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.