Passover, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sigmund Freud, and the Psychology of Bigotry

On the Enduring Lessons of the Exodus Story

Confronting The Plague of Bigotry: The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on Passover eve, 1943.
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Confronting The Plague of Bigotry: The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on Passover eve, 1943.

By Austin Ratner

Published March 15, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
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Even as it was happening, some appear to have understood the Holocaust as a new chapter in the old biblical story of the Exodus: The uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto began, history books tell us, on Passover eve, April 1943.

The Passover holiday has certainly apprehended that history in hindsight. In their meditations on the God of freedom that delivered us from bondage in Egypt, modern-day Seders can hardly fail to measure freedom in relation to the paucity of it in 1943, nor can they fail to measure prejudice in relation to the scale of it then.

Dr. Edward Reicher observed the uprising from outside the ghetto wall that April. He was a Polish-Jewish dermatologist who survived the ghettoes of Lodz and Warsaw and then escaped into hiding in Nazi-occupied Warsaw with his wife and daughter. In his stirring memoir “Country of Ash,” forthcoming this year in its first English translation, Reicher recalls a confrontation he had with a Pole in July 1943 outside the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto, which by then had been totally destroyed.

The passage set me to thinking once again about the psychology of bigotry, a subject to which I gave considerable thought during the writing of my first novel, “The Jump Artist.” (I don’t particularly enjoy thinking about bigots — except maybe Archie Bunker — but a good novelist has to understand his characters, especially evil ones.)

It seems to me that Reicher’s account of his confrontation further exposes to the light the inner organs of this skewed thinking.

It was a hot, still July day in 1943 when Reicher wandered along the walls of the destroyed Warsaw Ghetto in the guise of a railroad worker. Of all the humiliation and devastation he’d seen wrought against his people, the defeat of the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto was perhaps most heartbreaking: The tattered band of Jews remaining in the ghetto had provided a sliver of pride and hope when they rebelled with force, but the Nazis had crushed the uprising and burned the ghetto to the ground.

Reicher was ruminating on this by the wall when a Polish peasant and a young boy approached. The man told Reicher proudly that he was showing his son the capital of Poland.


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