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Remembrance

Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day 2013

Defiance and Rebellion during the Holocaust

70 Years Since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Defiance and Rebellion during the Holocaust. 70 Years Since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Central Theme for Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day 2013

Prof. Dina Porat

"It is a necessity… an imperative, due to the historical truth and the legacy that our generation will bequeath to those who will come after us, to speak not only of the loss… but also to reveal, in its fullest scope, the heroic struggle of the people, the community and the individual, during the days of massacre and at the very epicenters of destruction."

Thus wrote Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in the early 1950s. Today his words remain a guiding principle as we mark the 70th anniversary of the uprising.

The notions of "defiance" and "rebellion" are fundamentally important to any discussion concerning the Holocaust – and rightly so. In the ghettos and camps, indeed in every place with a Jewish populace and Jewish life, there was some form of protest or resistance to the plot to obliterate the Jewish nation. From flight to hiding, mutual help efforts to educational and creative activities as well as the observance of Jewish rites – even with the scarcest of means and in the most unthinkable conditions – all these acts embodied the relentless struggle of Jewish individuals and communities to counteract the restrictions and dangers raining down upon them – and against all odds, sometimes, to live to see the day of victory.

The most notable armed uprising that took place in the ghettos broke out in Warsaw on the first night of Pesach 5703 (19 April 1943). The revolt took place in reaction to the entry by German troops into the ghetto and on the heels of armed resistance that had been offered the previous January by the ghetto underground. In April, it was apparent that the Germans’ goal was the liquidation of the largest ghetto in occupied Europe as a birthday present for Adolf Hitler. Young Jews, condemned to death by the occupying Germans, organized into two underground networks (the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union) with little means and no outside support. Along with members of the undergrounds, all of the surviving Jews in the ghetto resisted the enemy in order to defy their murderers, although they knew they had little chance of survival. These 50,000 Jews, left in the ghetto following mass death by disease and starvation and the deportation of 265,000 men, women and children to Treblinka, took to defense in the bunkers, and fought with utmost courage and resolve. They put up the bravest of resistance for almost a month, until they were brutally suppressed.  

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the first large-scale urban civilian rebellion, predating similar non-Jewish underground activity and uprisings in Europe, and strengthening and uniting Jewish youth in other places. There were some acts of Jewish armed resistance before Warsaw and some preparations that only came to fruition afterwards. When it became clear in the latter half of 1942 that the smaller ghettos in Nesvizh and Lachva (Belorussia) and Tuczyn in Volhynia were to be liquidated, members of the underground and other ghetto inmates acted as one organized force, setting fire to their houses and breaching the fence in an attempt to reach the surrounding forests. In Vilna and Kovno in Lithuania, and in Bialystok, Częstochowa and Będzin in Poland, underground resistance forces trained with all their might and extremely meager resources for future battles that broke out after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Krakow, the underground even sent combat units outside the ghetto to the "Aryan" part of the city to stage successful attacks on German military personnel. Finally, tens of thousands of Jews from across Europe made their way into the forests, swamps and mountains to join the partisans, fighting bravely behind enemy lines, and earning numerous military awards for their courage, but rarely surviving their ordeal.

Beside the uprisings in the ghettos, resistance of varied kinds took place at forced labor and concentration camps, at death pits and mass murder sites, and even at three extermination camps: with armed uprisings at Treblinka and Sobibor in the summer of 1943, and at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the fall of 1944. The fact that only a handful of inmates managed to break out of the camps and survive did not overshadow the boldness of the endeavors, which took place in the very places in which human cruelty had reached its deepest depths.  

Ultimately, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising became a universal symbol of the heroic struggle by a handful of people in impossible conditions against genocidal oppression. It would later inspire extensive scholarly research and numerous works of literature and the arts – and become a source of pride for the survivors and the entire Jewish nation.

The author is Yad Vashem's Chief Historian.