Life & Culture

The true meaning of freedom

The Warsaw ghetto uprising took place on erev Pesach 80 years ago. What did we learn?


A group of Jewish civilians being held at gunpoint by German SS troops after being forced out of a bunker where they were sheltering during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in German-occupied Poland, World War II, 19th April - 16th May 1943. The photograph is from an official report from SS and Police Leader Jürgen Stroop to SS commander Heinrich Himmler, entitled 'Es gibt keinen jüdischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr!' ('There is no Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Any more!"). The SS man on the right is SS-Rottenführer Josef Blösche, who was executed for war crimes, in East Germany in 1969. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

W e have been riveted for decades by this iconic image — a seven or eight-year-old innocent in peaked cap and knee-length socks, his face contorted with fear, his hands raised in surrender, imitating his elders in a world of incomprehensible barbarism.

This Pesach it is precisely 80 years since this child was smoked out of a bunker in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto together with others in his company, to perish ultimately in Majdanek or Treblinka.

We do not know his name, nor can we identify his family, yet in his anonymity he has come to represent the 1.5 million children done to death during those terrible years for no reason other than their very identity. Indeed, some of those from Western Europe did not know they were Jewish until the Nazis labelled them as such.

Of all the people in this compelling snapshot, taken by a German photographer no doubt pleased with his artistry, only the boy’s callous tormentor has been identified.

Seen relishing the scene with a sneer and toting his sub-machine gun in the defenceless boy’s direction is SS-RottenfUhrer Josef Blosche, known as “Frankenstein” by his thousands of victims. Justice finally caught up with him with his execution in Leipzig, East Germany in 1969.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on 19 April 1943, Erev Pesach, “the time of our freedom” in our liturgy, when about 750 fighting men and women engaged with the might of the SS using Molotov cocktails and a few dozen pistols smuggled into the ghetto.

It was not put down until May 16 with the loss of 13,000 lives after the SS had torched every building with flamethrowers, and SS Commander Jurgen Stroop had personally pressed the button to blow up the Great Synagogue. “A fantastic piece of theatre”, he called it. (He was to hang for his crimes in 1952).

The uprising was the largest single revolt staged against their oppressors in the Second World War by Jews — indeed by anyone up to that time — and the most significant event of its kind in Jewish history since the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in 132-5 CE.

Yet doomed as it was from the start, how do we reconcile the inevitable outcome of this tragedy, let alone that of the Holocaust itself, with what we sing with cups raised on Seder night?

“This is the promise that has sustained our ancestors and ourselves — that, far from one enemy rising up against us, those who seek to destroy us appear in every generation, yet the Holy Blessed One saves us from their hand.”

The answers, provided by two people in wholly different positions of ghetto leadership during the uprising, are remarkably similar. Yitzhak Zukerman, the only surviving leader of the Jewish Combat Organisation and eventually one of the founders of Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta’ot, made clear years later that no one doubted how it was going to end.

The revolt amounted to a matter of Jewish honour, he said. After years of degradation, young Jewish people were determined to show it was their decision, not that of their enemies, whether they were to die fighting in Warsaw or be asphyxiated in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

The other leader was Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a dedicated Chasidic rabbi and educationist who ran a secret synagogue in the ghetto and invested enormous efforts in maintaining Jewish life there.

His book, hidden in a milk churn in 1943 discovered after the war, was published in Israel in 1960 under the title Esh Kodesh, Sacred Fire and deals with complex questions of faith in the face of the mounting suffering around him.

Much like Zukerman, Shapira argues freedom is a matter of choice from the alternatives available, however limited they might appear to be. Once you choose, your decision makes you free in even the most unpromising circumstances.

Having lived through the uprising, Shapira had no illusions about his chances of survival. He was deported to Trawniki death camp and was shot there in November 1943 with 40,000 others in the gruesomely named Aktion Erntefest or Operation Harvest Festival, the largest single atrocity of its kind against Jews in World War II.

How does all this relate to our song in the Haggadah? There can be no doubt that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising ultimately opened a new chapter in our history, stiffening Jewish resolve throughout the world that never again would Jews allow themselves to be led to the slaughter by those seeking to destroy us.

When, after Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, its 630,000 men, women and children were faced with the tanks and planes of five invading Arab armies, they won the day against those odds with the same determination and inventiveness displayed by their doomed predecessors in Warsaw five years earlier.

May the memory of those martyrs be a blessing for us as we embark on the festive Seder celebration of our redemption from Egypt, our rich 3500-year heritage, and the freedoms we enjoy today.

Eli Abt writes on the Jewish arts

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