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THE MEANINGS AND LESSONS OF THE WARSAW GHETTO
Rabbi Daniel Landes

Together with Auschwitz, the Warsaw Ghetto is the great symbol of the Holocaust. To under stand the significance of the revolt, one must first understand the significance of Warsaw and its Ghetto in Jewish history. In truth, the Warsaw Ghetto evokes a cluster of meanings, each of which has its individual significance. Collectively, they point to the singular importance of the Revolt. I shall briefly sketch out these meanings and then extract the lessons that suffuse present day Jewish theology and consciousness.

WARSAW, MORE THAN ANY OTHER PLACE, WAS A MICROCOSM OF EUROPEAN JEWISH EXISTENCE. The piety and learning of Eastern European Jewry confronted cosmopolitan Western culture. Great Yiddish poets, including Itshak Katzenelson, and writers, such as Chaim Grade and Isaac Bashevis Singer, flocked to Warsaw to work as journalists as they perfected their art. Warsaw spawned ideologists of secular Zionism and the Socialist Bund, while the Orthodox groups included the Religious Zionist Mizrachi and the militant Agudas Yisroel. in Warsaw, Talmudic learning flourished as scholars including Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik educated large numbers of students and followers. Rabbi Menahern Zemba, a model of piety and fervor, elevated Hasidic and legal scholarship to new heights. Historians such as Meir Balaban and Yitzhak (Ignacy) Schiper produced pioneering studies of Polish Jewry's long history. in short, every dimension of Jewish learning, life, and art found vivid expression in Warsaw. Jews achieved prominence in the full gamut of European social, civic and cultural activities. With the destruction of Warsaw Jewry, the true life of European Jewry ended.

WARSAW REPRESENTS THE NECESSARY CONCLUSION OF MODERN ANTISEMITISM AND ITS THEOLOGICAL ROOTS. Aspects of Jewish progress were met with unease in many gen teel quarters and with renewed hatred in ethnic and religious strongholds. The systematic impoverishment of the Jewish population by the Poles prior to the German invasion laid the perfect groundwork for the Nazi establishment of the Ghetto.

THE WARSAW GHETTO EVIDENCES EUROPE'S BETRAYAL OF THE JEWS. Jews represent ed 30% of Warsaw's population, contributing to society, fighting in its wars of freedom, and singing its patriotic songs. Christian neighbors, friends, professional and business associates turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the enormous Ghetto constructed in the middle of their city. They rode in darkened electric trains through the Ghetto to travel from one side to the other. Even the Polish Resistance, totally committed to fighting the Germans, refused to aid the Revolt, sending only a few arms. The Allies did nothing. In Warsaw, Jews knew that they were truly alone.

THE GHETTO WAS THE WORST JEWISH EXPERIENCE OF SUFFERING PRIOR TO THE DEATH CAMPS. Indeed, the black hell of the camps sometimes blots out for us the dark night of the ghettos. As the largest ghetto, Warsaw is paradigmatic. Consider a vast community of people subjected to systematic starvation, plagues and deportations. Children saw their parents powerless to save them from pain and death. Families watched as members succumbed or disappeared. Friends turned upon each other in the struggle for survival as ethical and religious structures crumbled. Perhaps worst of all, in the name of communal good and in a desperate attempt at survival, the leaders of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) actually aided in the destruction of their own people.

THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WARSAW GHETTO BY GERMAN TROOPS BEST ILLUSTRATES THE FEROCIOUS TRUTH OF THE HOLOCAUST BEING A "WAR AGAINST THE JEWS." The gathered forces, well equipped with tanks and ample reinforcements, fought against handmade bombs and inadequate light weapons borne in part by women, children and the elderly. The Nazis waged a peculiar war with no ethics of battle and where all prisoners were carted off for death.

Two incredible victories stand out in this complex of tragedies and pain:

THE WARSAW GHETTO EXPRESSES UTTERLY THE TRIUMPH OF THE JEWISH SPIRIT, IN HOLDING ON TO BELIEF AND IN REACHING OUT TO ONE'S FELLOW SUFFERERS. In the Ghetto, Jews continued their traditions of artistic creation, study of sacred texts, and celebration of ritual. Traditional Jews refused to let their belief in God die. Jews of all types organized a network of self-help organizations. Rabbis refused to save their own lives by fleeing their flocks; school teachers stayed by their students; an internationally respected fig ure in European thought walked with his charges from their orphanage to deportation and death; and bereft children fed each other-all in the shadow of terror.

THE WARSAW GHETTO REVOLT MARKS THE MODERN END OF QUIET DIPLOMACY, COOPERATION WITH AUTHORITY, FLIGHT AND PASSIVITY AS THE MAJOR INSTRU MENTS OF JEWISH SURVIVAL. THE REVOLT WAS A BLOW AGAINST OTHERS-PERSECU TORS AND BYSTANDERS-DECIDING JEWISH FATE. Jews decided upon their own fate, dying al Kiddush Hashem (literally, the sanctification of the Divine Name: the Jewish concept of martyrdom) through armed struggle. It is precisely because Jews knew that they could not militarily defeat the Germans, that this event must be understood as brought about not by desperation but by a decision for self-definition, autonomy, and for Jewish political selfhood.

Auschwitz was the end of European Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was the end of European Jewish Life. Out of these tragedies and embedded in the soul, heart and mind of the Jewish people are several important lessons. It starts with the recognition that antisemitism, if unchecked, leads to severe oppression and possibly mass destruction. Jews, then, are faced with a paradox. They stand alone, relying ultimately on each other. Yet, Jews must attempt never to stand alone. The Jewish people are compelled to seek out allies to create coalition partners and to establish real guarantees of mutual aid and support. For Jews know that to be isolated is to be unbearably vulnerable.


The Ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto after the 1944 revolt.
Source: SWC Archives #88-287
In pursuing these relationships, Jews must never, for any reason, cooperate with any system that either harms them or tolerates any arrangement which is indifferent to their survival. Jews must strike hard bargains with the world while maintaining their moral integrity. Today, Jewish survival is a supreme moral act of political self- definition. Jews refuse to define them selves as victims, but rather as Jews who wish to live a self-determined life imbued with the rich, humanistic vision and spiritual ideas of Judaism. After Warsaw and Auschwitz, this determination and definition shows that hope itself still lives.

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