Karen Sutton

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Fighting for Survival                          

“The more things change, the more they stay the same”

As we recall the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April 19, 1943, it is more important than ever to remember that Jewish men and women possess a long history of fighting back for our nation’s survival.  From Masada through the Maccabee Revolt, the Warsaw Ghetto to Kibbutz Be’eri, we have demonstrated enormous will and courage in defying enemies even if it meant certain death. The perpetrators and their weapons appear to have changed over the years, but the ultimate motive of killing the Jews remains the same.

During Israel’s War for Independence, a group of lightly armed farmers in Yad Mordechai (a kibbutz named for Mordechai Anielewicz, the Warsaw Ghetto Commander) held off a force twenty times larger, the Egyptian army.  Knowing full well that they would be killed, these kibbutzniks did not flinch even for a second. Jewish men and women defended their position for five days, understanding that they were all that was standing between the Egyptian invaders and Tel Aviv.   With their sacrifice, they saved the entire country.

So too, the battles for Jerusalem which took place between December 1947 and July 1948 offer another example of fighting when no one else would have in a similar situation, despite the odds or “dafka” (because} of their inevitable consequences.  By the end of 1947, Arab forces had cut off the road to Jerusalem.  Palestinian ambushes of transports carrying food and water became more sophisticated and frequent.  Their intention was to isolate and starve out the Jewish residents of the city.

In the interim, supplies trickled in to prevent mass starvation.  The unlikely heroes of these dangerous transports were some 200 men, in their 50’s, from the Home Guard (Mishmar Ha’am). Using mules, they each carried a 45-pound load over a steep, narrow road that led to Jerusalem.  They made the trip twice each night.  Their efforts lasted for five nights.  Finally, the next month soldiers launched a successful assault on their ambushers while civilian workers built an alternative road, breaking the blockade. Thankfully, we know the end of that miraculous story.  With an unimaginable marathon effort and miracles from Hashem, even under the direst circumstances, Jews have persevered over our enemies.  In each generation, a small group of Jews have risen to defend the existence and freedom of the Jewish people against horrific odds. They knew that they were sacrificing their lives.  Yet, their actions gave others that followed the example of courage and duty to defend the Jewish People, that sustains us and preserves our very existence.

Still, the fact remains that some things do change. Within the post World War Two strategic infrastructure of complex geo-political relationships laced with financial and other expedient factors, now the army of the Jewish State defends Jews around the world—protecting them from terrorist attacks in their synagogues and community centers or going thousands of miles to rescue them from danger, as the Israeli commandos did at Entebbe.  This is what has changed since the brave fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto took up arms to confront the Nazis seeking to annihilate all Jews.  No longer do Jews stand alone in the face of evil.  Israel’s ability to defend itself against total annihilation is stymied by its friends as well as its powerful enemies who seek its destruction.  There is no mask in the meaning of “From the River to the Sea.”

On April 19, 1943, the Jews of the Ghetto drew a line that fighting back “became the new normal.” Their bravery against the brutal actions of the Germans stopped the roundups and deportations to the Treblinka Death Camp.

Then, Jewish fighting forces clearly revealed to the whole world that attacks against Jews  can NOT become the new normal. This was said clearly this week by former Israeli Government Spokesman, Eyton Levy. However, in the eyes of the enemies of Israel, “the end” remains the same— the destruction of the Jewish People.

Just like the Jewish warriors of the Warsaw Ghetto, Israel today is fighting for its survival against those who seek to destroy the Jewish People. Young Israeli soldiers fighting today are the direct descendants of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, fighting the same evil for the same reason.  Like them, Israel fights today because the alternative to not fighting is extermination.  Thus, perhaps, just perhaps, Israel’s means to the end should also remain the same “fighting back” and must not be ruled out as an option. Then, the Ghetto resistance fighters made a difference.  They inspired further uprisings in Ghettoes and camps.  And now, for us, it teaches that our actions in the spirit of fighting against evil also make a difference. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not just a story documented by Emmanuel Ringleblum and other fighters.  It is ours to live with purpose for as long as necessary, so that the Jewish People may survive.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro University, in New York City.
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