I started reading about the Holocaust way too young. In ninth grade, I tackled the Black Book – the B’nai B’rith’s compendium of Nazi atrocities against the Jews of Europe. In retrospect, it may have been one of the things that started me thinking that maybe liberalism wasn’t for me; it certainly started me on the road toward being a Second Amendment supporter.
But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves, here.
One of the themes of the book – and of the story of the Holocaust, in retrospect -was that it snuck up on people; that many, even as they saw their rights being gutted and their businesses confiscated and their lives upended, just couldn’t imagine that it’d get worse. Even as they were being loaded up and sent to ghettoes in Poland, they just figured there’d have to be a rational conclusion to it all.
The history of human tragedy is that the people who see it coming get labeled as crazies, politely inoculated off from society.
The other theme? The few who saw through the illusion of rationality were capable of nearly superhuman courage. As the Holocaust spun up to full speed about this time seventy years ago, there were a painfully few people who managed to make it hurt the Nazis just a little.
It was seventy years ago today that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began.
The story is well-known to people who know their history – which means most Americans know nothing about it.
Before there were concentration and extermination camps, the Nazis used the traditional Jewish “Ghettos” of Eastern Europe as natural “camps” in which to confine the Jews, Gypsies and the rest of their targets. They systematically deported Jews from all over Poland, Ukraine and Russia – and then all over Europe – to these small enclaves in Polish, Baltic and Ukrainian cities, using them as holding tanks until the camps – the last link in the Final Solution – were ready.
And in early 1942, they were ready. The Germans started shipping Jews off to Treblinka, the first of the Vernichtungslagern, or Extermination camps.
And in the overcrowded, starving, disease-ridden Warsaw Ghetto – the realization that the end was near provoked a response from some of the inmates; it’d be better to die fighting.
And so a resistance movement,armed with a few stolen handguns and rifles and grenades and some homemade bombs, had formed. In the previous months, it had managed to disrupt some of the roundups to the camps, throwing the Germans’ plans – as precise as any industrial supply chain management system – into disarray. And on April 19, the Germans’ military response was met with armed resistance.
On the morning of April 19, the Nazis marched into the Ghetto to begin the final liquidation, a brutal process like the one Steven Spielberg captured in the horrific scenes in the “Krakow Ghetto” in Schindler’s List.
It was a scene that’d repeated itself all over Eastern Europe; the SS would forcibly haul the Jews out of the Ghetto and herd them onto boxcars for transportation to one death camp or another.
But this time was different. As the Germans came through the gate, the were met with gunfire and explosives and molotov cocktails. They retreated in disorder, with 12 dead.
For the first time, the Germans had come for the Jews, and the Jews beat them back.
It couldn’t last, of course; the Jews’ guns numbered in the dozens, the German troops in the thousands. They came back again, this time fighting block to block with artillery and flamethrowers.
They killed everything in their path in a fit of retributive blood lust.
The Jews – hopelessly outnumbered and virtually unarmed by military standards – somehow dished out a military setback to the Germans, holding the Germans out of the Ghetto for nearly a month.
It couldn’t last, of course. The Germans advanced building-to-building, killing nearly everyone as they went – an estimated 56,000 inmates died in the battle or the aftermath.
The Germans trashed the Ghetto as thoroughly as Ground Zero. They shipped the very few they didn’t kill or burn or bury out of hand off to Treblinka (itself to end in another doomed uprising in the near future).
They literally razed the entire Ghetto to the ground.
Serious resistance ended in about a week – which is itself amazing. I urge you to remember; these were people armed with pistols who started the battle with an average of 6-7 rounds of ammunition; a few rifles with the 5 rounds in their magazines and not much more; accounts vary as to whether the Jews even started the fight with a machine gun (they may have picked a few off of dead Germans). A few stolen grenades. Molotov cocktails and a few homemade bombs. Knives, spears, clubs.
Pockets of resistance held out much longer, though; the Germans declared the battle over in Mid-may, with the symbolic dynamiting of the Great Synogogue of Warsaw on May 16.
- The Great Synogogue of Warsaw in the 1910s.
And so the battle was over.
There were few survivors – but the few thto got away cut wide swathes. Marek Edelman, last surviving leader, passed away a few months after i wrotw the first version of this piece, back in 2009, after a life spent as an activist for freedom, including a role in the rebirth of a free Poland in 1989. Rhe handful of survivors and witnesses continue to tell their stories. But like our own World War Two generation, the Holocaust’s few survivors – and the fewer still who survived the Ghetto – are dying off.
And as they do, we should worry – justifiably – that society is going to forget about what happened; that society might forget the consequences of racism (the real kind), hatred, dminishing the humanity of ones’ enemies (or scapegoats) to try to justify all manner of inhumanities and horrors upon them. And of course, worry that some will take away the wrong lesson, as another loathsome person did fourteen years ago today.
I read the story of the Ghetto and the Uprising when I was in junior high; it probably took many more years for me to really absorb it. The lessons were these; never let this happen here. Call out the prejudice that leads to this sort of eliminationist hatred when you see it, and do it without stint or mercy. Never let society be left at the mercy of the thugs and the autocrats; it’s why we have a First and, if all else fails, a Second Amendment.
Above all, uphold humanity.
This post is adapted from one written originally four years ago.
While this blog’s comment section is the home of a lot of banter, good-natured and otherwise, my tolerance is exceptionally limited on this subject. Tread lightly, for the foot the censor shall not.