that the expulsions would include children. He immediately understood the gravity of such an order, and that his previous cooperation with the Germans had been a grievous error. He refused to sign the deportation order. The night following the first deportation, he took his own life, leaving a note saying, “I am powerless; my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this.”
Chaim Kaplan, in his diary, foresaw the doom that awaited the Jews of Warsaw with the issuance of the decree. He had surmised that the deportations could only be a death sentence and those who deny it, “Grasp at straws.” In a July 26 entry, Kaplan wrote, “We, the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto are now experiencing the reality. Our good fortune is that our days are numbered — that we shall not have to live long under conditions as these.”
The decree ordered all Jews to be deported, except for those who worked in German industries and the Judenrat. Over the next nine days, 66,701 Jews were deported to Treblinka.
On July 29, the next round of Warsaw’s deportations began. The SS, along with Latvian and Lithuanian troops, closed off individual blocks and forced people from their homes. Many were shot on the spot; others were savagely beaten. When the crowd’s numbers reached a few thousand, they were herded off to the “Umschlagplatz” — a deportation railway yard, to be transported. Every morning and evening, the roundups took place. Over the month of August, 142,525 Jews were deported, with 135,120 sent to Treblinka. By mid August, it was widely understood that “resettlement” was a myth. Enough evidence had already reached the ghetto by witnesses to Nazi atrocities. By October 3, 310,000 Jews were deported, including most members of the Judenrat. Many were deported on September 21 — Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Dr. Hillel Seidman wrote in an entry in a Warsaw Ghetto diary, “As Night falls I finally reach home, my brain bursting with terrifying images. Crossing our courtyard I notice our small shtiebl. About twenty men sit on upturned benches — it’s Tisha B’Av tonight! Two flickering candles dimly light up the bent heads, with their eyes staring into the far distance, as that heartrending tune wells up: ‘Eichah…’ … We weep at our fate, a nation without a land, within the grasp of our fiercest enemy and condemned to death. We grieve both for the loss of the Beis Hamikdash and the extinction of our lives.”
On Tisha B’Av 1942, the well-organized Nazi killing machine whose horror knew no bounds was set into high gear in the city of Warsaw. A chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto, Emanuel Ringelbaum, called the eve of that Tisha B’Av in 1942 the “blackest day in Jewish history in modern times.”