The article I have posted below is one that I wrote for Shabbat Shalom, the half-yearly synagogue newsletter for the Etz Chaim Synagogue in Leeds, where my parents were members. I wrote it with the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover) in mind as it has significant themes of survival and liberation at its core and made me think of acts of resistance that I knew had taken place during the Holocaust. The act of resistance that I focused on in the article was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – partly because it is such a well known example of resistance, but also because it was one that began on the eve of Pesach in 1943 and so this year’s festival was the 70th anniversary of the uprising.
I have decided to reproduce the article here as I think it would be interesting for educators and readers. In particular I think it may be an interesting topic to examine in a cross-curricular way through both History and RS. However, today I discovered an additional reason to publish this article on the blog and that is that sadly, on Sunday, one of the last survivors of the uprising, Peretz Hochman, died aged 85 (Read his full obituary here). Peretz’s attitude to rebuilding his own life as well as that of his people was truly amazing and I’d like to dedicate this blog post to his memory.
“we suffered so much in the Diaspora that we now have to celebrate our independence by singing and merriment”
The original Warsaw Ghetto Uprising article from Shabbat Shalom (Spring 2013)
Seventy years on…
Seventy years ago, the Jewish people witnessed another miraculous occurrence as a group of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto fought for their own freedom from tyranny and slavery at the hands of the Nazis.
This year when we celebrate Pesach, we will read a story from the Hagadah that tells us how – with the leadership of Moses and his brother Aaron – we were freed from the yoke of slavery in Egypt. During this commemoration and celebration, I am reminded of a much more recent attempt to secure Jewish freedom which sees its 70th anniversary this year – the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
In the spring of 1943, a group of young Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were making the last preparations for what they were convinced would be their final stand against the Nazi war machine that had the destruction of all Polish and European Jewry as its aim.
The Warsaw ghetto had been the largest ghetto in all of Nazi-occupied Europe. It had been established in October 1940 and at its peak contained around 450,000 Jews, primarily from Warsaw and its environs, in an area of 1.3 square miles. Living conditions had steadily deteriorated as the effects of war and occupation, overcrowding and starvation took their toll. During 1942 many of the ghetto’s inhabitants, particularly those unable to work, were deported to Treblinka extermination camp and by 1943 there were no more than 60,000 Jews left in the ghetto. The remaining Jews were split between those who believed that by working for the German war machine they would be able to save themselves (or perhaps ‘ride out’ the war) and those who believed that resisting the Nazi attempts to dehumanise and murder them was the only way to emerge with dignity from their situation.
ZOB – the Jewish Fighting Organisation – included young Jews from many different political and social backgrounds. The young leader, Mordechai Anielewicz came from the Hashomer Hazair Zionist youth movement, Antek (Yitzhak) Zuckerman came from Dror Hehalutz and others came from the non-Zionist Bund movement. ZOB had connections with the Polish Home Army that helped it acquire weapons and from the beginning of 1943 it overcame its differences to work together with the Betar youth movement’s Jewish Military Union (ZWW) against the Germans. Together these groups built bunkers and other places of hiding in and under the ghetto, smuggled arms and made crude weapons with which they hoped to derail or delay the process of deportation when it resumed.
Their preparations came to fruition on Erev Pesach 19th April 1943, when the German forces under the command of SS General Jurgen Stroop began the planned liquidation of the ghetto. Stroop had organised a filmmaker to be present to record the final days of Warsaw Jewry ‘for posterity’ – little did he suspect that the photographer would record the largest single act of resistance against the Nazis on Polish soil to date.
ZOB and ZWW together defended their bunkers and fought hard against the vastly superior German weaponry. They had caught Stroop and his men completely by surprise and this enabled them to maintain their resistance for much longer than they had originally anticipated. Stroop was forced to call in reinforcements after losing twelve of his men on the first day of fighting and by day three, he turned to the drastic strategy of burning the ghetto to the ground, building by building and street by street in order to flush the Jews out, whether they were in hiding or resisting. As the ghetto was being reduced to rubble, the resistors carried on the fight albeit in smaller groups and individually. Anielewicz was killed in an attack on the ZOB command bunker on 8th May and little more than a week later, after a month of resistance, fighting and destruction, Stroop declared the ghetto liquidated.
Although most inhabitants of the ghetto were killed or captured by Stroop’s men and the ghetto itself completely destroyed, the uprising has become the ultimate symbol of Jewish resistance to the Nazis. It is widely regarded to have been the single most successful act of resistance by Jews during the Holocaust. Not only did a small group of Jews disrupt the German efforts to liquidate the ghetto, they were a strong symbol of hope and humanity for Jews in other ghettos as well as for their fellow Poles.
Pesach is of course a festival of liberation, and the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto did not manage to liberate themselves in the conventional sense. They did however die with the dignity they wished for and they were free in the sense that they chose their own destiny in circumstances which made it almost impossible to do so. And although Moses, who led the children of Israel out of slavery, never lived to see the Promised Land, a handful of those who survived the Holocaust did just that. Antek Zuckerman and his wife Zivia who had fought alongside him in Warsaw were among those who formed Kibbutz Lohamei haGetaot in the newly formed State of Israel in 1949.
Jewish Resistance – The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and research tasks. This is an interactive ICT lesson that can be used for KS3 or KS4. Can also be used as basis for independent research/project work.
Jurgen Stroop’s photographs from April-May 1943 are online at: http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/warsaw_ghetto/collection.asp
Kibbutz Lohamei haGetaot (Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz) – www.gfh.org.il/Eng/