Memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

How do you organize an armed uprising among the starved, cold, dehumanized? How do you organize an uprising without weapons, strategies, intelligence, and experienced command structure? How do you organize an uprising with less than a 1000 young men and women, most about 20 years old? How do you organize an uprising against a well-fed and trained military force with tanks, artillery support, and flame throwers? Then, how do you commemorate and pay homage to the struggle? Where do you find a ray of hope and find the strength to move on?

Paper daffodil. Photo credit: Adrian Grycuk. Wikimedia Commons

The Grossaktion Warsaw saw over 250,000 Jews transported to and killed at Treblinka in the summer of 1942. By April 1943, out of some 400,000 Warsaw Jews, there were about 60,000 left in the Ghetto. With another round of deportations scheduled for the eve of Passover, the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union decided to resist. Yet the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had no chance to succeed, not militarily; it was outnumbered, it had very few weapons and little ammunition. However, the uprising should not be judged in those terms. Here was a group of people who decided they did not want to die in the gas chambers of Treblinka but at the receiving end of a bullet. Symcha “Kazik” Ratajzer-Rotem, one of the fighters, said that “the only thing we could do in the situation was to stand up against the Germans, knowing that death waits at the end of the road. It was the only sure thing. There were no illusions, there was absolutely no thought, that we could survive. No one dreamed of it. Not at the start of the uprising, not later. To the Germans, a Jew was defenseless – you could do whatever you wanted with them.” Death was the only sure thing, and by taking the decision to die in this way, the dehumanized fighters asserted their humanity in a way that could no longer be denied.

Original German caption for this photo read: “These bandits defended themselves with weapons.”

Throughout the uprising, there was a sense of being forgotten, not just by the people outside the Ghetto, but by the whole world. Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the uprising, remarked that:
“The [ghetto] wall only reached the second floor. And already from the third floor, one could see the other street. We could see a merry-go-round, people, we could hear music, and we were terribly afraid that this music would drown us out and that those people would never notice a thing, that nobody in the world would notice a thing: us, the struggle, the dead…. That this wall was so huge, that nothing, no message about us, would ever make it out.”

Marek Edelman by the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Monument. Photo credit: Jerzy Gumowski. Agencja Gazeta

Perhaps in some metaphysical sense, the Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz heard that cry as he noticed the same merry-go-round and people’s passivity about what was happening to the dying fighters in the Ghetto. In Miłosz’s poem Campo di Fiori, he recalls the burning of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Dominican friar and the return to “normal” life following his death. The poet feared that the same oblivion might await the Ghetto: “I thought of the Campo di Fiori / In Warsaw by the sky-carousel, / One clear spring evening / to the strains of a carnival tune. / The bright melody drowned / The salvos from the ghetto wall, / and couples were flying / high in the cloudless sky.” Mi?osz accuses people (and he includes himself) of complicity by inaction. Yet the poem is about memory, it immortalizes the struggle of the fighters and warns against forgetting.

After the end of the war, Edelman never left Poland. He thought of himself as a guardian of the memory of those that perished and he recalled their human stories, struggles, and finally, death. Each year, on April 19, the anniversary of the uprising, he received a bouquet of daffodils which he always brought to the Ghetto Heroes Monument. A Hebrew, Polish, and Yiddish inscription on the monument reads: “”For those who fell in an unprecedented heroic struggle for the dignity and freedom of the Jewish nation, for a free Poland, for the liberation of man – Polish Jews.”

Monument of the Evacuation of the Warsaw Ghetto Fighers. Photo credit: Adrian Grycuk. Wikimedia Commons.

Edelman passed away in 2009. Starting on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 2013, volunteers hand out paper daffodils to the citizens of Warsaw as a way to commemorate the uprising. Thus, arising from the darkest period of history, out of the ruins of a burned city, a little flower, which blooms around the time of the Passover, became a symbol of memory and hope, of human relations, brotherhood, and sacrifices. Finally, a symbol of humanity and life with dignity against oppression. In Judaism there is a process understood as the obligation of repairing the world called tikkun olam. It implies that each person is responsible not just for their own spirituality and morality, but is also responsible for the society. The Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews for the crime of existence, robbed the world of 6 million chances to better the world. Let us not forget the men and women who sacrificed their lives in the struggle against tyranny, and honor their memories by upholding human rights and advocate justice for each oppressed individual in the world today. For the liberation of mankind.

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