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They Have Not Died in Vain: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Eighty Years Later

These fighters gave up their lives to build a better Jewish future, where other young Jews can walk proudly and without apology wherever they go.
[additional-authors]
April 20, 2023
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Andrzej Duda, President of Poland, and Isaac Herzog, President of Israel, at the central commemoration on the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19, 2023 in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Sandra Steins/Bundesregierung via Getty Images)

The sheer audacity of it is astounding. On April 19th, 1943, a rag-tag group in the Warsaw Ghetto took on the most powerful army in Europe. With a handful of pistols and Molotov cocktails, the Jewish fighters held off a far larger army equipped with artillery, tanks and airplanes. In the end, the Nazis had to resort to mass destruction to counter the resistance; they razed the ghetto to the ground, blowing it up building by building. Even so, the battle raged on for weeks, with the bulk of the resistance only ending after the Nazi destruction of Mila 18 on May 8th.

Jewish resistance during the Holocaust was the subject of fierce debate after World War II. Some disparaged the six million victims of the Holocaust as going “like sheep to the slaughter” for not fighting back. Critics such as Bruno Bettelheim and Raul Hilberg claimed that the Jews, by being so obedient, made it easier for the Nazis to kill them. To them, the cowardly, docile Jew, always accommodating, failed to live up to the challenge of the time. Many, particularly survivors, found this theory to be deplorable.

The reality is quite different; there was a considerable amount of Jewish resistance during World War II. Thousands of Jews escaped the Nazis and joined partisan brigades. Underground organizations sprouted up in nearly four dozen ghettos, and there were two dozen uprisings in concentration and forced labor camps. Henri Michel found that Jewish resistance during World War II was far more substantial than that of the Soviet prisoners of war, even though 3.3 million Soviet POWs died in Nazi captivity. As Yehuda Bauer explains, the intensity of Jewish resistance was actually quite surprising.

But why did they resist? After two millennia of exile, one would expect the Jews to be weaklings, completely broken and beaten down. Where did the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto find their courage?

The answer lies in the Jewish calendar. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began just a few hours before Pesach. The timing was determined by the Nazis, who, perhaps because of their sadistic habit of murdering Jews on Jewish holidays, chose to storm the ghetto that day. But the Jewish response was very much a Pesach response. Alexander Donat, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote this about that evening in his memoir: “Monday night Passover was to start. We had not prepared to observe the holiday fully, but its spirit was very much with us. Under the circumstances, the Haggadah took on a special meaning.”

For Donat and centuries of Jews, the Pesach Seder is a classroom of courage. It reminds us that freedom comes first. The Talmud (Kiddushin 22b) explains that after having experienced slavery in Egypt, a Jew must never accept another master upon themselves, and the story of the Exodus reminds Jews never to forget about the dream of redemption. As the leader of the rebellion Mordechai Anielewicz put in a talk to his fighters: “The most difficult struggle of all is the one within ourselves. Let us not get accustomed and adjusted to these conditions. The one who adjusts ceases to discriminate between good and evil. He becomes a slave in body and soul. Whatever may happen to you, always remember: Don’t adjust! Revolt against the reality!”

On that first night of the uprising, the words of the Haggadah echoed in bunkers and hiding places throughout the Ghetto. In a room that looked as if it were hit by a hurricane, Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchok Maisel conducted the Seder, despite the shooting and explosions just outside; when fighters stopped by he would offer them words of encouragement. To Tuvia Borzykowski, Maisel said “that although he was old and broken … the young people must not give up.” When Zivia Lubetkin, one of the key leaders of the resistance stopped in, Maisel interrupted the Seder, put his hands on her head and blessed her, and said, “I am ready to die now.”

That evening, the values of the Seder came to life. Jewish blood was no longer cheap; Jews would no longer cower before their murderers. Like the Pharaoh of the Exodus, the Nazis deserved plagues, punishment and more. By fighting back, these fighters avenged the deaths of their friends and families. As Anielewicz wrote in his final letter, “Self-defense in the ghetto is a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.”

In the Haggadah there is a verse, taken from the Book of Ezekiel (16:6), that says, “And I said to you in your blood you shall live, and I said to you in your blood you shall live.” Life can emerge from destruction, and the blood, sweat, and tears of one generation can bring hope to the next. In Yad Vashem, this verse is the caption for a sculpture commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; and indeed, that is the very legacy of the fighters.

This uprising renewed the Jewish spirit, and future generations would draw inspiration from the fighters’ courage and heroism.

This uprising renewed the Jewish spirit, and future generations would draw inspiration from the fighters’ courage and heroism. These men and women were exceptionally young, (almost all in their teens and early twenties,) and yet they stood unafraid, ready to sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of justice and freedom. Mary Berg, an American citizen who was interred in the Ghetto at the time, wrote in her diary that the “ghetto’s starved, exhausted defenders fought heroically against the powerful Nazi war machine. They did not wear uniforms, they had no ranks, they received no medals for their superhuman exploits. Their only distinction was death in the flames. All of them are Unknown Soldiers, heroes who have no equals.”

These fighters gave up their lives to build a better Jewish future, where other young Jews can walk proudly and without apology wherever they go. Eighty years later, it is up to us, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, to resolve that those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising “shall not have died in vain,” and ensure that it is so.


Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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