Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Provides Lessons For Our Time
This Thursday April 19 marks the 69th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a 27-day battle in which a small group of Jews, mostly teenagers, held off one of the mightiest, most equipped, and certainly the most evil military power the world has ever known.
The fact that several hundred Jewish teens and twenty-somethings held out for an entire month–longer, in the words of writer Leon Uris, than “many nations” which, he points out “fell beneath the German onslaught in hours”–is a breathtaking testament to human dignity and courage.
Their names should be household names, their deeds should be taught to all and most especially to Jewish people. Mordecai Anielewicz, Marek Edelman, Yitzhak Zukerman, and Zivia Lubetkin (a young woman) were several of the leaders.
Asked in 1968, on the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, what military lessons could be learned from the Uprising, Zukerman replied:
“I don’t think there’s any real need to analyze the Uprising in military terms. This was a war of less than a thousand people against a mighty army and no one doubted how it was likely to turn out. This isn’t a subject for study in military school…. If there’s a school to study the human spirit, there it should be a major subject. The important things were inherent in the force shown by Jewish youth after years of degradation, to rise up against their destroyers, and determine what death they would choose: Treblinka or Uprising. I don’t know if there’s a standard to measure that.”
How striking are his words, “no one doubted how it was likely to turn out.” In other words, even knowing they were facing death, they fought. Also note his words, “after years of degradation.” These twenty-somethings and teenagers, unschooled in combat, unprepared and poorly armed, with their pure courage and, no doubt, keen minds, effectively fought thousands of heavily armed, highly trained professional soldiers for weeks. And they did it after being demoralized and brutalized and starved for years.
Not faced with the years of soul-crushing degradation, intimidation, brutality and trauma that Nazi Germany inflicted on an unarmed, shell-shocked civilian population, no one dares speculate what he or she would have done. But we can draw lessons from history.
One lesson, to paraphrase Rich Cohen, author of “The Avengers,” an account of the lesser-known Vilna Ghetto Uprising in Lithuania which predated Warsaw Ghetto’s (and some maintain inspired it), is that, while most of these brave fighters died, some survived. Although they fought, in the words of Abba Kovner, leader of the Vilna Ghetto Uprising, for “Jewish honor,” and felt that survival was hopeless, some, including Kovner himself, nevertheless did survive. (Kovner went on to become one of Israel’s foremost poets). Even with no hope for survival, to fight increased one’s chances.
Second, one can speculate that, had these brave fighters not been faced with insurmountable odds, had they been organized and prepared — physically and mentally–to defend themselves sooner, before Europe’s Jews had been thoroughly traumatized both psychologically and physically in a systematic attempt by the Nazis to break their collective spirit and render them utterly defenseless, they could have mounted a much stronger defense and many, many more would have survived.
While Europe’s Jews did have the lessons of Jewish oppression through the centuries, they had no modern example of the type of mass brutality that the Nazis inflicted. Such senseless hatred and widespread slaughter of a civilian population was unprecedented in the modern world. To paraphrase Cohen (who recounts the story of Abba Kovner and his compatriots in “The Avengers”), most European Jews could not grasp what was happening until the situation had progressed to the point that they were trapped. In addition to being horrific, it was completely illogical, and perhaps this, more than anything, rendered them hopelessly unprepared. Why on earth, they (not unreasonably) reasoned, would the Germans go to the expense of killing vast numbers of civilians for no purpose other than hatred and prejudice (and by extension to stoke demagoguery?) Surely, European Jews reasoned, the Jews would be more useful to Germany as workers, etc. They were, on the whole, a highly civilized, eminently reasonable group of people confronted by a fascistic, bloodthirsty, irrational enemy intent on their destruction, and by the time most of them fully realized what was happening, it was too late to save themselves, their families, and their communities.
Today, with Iran–a genocidal regime whose leaders have stated their murderous intentions–on its way to attaining nuclear capability, we know better than to believe that genocide is unimaginable and too illogical to ever occur in the modern world. We have a concrete example of what happened 70 years ago when the Jews of Europe took a wait-and-see approach to dealing with a fanatical regime intent on their elimination.
Of all the lessons of the Holocaust, perhaps the most important one for Jews is the obvious lesson. Faced with a murderous enemy who knows no reason, and who tells you he’s coming to kill you, it is always better to fight. The forms that self-defense should take may be subject to debate, but denial, passivity, and appeasement are not valid or wise options. And it’s better to act sooner than to wait until your ability to defend yourself has been seriously compromised.
Am Yisroel Chai.
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