Remembering a Jewish Uprising As a Victory in Spite of Defeat
Dignitaries commemorate 50 years since Jews fought Nazi oppressors in the Warsaw ghetto
WARSAW — IN the winter of 1943, when starving Jews who remained in the Warsaw ghetto were desperate to escape their sealed-off urban prison, Aharon Carmi was desperate to get in.
He had just narrowly missed death himself, jumping from a boxcar carrying his Jewish family to the Treblinka extermination camp. Filled with the "desire for revenge," he made his way into the Warsaw ghetto, where he spent three months training for a Jewish revolt against the Nazis. It was Europe's first urban uprising against the Germans.
"We built hidden bunkers. We made mines. We collected taxes from rich Jews in order to buy weapons. We created secret passages from attics of various buildings ... ," Mr. Carmi recalls.
"Through all of this, we didn't believe that we would win. But our goal was that we would not go passively to the boxcars like all of those deportees had gone before us," he explains.
The Jews were crushed. Although they fought for nearly a month beginning April 19, 1943, their smuggled-in revolvers, grenades, and homemade Molotov cocktails were no match for German tanks and artillery.
The Nazis burned the ghetto to the ground, capturing or killing 56,000 Jews. Survivors, like Carmi, crawled out through the sewer pipes and hid in the forests on the outskirts of Warsaw.
Morally, however, the ghetto uprising was a great victory for the Jewish people, said Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin during ceremonies yesterday. The fighters, he said, "never had a chance. Nonetheless, they persevered and won." In history, he said, the ghetto fighters live on and are remembered as "the guardians of an ember of human dignity."
All over Warsaw, events mark the anniversary. Jews from all over the world, including ghetto survivors, and foreign dignitaries, including Mr. Rabin and United States Vice President Al Gore Jr., are attending ceremonies that end today. No German dignitaries, however, are present.
"This is a major, major event," says one longtime Western observer of Poland. "It's certainly the most complicated international event in democratic Poland."
And with good reason. According to Polish-supplied figures, of the approximately 450,000 Jews in the ghetto at the beginning of the war, about 100,000 died of starvation or disease and over 300,000 were deported to the Treblinka death camp. At Warsaw's liberation, only a few hundred Jews were still alive.
The obvious point of the emotional wreath layings, memorial unveilings, and speeches is to commemorate the Jewish dead and the courage of the ghetto fighters. But implicit in the ceremonies is the theme of Polish reconciliation with the Jewish community, according to the Western observer.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, born in Poland, once said Poles "suck in" anti-Semitism "with their mother's milk."
While today's political leadership in Israel admits that anti-Semitism in Poland is no worse than elsewhere in Europe, Poland is still remembered as the world's biggest cemetery for Jews. Even if the Poles were not the murderers, "Polish people cooperated and coordinated and helped the Nazi regime. They helped pinpoint the Jews," says Oded Ben-Ami, media adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Rabin.
Poland has a double historical problem, says Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. Before World War II, it had the largest Jewish community in Europe, making up 10 percent of the population. It was almost completely wiped out. Then, under the Communists, anti-Semitism continued. "Because of this, Poland is more open to scrutiny," Mr. Steinberg says.
This is a message that has not been lost on Polish President Lech Walesa, who has been accused of anti-Semitism for remarks he made during his presidential campaign.
Under Mr. Walesa, Poland established diplomatic relations with Israel. Last year, Walesa went to Israel and asked for reconciliation before the Knesset, or parliament. And he set up a high-level council for Polish-Jewish relations, which was instrumental in planning the anniversary program.
"Relations officially are now very good," says Mr. Ben-Ami. "But what about education? What about teaching second and third generation Poles about what happened? Just two weeks ago, right in the middle of what was once the ghetto, skinheads attacked a group of Israelis visiting Warsaw," Ben-Ami points out.
Polish survivors of the war, gathered on a slope overlooking the ceremonies, eagerly told stories of how they had helped ghetto Jews. They threw food packets out the windows of streetcars as they sped through the ghetto without stopping. One Pole told of a neighbor who hid seven Jews throughout the war.
"I'm here to pay tribute," says Barbara Ulinska, a Warsaw native. "However many millions of people died during the war, no other nation [people] died just because of the fact that they were Jews," she said.