Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion Sixty-Five Years Later

What is the most resonant line in the Haggadah? I suppose each of us would have a different answer to that question, but when I was a boy it was the line about all of us having to see ourselves as though we personally were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt that spoke to me the most profoundly. It still grabs my attention when we read it aloud...and specifically in that alluring, challenging way of remarks that inspire and perplex at the same time.

Partially, it had to do with my family itself. My grandparents, my father's parents, came from Nowy Dwor, a town in central Poland not far from Warsaw. In the 1870s, the population was over 60% Jewish. By the time the Second World War began, there were still about 4000 Jews (out of a population of 10,000). Almost all perished in the camps, but some few survived and, eventually, there was even a kind of housing development built on JNF land near Holon that was named for the town and in which some of the survivors eventually settled. From what I've read of the place, it sounds like a typical shtetl of its time and place, but my father's recollection of his parents' recollections of the place, especially his mother's, were unremittingly dour and not even slightly romanticized or vaguely nostalgic. Indeed, my father always felt that the specific way for our family to relate to that famous line in the Haggadah should be to thank God that our family escaped from Nowy Dwor while it was still possible. There were no pleasant associative memories at all--the place was recalled (by my father, by his parents, by our whole family) so incredibly negatively that the fact that my father's parents started out in Nowy Dwor and that we ourselves lived in Forest Hills itself constituted proof positive--so said my father almost every Pesach that I can recall--that every generation can reasonably think of itself as having left Egypt and the degraded lifestyle imposed on slaves by their unfeeling masters. Even after all these years, I can still hear my father expressing those thoughts!

All of this came back to more forcefully just yesterday as I was reading the news stories marking the sixty-fifth anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. The story of the uprising, I suppose everybody knows. But it was the way the events marking the anniversary were reported that spoke to me as deeply as the events themselves. Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, was present at ceremonies in Warsaw and at the site of the Treblinka death camp, and he was joined by Lech Kaczynski, the president of Poland. That alone seems amazing to me, but the thrust of most of the detailed stories I read was that Israel and Poland have grown closer and closer, both diplomatically and economically, over the years. Indeed, one of the articles I read noted that, for the first time, the Polish government has expressed a willingness to discuss compensation for property stolen from Jews during the war years and never returned. The Polish president spoke with a kind of warmth, even passion, that surprised me...and impressed me. (You can see a nice slide show of photographs from the commemoration ceremony on the Washington Post site: .) Even more surprising to me was the way the news was covered: respectfully and in a dignified manner not only by the American and Israeli press, which I would have expected, but also by the Polish press and, slightly less surprisingly, in the German press. I even saw a reasonable account of the commemoration in, of all places, the Al Jazeera website (take a look: ). What to make of that, I have no idea. But I point you there just because it's something worth seeing!

If my grandmother were alive, she wouldn't believe any of this. Even I hardly believe it. About half of the martyrs who died during the Shoah were Polish Jews. Their stories are so gruesome, so unbelievably horrific, that I still have nightmares occasionally about stories I heard or read decades ago. One of my father's favorite themes was the complicity of the Polish people in the slaughter, but to see the president of Poland standing next to the president of Israel and speaking passionately about the uprising as an event not only of Jewish concern, but as something that should inspire all the world's people--and then to see these remarks reported throughout Europe, including in Germany and Poland, and throughout the world--maybe that is what the Haggadah meant all along when it instructs us to think of ourselves as though we ourselves went forth from Egypt.

We, after all, are free people. We live in a free country blessed a thousand times with every one of God's many blessings. Within our lifetimes, however--or within our parents' or grandparents' lifetimes--we were truly slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but, somehow, we survived...and survived not merely by not being killed, but by having among us people like Marek Edelman, the only surviving leader of the uprising, who is not only still alive, but who spoke in Warsaw earlier this week. (Edelman, eighty-five years old, succeeded Mordechai Anielewicz as leader of the uprising. He survived, never left Poland, lives in Lodz, and is author of Resisting the Holocaust: Fighting Back in the Warsaw Ghetto.)

I have been emotional involved with the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising ever since I read Leon Uris' Mila 18 and John Hersey's The Wall as a teenager. If there is any way in which I viscerally respond to the call to think of myself as a slave, it is in my role as a latter-day descendant of two of the Jews of Nowy Dwor who left while there was still time, thus escaping the slaughter that overtook almost all their friends, neighbors and relations. Was it really only sixty-five years ago that the Jews of the ghetto rose up to defend themselves against their enemies? Even they must have known they couldn't really win...but the fact that they rose up in revolt at all is what matters. Truly, we all were slaves to Pharaoh in ancient Egypt--lots, but not all, of those slaves must have died in Egypt at the hands of their overlords--and the ones who survived turned into a nation that exists at the cusp between history and destiny, between slavery and redemption. That, I believe, is the secret to Jewish survival, our blessing and our burden, the detail of our self-conception that makes us who we are. (April 18, 2008)

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