During the World War II, central Poland, including Warsaw, came under the rule of the General Government, a Nazi colonial administration. All higher education institutions were immediately closed and Warsaw’s entire Jewish population – several hundred thousand, some 30% of the city – herded into the Warsaw Ghetto. When the order came to annihilate the Ghetto as part of Hitler‘s “Final Solution” on April 19, 1943, Jewish fighters launched the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.Despite being heavily outgunned and outnumbered, the Ghetto held out for almost a month. When the fighting ended, almost all survivors were massacred, only few managed to escape or hide.
“My lifelong dream has come true. Self-defense in the Ghetto is now a reality. The armed Jewish resistance is happening; we are taking our revenge. I am witness to a great battle being waged by Jewish heroes.” These were the words that Mordechai Anielewicz, a young Polish Jew who led the revolt, wrote after several hours of combat against the German SS on April 19, 1943.
From that day until May 16, several thousand Jewish resistance fighters, using machine guns and homemade Molotov cocktails, achieved the impossible: They succeeded in stalling the German army.
But that success was short-lived. Jürgen Stroop, Brigade Führer SS, burned down the ghetto to quell the uprising. Victims of the fire either burned to death or suffocated from smoke inhalation, resulting in 13,000 Jewish casualties. The remaining 42,000 residents were subsequently deported. Stroop wrote in his official report, “The Warsaw Ghetto is no more.” Little did he know that he had just logged the most important act of Jewish resistance against the Nazis.
April 19, 2018, we mark the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The Uprising of April 19,1943 also reminds us that the victory against fascism and similar triumphs over other destructive ideologies are not easily won, and that the price of freedom is steep.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising also teaches that the defense of our democratic, liberal, universal values can sometimes hang by a thread, dependent on the courage of a handful of people, those sparks of light that glow in defiance of a brutality that aspires to extinguish all else.
May the memory of these Jewish resistance fighters always be defended, honored, and heard in Poland, in Europe, and elsewhere. May the message of hope and courage in the face of hatred, despair, and brutality—the message that the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto sought to bestow upon us—always ring true.