On Hitler's Birthday in 1943: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
A few years ago, at a Seder we attended, the hostess compiled her own Haggadah for the evening. Within it she included something that seemed out of place and too modern...except that it was perfectly appropriate for a night that in 1943 was the Passover Seder, such as it was, just before the Warsaw uprising. In her photocopied Haggadah she included this (source unknown):
We remember the heroism of the Jews--men, women, children--who fought in the ghettos, in the forests, on the war fronts, together with all of democratic humanity, to stop the curse of fascism from engulfing the earth. We will be true to their memory by being vigilant in the cause of peace and freedom in our land and throughout the world.
It is important for us to keep remembering the events of WW II even as holocaust deniers seem to be multiplying like cockroaches. We must remember not just the victims but also, and maybe particularly, those who fought back no matter what the odds. As Elie Wiesel wrote in his preface to the new translation of his book, Night:
Today there are anti-Semites in Germany, France, and even the United States who tell the world that the "story" of six million assassinated Jews is nothing but a hoax, and many people, not knowing any better, may well believe them, if not today, then tomorrow or the day after...
Holocaust denial is alive and well, denying not only the deaths of roughly 6 million Jews, but also of roughly 5 million others. Under Hitler's leadership Germany set a new standard for brutality, and if there is one lesson we need to learn from those days is that denial and turning the other way is not how to act when it comes to bullies. We have to stand up and say "no."
In memory of Passover 1943, here's to the very appropriate gift the Jews of Warsaw gave to Hitler. Remember the victims of the holocaust, as we recently did on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). On April 20 I like to remember those who stood in Hitler's way. The fact that it happens to correspond with Hitler's birthday makes me even more determined to celebrate those who resisted him.
In 1943, Heinrich Himmler wanted to give Hitler a particularly nice birthday present. He decided that in honor of Hitler's birthday on April 20, he would eliminate the entire Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw, which had been causing trouble in the early months of 1943. The idea was to eliminate a group of uppity Jews and please Hitler in the process.
Instead, the Jews of Warsaw gave Hitler a present that he deserved but certainly didn't want: months of armed rebellion that DEFEATED the German army repeatedly and wasn't completely crushed until October 1943, though major combat operations were completed around May 1943. Including the periods of more sporadic fighting before and after the main uprising, this resistance in the Warsaw ghetto lasted far longer than the German invasion of Poland as a whole, which took scarcely one month. It is pointed out in Melvin Konner's book Unsettled that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, largely fought by Jews but with some Polish uprisings occurring at the same time, also lasted longer than the time it took Germany to defeat France, though again you have to include the period of more sporadic fighting.
The uprising was partly inspired by the Socialist Zionist organization Hashomer Hatzair (coincidentally, my mother briefly belonged to this organization in her youth). Hashomer Hatzair is still in existence long after Nazi Germany got its ass kicked and the Nazi ideology became discredited to everyone except the occasional loser who wants to blame everyone else for his failures. The Warsaw insurgency actually started in January, 1943 with sporadic fighting by barely armed Jews. Yet they met with some limited success. By the end of January the Ghetto was largely controlled by two armed Jewish organizations, one led by Mordechai Anielewicz of Hashomer Hatzair, and Zivia Lubetkin (who survived the uprising), and the other led by Dawid Mordechaj Apfelbaum, a former officer in the Polish army (which indicates something of the role of Jews in pre-war Poland...a Jew could be a Lieutenant in the Polish army!).
As Passover began on April 19th, 1943, Himmler's birthday present to Hitler also began, with thousands of German, Polish and Ukrainian forces attacking the Ghetto in force. The Nazis moved in at 4 a.m. spreading throughout the Ghetto. They occupied the entire Ghetto within 4 hours, believing that their extermination of the Jews could begin with ease. One can imagine their anticipation of a massacre of helpless Jews, the typical anticipation a bully has of feeling big at the expense of the weak. Then, at the intersection of Mila and Zamenhofa Streets, the insurgents struck with a single captured machine gun, ample small arms fire, and many Molotov cocktails. The bully was faced with determined resistance. (photos from the Virtual Jewish Library)
The Germans were completely routed by the Jewish insurgents by 2 P.M., providing Hitler with a major embarrassment for his birthday. THAT is what I savor as an appropriate celebration of human defiance of dictatorship.
The day after their first ass-kicking by the Warsaw Jews, the German, Polish and Ukrainian forces moved in again and took part of the Ghetto, taking their revenge on those left behind in the Jewish hospital. I guess if they can't beat armed insurgents, they needed to make themselves feel manly by murdering infirm hospital patients. Shows how cowardly Nazis are.
I should note that I have been criticized by Poles who believe that my inclusion of Poles in this atrocity is unfair. In fact I notice a certain pride many modern Poles have in the fact that Poland has been in many ways a haven for Jews throughout history. I want to emphasize that many Poles stood up to Hitler. In fact the Poles were the FIRST people who did stand up to Hitler, and my wife's great-grandfather was one of those Poles who fought the Germans back in 1939. Austria welcomed Hitler. Czechoslovakia rolled over (despite actually having enough military strength, including tanks, to stand up to Hitler if Britain had been willing to support them). Poland, against all odds, fought back.
BUT, there were some Poles who did participate in the Nazi attacks on the Warsaw Ghetto. And, to look further back, as outlined in detail in the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Poland as a nation supported Nazi aggression against other nations. They, in fact, hoped for part of the spoils form the break up of Czechoslovakia and even helped the Nazi propaganda war leading up to the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Poland was allowed to take 650 sq. miles of land around Teschen. The Poles were rather shocked when the Nazis began a similar propaganda war leading up to invading Poland because they knew what that propaganda was leading to. The point is, Poland had its share of assholes, though I think they were better than Latvia, the Croats and the Ukrainians who all had Nazi factions more brutal even than German Nazis. Neither side of this can be ignored. Poland stood up against Hitler before France or Britain did, but the history of Poland's treatment of Jews in the 19th and 20th century is not great either. Poland has at times been welcoming to Jews, to the point where there are Jewish myths of Poland being something of a promised land for them. But Poland, particularly in its fights against Russian domination, has also targeted Jews. And some of the forces fighting the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were indeed Poles. Such is history.
Back to 1943 and the fight for the ghetto.
The Jews counter attacked and drove the Nazis back once again. The next day the German general decided to set fire to the Ghetto in an attempt to burn out the problem. But the uprising continued, though more as a guerrilla war rather than the pitched battles of the first two days of Passover. Mordechai Anielewicz was killed by a German assault on May 8. On May 16th the Germans declared victory over the now completely destroyed Ghetto. But attacks and assassinations continued as the Jews refused to give up. Fighters continued to exchange gunfire with Germans all the way into September. In October the rubble of the Ghetto was removed, leaving nothing behind.
But even after that, Jewish survivors of the 1943 Warsaw uprising, including Zivia Lubetkin, participated in the wider, predominantly Polish uprising in August 1944, continuing the behind the lines headache for the Germans and further forcing them to divert troops from the front lines.
I should note that I find many possible dates cited for the end of the uprising. Some fighters placed it as early as May 10th. The Germans officially announced "Mission Accomplished" on May 16th. By then the Ghetto was burned out and the leadership of the resistance either killed or escaped. But fighting did continue, killing Germans here and there, until much later.
You can read a riveting account of the Warsaw Ghetto and the uprising by a survivor, here.
My reason for posting this and linking these events is that I wish upon Hitler and all who follow him and his failed, cowardly philosophy to this day, a birthday like the Jews gave Hitler in 1943.
I also want to note that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was not unique. Jewish rebellions destroyed two death camps--both Treblinka and Sobibor were destroyed partly thanks to Jewish uprisings.
I end with this:
Zog Nit Keynmol
(The Partisan Song)
composed by Hirsh Glick
hymn of the Vilna Partisan Brigade
Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letztn veg,
Ven himlen blayene farshteln bloyeh teg.
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
S'vet a poyk ton undzer trot: Mir zeinen do!
Never say that there is only death for you,
Though leaden skies may be concealing days of blue.
Because the hour that we hungered for is near,
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble:
We are here!
Thanks to a reader on Daily Kos, here is Paul Robeson singing Zog Nit Keynmol:
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