| 18 April 2008
Commemorating the Warsaw Uprising and Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust
By Leonard Zeskind
The Zeskind Fortnight No. 4
April 19, 2008
On April 19, 1943—the day of the first night of Passover sixty five years ago—the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto launched an armed revolt. Faced with little material help from the non-Jewish populations surrounding them, as well as open opposition from Polish anti-Semites, these Jews fought with pistols, hand grenades and Molotov cocktails the heavy artillery, noxious gas, fire and air power of the German army and its minions. Despite the fact that this was the first open urban revolt against Nazi rule in Europe, the bravery of these Jewish fighters was met with less than an enthusiastic response by the Allied command. These acts of armed opposition, and others like it, should put an end forever to the myth that the Jews of Europe walked quietly and without protest to their deaths. And their story must be told and retold in every generation.
Beginning with their assumption of power in 1933, the Nazis—in an ever escalating campaign—had stripped Jews of their basic human rights, stolen their property, murdered them, used them in slave labor camps, resettled them in ghettos and sent them to concentration camps. In January 1942, at a conference in Wannsee, outside Berlin, the Nazis revealed their plans for a “final solution” to the necessary German officials. And the first mass gassings began at Auschwitz the following June, according to the Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, by Louis L. Snyder. Although concentration camps existed within Germany itself, all of the “killing camps” were situated outside of Germany and in the East. And the shipment of Jews to these camps continued almost until the very end of Word War Two.
Jewish resistance in the ghettos and forests of Eastern Europe, and Poland in particular, occurred within the cross-currents of the war itself. The German army had invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and twenty-seven days later Warsaw surrendered. After the British withdrew their troops from Europe at Dunkirk the following May, Hitler’s Army controlled all of Western Europe. A little more than a year later, on June 22, 1941, the German’s invaded the Soviet Union, and not until the Red Army won the Battle of Stalingrad in February 1943 and started a general counter-offensive did the war begin to turn against Hitler in the East. In the West, Allied armies landed on the Italian mainland in September 1943, and after D-Day, June 6, 1944, began to fight their way into western Germany.
Both the Jewish councils established by the Nazis (the Judenrat), and the Jewish Fighters Organizations, weighed their military plans based on their expectations of Allied action. All hoped in vain that the Allies would bomb the railheads that led into the concentration camps. And in the Vilna ghetto, for example, the decision about whether or not to launch an armed revolt was pinned on the outcome of the American and British invasion of Italy. Individual acts of resistance by Jews had started even before the Nazis came to power. But only after all other avenues of survival had been closed down did organized armed resistance—and almost certain death—begin to emerge in the ghettos of Eastern Europe.
Other factors within Jewish communal life mitigated against fighting back. Lucy Davidowicz, in her trenchant book The War Against the Jews, described a tradition of passivity and non-violence among observant Jews. Fighting for a “death with honor,” on the other hand, became the cry of young more secular minded members of organizations such as Hashomer Hatzair and the Bund, socialist Zionists and non-Zionist socialists respectively. The groups of communist Jews within the ghettos favored joining partisan groups fighting in the woods, according to Davidowicz. And the alignments of the many political parties, both inside and outside the ghettos, helped shape the armed Jewish resistance.
The first ghetto fighting organization was created in Vilna during January 1942. And armed groups were soon established in seven major ghettos and forty-five smaller ones, according to the definitive Holocaust Encyclopedia, edited by Walter Lacquer. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jews joined the Soviet partisans, and about eighty percent of those died. It should be noted, that the resistance movement also existed in the camps themselves. They Fought Back: The Story of the Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe, by Yuri Suhl, recounts several of these stories in the most compelling fashion. This book describes, for example, a successful plot to blow up one of the four crematoria in Birkenau in 1944. Another chapter is a first-person account of a revolt in Sobibor, and the escape of inmates into the woods. The reader will learn of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jewish woman who made her way into the inner sanctums of Nazi officers, where she shot them point-blank with a pistol. Emmanuel Ringlebaum, (who was murdered late in the war and is, considered the historian of the Warsaw ghetto, portrays with great love the person and the work of Mordechai Anielewicz, the 23-year old commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization in Warsaw. Also in Suhl’s book, a chapter details the military and political aspects of the revolt, drawn from author Ber Mark’s book, Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Warsaw Ghetto was a small, ever shrinking, squat of land in which the 375,000 Jews of that city were confined behind brick walls, built after the Nazi conquest of Poland. After hundreds of thousands of these Jews were shipped to the camps, the population of the ghetto declined. By September 1942, only 60,000 souls were left. During this early period, many of the young men and women who would become fighters engaged in cultural and educational work among the ghettos residents—including those persons originally from small towns and shtetls outside Warsaw. These would be-fighters, members of several Jewish organizations, agreed upon a set of goals and created a unified political leadership that jockeyed for position with the Nazi-instituted Judenrat. They also opened communication and smuggling lines with Polish groups on the “Aryan” side of the wall. After the collapse of the Judenrat, the Jewish Fighters Organization became the de-facto political leadership inside the ghetto.
By January 1943, the Jewish Fighters Organization (JFO) had about 600 fighters. For months they had been building bunkers for those Jews remaining in the ghetto. They established organized units and military commands, created a bomb factory and concentrated their forces in three zones within the ghetto in expectation of fighting back. The Jewish Military Association, a second military command run by so-called Revisionist Zionists, was more heavily armed but had only 400 members. And they concentrated their forces in a separate section of the ghetto.
The JFO began by attacking active collaborators, and one of their first acts was the assassination of the chief of the Nazi-controlled Jewish police force. On January 18, 1943, German armed forces surrounded the Ghetto and began an attempt to round up the remaining Jews. In spontaneous reaction, four units of the JFO fought back. While sustaining heavy losses themselves, the JFO killed about 50 German soldiers and stole their weapons; and after three days of fighting, the Germans suspended their sweep of the ghetto. After that action, the JFO received a small influx of weapons from Polish armed groups operating outside the ghetto.
The major action on April 19 was better planned. The JFO knew in advance of the Nazi plans to march thousands of soldiers and police into the ghetto and re-start the deportations. When the fighting began, the JFO seized the military initiative and drove out the Germans and the Ukrainian and Latvian units that accompanied them. Overtime, however, the Germans began a campaign of heavy artillery and firebombing aimed at forcing the Jews from their hiding places. At the end of April, the JFO decided to smuggle as many fighters as possible through the sewers and canals under the city and into the forests, where they could join the partisans. On May 8, the German forces discovered the JFO headquarters on Mila 18. The Germans piped gas into the bunker and 300 Jewish non-combatants and eighty fighters (including their commander, Mordechai Anielewich) died. On May 16, twenty eight days after the fighting began, the Germans command declared victory.
In the end, however, it is the Jewish fighters who will be remembered as men and women of honor. Just last week, on Saturday April 19, 2008, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw revolt, Marek Edelman, stood at the “Heroes of the Ghetto” monument in Warsaw. As described by the New York Times, he handed his grandchildren tulips and daffodils and watched as they placed them at the foot of this memorial to the ages.
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