Earlier this week, a trove of never-before-seen photographs was shared by POLIN: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The photos, taken surreptitiously by then-23 year old Polish firefighter Zbigniew Leszek Grzywaczewski, documents the aftermath of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.
The uprising was the first successful major revolt against the Nazis in Europe. Some 700 ill-equipped and starving Jews used guerilla tactics to fight for nearly a month, delaying the Nazi plan to ‘liquidate’ the Ghetto and deporting all the inhabitants to extermination at Treblinka. The Nazis burned most of the Ghetto, and the Polish fire brigade was used to prevent the fires from spreading beyond the Ghetto into the remainder of Warsaw.
Grzywaczewski’s photos are the only known photographic record of the uprising aside from those released by the Nazi perpetrators themselves. “The image of these people being dragged out of [the bunkers] will stay with me for the rest of my life,” wrote Grzywaczewski.
That these photos of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising came to our attention on MLK Day here in the US seems so fitting: The Civil Rights Movement led by King was also an act of resistance, a revolt against injustice, an indefatigable fight for freedom, and a bold example of the unconquerability of the human spirit when unified for dignity, good, and truth.
The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt began 80 years ago, on that year’s Passover Eve (April 19, 1943). Interestingly, the UN mandated International Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place each year on January 27 (next week), the anniversary of the day on which the Red Army liberated Auschwitz.
Most Jewish communities around the world, however, memorialize the Holocaust on the 27th of Nissan on the Hebrew calendar, which is in the springtime just after Passover ends. Its date was chosen to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising’s resistance (without interfering with Passover, which is also a holiday that celebrates liberation). That day is known colloquially as Yom haShoah.
Actually, the full name of “Yom HaShoah” in Hebrew is Yom haZikaron L’Shoah v’L’Gvurah, “The Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and for Heroism.” This name makes it clear that while we memorialize the 6,000,000 Jews who died (important and central as that is, along with millions of other Nazi victims), we also must remember those who resisted:
Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews, anyone who took up arms, fought back, sabotaged, who maintained their dignity and humanity, who showed compassion in a merciless time, who taught children and created culture for the sake of a future they were not sure they would ever see, who stood up for a belief in God and/or humankind by refusing to bow to the Nazi desecration of all that is holy…
If we look to our Torah for guidance – and in our dizzyingly intense world it feels increasingly necessary to do so – it is no coincidence that this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, teaches us about resistance. We’ve heard the oft-repeated mantra “Never Again” for decades, but given that the world is still not a safe place for so many minorities, refugees, and others around the globe – including Jews as we watch antisemitism growing worse yet again – perhaps our guiding lessons from the Holocaust now needs to be about resistance.
In this week’s portion God has to help Moses gain the confidence to confront Pharaoh. Moses also has to confront his fellow Israelites and work to wake them out of the torpor their difficult circumstances have reduced them to: He has to elevate himself and them to regain the basic mental, physical, and spiritual ability necessary to resist their captors and captivity. God launches the plagues in this portion, but the message is also that the people need to resist, to work to make themselves free.
Gaining freedom – but also maintaining our freedom – is a perpetual act of resistance. People: Keep up the fight!
Rabbi Michael Schwartz