On Passover eve, April 19, 1943, a group of young Polish Jews, members of socialist and Zionist youth groups, launched an armed uprising against the German troops that were massing to liquidate the surviving residents of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was a mad, hopeless act of desperation and defiance: fewer than 600 teenagers, armed with pistols and hand grenades, taking on elite units of the world’s most feared army. Few had any hope of surviving, much less stopping the Nazi killing machine.
But they hoped to be remembered, and perhaps to inspire others. And in that, they succeeded. Theirs was the first urban uprising in German-occupied Europe. Holding out for 27 days, they slowed the Nazi butchers and showed others what it meant to rise up and fight back.
And the memory has lived on. Immediately after the war, the anniversary of the uprising was adopted by Jews around the world as a day to honor the fallen. In 1950 the custom was enacted into law by the Israeli government (it followed the Hebrew calendar, but moved the date 12 days later to avoid a conflict with Passover). In the decades since then, the observance of the day, known as Yom HaShoah, has been taken up by nearly every Jewish community in the world. The cry of the martyrs — Remember us! Learn the lessons! — has become a sacred duty. This year the observance comes next Tuesday, April 25.
Over time, the commitment to remember has crossed religious and national boundaries. The American government adopted it in 1979, holding a memorial ceremony each April in the Capitol Rotunda. In 1999, Britain and several other European governments began enacting Holocaust remembrance days. Last year, the United Nations voted to adopt the custom as an annual, worldwide observance.
But, as is the way of the world, the U.N. action had the effect of disconnecting the Jewish and universal memories at the same moment that it connected them: It chose a different day. Following Britain’s precedent, the U.N. set its remembrance day on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops. Now there are two Holocaust remembrance days, two prisms through which to view the Nazi genocide and learn its moral lessons. As with so much else in these dark days, one prism is for Jews and Americans, the other for the rest of the world.
If remembrance were no more than a reciting of history, the disconnect would hardly matter. But there is much yet to be learned. The Nazis were defeated, but new monsters have arisen. Decade after decade, new killing grounds have been created for governments of the wicked to pile up the bodies of their murdered victims by the tens of thousands: in Cambodia in the 1970s, in Central America in the 1980s, in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s. Each time, the world stood by, shook its collective head and vowed to learn the lesson for the next time.
Now the killing fields are in Darfur, in western Sudan. This time, outrage is spreading worldwide, not afterward but in real time. Nor is the solution a mystery: Most observers agree that a quick military intervention by 20,000 outside troops could rout the government’s genocidal Janjaweed militias and end the horror. The only question is, who will send the troops? Washington says NATO. NATO wants the Security Council to act. The U.N. waits for Washington to take the lead.
It’s the sort of situation where a genuine show of popular rage might shake things loose. That was the idea behind the national rally called for April 30 by the Save Darfur Coalition. As we reported in January, the Jewish community has mounted an impressive effort to mobilize Americans for the rally. It seemed the lessons were being learned at last.
Now, as Jennifer Siegel reports on Page 1, it’s beginning to look like the rally won’t be a mass cry of outrage, but something much less. Something, we fear, like a hopeless act of desperation.
But, as we’ve learned, those hopeless acts can change history. It’s time to rise up.