I stood in a large square in Warsaw this week looking at two very different memorials to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Each time I visit Warsaw, I find the message of these two memorials more vital than the time before.
The more famous of the two is the imposing Rapoport memorial, officially known as the Ghetto Heroes Monument, which stands opposite the current location of the Museum of Polish Jewish History. This memorial tells a very distinct narrative — a narrative that appears to be black and white. On one side, the memorial depicts a group of cowering Jews being led to the Umschlagplatz, to be followed by deportation and death. On the other side, by contrast, are a small band of heroic Ghetto fighters led by the legendary Mordechai Anielewicz. There were only two choices available to the remnant of Warsaw Jewry, declares this memorial. To cower in helpless fear, waiting to be led like “sheep to the slaughter”, in Abba Kovner’s infamous phrase, or to muster the little strength they had left to fight back.
But there is another, much less well-known memorial on the other side of the same square in Warsaw. Unlike the Rapoport memorial, which it predates by several years, it is small and unobtrusive. Unless you know what you are looking for you will miss it entirely. This memorial depicts a manhole cover representing the sewers through which the survivors of the Uprising escaped. Inscribed on top of the manhole cover is a small scroll with the Hebrew letter bet.
The memorial resists attempts to simplify the Uprising and the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto in terms of a straightforward black and white narrative. It does not divide the ghetto inhabitants between victims and heroes. Instead, it represents the hope of the survivors who somehow managed to arrive in the Land of Israel and rebuild a life for themselves. That is why the memorial depicts a scroll with the letter bet, representing the very first letter of the Torah — the letter bet of Bereshith, meaning ‘in the beginning’. We managed to somehow begin again, the survivors say through this memorial, despite everything we had lost and all the horrors we had witnessed.
Every year on Yom Hashoah, a date chosen due to its calendrical proximity to the events of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, millions of Jews pledge never to forget. Yet, it is equally important for us to understand that the way we choose to memorialise the Holocaust is also critical. We have a choice when seeking to study the greatest tragedy to ever befall our people. We can take the approach of the Rapoport memorial and seek to generalise and simplify the narrative. We can try to project our own biases and views on events which are in reality largely incomprehensible to us. Or, we can take the subtler and ultimately more balanced approach of the letter bet memorial, with its deliberate decision not to categorise and judge the victims.
We can appreciate, for example, that heroism in the ghettos and camps took many varied forms. Of course, it certainly manifested itself in those rare individuals who had the extreme bravery to take up arms against the Nazis. But it also manifested itself in those who attempted to maintain their humanity and dignity in the most unimaginable of circumstances. It manifested itself in those who gathered to hold a Pesach Seder in secret on the very night of the Uprising. And it manifested itself in people like the legendary Janusz Korczak, who refused to abandon the orphaned children under his care, choosing instead to personally accompany them on the deportation train from the ghetto.
If there is one thing we have learnt from Holocaust historiography in recent years, it is the need to emphasise nuance and sensitivity in the narrative. Perhaps there was a time when the Jewish people needed to tell a clear black and white story simply in order to survive. Perhaps an early emphasis on a particular form of armed resistance was essential for the formation of the nascent state of Israel in particular. The striking Rapoport memorial achieved this objective in a dramatic way.
But today, we owe it to both the survivors and the memory of the victims to resist attempts to simplify the narrative by categorising heroism based on taking up arms alone. Instead, like the simple letter bet memorial, we should appreciate the inspirational stories of those who survived and were still able to count their blessings in the lives they rebuilt. And we should immortalise equally the memory of each and every one of the victims, without regard to the manner in which they met their tragic end.
Yoni Birnbaum is rabbi of Hadley Wood Synagogue