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Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943-2021

This week for “Rabbi’s Talk,” a regular Wednesday night KI online zoom program, we learned about the Warsaw Ghetto on the 78th anniversary of the uprising.  The Uprising began on the eve of Passover, April 18, 1943 and lasted for 27 days.  Although of little military consequence, the Uprising nevertheless proved to be of tremendous symbolic significance and a turning point in the history of the Holocaust.   In general, it is important for American Jews to be mindful of the resistance aspect of the Shoah, a theme reflected directly in the official name of Israel’s official Holocaust remembrance day, Yom HaShoah v’HaGuvarah, the Day of the Holocaust and Resistance.

To help us remember and learn, we had two very special guests, Professor Monika Rice, former Director of the Holocaust and Genocide Program and Dr. Barbara Poliks of Binghamton, NY whose grandparent were rescuers of an orphan of the Uprising.  Both speakers are native born Poles and devoutly Catholic.  Contrary to the current trends in Holocaust discussions in Poland itself, both are neither nationalistic nor apologists of Polish behavior neither during the Holocaust nor the Uprising itself.

The program began with a PowerPoint presentation by Professor Rice which contextualized the Uprising.  She explained how the Uprising began on the heals of the “Great Deportation” which saw the reduction of the Ghetto’s population by hundreds of thousands of people, mostly sent to nearby death camps, especially Treblinka.  The deportations resulted in not only a massive reduction of the Ghetto’s population but a shift in demographics. By the time the Uprising began, there were neither old nor young left in the Ghetto which meant that the young adults who had survived were the principle fighters.  Second, Professor Rice explained a long list of reasons why armed resistance was so limited prior to the April Uprising and, most surprisingly, how few Jewish fighters, about 500, actually took up arms against the SS and their Latvian and Ukrainian partners.  In the end, nearly 100% of the buildings of the Ghetto were raised and only a handful of people survived. We also learned that the Ghetto Uprising was followed by another general Warsaw Revolt in spring, 1944 in advance of the Soviet Army arriving in Warsaw.  The second revolt was aimed at preserving Polish sovereignty after the war. 

Among the survivors, was a young Jewish orphan who was transported to the south of Poland.  He was discovered and adopted by the grandparents of Dr. Barbara Poliks.  After their own son died after the war, he became their “own son” until other surviving members of his family were located and all were reunited in America.  For decades, the survivor blocked all memory of his Holocaust experience until later in life.  We also discovered that Dr. Poliks’ grandparents have yet to be honored as Righteous Gentiles.

Both Doctors Rice and Poliks were deeply informed about the history of the Ghetto and the current, uncomfortable environment in Poland about Holocaust memory.  Perhaps even more importantly, they spoke with great empathy and more than a single tear was shed.   It occurs to me that we are only two years away (April 2023) from the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.   Just as there have been special commemorations lately for the 75th anniversary of DDay and the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, so too, we need to plan for a special commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Jewish Warsaw Uprising, a moment of pure gallantry which forever changed the nature of Jewish life and helped set the stage for the establishment of the Jewish State and its doctrines of self-reliance and self-defense.

From the ashes and flames of Warsaw arose the cry, “Never Again,” and the pledge not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory by failing to maintain a vigorous, living Judaism in our own lifetime early in the 21st century.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.