On April 19th, the world was reminded of a historic Jewish battle. Not in the Land of Israel, not in the State of Israel, but in a world that could only dream that Israel might one day exist. In honor of this 70 year anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a campaign was launched by the Ministry of Education to have schools around the country participate in a raising of the Israeli flag in recognition of our shared legacy with these brave fighters so many years ago.
What an incredible opportunity to connect the past and the present! Excited about this unique initiative of memory, we at The Israel Forever Foundation decided to expand its reach across the world. We launched the Raise Your Flag campaign to encourage people to stop for a moment and make history personal, to consider the significance not only of the uprising, but of the legacy that perpetuates until today.
Indeed, we received images from Brazil, Tunis, Jerusalem, Indonesia, Beijing, India, the United States, Tel Aviv, United Kingdom, Denmark and even the North Pole. Each of these individuals felt a connection with the story behind the uprising, the words of its leaders, and the meaningfulness of this fight for dignity.
Mordechai Anielewicz himself wrote in his final letter,
“The fact that we are remembered beyond the ghetto walls encourages us in our struggle. Peace go with you, my friend! Perhaps a miracle will occur and we may still meet again! It is extremely doubtful. The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Jewish Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.”
After more than 3 weeks of fighting, the Nazis burned one building after another to the ground in their attempts to weed out the last survivors. A total of 631 bunkers had been destroyed. In all, according to Jurgen Stroop’s calculations, 7,000 Jews had been killed in all the fighting, and 30,000 had been deported to Treblinka. Five to six hundred Jews, he added, ‘were destroyed by being blown up or by perishing in the flames’.
On May 8, 1943, 120 fighters were gathered inside the last bunker at Mila 18. The Germans surrounded the bunker. Recognizing they were doomed to fail, the Jewish fighters gave their lives for the glory of Jewish honor. Survivor Zivia Lubetkin recalled:
“Aryeh Wilner was the first to cry out: ‘Come, let us destroy ourselves. Let’s not fall into their hands alive.’ The suicides began. Pistols jammed and the owners begged their friends to kill them. But no one dared to take the life of a comrade. Then someone discovered a hidden exit; only a few succeeded in getting out this way. The others slowly suffocated in the gas.”
To this day, the bodies of these victims remain beneath the rubble. Nothing is left of the bunker but a hill of testimony that was erected on this spot after the war. Yet every year, we return to this spot, whether on the March of the Living, or Witnesses in Uniform, high school or youth movement trips. And we stand on this spot and take a moment to remember.
What thoughts pass through our minds as we stand there, in snow, rain or sunshine, trying to “remember” an event we ourselves did not experience? We recount the details, we read their words, we try to wrap our minds around the image of a group of Jews forced to defend themselves to the death just to defy the deportations.
Theirs is the legacy of our Jewish nation – persecuted throughout the generations, but determined to persevere, to fight those who seek to destroy us, and to battle for the dignity that is ours. As Antyk Zuckerman proclaimed, “We will die. It is our duty to die. And Israel’s honour will have been saved. Days will come and it will be told: this poor nation had youth which saved its honour as best it could.”
The Raise Your Flag campaign was an invitation to pay tribute to their struggle from every corner of the world. For Israel’s honor continues to be threatened and we, the Jewish nation, continue to resist and outlast. We are falsely accused, we are cursed by others, but we fight for what we believe.
Today we remember the reunification of Jerusalem as the culmination of the Six Day War, and the return of the Jewish people to the most important remnant of our ancestral heritage for which we have prayed for over 3000 years.
Today, these two historical events are united by the legacy and magnificent heroism of Jewish men and women in battle.
The fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising have been exemplified as Jewish heroes, emblematic of the desire to have seen the victims of Nazism rise up and fight against those who sought to destroy us. The fighters of the Six Day War, and every war of Israel before and after, are all fighting for that same dream – to save the honor of Israel, to fight back against those who force war upon us.
As we end our celebration of Yom Yerushalayim, let us also recall the end of the valiant efforts of the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters not with sadness but with joy that their legacy lives on and that never again shall the Jewish people be left defenseless in the face of any enemy. Their dream of a land where Jews could live free is indeed a reality.
Let us continue to raise our flag every year so that we can indeed remember that the struggle behind the ghetto walls remains our struggle, just as the fight for Israel is our fight, wherever we may be in the world.
Am Yisrael Chai!