What Lesson can we Learn from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?

    June 2009            
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The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the causes of the Holocaust

By N. Shuldig

If we could say that there was a bright spot in the gloomy and somber history of the holocaust, perhaps we could point to the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. If in all the dark and disgusting annals of recent history, when Jews were led to murder like sheep let to slaughter, when Jews were tortured for fun, it was the revolt in the Warsaw ghetto. This alone stands out as a monument to the Jewish ability to resist the Nazi onslaught. Yet I believe that it is precisely in the story of the uprising that the deeper cause of the holocaust can be seen.

Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933. His plans were obvious from his speeches and his book, Mein Kampf, first published in, yet we find that the Jews did not seem to be particularly worried or anxious at that time. As Hitler became stronger and bolder and began instituting his laws against the Jews, and allowing atrocities to take place against the Jews, most German Jews felt that this would pass. After all, was not Germany an enlightened country; wasn't Germany one of the first countries to give Jews equal rights; didn't Jews serve in the German Parliament, the Bundestag, and distinguish themselves in the first World War? Jews enjoyed equal rights in Germany from the mid 1800's and participated fully in the nation's affairs.

Yet with all of this goodness bestowed upon them from the previous German governments, 1933 saw the beginning of the oppression of the Jews in Germany. Jewish stores and offices were officially boycotted; Jews were refused work and fired; Jewish children were not welcome in public schools. As the years progressed, the oppression increased. In 1938 Kristallnacht increased the persecution and began a series of wanton killing and confiscation of Jewish properties. It was not until 1941 that Auschwitz was chosen to be the first extermination camp.

* * *

Let us now look at Warsaw: Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and by October 6th the country was under German control. One year later, on October 2, 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was created. It was an area surrounded by a wall three meters high which was topped by broken glass and barbed wire. By April 1941 the ghetto population exceeded 500,000, many refugees deported by the Germans from towns in surrounding areas.

People lived in sub-human conditions. Starvation and death on the streets of homeless children was not an uncommon sight. Round ups by Germans and summary executions became common in the streets. Disease was common amidst the filth.

The uprising did not begin until January 18, 1943 when the Germans began a planned deportation of the Jews. The bulk of the rebellion took place from April 19 until May 16, 1943 when the German successfully destroyed the armed resistance movement.

Although the ghetto had been created in October of 1940, it took over two years for the Jews to begin a resistance movement against the Nazis. Although knowledge of mass murders circulated amongst the Jews, no action was taken. What caused such a long delay for Jews to begin to fight? Rumors had come into the ghetto as to the true intentions of the Nazis and the ghetto population had seen clearly with their own eyes how brutal they were treated, starved, tortured and executed, yet, resistance came late. Why?

At that time there were much divergent opinions amongst the Jews in political ideology and religious matters. Jews were Bundists, (a socialist leaning Russian workers party member) who had close links with the Polish Socialist Party. The communist Jews sympathized with Stalin who had distrusted the Polish Communist Party and ordered that it be disbanded in 1938. The left wing Zionists were basically the most militant Jewish group. They believed in fighting against the Nazi threat by organizing massive resistance. The left wing Zionists included HaShomer HaTzair, Dror and the Hekhalutz movements. Also there was the Right Poale Zion and the Left Poale Zion groups. There were the various religious groups and there were assimilated Jews. There were even Jews who had converted to Christianity but were considered Jews by the Nazis and put in the ghetto. However most Jews fell into the category of being non-affiliated – but just plain and simply Jewish - who could influence them? And then there were the criminals who would sell information or steal material just to survive.

In order to have an armed revolt it required co-operation and planning. It required trust and training. It necessitated working together and sharing resources which were indeed very few. It required a conviction that one Jew could depend upon the other.

It was March 1942 that the leaders of the Communists and the left-wing Zionist first came together in a meeting in Warsaw. They wanted to unite all the organizations to actively resist the Nazis however the Bund leaders refused to join to any group that did not have the same interests of the international Bund party. It decided to have its own fighting group and refused to co-operate with the others. In addition, there were Jews who belonged to the Nazi-run civilian administration of the ghetto and also Jewish policemen who were in the employ of the Nazis and then there were those who (generally because of desperation) believed the Nazi lies of resettlement.

The religious Audath Israel party believed that a rebellion would bring destruction to the ghetto and believed that a miracle would take place. The others argued that they were all doomed anyway; let them die fighting. The difficulty of organizing a rebellion under circumstances when cooperation was at best a minimum and mistrust from group to group instilled a desire to shun the other made a successful rebellion almost a impossible goal.

By the time the Jewish groups organized themselves it was late. Their efforts to contact other underground Polish groups were met with suspicion and sometimes anti-Semitic feelings; never the less, they tried to acquire weapons from the Polish partisan movements. The Polish underground movement was anti-Semitic and had no desire to help Jews.

It is my opinion that the animosity between the various groups especially among the Jewish groups kept them from working with one another. As one of the Bund members said as he sat down to negotiate with the representatives of the Zionists, that if it were not for the accursed ghetto conditions they should not be sitting at the same table.

The difficulty of each group accepting the other coupled with the chasm created by the differences in political and social outlook make co-operation extremely difficult. I believe that one of the greatest contributions that caused Jews to be lead to death with no resistance. It seems to me that from the side of the Jews that their inability to put aside their own petty priorities and work for the good of the general caused many more deaths than if the Jews had put down their group isolation and smug superiority and worked together from the beginning. It was not until it was too late, and too little when the various sides decided to work together, but when they did, the few determined fighters caused many casualties in the Nazi army and interfered with the carrying out of death camp deportations.

We are living in a post holocaust period. Yet the threats to the Jews living in the land of Israel are now coming from a fanatical and tyrannical Iran. Yet no one seems overly concerned. We Jews seem to be living in our wonderland, the political leaders can not seem to get together to make a stand against Ahmadinejad and the Iranian nuclear program. The Israeli parliament can't agree on any method of ending the increasing terror on its border and seems each day coming closer to giving the Palestinians their own government with out seeing any concessions from them.

Are we falling into the trap that the Jews in Europe did some sixty-seventy years earlier? Why do we not learn from history the horrors that crazy dictators like Ahmadinejad can bring?


from the July 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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