July 22, 2022

The End of the Warsaw Ghetto

The End of the Warsaw Ghetto

July 22, 1942, The Nazis begin the evacuation of the Warsaw Ghetto, transporting hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths at the Treblinka Extermination Camp.


Cold Open

CONTENT WARNING: This episode contains depictions of violence that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s the morning of July 22nd, 1942.

A pale, dark-haired teenage boy runs through the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto, a Jewish enclave in Nazi-occupied Poland. In the distance, he hears the sounds of a crowd…

As the boy draws near, he sees a large group of concerned people gathered around a poster that’s been pasted on the wall. Boy makes his way into the throng. He struggles on tiptoes to make out what the poster says. He can’t see, so he ducks lower, sliding his narrow frame through the mass. Finally, the young man elbows his way to the front. His heart pounds as he reads the official notice:

“By order of the German authorities, all the Jews of Warsaw, regardless of age or sex, will be deported… Those failing to comply with this edict will be liable to the death penalty.”

The boy stares, bewildered as others around him jostle to get a closer look.

But the crowds' anxious curiosity turns into panic with the sound of gunfire, immense screams of fear as the crowd scatters. Boy runs, tripping and falling across the street, scrambling to get away, to get home, to hide. It seems the deportations have already begun.

Since 1939, Poland has been occupied by the Nazis. After their successful invasion, the Germans soon introduced laws targeting Poland’s large Jewish community. Step by step, they stripped Jews of their rights and corralled them into a small part of the capital city, Warsaw. The Nazis then built a ten-foot wall around it, topped with barbed wire. In November 1940, all entrances were sealed off and the Warsaw Ghetto was born.

By the summer of 1942, as Jewish refugees from all around Poland pour into the capital, the population of the Ghetto reaches 400,000. Almost half a million people crammed into an area little larger than a square mile. The conditions are terrible. Thousands die of sickness and starvation. But the Nazis have something far worse planned: the total destruction of the Jewish population all across Europe. In the Warsaw Ghetto, they put their horrific plans into action on July 22nd, 1942.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is July 22nd, 1942: The End of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Act One

It’s January 20th, 1942, at Wannsee, a suburb of the German capital, Berlin; six months before the first mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto.

In a large conference room, Reinhard Heydrich, the powerful director of the Reich Security Office, holds court. These men gathered around the table are not the top officials in the Nazi regime. The Führer, Adolf Hitler, is not present, nor is Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, or Heinrich Himmler. Instead, the fifteen officials here are all bureaucrats – the heads of various government departments. Heydrich has called them here to discuss what he calls a “final solution to the Jewish question.”

Hatred and persecution of Jews is at the heart of Nazi ideology. Ever since Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany in 1933, Jews in the country have been abused, attacked, and systematically deprived of rights and property. Now, with World War II underway, the Nazis rule most of Europe and have the entire continent’s Jewish population at their mercy.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews have already been murdered by Nazi death squads who have accompanied the advancing German armies. But mass shootings are too time-consuming, and expensive for the Nazis. They want a more efficient method.

Reinhard Heydrich has been entrusted with organizing this ‘final solution’. Hitler calls Heydrich “the man with the iron heart”; even among Nazis, he has a reputation for ruthless cruelty and unflinching loyalty. Heydrich has summoned these bureaucrats to Wannsee to ensure their cooperation with his plan.

The tall and flint-faced Nazi speaks for almost an hour. The language he uses is vague; he talks of “firm measures” and “deportations”. But all those present know what he means. The Nazis are planning to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe by using extermination camps where mass murder can be turned into an industrial process.

At this meeting, they’re laying the bureaucratic foundations of what will come to be known as the Holocaust.


It’s evening on April 18th, 1942, three months after the conference in Berlin.

A German army truck roars along a street in the center of the Warsaw Ghetto. On board are a squad of German soldiers. Sat awkwardly among them is a Jewish man in his forties. He’s half-starved, his ragged clothes hanging loosely from his frail body. But he can speak German, so he’s been chosen to serve as a translator.

Soon, the truck jolts to a stop outside a crumbling apartment block. One of the soldiers gives the translator a shove and says, this is the place, as he and the rest of the soldiers clamber out of the truck.

The German officer in charge pulls out a typed list of names from his pocket. He double-checks the address, and then he orders his men and the translator inside.

It’s been almost a year and a half since Warsaw’s Jews were sealed into this tiny district of the Polish capital. Although disease and starvation are rife, the inhabitants of the Ghetto have done their best to make a life here; they run schools and orphanages, print newspapers and host cultural events. But the majority of the community leaders who make this small slice of normal life possible are on the list of names in the hands of the German officer.

The squad of soldiers heads into the apartment block. The Jewish translator follows them up the tilting, rotting stairs. Residents huddle on the landings, pressing themselves into doorways, their gaunt eyes fixed on the floor as the Germans pass.

Finally, they reach the door they’re looking for. The German officer knocks politely. A few moments later, a small middle-aged man in glasses appears. The translator tells the man he is to go with the Germans. Now. He is only to bring only a few necessities; identification documents, a towel, a toothbrush.

The man ducks inside briefly. The translator hears the muffled sound of a frightened conversation. When the man re-emerges, his wife is with him, clinging to his arm. She begs the Germans to let her come too. Translator tells her to stay - it’s just her husband the soldiers want, but the German officer intervenes. He says it’s no problem. The woman can come along as well.

The German soldiers march the man and his wife down the stairs and out of the apartment block where a truck waits to take them away.

They’ve only driven a few blocks when the commanding officer orders the driver to stop. The translator stares at the floor as the couple are dragged from the truck. He knows what's about to happen and he can’t watch. He winces as two shots ring out, and the bodies of the man and his wife crumple to the ground.

Then the soldiers climb back into the truck. Their commanding officer looks down at the next name on his list.

The inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto will call this night “Bloody Friday”. By morning, more than fifty people will be dead. The Germans worked methodically through their list, but when they couldn’t find their intended victims on occasion, they simply chose another Jew at random; a wife, a co-worker, or somebody who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But Bloody Friday is just a taste of the brutality that’s yet to come. Soon, the machinery of Nazi Germany will put Reinhard Heydrich’s plans into action and the unfathomable Final Solution will begin.

Act Two

It’s summer 1942, one week after the first deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began.

A long line of Jewish men, women, and children march silently through the streets of the tiny, walled-in district. Their faces are pale with hunger as they drag suitcases or walk bent under the weight of large bundles and baskets; these innocent souls are being deported and they’re taking everything they can with them. But there are no German soldiers forcing them along at gunpoint. They are leaving voluntarily.

Just this morning, another poster appeared in the Warsaw Ghetto. It promised three kilos of bread and a kilo of jam for everyone who reported to the ‘Umschlagplatz’ – the deportation collection point by the railways. For many of the starving residents of the Ghetto, it’s too tempting an offer to turn down.

The poster is just one of the tactics used by the Germans to clear the Jewish enclave. In the first days of the deportation, they rounded up the easiest targets; the beggars starving on the street, the sick, or newly arrived refugees who have yet to make a home or find work. But with a daily quota of deportations that the German soldiers have to meet, other tactics were soon required.

But rumors abound in the Ghetto. Many have heard all sorts of whispers; that the Jews deported from Warsaw are being murdered. But when the posters promising bread went up, many residents convinced themselves that if the Germans were willing to give them food, the terrible rumors couldn’t possibly be true. So they packed up their things and headed, willingly, for the trains.

Among the procession, a father walks with his five-year-old son sitting on his shoulders. The boy is shrunken with hunger, too weak to make the trek on his own. He asks his father whether his mother will meet them where they’re going. The man replies, “Of course, my boy, she’s waiting for us there.” The son then asks, “And when will we be given bread?” Father squeezes the boy’s leg and says: “Soon - it’s very, very near.”

At the Umschlagplatz, the man and his son, and thousands of others from the Ghetto are forced onto railroad cars; cattle trucks designed for animals, but now stuffed with human beings. They rattle out of Warsaw and head fifty miles northeast through a countryside of sand, swamps, and thick forests to a place called Treblinka.


It’s April 19th, 1943, nine months after the first deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.

In a dusty room above a boarded-up shop, a young Jewish woman crouches by the window. Through its broken glass, she watches a group of German soldiers advance down the street. Not so long ago, half a dozen people lived in the tiny room where she’s hiding. But now, most of them are long gone.

The mass deportations that began in July 1942 have continued for months. As time went on, the Nazis became more savage as they endeavored to clear the Ghetto. They worked with calculated efficiency; street by street; block by block. They seized people from their homes and from their places of work. Anyone who tried to run or hide was shot. Every day, thousands of Jews were rounded up, crammed onto trains, and transported to Treblinka; an extermination camp hidden in the forest outside Warsaw. By September 1942, the mechanized murder there had become so efficient that the Germans could kill one thousand five hundred people every hour.

When the first round of mass deportations ended in autumn 1942, there were only 50,000 Jews left in the Warsaw Ghetto. Among them, however, were groups of resistance fighters, including this young Jewish woman crouching in the window.

Over the winter months, the young woman and her cohorts smuggled in weapons and built up defenses. They were determined that when the next round of deportations began, the Germans would not have such an easy time.

Today, the young woman watches through the broken window as the German Soldiers close in on her location. From inside her shawl, the young woman pulls out a Molotov Cocktail, a crude firebomb improvised from an old liquor bottle. She strikes a match and lights the rag stuffed into the bottle’s neck. Then she hurls it through the window, down at the Nazis below.

There is a crash of glass and a howl of agony as flames engulf a German soldier. The other Germans respond with a hail of bullets that slice through the dusty air of the room above the shop and thump holes in the peeling plaster walls. But the young Jewish fighter has already fled.

The young woman is fighting at what will become called The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which lasts for weeks. But the Jewish resistance fighters are outnumbered and outgunned. They know it is a battle they cannot win. When the Nazis begin to burn down the Ghetto, the resistance fighters run out of places to hide.

The Germans will declare the uprising over on May 16th, 1943. And the surviving Jews will all be hunted down and either executed on the spot or shipped off to extermination camps. The Nazis will then tear down the shattered and burnt-out buildings of the district, finally bringing an end to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Act Three

It’s early September 1944, two years after the deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began.

Fifty miles northeast of the Polish capital, a group of Soviet soldiers tread carefully across a field of flowers, batting away hundreds of tiny flies swarming the air.

Among the soldiers is a studious-looking man in glasses: 38-year-old Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman. As he walks, the soil oozes and shifts beneath his boots. Pushing aside tall flowers, Grossman kneels. Half-buried in the mud by his feet, is a piece of cloth. As he pulls it out, he realizes it’s the rotting remnants of a small boy’s shirt.

Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto and elsewhere in Poland were brought here, to Treblinka, along a specially built railway. Two trains, each carrying up to 7,000 people, arrived every day. The prisoners were told it was a transit camp, where they would receive a bath before being sent further east. There were fake timetables and even a station clock. But it was all a deception designed by the Nazis to keep their victims calm for as long as possible before they were sent to their deaths.

The men and women were separated, stripped, and then forced into the large gas chambers. There, in the thousands, they were murdered.

The Nazis attempted to cover up their crimes. The camp, and its victims, were meant to be a secret. At first, Nazis dumped bodies in mass graves. Later, they built huge furnaces to cremate those they killed. By October 1943, however, the camp was no longer needed. Almost all the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto had already been murdered and the Nazis had plenty of capacity at other death camps further south, like Auschwitz.

So that autumn, Treblinka was dismantled. The bricks of the gas chamber were used to build a farmhouse and fields of flowers were planted to disguise the site of the death camp.

But as the journalist, Vasily Grossman will later write, after the Soviets pushed the Germans back from Poland: “the earth at Treblinka ejects crushed bones, teeth, bits of paper and clothing – it refuses to keep its awful secret”.

The exact number of people murdered at Treblinka remains unknown. But it’s believed that in its fifteen months of operation, at least 700,000 men, women, and children of all ages were killed there.

Today, the site of the gas chambers is marked by a stone memorial. The words “Never Again” are carved upon it, a promise from the world to the victims of the slaughter at Treblinka, a tragic and horrific outcome that was set in motion when the evacuation of the Warsaw Ghetto began on July 22nd, 1942.


Next onHistory Daily: July 25th, 1917, Exotic dancer Mata Hari is convicted of spying for Germany in World War I and sentenced to die in Paris.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.