The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on April 19, 1943 which was the first night of Passover in 1943. By luck of the calendar (Hebrew and Gregorian) the first night of Passover in 2008 is also April 19th, the 65th anniversary of this historic moment in time.
For nearly three years the Nazi machine had rolled unscathed over almost all of Europe and was at its peak of territorial occupation in early 1943. From Rouen to Russia, from Norway to North Africa, from Belgium to Bulgaria, Hitler’s military had mercilessly destroyed everything in its path on their march toward world domination and lebensraum.
Once the Nazi military captured any country, the SS and Gestapo were right behind them to begin dealing "with the Jewish problem." This of course meant rounding up all the Jews and throwing them in overcrowded and unsanitary ghettos. Here they were forced to live in squalor and misery until they were told they were being "transported to the east" where jobs and a better life awaited them. Many times the job of the SS was made considerably easier by the willing natives eager to please their occupiers as well as rid their country of the Jews. Needless to say, the efficiently organized and insidious Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews was well underway.
When Germany occupied Poland in September 1939, nearly 3.3 million Jews fell under the rule of the Nazis and SS. By spring 1943 hundreds of thousands, if not millions, had already perished in the fully operational gas chambers and ovens of Treblinka, Sobibor and Chelmno. Jews from the ghettos of Lodz, Bialystock and most famously Warsaw were being sent to their deaths under a brilliantly devised guise of promises of labor, food, reunions with family and ultimately a clean shower. And for the most part, they went silently and without a fight – often described as lambs to their slaughter.
When the first deportations from Warsaw commenced in 1942, the Judenrat (or Jewish council) did not fight the orders. But by 1943, when the second wave of large-scale deportations began, many of the Jews of Poland had learned what their ultimate fate was at the "labor" camps in the east. And they decided to resist.
The first armed resistance to the German occupiers was in January 1943. It slowed the deportations down, but did not stop them. Over the next few months, the resistance movement in the ghetto smuggled in any arms they could get – rifles, pistols, explosives and even some machine guns. They devised homemade incendiary devices bombs and whatever other arms they could patch together from a trickle of material and weapons snuck inside the ghetto walls. Children were recruited to help procure whatever they could from friendly Poles in the Aryan part of Warsaw.
The major part of the uprising began on April 19, 1943 --- 65 years ago this Saturday – the first night of Passover 1943, the first night of Passover 2008. With the help of some Polish resistance fighters, the Jews succeeding in pushing back German tanks and soldiers under a barrage of fire and bullets. Molotov cocktails, grenades and sniper fire was aimed at the incoming German SS – and the mighty German military was forced to retreat. Other counterattacks around the ghetto managed to destroy some German equipment. The small, under-trained, under-manned, under-equipped Jewish resistance movement managed to hold back the mighty German machine for the first time.
It didn’t take long for the Germans to call in the reserves. The rag-tag soldiers of the Jewish underground were no match for the efficient Nazi destruction machine. Within 10 days – April 29th, organized resistance had all but collapsed, with just pockets of the uprising continuing onward. The remaining Jews went into hiding or tried to escape to the Aryan portion of Warsaw through the sewers. The Germans used tear gas and grenades to force Jews out of hiding. But the fighters did not go like lambs this time – many fought back as they were forced to abandon hiding spots.
By May 16th it was all but over – almost all the leaders had been captured or killed. 13,000 Jews died during the uprising. As for the 50,000 Jews remaining in Warsaw after the uprising – their fate was sealed. They were shipped to Treblinka where extermination awaited them. The number of German causalities varies – but it probably was well under 100. Most of the remaining buildings inside the ghetto walls were razed and leveled. Several resistance fighters did survive and escape --- and continued to be part of the underground for the remaining two years of World War II. By the time the Nazis surrendered in May 1945, of the 3.3 million Jews in 1939 Poland, less than 300,000 survived the war. Over 90% of the Jews in Poland had perished. An entire culture was wiped off the earth forever.
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was an act of desperation, but also and act of incredible bravery and fortitude --- the Jews of Warsaw knew they faced a choice between dying in battle with only a slim hope of escape, or certain death via deportation to an extermination camp – they chose to fight. While resistance in this case may have been futile, the survival and bravery demonstrated by the Jews in Warsaw was anything but futile.
So on this Passover 65 years later --- instead of putting a chair out for Elijah (since he has yet to show for dinner) – I put a chair out for the Jews of Warsaw who fought back. For three years the Nazis had systematically tried to destroy the humanity, psyche and existence of an entire population. While the Jews in 1943 Warsaw were ultimately overwhelmed, for one brief and heroic moment they did not let the power of German venom and directive of national anti-Semitism destroy their collective dignity and soul.
April 19th, 2008 -- 65 years later, we must never forget how cruel and destructive humans, even "civilized" societies, can be.