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Jewish pride and heroism: 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The heroic struggle of the fighters—driven by their desire for freedom and dignity—became an enduring symbol against oppression.

From left: Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Polish President Andrzej Duda and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, Poland, for a ceremony marking 80 years since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, on April 19, 2023. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.
From left: Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Polish President Andrzej Duda and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, Poland, for a ceremony marking 80 years since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, on April 19, 2023. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was “a moment of pride for us. It was the moment when we showed the world that we were not going to go quietly to our deaths,” recounted Holocaust survivor and historian Halina Birenbaum. The uprising was one of the greatest acts of courage and heroism by Jewish resistance fighters during the Holocaust. It was a heroic and symbolic act of Jewish resistance against the Nazis.

A year after invading Poland, Nazi Germany barricaded off an area of Warsaw to corral and imprison the city’s nearly half a million Jews to a little more than a square mile in 1940. Life in the ghetto was a living nightmare for the thousands of Jewish residents who endured unimaginable hardship and suffering, forcing an average of nine Jews to live in a single room.

The overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness was palpable, as residents struggled to survive in the face of overcrowding, disease, hunger and brutality. Forty-year-old Rachel Auerbach wrote in her diary: “We are forced to live in tiny, cramped rooms, with no running water or sewage. The stench is unbearable, and disease is rampant.” Her family survived for three weeks on “just water, sugar and a bit of jam.”

Many Jews died from a range of illnesses from typhus to tuberculosis. “Every day, we see people collapsing in the streets, their bodies wasted by disease and hunger,” described 56-year-old microbiologist and Warsaw native Ludwik Hirszfeld. “We are all just waiting for our turn to die.” Ludwik’s daughter later died from tuberculosis.

The Nazis were brutal and ruthless, and showed no mercy to ghetto residents. They carried out frequent raids and roundups, sending thousands of Jews to their deaths. In his late 20s, Jozef Kaplan wrote: “Every day, we see our friends and neighbors being taken away. We know that they are being sent to their deaths, but there is nothing we can do to stop it.”

The Nazis began transporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to extermination camps in 1942. Despite the inevitability of their situation, Jews in the ghetto still had a will to fight back. The Jewish Combat Organization and Jewish Military Union resistance groups began forming. The Germans began their final liquidation of the Ghetto on the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943. The resistance fighters launched a surprise attack on the Nazis, using homemade weapons and smuggled firearms. The fighters were poorly armed and vastly outnumbered, but they fought with incredible bravery and determination.

Marek Edelman became one of the leaders of the uprising as a 23-year-old. “We were fighting for our lives, for our dignity, for our freedom. We knew that we had little chance of survival, but we refused to give up without a fight. We fought to protect the people in the ghetto, to extend their lives by a day, or two or five.” Edelman was one of the few leaders to survive, eventually becoming a cardiologist.

Jewish women resistance fighters captured by Nazi Germans during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943. Credit: history images.blogspot.com.

The ill-equipped Jewish resistance of 1,000 men and women took up makeshift arms against more than 2,000 heavily armed Nazis. When the uprising began, 27-year-old Yitzhak Zuckerman was a leader who scavenged inside the ghetto and escaped the barricade to acquire whatever guns or other weapons he could find outside. He observed that “the enemy is using all his might: tanks, artillery, planes. In the streets, there is a desperate struggle. Our people are dying by the hundreds, but we will not surrender.” Zuckerman and his wife, Zivia Lubetkin, also a leader of the Jewish Combat Organization, survived; their granddaughter became the Israeli Air Force’s first female fighter pilot.

Despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the resistance managed to hold off the German military for nearly a month. Thousands of Jews hid in bunkers until the Nazi Stormtroopers systematically burned down the ghetto building by building, driving survivors into the streets to be captured. Survivor and then 11-year-old Krystyna Budnicka “sensed burning all around me. We felt the heat of the walls as if we were in a bread oven.” The inferno killed thousands.

The survivors were deported to death camps. Teenage resister Simcha Rotem described the aftermath: “The ghetto was destroyed, our homes and businesses burned to the ground. But we had made a stand, we had fought for our freedom. We had shown the world that the Jewish people would not go quietly into the night.”

The first leader of the uprising, 23-year-old “Little Angel,” Mordechai Anielewicz, wrote in his final letter before his death: “I am dying, but take my last words as a legacy. He who will live after us will know that nothing can discourage the Jews.”

Israel remembers Holocaust victims every year on Yom Hashoah—Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day—in a two-minute moment of silence across Israel where the country stands still. Israelis stop and stand wherever they are; drivers get out of their cars and businesses halt. Observance fell on April 18 this year, one day before the start of the Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

WATCH recording of the Holocaust Remembrance Day 2023 Opening Ceremony at Yad Vashem

SS Gen. Jürgen Stroop’s troops walk by burning buildings during the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April-May 1943. Credit: Yad Vashem.

Points to consider:

  1. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is an enduring symbol of Jewish pride and courage.

Jewish pride embraces a deep sense of appreciation for the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people. Jews have faced persecution and discrimination throughout history, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is only one example of Jewish pride and courage overcoming powerlessness. The heroic struggle of the fighters—driven by their desire for freedom and dignity—became an enduring symbol of Jewish resistance against oppression. Israel’s modern founding in 1948 is another example. After centuries of exile and persecution, Jews were finally able to reclaim their ancestral homeland and establish a sovereign nation. Jewish pride continues to be a powerful force, fostering a sense of belonging, identity and connection.

  1. Jewish resistance against the Nazis took many forms.

Jews refused to submit to Nazi oppression and brutality during the Holocaust. Jews fought against the Nazis in ghettos, concentration camps and death camps. They also joined partisan groups to wage sabotage, ambushes and other guerrilla warfare. Some Jews resisted by escaping from ghettos and camps or by helping others flee to safety. In the ghettos and death camps, many Jews continued to observe Shabbat, holidays and traditions, and created art, music and literature that celebrated their culture and heritage as important acts of spiritual and cultural resistance. They used their creativity to assert their Jewish identity and resist Nazi attempts to dehumanize and destroy them.

  1. The Holocaust proves how quickly words and threats can escalate into violence.

Hitler and the Nazis used propaganda to dehumanize Jews—portraying them as subhuman and unworthy of basic human rights—to stoke fear and hatred, making it easier to carry out their genocidal plan. Initially, the Nazis used laws and policies to restrict the rights of Jews, banning them from certain professions and revoking their citizenship. Eventually, this progressed to physically isolating Jews in ghettos and concentration camps. The Nazis went on to systematically murder 6 million Jews on an industrial scale in death camps—regardless of whether they were politically conservative or liberal, Orthodox or secular, Zionist or not. Silence from bystanders—out of fear, apathy and complicity—allowed the Nazis to continue their genocide unchecked. In only a few short years, the Nazis eradicated two-thirds of Europe’s Jews. The lessons of the Holocaust are more relevant than ever as escalating levels of hate speech and extremist ideologies foster hostility towards Jews today. Standing up to bigotry and intolerance is essential to prevent history from repeating itself.

  1. Holocaust denial and distortion undermine history.

Holocaust denial and distortion are dangerous forms of propaganda that undermine historical facts and perpetuate anti-Jewish beliefs. Denial and distortion, take many forms, from denying that the Holocaust occurred to arguing that the genocide was exaggerated. This rhetoric is often accompanied by anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and a deliberate attempt to rewrite history. It is not only offensive to the memories of those who were killed during the Holocaust but also dangerous because this can contribute to the rise of hate speech. Holocaust education is essential to debunk myths and misinformation, holding individuals and organizations accountable for spreading lies and propaganda.

  1. Jews have a duty to remember and guard Holocaust survivor stories.

Holocaust survivors deliver powerful testimonies about their personal experiences before and during the horrors of the Holocaust. Survivors are diverse—many held key positions in arts, academia and government—and had thriving social lives. However, within a few years there will no longer be any living survivors to share their stories with future generations. Society cannot guard what it does not remember. Keeping the survivors’ personal stories and memories alive provides a means to help ensure another preventable tragedy does not happen. Never again.

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