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April 22, 2003

SIXTY YEARS AGO:

COMMEMORATING THE WARSAW GHETTO UPRISING
APRIL 19 - MAY 22, 1943

The Jewish uprising lasted longer than Iraq did.

Baruch Cohen

"The question is not why all the Jews did not fight, but how so many of them did."--Elie Wiesel

The April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the culmination of armed resistance that occurred sixty years ago this month, was the first national military struggle of the Jews since the rebellion of Bar Kochba (132 C.E.). The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were the first civilians in all of Occupied Europe to carry out a major revolt against the Nazi-German military power. This heroic and doomed revolt by men, women and children destroyed the myth of Nazi German omnipotence. Despite the vastly unequal forces, the uprising continued for several weeks. Its details became known only after the war.

The uprising had an enormous moral effect upon Jews and non-Jews throughout the world. The outcome of the modern-day confrontation between the German Nazi Goliath and the Ghetto David bears little resemblance to its Biblical antecedent. For Jews and all freedom-loving people, it was an unparalleled example of bravery in the face of imminent destruction: the tiny band of fighters turned the Nazi German cries of triumph into bitter disgrace. April 19, 1943 coincided with the Jewish calendar's celebration of Passover, the festival of Liberation of the People of Israel from the slavery of Egypt on the 15th of Nissan. The dates marked a great watershed--the dividing line between passivity, confusion, and despair in the face of annihilation, and staunch determination to fight the invader to the last man.

All acts of Jewish resistance and armed struggle that followed April 1943 were inspired--in some way--by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The revolt in the Chestochow Ghetto on June 25, the armed resistance in the Bedzin Ghetto on August 1 and 2, the sabotage and riot in Treblinka death camp on August 2, the uprising in the Bialystok Ghetto that lasted from August 16 to close to the end of the month, the revolt in the Sobibor death camp on August 14, and other innumerable acts of resistance, were carried out by persons whose strength and courage continue to resonate today.

On Monday, April 19, at the start of the uprising, General von Sammern led his armed forces into the central Ghetto. He could never have dreamt that the Jewish Untermenschen were capable of such strong reaction. Sammern's unit did not advance very far. The Jewish fighters burst out of their hiding places and spread a withering fire at the Germans. Due to the unforeseen resistance of the Jewish fighters, SS Major General Juergen Stroop issued the following command: "I order the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto."

Tragically, Jewish Warsaw was consumed by flames, and the deaths of the heroic resisters in the name of Kiddushat HaHaym (sanctification of life). However, that did not stop Warsaw Ghetto hero and uprising commander Mordecai Anilewicz from inspiring fellow residents to put up a valiant fight. Anilewicz led the uprising until May 8, 1943 when he fell, together with scores of commanders in arms. "Let's not fall into their hands alive!" was Mordecai's fighting credo. Warsaw's Wyszkow forest, where much of the resistance took place, is today named after Mordecai Anilewicz.

On April 26, a letter from Mordecai Anilewicz reached the representatives of the fighting Ghetto who were outside, on the Aryan side. This letter contains a report on the seven days of fighting:
"For eight days we are engaged in a life-and-death struggle. The Germans have suffered many losses, and during the first two days were forced to pull back. Then they brought in reinforcements in the form of tanks, armored cars, artillery, and even planes. They instituted a full siegeā€¦ The extent of our losses, of victims of execution and fire--men, women and children--has been enormous. Our last days draw near, but so long as we hold a weapon in hand we will fight and resist...

"Aware that our days are numbered we urge you: remember how we have been betrayed. The day of judgement for our innocently spilled blood will come. Send aid to those to be delivered at the last moment from enemy hands so they may keep up the struggle." (Ber Mark, Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto [New York: Schocken Books, 1975].)
In Mordecai Anilewicz's "Last Letter", found after the war, he writes:
"I cannot describe the conditions in which the Jews of the ghetto are now "living." Only a few exceptional individuals will be able to survive such suffering. The others will sooner or later die. Their fate is certain, even though thousands are trying to hide in cracks and rat holes. It is impossible to light a candle, for lack of air. Greetings to you who are outside. Perhaps a miracle will occur and we shall see each other again one of these days. It is extremely doubtful.

"The last wish of my life has been fulfilled. Jewish self-defense has become a fact. Jewish resistance and revenge have become actualities. I am happy to have been one of the first Jewish fighters in the ghetto. Where will rescue come from?"
Several hundred Jews, men and women, descended into the sewers or other hideouts and some of them held out until January, 1945, when the Red Army finally liberated Warsaw. Thus Jews were the first, and among the last, fighters and survivors in the city of Warsaw.

News of the Warsaw Uprising reached the Vilna Ghetto, the Jewish fighters on the fronts, and the Jewish fighters in France. Thus inspired, Hirsh Glick, a member of the United Partisan organization in the Vilna Ghetto, composed his song "Never Say You Walk the Final Road," which became the hymn of the Jewish partisans and underground fighters:
Never say there's only death for you
Though leaden clouds are hiding skies of blue
Because the hour we hungered for is near;
Beneath our tread earth trembles: We are here!

From land of palms to distant wastes of snow
We are coming with our torment and our woe,
And everywhere our blood has stained the earth,
Our bravery, our vigor blossom forth!

The morning sun shall set our day aglow,
Our yesterdays shall vanish with the foe,
And if time drags before the sun appears,
This song shall be a signal through the years.

We wrote this song with blood and not with lead.
It's not a song that birds sing overhead.
It was a people at the barricades
Who sang this song with pistols and grenades.

So never say there's only death for you,
Though leaden clouds are hiding skies of blue
Because the hour we hungered for is near
Beneath our tread earth trembles: We are here! 1
Out of the European ashes a new Jew had been born, firmly standing on his own feet, a strong and proud Jew who, no longer beleaguered by negation and despair, would soon enter the gates of the newly-founded State of Israel: "We are here."