Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the people who fought back

Relatives share family stories of loss and survival during the Holocaust and the monthlong fight against the Nazis in Warsaw, Poland.

Published April 19, 2023

On April 19, 1943, a group of Jews living inside the Nazi-created Warsaw Ghetto in Poland began an armed uprising against Hitler’s occupying forces. The monthlong fight represented the largest and most robust retaliation against SS troops who were systematically murdering millions of European Jews.

As part of the Nazis’ plans to annihilate the Jewish people, they created ghettos, forcing thousands of Jews into small, cramped parts of major cities and limited access to food and supplies. The Warsaw Ghetto, bound by a 10-foot wall and barbed wire, was the largest — sealing 400,000 Jews inside its 1.3 square mile area by 1942, according to the United States Holocaust Museum.

After the Nazis began liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, sending tens of thousands of Jews to be murdered in concentration camps, a group of Jewish resistance fighters began a plan to retaliate, gathering arms from anti-Hitler forces in the Polish military underground.

On the eve of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, there were between 50,000-60,000 Jews in the ghetto. About 700 young Jews began their fight against SS officers the day after the Jewish holiday of Passover, 80 years ago today, and it lasted almost a month. It ended on May 16 when the Nazis leveled the ghetto, ultimately bringing the Jews who did not die in the battle to concentration camps where they would be killed.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest uprising during World War II and inspired other resistance movements across German-occupied Europe. Around April 19, we observe the Days of Remembrance, commemorating the courage of those who took part in the uprising as well as all victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

My great-grandparents and aunt were all murdered in concentration camps. My grandparents escaped Nazi Europe — among the small group able to get into America. For years, not knowing what happened to her parents, my grandmother said the “Kaddish,” the Jewish prayer honoring those who died, on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, because she did not know when else to do so. —Dana Bash

CNN asked readers to share accounts from their relatives who were in Warsaw or Poland at the time of the uprising. Scroll through to listen to their stories.

Dana Bash’s great-grandparents, Rudolf and Matilda Vidor (Courtesy Dana Bash)

Dana Bash

My grandfather, Frank Weinman, grew up in Vienna, Austria: a well-educated, assimilated Jew whose father owned paint factories.

His full, happy, upper middle-class life came crashing down when he was in his early 20s and the Nazis marched into Austria. After what is known as “Kristallnacht” in 1938 — German for “The Night of Broken Glass,” when the Nazis destroyed Jewish businesses and homes — they knew they had to leave. Grandpa Frank’s parents got visas to America with the help of family already in Chicago. But Frank was in love with a Hungarian woman he had met in Bratislava, my Grandma Teri. They stayed in Europe with her, first hiding out in Prague, where they got married secretly on the run.

Frank eventually made it to Teri’s hometown of Košice, Hungary, where he hid with her family. This was 1940 and 1941 and Hungary was still safe for Jews.

Meanwhile, my grandfather’s brother, Uncle Charles, was in Chicago trying to get a visa for my grandparents to come to America, which was not easy. To get in, even those trying to escape death in the camps, Jews had to have an American sponsor willing to sign an affidavit and put up a lot of money. Charles’ boss in Chicago agreed to do so, and by a series of miracles, my grandparents left Europe in the fall of 1941, arriving two months before Pearl Harbor.

Once in the US, they tried to get Teri’s parents, my great-grandparents Rudolf and Matilda Vidor, to come to America. But they were proud Hungarians. They thought they would be OK. And they were, until 1944, when Hitler invaded Hungary.

My great grandparents were taken to Auschwitz and murdered. Their daughter, my great aunt, was there too, but then taken on a death march and eventually died in a different camp called Stutthof, a fact we just recently learned thanks to the help of Nadia Ficara with the United States Holocaust Museum.

For years, not knowing what happened to her parents, my grandmother said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer honoring those who died, on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was an event that had nothing to do with my family, but everything to do with the bravery and fortitude of Jews. Jews Hitler tried, but failed, to totally annihilate.

Wolf Blitzer’s parents, Cesia and David Blitzer (Courtesy Wolf Blitzer)

Wolf Blitzer

Even as a little kid growing up in Buffalo, I always knew that my mom and dad were Holocaust survivors, but I didn’t know the painful details of their experience until I was much older.

My father was born in a small town in Poland on the border with Germany that later became infamous: Auschwitz. I often heard dad talk about Auschwitz, or Oshpitzin as it was called in Yiddish. Four of his five siblings died during the Nazi's murderous enslavement of Jews. And his parents were murdered at Auschwitz, a fact I learned only a few years ago at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem in the course of working on a piece about my family history. Only one sister survived.

My mother was from another small town in Poland, Suchedniów. On Yom Kippur of 1942, the holiest day of the Jewish year, the town’s Jews were rounded up. My mother, her parents and three siblings were deemed fit for labor and were sent to a Nazi ammunition factory. My mother told me proudly (and I’m very proud of her) that not one bullet she made came out right.

A few months after arrival, her parents died of typhus. But the siblings stayed together through the whole war and propped each other up.

After the war, my parents started traveling around Poland and Germany searching for family members. While searching for their loved ones, my then-23-year-old mom and my then-25-year-old dad met and quickly fell in love and got married. They wound up in Augsburg — a Bavarian town in Germany under US military control. That’s where my older sister and I were born.

We eventually came to the United States, because, one day, my dad happened to notice a very long line on the street while he was visiting Munich. He figured there must be something good at the end of the line, so he waited. After about half an hour, he asked the woman in front of him: “Fräulein, why are we waiting in line?”

She looked at him and said: “Visas.”

My dad said: “Visas? For what?”

She said “America.”

Within a few weeks, my dad was informed that he and his family were approved for immigration visas. They were assigned to go to Buffalo, New York. They knew no one in the United States and couldn’t speak a word of English.

My parents often told me how welcoming the Buffalo community was and how they helped my parents and other Holocaust survivors adjust to a new life there. Given my family’s history, I find it so disturbing that there is an increase in antisemitism and Holocaust denial in the United States and indeed around the world. That’s why it’s so important that we educate a new generation by sharing the stories of families like mine.

Anna Ward’s grandfather, Julian Rudolf — seen here on the left — was an officer in the Polish army. (Courtesy Anna Ward)

Anna Ward

My grandfather, who was an officer in the Polish army, was part of the uprising.

My grandmother wrote to my dad to tell him of his father's fate. He came to the door and he collapsed as my grandmother had opened the door one day. He was bloody and one of his eyes was ready to pop out of the socket. She knew he was beaten by soldiers. As she was caring and cleaning for him, the door was burst open and the soldiers came and they took my grandfather. And this was the last that she ever saw of him. They had let him go thinking he would lead them to the headquarters of a unit. Instead, he went home and they came and they took him.

Leslie Feldman’s grandmother Frieda Radasky stands next to her husband, Solomon, near the Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp in Bavaria, Germany, circa 1947. (Courtesy Leslie Feldman)

Leslie Feldman

In the Warsaw Ghetto, my grandfather was a slave laborer in the Többens textile factory. He was still living in the ghetto when the uprising began. On May 1, 1943, he was caught in crossfire between the Germans and the Jewish fighting forces and was shot in the right ankle, captured and sent to the Umschlagplatz. From there, he was deported to the Majdanek concentration camp.

After miraculously surviving selection at Majdanek, a prisoner in his block who was a French Jewish doctor, had a hidden pocket knife, which he used to dig the bullet out of my grandfather's ankle. They used urine as an antiseptic. At roll call the next morning, he had to stand completely straight as to not give away his horrid injury sustained during the uprising.

My grandfather survived several months of imprisonment at Majdanek. From there he was transported to Auschwitz, where he survived 18 months. And right before Auschwitz was liberated, he was sent on a forced death march to a subcamp of Dachau where he was eventually liberated on May 1, 1945.

In a 1993 interview, my grandfather said ‘to me the uprising was a symbol. We took it in our own hands, our destiny, and we fought back. We showed the whole world what we did against the Germans. We feel we had some honor.’

A pre-war portrait of Lisa Foster’s grandparents Diana and Rudolf Parysenberg (Courtesy Lisa Foster)

Lisa Foster

When the ghetto formed, my mother's mother was a young widow, probably in her twenties, with a one-year-old child.

Over the next few years, she saw her chances of survival diminish. And when my mother was four, she decided to smuggle my mother out of the ghetto. My mother's mother hoped she would get out and collect her child. But the uprising happened, and my mother's mother spent some time trying to survive that.

One night, she was under a stairwell, out trying to look for food and hid under that stairwell to hide from patrolling Nazis who were coming down the street, with a friend. And my mother's mother made a noise as the Nazis arrived, and she knew she'd given away their position. So to protect her friend, she ran out into the street and my mother's mother was killed there on the street by the Nazis. And the friend survived. Contacted my mom many years later to thank her for the bravery of her mom.

My mother's mother's name was Diana Parysenberg. She's an inspiration for bravery to me every single day.

Neff Fremont, left, and his father, right, pose for a photograph with their family. They were the only two family members to survive their time in the Warsaw Ghetto. (Courtesy Mark Fremont)

Mark Fremont

My father was Neff Fremont. He was born in Warsaw before the Ghetto 26. He was supposed to have his Bar Mitzvah in ‘39, which is when the Germans came over.

His family was well-to-do, but they were one of 500,000 people or so that were crammed in the Warsaw Ghetto. He survived only with his father at the Warsaw Ghetto as the family was killed.

At the time of the Warsaw Ghetto in ‘42, he was there for the beginning of it. And he escaped through the sewers to the other side, to the Gentile side of Warsaw. He was scrounging for food in the basement, actually, as they were destroying the walls of Warsaw. And he escaped only when he heard Russian voices.

He finally realized that the war was over.

The Treblinka camp burns during the uprising in 1943. This image was captured by Polish railwayman Franciszek Ząbecki. (CBW/Alamy)

Sandy Straus

During the week of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, my relatives played a pivotal role in the Treblinka Uprising by successfully masterminding a method of accessing the Nazi arsenal.

This method ultimately allowed for the capture and distribution of Nazi weapons to many insurgents. The insurgency that ensued saved the lives of at least 70 Treblinka prisoners and halted mass killing operations for a short time at Treblinka.

This led to the ultimate closure of Treblinka in November 1943 that prevented the mass genocides of other religious and/or racial groups at Treblinka and stripped Operation Reinhard of its secrecy surrounding Treblinka, its largest extermination camp.

This photo, taken just before the war broke out, shows members of Anthony Romanski’s family in 1939. His grandmother Stephania Kowalewska is at the top left, standing next to her sister Lucia Galas. The three children, from left, are Romanski’s uncle Kazimierz; Romanski’s mother, Maria; and Galas’ daughter Magda. (Courtesy Anthony Romanski)

Anthony Romanski

My mother and her brother survived the Warsaw Uprising in the ghettos of Warsaw during World War Two.

They went on to be trained out and by the grace of God, the camp in Auschwitz was full. So, they were rerouted from a concentration camp to a labor camp.

My grandmother managed to get a message through a Polish soldier [after the war had ended] who found my grandfather and who eventually met up and found the family and eventually were invited to move here to the United States as a thank you with that honor.

George Bacall's father, Leo Bakalczuk, is seen on the right with his family in 1927. Most of Bakalczuk's relatives, including some of those pictured, died in the Holocaust. (Courtesy George Bacall)

George Bacall

Both my parents were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They were there till the bitter end — they lost almost all of their family members.

After being dragged out of their hiding places, they were placed against the wall facing a firing squad. The Nazi officer thought a death by firing squad was too easy a death for the “Jewish pigs.” So he sent them to a death camp so they would suffer.

They ended up in Auschwitz for a year and a half. Then placed on the death marches to Germany. They managed somehow to stay alive.

After Liberation, they settled in Germany, where I was born in 1946. When I was three years old, we came to the United States. I am beyond grateful to the Allied forces for saving them and to the United States for taking us in.