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The Legacy of the Ghetto

This week marks the 65th anniversary of a seminal moment in the horror that was the Holocaust: the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was on the first night of Passover in 1943 that a tiny band of Polish Jews, teenagers and young adults, armed mostly with pistols and gasoline bombs, launched a hopeless counterattack against the massed forces of the German army. The Nazi SS had chosen that day to enter the ghetto, a walled-in district where the city’s half-million Jews were pent up, and begin a mass deportation to Auschwitz. The resistance fighters, members of the city’s Zionist and socialist youth groups, had decided that if they must die, they would go down fighting and force the world to remember them.

The first night of Passover, the Festival of Freedom, fell on April 19 in that spring of 1943, as it does this year. A full lifetime has passed, and we have come back to that terrible moment. We have all returned to Warsaw.

The Jews of Warsaw, like Jews everywhere, were to have sat down that evening to celebrate and re-enact the miraculous liberation of their people from Egyptian bondage. But in 1943 there were no miracles left and no freedom beckoning. There was no one to redeem them, no Moses, no hand of God to part the waters. The one freedom remaining was to seize control of their own destiny by choosing their manner of death. And in their deaths they redeemed the honor of Israel and the dignity of humankind.

On Passover we are reminded each year of the ancient commandment, passed on to every generation, to view ourselves as if we personally had been freed from Egyptian bondage. Today, one full lifetime after 1943, the Passover commandment gains a new layer of meaning. We are obliged to view ourselves as if we personally stood in the rubble of the ghetto with but a single choice remaining: whether or not to seize our own destiny and leave a legacy of honor for the generations yet to come.

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