Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Defiance in the Ghetto

The packed auditorium at Yad Vashem during the Research Institute's
seminar commemorating 70 years since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising 
This past Friday, April 19th marked the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the largest act of Jewish armed resistance during the Holocaust. This heroic act of defiance against the Nazis and their collaborators began as the complete liquidation of the ghetto was initiated on Passover eve in 1943. This year, to commemorate 70 years since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began, Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research held a seminar with leading researchers and guest lecturers discussing various topics ranging from the hardships of life in the ghetto to the rise of Jewish resistance against deportation and almost certain death.

For nearly a month, many Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto fought the Germans and their collaborators despite the odds heavily stacked against them. The Jewish fighters in the ghetto faced a strong enemy and were forced to fight in atrocious conditions with a serious lack of arms and ammunition. However, what stood out most for me during the seminar was not just the establishment and armed opposition of the two central resistance groups in the Warsaw Ghetto: the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union, but the massive scale of spontaneous resistance by Jews, unaffiliated with either of those two groups, who heroically fought from the many bunkers they had prepared.

As Hersh Wasser recalled and better summarized in his book, Melech Nischt: the Destruction and Rebellion of the Jews of Warsaw
“The will to resist has been sparked among thousands of men and women, elderly people and    children,    a will which conquers the natural anxiety and the fear of death and hardship. The masses have understood that by resisting surrender they are fighting the enemy in a unique way, hindering his deeds of destruction...”
The Research Institute’s seminar at Yad Vashem commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 offered those in attendance a glimpse into the level of sacrifice by those many Jews who actively took up arms against an incredibly powerful, well-equipped army despite the impossibility of success. Even though the uprising was cruelly suppressed, in no way is the meaning behind the struggle of the many fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto diminished, as their heroism and the justness of their cause is still remembered and honored 70 years after the brutal silencing of their will.
Video from Yad Vashem's 'Voices from the Inferno'

Sunday, April 14, 2013

My First Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem - Part 2

Standing in silence during the siren at the start of the wreath-laying
ceremony on Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day

Just as the evening ceremony at Yad Vashem commemorating Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day (Yom Hazikaron Lashoah Ve'lagvurah in Hebrew) was done in an incredibly emotional and meaningful manner, the following day continued in this trend yet in a drastically different way in which I had expected following the moving experience the previous night. The events throughout the day provided a more intimate setting, allowing greater room for personal reflection as visitors and guests (including many survivors themselves) came to remember and memorialize both the individual lives of loved ones and the immense collective loss of entire communities whose absence is still heavily felt, honored and mourned until this day.

The day started with a wreath-laying ceremony, attended by survivors and their families as well as President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visiting American Secretary of State John Kerry, that began following the sounding of a two-minute siren at 10:00. The siren serves as a reminder regarding the gravity of the day as we gathered together to remember the victims who suffered such extreme cruelty and memorialize the spirit of those who resisted. Despite the large number of people in attendance, for me personally there is nothing like the siren which has such a profound effect in creating a sense of complete aloneness, leaving oneself emotionally isolated and detached from others and thus allowing the most intimate reflection on such internal and sensitive thoughts concerning one of the darkest periods of human history.

Visitors to Yad Vashem place a flower in the Hall of Remembrance
after reciting the names of loved ones 

Following the wreath-laying ceremony, members of the public were invited to recite the names of Holocaust victims in the Hall of Remembrance. This was an exceptionally moving scene as survivors and their descendants recited the names of their loved ones who were taken from them by such unwavering hate, standing firm as witnesses against the crimes which claimed so many victims whose names once recited instantly seemed to be made eternal. In addition to reading the names, many people included their own unique way of coping with such personal tragedy either by reciting kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead), telling a special story of the victim or community or even sharing the words from a poem or letter. Almost seven decades later, the pain and sense of loss is still so clearly visible, fresh and unrefined that it gives perspective to the magnitude of devastation during the Holocaust. As I began to internalize that each name being recited was an individual, directly connected to others who constitute our world, it became clear just how much our past, present and future are forever impacted by the lives lived and the terrible way in which they were lost.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

My First Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem - Part 1

Holocaust survivor Dina Ostrover lighting a Memorial Torch at the Official 
Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day

Having just started working at Yad Vashem last week, I waited eagerly to learn and experience up close for the first time just how exactly Yad Vashem commemorates Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day (Yom Hazikaron Lashoah Ve'lagvurah in Hebrew), a national day of remembrance in Israel on which the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust are memorialized. Each year on this day, which so profoundly honors the many victims, heroes, and survivors that experienced first hand this horrifying period of blatant inhumanity, I’m reminded of the importance and continual impact the Holocaust has had in shaping who I am but more importantly the significance it has had on the Jewish people’s collective identity and memory. As the evening’s ceremony got underway I had no idea what a whirlwind of emotion awaited me, as seated with all of the other 2,000 attendees around me, instantaneously I felt a mutual understanding of responsibility, that through determination, education and action we must never allow such devastation to happen again.
The flag being lowered at half-mast reflected the scale of national tragedy that befell the Jewish people, setting a solemn mood to the ceremony that, although I didn’t know it at the time, would also fluctuate between various other emotions as the evening progressed. Having President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu deliver their remarks summed up for me just how far the Jewish people have come in such a relatively short amount of time, how we are now in a position to fully internalize the events from the past and have the means in order to prevent such atrocity from repeating itself. Next, the actor Ishai Golan offered a powerful reading of defiance written by one of the fighters in the Warsaw ghetto uprising 70 years ago, capturing the bravery and heroism of those who resisted the Nazis until their final breath. His dramatic reading resonated on an even more profound level, considering he plays the captured Israeli soldier Uri Zach on one of my favorite TV shows, Hatufim (the original Israeli Homeland).
Youth Movements Choir singing the Partisans' Anthem
at the Opening Ceremony
Throughout the ceremony, the Youth Movement Choir sang a variety of songs including the Jewish Partisans’ song (perfectly fitting with this year’s theme), which was sung so flawlessly and with such young and determined heartfelt passion it unequivocally became my favorite of the evening. However, nothing evoked a more diverse range of emotion than the personal stories told by six survivors, each chosen to light a torch in memory of the 6 million Jewish victims who were so horrifically murdered. While each of the torchlighters personally displayed extraordinary defiance and rebellion, whether by jumping off a fast moving train headed for an extermination camp or joining the partisans and fighting the Nazis and their supporters in the forests, every one of the six survivors exemplified more than just this year’s theme for Holocaust Remembrance Day. Following the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust, these survivors’ incredible will to not only stay alive amidst such unfathomable destruction but to continue to create, develop and build their lives in Israel, defined for me the true meaning of inspiration and provided a glimpse into their long fulfilled lives surrounded by family and loved ones. I felt overcome with sheer joy as all of us present were able to share in their story of defiance, survival and triumph. The passing away of Peretz Hochman z”l one of the torchlighters just a few days before the ceremony (his widow lit the torch on his behalf), reemphasized in my eyes the responsibility we have in this generation, having been fortunate to hear first-hand from the survivors themselves, to memorialize the events and personal stories for the generations to come who will soon not have the opportunity to hear directly from survivors.  So while not expecting to feel anything but sorrow on Yom Hashoah, I did feel a strange mix of emotions: anger and joy, despair and hope, but namely pride for now being part of an organization that is so completely devoted to the exceptionally noble undertaking of Holocaust commemoration, documentation, research and education for this generation and those to come.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Defiance and Rebellion during the Holocaust

This Monday, April 8, is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel.  This year's theme is Defiance and Rebellion during the Holocaust.  Following is a piece exploring this theme by Yad Vashem Chief Historian Prof. Dina Porat.  
You can explore online exhibitions and more related to Holocaust Remembrance Day here.  

Defiance and Rebellion during the Holocaust
Marking 70 Years since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

"It is a necessity… an imperative, due to the historical truth and the legacy that our generation will bequeath to those who will come after us, to speak not only of the loss… but also to reveal, in its fullest scope, the heroic struggle of the people, the community and the individual, during the days of massacre and at the very epicenters of destruction."

Thus wrote Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in the early 1950s. Today his words remain a guiding principle as we mark the 70th anniversary of the uprising.

The notions of "defiance" and "rebellion" are fundamentally important to any discussion concerning the Holocaust – and rightly so. In the ghettos and camps, indeed in every place with a Jewish populace and Jewish life, there was some form of protest or resistance to the plot to obliterate the Jewish nation. From escape plans to going into hiding, from mutual aid efforts to educational and creative activities as well as the observance of Jewish rites – even with the scarcest of means and in the most unthinkable conditions – all these acts embodied the relentless struggle of Jewish individuals and communities to counteract the restrictions and dangers raining down upon them – and against all odds, sometimes, to live to see the day of victory.

The most notable armed uprising that took place in a ghetto broke out in Warsaw on the first night of Passover 5703 (19 April 1943). The revolt started in reaction to the entry by German troops into the ghetto and on the heels of armed resistance that had been offered the previous January by the ghetto underground. In April, it was apparent that the Germans’ goal was the liquidation of the largest ghetto in occupied Europe as a birthday present for Adolf Hitler. Young Jews, condemned to death by the occupying Germans, organized two underground networks (the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union) with little means and no outside support. Along with members of the undergrounds, all of the surviving Jews in the ghetto resisted the enemy in order to defy their murderers, although they knew they had little chance of survival. These 50,000 Jews, left in the ghetto following mass death by disease and starvation and the deportation of 265,000 men, women and children to Treblinka, took to defense in the bunkers, and fought with utmost courage and resolve. They put up the bravest of resistance for almost a month, until they were brutally suppressed.  

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the first large-scale urban civilian rebellion in WWII, predating similar non-Jewish underground activity and uprisings in Europe, and strengthening and uniting Jewish youth in other places. There were some acts of Jewish armed resistance before Warsaw and some preparations that only came to fruition afterwards. When it became clear in the latter half of 1942 that the smaller ghettos in Nesvizh and Lachva (Belorussia) and Tuczyn in Volhynia were to be liquidated, members of the underground and other ghetto inmates acted as one organized force, setting fire to their homes and breaching the ghetto fence in an attempt to reach the surrounding forests. In Vilna and Kovno in Lithuania, and in Bialystok, Częstochowa and Będzin in Poland, underground resistance forces trained with all their might and extremely meager resources for future battles that broke out after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Krakow, the underground even sent combat units outside the ghetto to the "Aryan" part of the city to stage successful attacks on German military personnel. Finally, tens of thousands of Jews from across Europe made their way into the forests, swamps and mountains to join the partisans, fighting bravely behind enemy lines, and earning numerous awards for their courage, but rarely surviving their ordeal.

Beside the uprisings in the ghettos, resistance of varied kinds took place at forced labor and concentration camps, at death pits and mass murder sites, and even at three extermination camps: with armed uprisings at Treblinka and Sobibor in the summer of 1943, and at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the fall of 1944. The fact that only a handful of inmates managed to break out of the camps and survive did not overshadow the boldness of the endeavors, which took place in the very places in which human cruelty had reached its deepest depths.  

Ultimately, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising became a universal symbol of the heroic struggle by a handful of people in impossible conditions against genocidal oppression. It would later inspire extensive scholarly research and numerous works of literature and the arts – and become a source of pride for the survivors and the entire Jewish nation.

This article originally appeared in Yad Vashem Jerusalem Magazine.