Warsaw Ghetto is the epitome of rightful resistance

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.  The senior editor of  The Tower Magazine and TheTower.org, Cohen is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism.”

By Ben Cohen, JNS

It’s hard to say for sure whether the following fable was really told in the Warsaw Ghetto, but it’s grimly funny enough to warrant repeating.

The story goes that at the height of World War II, Winston Churchill consulted with the Hasidic Rabbi of Gur about the best way of bringing down Nazi Germany. The rabbi told the British wartime leader that there were two ways he could think of: one natural, the other supernatural.

“The natural way would be if one million angels with flaming swords descended on Germany and destroyed it,” explained the rabbi. “The supernatural way would be if one million British paratroopers descended on Germany and did the same thing.”

“Supernatural” may be too weak a word to describe how the very idea of outside military assistance must have seemed to the approximately 70,000 Jews who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto on April 19, 1943—the first night of Passover—as Nazi troops launched their final liquidation. But by the time they finished that operation on May 16—with the symbolic burning of the Warsaw Great Synagogue and the deportation to death camps of the surviving inhabitants—hundreds of the invaders lay dead or wounded after nearly a month of savage fighting with the poorly armed, impossibly brave Jewish fighters in the ghetto.

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As the 75th anniversary of the uprising approaches this week, there will be a great deal of solemn commemoration of its heroes and victims. We think, for good reason, of the Warsaw Ghetto ultimately as a tragedy to be mourned, the culmination of the process of eliminating the Jewish population of the Polish capital that began in 1939, and one more example of the same brutal fate met by Jews in other Polish towns and cities—like those in the Vilna Ghetto who rose in armed revolt against the Nazis the previous year, in January 1942.

Yet I want to suggest that the passage of time should encourage us to think a little less mournfully. A story of great hope revolves around the events of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that needs to be heard, particularly at a time when—as a survey carried out by the Jewish Claims Conference revealed this month—the public’s general knowledge of what the Holocaust involved is diminishing.

There is a lot of talk these days, especially on the far left, about the imperative to “celebrate resistance.” For many supporters of Israel, phrases like that cause an instinctive rolling of the eyes. In the last decade or so, that same concept has been behind the global demonstrations during the 2006 Lebanon War, in which anti-Zionist fanatics—a motley crew of well-heeled hipster leftists and diehard Islamists—proclaimed “We Are All Hezbollah.” It was behind the riot started by pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside a Paris synagogue during the summer 2014 war in Gaza with a full congregation inside. And it is what informs the basic worldview of those activist groups on American campuses and leftist parties in Europe that depict Israel as the embodiment of colonial villainy.

What the Warsaw Ghetto uprising demonstrates is that this concept doesn’t belong to these groups alone. I am not saying that we should unthinkingly apply the slogan “Celebrate Resistance” to our commemorations of the uprising; anyone with any knowledge of the starvation and humiliation visited upon the ghetto will understand that doing so would be plain knuckle-headed. Nor am I saying that we should embrace the impressive number of Nazi troops killed during the uprising as our sole symbol of pride; Judaism shies away from glorifying or sacralizing acts of violence even when they are, as in this case, justified self-defense.

The hope, I think, lies in recognizing that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is not just a key aspect of the Holocaust, but one of the most inspiring stories that history has ever recorded in the general struggle for liberty. The American revolutionaries understood that human beings have an inherent right to resist tyranny regardless of who the tyrant is, and that same understanding was what drove the Jewish fighters.

Moreover, the Jews of Vilna and Warsaw were not the only communities to fight back against the tyranny of Nazism. A circular in November 1943 from the surviving Jewish underground fighters in Poland reported on Jewish armed resistance in the city of Bialystok, and in the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps, as well as in smaller towns—Tarnow, Bedzin, Czenstochow, Borislaw—whose names ring few bells with us almost a century later. All of these uprisings broke out in the weeks and months after news of the resistance in Warsaw had spread; in the words of the report, they were “a continuation of the chain of heroic deeds which the Warsaw Ghetto initiated.”

That same report also proudly observed how Jewish Communists and the socialist, non-Zionist Bund had “joined hands with all Zionist underground organizations” in the Warsaw Ghetto. “Our comrades lived and worked with the others just as members of a close family. A common aim united us,” it said. “During this entire period of over half a year, there were no quarrels or struggles, which are common among adherents of different ideologies.”

There is, in those words, an unmistakable sense of victory, even as the rest of the report records defeats, setbacks and other difficulties. Those fighters knew, as the end engulfed them, what they had achieved. Enough time has now passed for us to judge that even if they did not live, they won. For that, they deserve our eternal gratitude.