Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Gedenk — Remember

It was six decades ago, on April 19, 1943 — most Jewish communities will mark the anniversary on Tuesday, following the Hebrew calendar — that a group of young Jews in Nazi-occupied Warsaw began the hopeless act of resistance remembered as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Numbering scarcely 750, armed mainly with pistols, they took on the Nazi war machine and held it off for four weeks. It was the first urban uprising in Nazi Europe, and it inspired countless others, Jewish and non-Jewish, during those dark years.

It did not succeed, at least not in the technical sense. Nazi troops managed to break most of the rebellion within a week and by May 16 had mopped up the last resistance. All but about 75 of the fighters were killed, along with some 7,000 other ghetto residents massacred by the Nazis as they reduced the ghetto to rubble. Still, it was a moral victory of sorts. The Germans had entered the ghetto on April 19 intending to deport its 60,000 residents — survivors of a Warsaw Jewish community that had numbered 400,000 before the war — in an operation that was supposed to take three days. It took them a month. The Warsaw Ghetto fighters had shown Europe and the world that Jews could fight back, that the Nazis could be resisted.

In the years since World War II, it has become fashionable to suppose that the scope of the Nazi evil was obvious at the time, that the way to defeat Hitler was readily apparent, that some failing on the part of those living then — the Jews under occupation, the Zionist leadership, the Roosevelt administration — permitted Hitler to carry out his evil plans unhindered.

But nothing was obvious then. To most of the world, Jewish and non-Jewish, in Europe and beyond, it seemed beyond belief that a supposedly civilized nation would set out to exterminate an entire people. Even for those Jews who knew their fate, resisting the Nazis seemed futile, as indeed it was. It was only midway through the war, as surviving fighter Marek Edelman wrote in a memoir, that “the Jews finally began to realize that deportation actually meant death; that there was no other alternative but at least to die honorably.”

Even then, only a handful were ready to fight. The Jewish Fighters Organization was a loose confederation of about a dozen tiny groups, most of them socialist and labor Zionist factions that understood the fascist evil early on and were eager to take up arms. One other group, Jabotinsky’s Zionist Revisionists, objected to the loose structure of the organization and formed its own “unified” command, the Jewish Fighters Union, which cooperated with the main group once the fighting began.

But most Jews did not want to fight. They merely wanted to live another day, Edelman wrote; “as was quite natural for human beings, they still tried to postpone death and ‘honor’ for as long a time as possible.”

On this anniversary, it is well to celebrate those who took up arms. It is no less important to embrace those who did not, but coped the best they could. We, who have grown so accustomed to mass murder that we read of it every day and turn the page, should not rush to judge those who lived through the cataclysm.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning journalism this Passover.

In this age of misinformation, our work is needed like never before. We report on the news that matters most to American Jews, driven by truth, not ideology.

At a time when newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall. That means for the first time in our 126-year history, Forward journalism is free to everyone, everywhere. With an ongoing war, rising antisemitism, and a flood of disinformation that may affect the upcoming election, we believe that free and open access to Jewish journalism is imperative.

Readers like you make it all possible. Right now, we’re in the middle of our Passover Pledge Drive and we still need 300 people to step up and make a gift to sustain our trustworthy, independent journalism.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Only 300 more gifts needed by April 30

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.