Warsaw Uprising a lesson for all

Warsaw Uprising a lesson for all

A vigil participant draws the outline of the Star of David with candles on the floor of York Minster ahead of the cathedral's Holocaust Memorial on Wednesday. (Photo: Reuters)
A vigil participant draws the outline of the Star of David with candles on the floor of York Minster ahead of the cathedral's Holocaust Memorial on Wednesday. (Photo: Reuters)

January 27 was designated by the UN as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day to commemorate the six million Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust. During World War II, the Nazi regime systematically and brutally annihilated, in cold blood, six million Jews, including one million children, together with another five million people of other "unwanted" groups.

Alongside the suffering and horror, there is another side to the story of the Holocaust. Stories of remarkable acts of heroism and bravery. Stories of people that risked their own lives to save Jews from certain death; people that hid Jewish neighbours in their homes, families that took in Jewish children and raised them as their own, diplomats that acted against the orders of their own governments, and issued travel documents to Jews, and of course, Jewish resistance.

Jewish resistance took many forms; spiritual, cultural, clandestine-political, educational or religious resistance; underground documentation of the events; forging identity cards and protection papers; hiding Jews; smuggling thousands of Jews across borders to safer places; escape from camps and ghettos; armed uprisings and joining national resistance movements; aiding the Allies; and more.

In Israel, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls around April (according to the Jewish lunar calendar), is called Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.

Among all the stories of heroism, perhaps the most well-known incident is the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland in 1943. Therefore, Yad Vashem, Israel's official Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust, chose "Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust: Marking 80 Years since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising" as the Holocaust theme for 2023.

Between 1941 and 1943, underground resistance movements developed in about 100 Jewish ghettos -- enclosed districts that isolated Jews from the non-Jewish population - in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Their main goals were to organise uprisings, break out of the ghettos, and join partisan units in the fight against the Germans. The Jews resisted, knowing that the uprisings would not stop the Germans, and only a handful of fighters would succeed in escaping to join with the partisans. Further, under the most difficult conditions, Jewish prisoners succeeded in initiating resistance and uprisings in some Nazi concentration camps, and even in the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which broke out on the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943, was the first urban rebellion against Nazi Germany in all the territories it occupied. It was the longest-running resistance with the largest number of participants.

The Jews barricaded themselves in bunkers. After several days of fighting, the Nazi soldiers began to systematically torch and blow up the ghetto houses in order to force the fighters out of their hiding places. Many died in traps of fire and smoke. For a month, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for their lives. News of the revolt spread quickly and even reached the free world. The uprising became a symbol of the battle of the few against the many, and of the freedom and power of the human spirit.

During the same year, ghetto inhabitants all across Europe rose against the Germans. Many ghetto fighters took up arms in the knowledge that the majority of ghetto inhabitants had already been deported to the death camps; and in the knowledge that their resistance could not save the remaining Jews who could not fight.

The rescue of children was at the forefront of the minds of Jewish resistance activists. To this end, Jewish underground networks cooperated with official Jewish organisations and their non-Jewish counterparts, plotted and schemed to save the children from the Nazi hands. Still, only 6 to 11% of Europe's pre-war Jewish population of children survived the war.

Unfortunately, the Holocaust happened more than 80 years ago, but hatred, intolerance, massacre and horrific incidents are still taking place around the world. As we light the candles today, we honour the victims of past tragedies and remark on the heroic acts of those who fought against all odds to stop these atrocities. We remind current and future generations that it is up to us to fight so these atrocities can never happen again. Let us teach and direct our youth to prevent and resolve conflicts and learn from mistakes in the past. It is, indeed, our shared responsibility to make the world a better place for generations to come.

Orna Sagiv is the Ambassador of Israel.

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