אַל-תִּירָא, מִפַּחַד פִּתְאֹם; וּמִשֹּׁאַת רְשָׁעִים, כִּי תָבֹא
Be not afraid of sudden terror, neither of the holocaust of the wicked, when it cometh
עֻצוּ עֵצָה, וְתֻפָר; דַּבְּרוּ דָבָר וְלֹא יָקוּם, כִּי עִמָּנוּ אֵל
Take counsel together, and it shall be brought to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand; for God is with us.
וְעַד-זִקְנָה אֲנִי הוּא, וְעַד-שֵׂיבָה אֲנִי אֶסְבֹּל; אֲנִי עָשִׂיתִי וַאֲנִי אֶשָּׂא, וַאֲנִי אֶסְבֹּל וַאֲמַלֵּט
Even till old age, I am he; and even till seniority, I shall suffer and endure. I created and I shall bear; I shall suffer and endure and rescue
On today's anniversary (which will be observed tomorrow in Israel due to calendar quirks) of Yom Hashoah I thought it would be interesting and a little more uplifting than my usual Holocaust or Kristallnacht posts to explore the full meaning of this day. No matter how much it hurts to think about it, we can never "move on" from the Holocaust.
Everyone knows that we are to remember the victims of the Nazi insanity that rampaged across Germany and Europe for over a decade (1933-1945)...but many are not aware that the full Hebrew name of "Holocaust Remembrance Day" is:
יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה
Which translates into English as "Day of Remembrance for Destruction (referring to the Holocaust) and for Heroism." We always mourn the victims of this horrible time period but EQUALLY as important is to remember the heroism of those Jews (and people who were not Jewish) who refused to go quietly, who recognized that there was no appeasing the Nazis, and who stood up to take control of their own destiny. In fact, the original date chosen for this day was the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which took place the day before Passover.
So with that in mind, it would be appropriate on this day to remember that unlike previous horrors which befell the Jewish people, the Jews of the Holocaust DID NOT simply go like sheep to the slaughter. There were many amazing stories of defiance in the face of Nazi death...but none greater than the Jewish partisans of the Warsaw ghetto.
The rebellion of the Jews in Warsaw was not simply a moral victory...it actually succeeded in forcing the Nazi war machine to divert entire battalions in order to quell it. They had no choice but to bring in tanks and flamethrowers to flatten a city that they had already conquered four years earlier - a FIRST in Nazi Europe.
Urban uprisings, whether organized by Jews or not, simply DID NOT HAPPEN to the Nazis before the Warsaw ghetto and it showed everyone (including Polish resistance units who started their own uprising about a year later) how truly precarious their situation had become. This an excerpt from the diary of German Major-General Jürgen Stroop - the SS Commander of Warsaw:
After a few days it was already clear that the Jews would under no circumstances consider voluntary resettlement, but were determined to fight back by every means and with the weapons in their possession. Under Polish-Bolshevik leadership so-called fighting units were formed which were armed and paid any price asked for available arms....
...While at first it had been possible to capture the Jews, who are ordinarily cowards, in considerable numbers, the apprehending of the bandits and Jews became increasingly difficult in the second half of the Grossaktion. Again and again, fighting units of 20 to 30 or more Jewish youths, 18 to 25 years old, accompanied by corresponding numbers of females, renewed the resistance. These fighting units were under orders to continue armed resistance to the end and, if necessary, to escape capture by suicide.
During the armed resistance females belonging to the fighting units were armed in the same way as the men; some were members of the He-Halutz Movement. It was no rarity for these females to fire pistols with both hands. It happened again and again that they kept pistols and hand-grenades (Polish "egg" grenades) hidden in their bloomers up to the last moment, in order to use them against the men of the Waffen-SS [military unit of the SS], Police and Wehrmacht.
The resistance offered by the Jews and bandits could be broken only by the energetic, tireless deployment of storm-patrols night and day...
Not rarely, the Jews stayed in the burning houses until the heat and fear of being burned to death caused them to jump from the upper floors after they had thrown mattresses and other upholstered objects from the burning houses to the street. With broken bones they would then try to crawl across the street into buildings which were not yet, or only partially, in flames. Often, too, Jews changed their hiding places during the night, by shifting into the ruins of buildings already burned out and taking refuge there until they were found by one of the shock troop units....
Only as a result of the unceasing and untiring efforts of all forces did we succeed in capturing altogether 56,065 Jews, i.e., definitely destroying them...
The SS and Police Leader
in the Warsaw District
and Major General of Police
In the end however, a few poorly armed/trained civilians who had been starved, beaten, malnourished and abused for 4 years could not hold out forever against the military that ran over almost all of Europe.
The uprising was crushed, the commanders all killed and what little remained of the ghetto was liquidated. Before he died, the leader of the rebellion, Mordechai Anielewicz (himself an astonishing individual who should replace clowns like Che Guevara as the role model for oppressed minorities) wrote this letter to his friend and fellow rebel Yitzhak Cukierman:
April 23, 1943
It is impossible to put into words what we have been through. One thing is clear, what happened exceeded our boldest dreams. The Germans ran twice from the ghetto. One of our companies held out for 40 minutes and another for more than 6 hours. The mine set in the "brushmakers" area exploded. Several of our companies attacked the dispersing Germans. Our losses in manpower are minimal. That is also an achievement. Y. [Yechiel] fell. He fell a hero, at the machine-gun. I feel that great things are happening and what we dared do is of great, enormous importance....
Beginning from today we shall shift over to the partisan tactic. Three battle companies will move out tonight, with two tasks: reconnaissance and obtaining arms. Do you remember, short-range weapons are of no use to us. We use such weapons only rarely. What we need urgently: grenades, rifles, machine-guns and explosives.
It is impossible to describe the conditions under which the Jews of the ghetto are now living. Only a few will be able to hold out. The remainder will die sooner or later. Their fate is decided. In almost all the hiding places in which thousands are concealing themselves it is not possible to light a candle for lack of air.
With the aid of our transmitter we heard the marvelous report on our fighting by the "Shavit" radio station. The fact that we are remembered beyond the ghetto walls encourages us in our struggle. Peace go with you, my friend! Perhaps we may still meet again! The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.
Ghetto, April 23, 1943
If only he had lived through the horror and made it to Israel to see the miraculous extension of his efforts. Unfortunately it was not to be.
And this is the real tragedy - and paradoxically also the glory - of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Not that it failed or that the world watched and did nothing to help these heroes...that happened everyday during the Holocaust. The real tragedy was that it even came to this. That the Jewish people were so unprepared for the evils of the Holocaust that it came down to a few isolated, broken people desperately (albeit gloriously) fighting for just a few extra hours of life.
That after almost 2,000 years of pogroms and Crusades and Inquisitions and ghettoes, that we as a people still believed that deep down inside human beings weren't capable of becoming Nazis. That the Germans took advantage of our good nature and our innocence and reduced us to the point that we were closer to animals than to human beings.
That these uprisings didn't happen in every ghetto that was created or shtetl that was occupied because we simply had no historical precedent or training for it. That by the time these uprisings happened it was just simply far too late in the game. The enemy could not be overcome by Mordechai Anielewicz because the enemy had an entire state and military while he had a few revolvers, some molotov cocktails and no backup from anyone. And as tragic of an end (and beginning) there was to the Jewish martyrs of Warsaw, there is an even greater glory in their memory.
You see the GLORY of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is that it showed the world that Jews COULD and WOULD fight back. This is no simple "moral" victory...this is very real. Because in the end we withstood the Nazis like we withstood everyone who came before them and allowed Anielewicz's glory to live on.
It is no small coincidence that next week we will be celebrating the continuation of Warsaw fighters' legacy in the establishment of the state of Israel and with it a Jewish army that ENSURES that never again...NEVER AGAIN...will there have to be "isolated pockets" of Jewish fighters unsupported and cut off from the rest of the world.
NEVER AGAIN will we have to look around at each other, stuffed into cattle cars, our homes in ruins behind us and wonder just how it was that we were brought to this point - how it was that we could be so easily abandoned by our friends and neighbors.
NEVER AGAIN will we be caught unprepared by a menace who seeks to annihilate us all.
And NEVER AGAIN will any nation have the ability or audacity to even THINK that they can goose-step all over our backs with impunity.
Because the glory of Mordechai Anielewicz lives on in in the Israel Defense Forces, in the state of Israel and within all of us who refuse to submit quietly to the forces that seek to reduce us to the point that they reduced our grandparents and their families.
It is for these reasons that we must never forget what happened to us... and why we must focus not only the tragedies of the Holocaust but the rare glories as well.
For more thoughts on the Holocaust please read last year's Yom Hashoah entry: Nightmare.