On April 25 of this year we commemorate the Holocaust, the Shoah which sought to end all of Jewish history and to destroy the Jewish people for all time. Yet, on April 19, 1943 the Jewish people were born again. It was on that day, under the leadership of Mordechai Anielewicz, that a small group of Jews fought the killers in the now famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was the first act of Jewish resistance since the days of Bar Kochba (132-153 CE). It therefore laid the groundwork for the resistance of our heroic brethren in Israel, who face the killers every day.
Mordechai Anielewicz was born in 1919 in Warsaw, Poland. He became a recognized leader in the Zionist movement as soon as he had graduated from high school. Two years after his graduation, the Germans invaded Poland, so that Mordechai became an underground activist at the age of twenty. He set up several “underground” newspapers, organized Jewish youth groups and began to organize young Jews into an armed resistance movement even before the murderers started the deportations to the gas ovens. In the ghetto (from the Hebrew word get meaning divorce or separation), Mordechai organized a self-defense force.
Before the murder deportations began in Warsaw there were 350,000 Jews in that city. By the summer of 1942 there were only 60,000 Jews left. It was then that Anielewicz formed the Jewish Combat Organization known as the ZOB, from the Polish words Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa.
In November of 1942 Mordechai was appointed commander of the ZOB, which bought a small number of firearms from greedy Poles on the other side of the ghetto wall. This made it possible for the heroic Jews to attack the German killers on January 18, 1942 as they put into effect another deportation to the camps. Some of the Jewish fighters joined the deportees and then attacked the murderers from within the ranks of the deportees. This permitted some of the Jews to flee. Meanwhile a major street battle had begun. For three days street fighting continued and the Jews for the first time succeeded in killing the murderers and fighting back.
This led the Germans to introduce a large military force into the ghetto. Anielewicz and his followers retreated into a bunker at Mila 18. Mila 18 is a novel by Leon Uris. It tells the story of the Jewish resistance. It was published in 1983.
The unexpected resistance of the Jews led the Germans to burn down the ghetto, street by street, finally ending in the murder of all the Jewish defenders.
The heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising won that battle even if at the time they all went to their deaths and to seeming defeat. They won just the same because their courage and their fighting spirit ended nearly 2000 years of Jewish submissiveness to brutality, persecution and murder. It was in the spirit of Mordechai Anielewicz that Israel learned to defend itself to this day. Outnumbered, outgunned, hopeless yet full of determination, the fighters of 1943 laid the foundation for Jewish resistance.
Today there is in Israel a village called Yad Mordechai. It was founded in 1943 in memory of this great Jew. A giant statue of the hero overlooks the community. Behind it is the old water tower which was shelled by the Egyptian invaders in 1948 during the War of Independence. The Egyptians captured the kibbutz but were driven out later and the kibbutz re-established. The kibbutz maintains some life sized cutouts of Egyptian soldiers wearing helmets and carrying rifles. The kibbutz also has a museum dedicated to the Warsaw ghetto fighters.
The anniversary (Jahrzeit) of Mordechai’s death is May 8, 1943. Let us remember that 23 year old man who led his people during our darkest hours and gave hope and honor to the name of Israel. On this Yom Hashoah may we be inspired by his courage.