Six million Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust of World War II, wiping out a third of world Jewry. Before the war, Warsaw had a vibrant Jewish community, and a third of the city’s population was Jewish. The Nazis built the Warsaw ghetto in 1940, a year after occupying Poland, and began herding Jews into it.
The ghetto initially held some 380,000 Jews who were cramped into tight living spaces. At its peak, the ghetto housed about a half a million Jews, stated Havi Dreifuss, a researcher at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial who has studied the ghetto. Life in the ghetto included random raids, confiscations and abductions by Nazi soldiers. Disease and starvation were rampant, and bodies often appeared on the streets.
The 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising was the first large-scale rebellion against the Nazis in Europe and the single greatest act of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Though guaranteed to fail, it became a symbol of struggle against impossible conditions, illustrated a refusal to succumb to Nazi atrocities and inspired other acts of uprising and underground resistance by Jews and non-Jews alike.
The resistance movement began to grow after the deportation of July 22, 1942, when 265,000 men, women and children were rounded up and later killed at the Treblinka death camp. As word of the Nazi genocide spread, those who remained behind no longer believed German promises that they would be sent to forced labour camps. A small group of rebels began to spread calls for resistance, carrying out isolated acts of sabotage and attacks. Some Jews began defying German orders to report for deportation.
The Nazis entered the ghetto on April 19, 1943, the eve of the Passover holiday. Three days later, the Nazis set the ghetto ablaze, turning it into a fiery death trap, but the Jewish fighters kept up their struggle for nearly a month. The Jewish fighters who had fortified themselves in bunkers and hiding places managed to kill 16 Nazis and wound almost 100, states Dreifuss. They were ultimately brutally vanquished.
Mordechai Anielewicz, the resistance leader and others died inside the bunker on 18 Mila Street, which later became the title of a famous novel by Leon Uris that fictionalized the events. “It was a moral victory. No one believed the Jews would fight back,” stated Dreifuss. “It’s amazing that after three years of Nazi occupation, starvation and illness, these people found the strength to disobey the Nazi orders, stand up and fight back.” Anielewicz, who was in his early 20s, became a heroic figure in Israel, with a village and streets across the nation named in his honour.
Two days before her comrades embarked on an uprising that came to symbolize Jewish resistance against the Nazis in World War II, 14-year-old Aliza Mendel got her orders: Escape from the Warsaw Ghetto. The end was near. Nazi troops had encircled the ghetto, and the remaining Jewish rebels inside were prepared to die fighting. They had few weapons, and they felt there was no point in giving one of them to a teenage girl whose main task to that point had been distributing leaflets.
“They told me I was too young to fight,” states the survivor, now 84, who uses her married name, Aliza Vitis-Shomron. “They said, ‘You have to leave and tell the world how we died fighting the Nazis. That is your job now.’” Vitis-Shomron remembers Anielewicz well. She states he was a tall, charismatic leader of a younger generation who refused to submit quietly to the Nazis as their parents did.”His theory was, ‘don’t get used to what is happening. Don’t accept it.’” “The Nazis wanted to turn us into slaves, and he said that only free people could resist.” She’s been doing that ever since, publishing a memoir about life in the ghetto and lecturing about the revolt and its legendary leader, Mordechai Anielewicz.
The approach put Vitis-Shomron at odds with her parents, who objected to her activity in the youth movement. Often she would defy the Nazi curfew and only return home in the morning. She narrowly escaped S.S. officers in the streets as she posted underground leaflets calling on Jews to resist or escape.
She stated the hardest part for her was escaping before the uprising began, joining her mother and younger sister in their hideout on the Polish side of town outside the ghetto. She remembers watching the red skies above the burning ghetto, where her friends were waging war. “If it was up to me, I would have stayed behind and fought to the death with them. I had no fear,” she stated. “The uprising represented Jewish pride. It was us saying, ‘we will not die the way you want us to. We will die the way we want to, as free people.’”
Vitis-Shomron was later captured and sent the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with her mother and sister. They all survived and eventually made it to Israel. Her father was deported from the ghetto and killed in a Nazi death camp. While nearly all her friends perished, she survived the ghetto and the later period in the Nazi concentration camp. She made it to Israel, married and has three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
On April 7,2013, 70 years after the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Vitis-Shomron is set to speak on behalf of Holocaust survivors at the official ceremony marking Israel’s annual Holocaust memorial day. “It’s a day of deep sorrow for me, because I remember all my friends in the (resistance) movement who gave their lives,” states Vitis-Shomron. “But it was also a wonderful act of sacrifice by those who gave up their lives without even trying to save themselves. The goal was to show that we would not go down without a response.”
Today, Vitis-Shomron volunteers for Yad Vashem, collecting pages of testimony from fellow survivors that help build the museum’s depository of names of the victims. Despite her own past, she claims not to have experienced the psychological damage that plague other survivors. “I never saw myself as a victim. I was on the active side, the resisting side,” she stated. “It helped me cope.”
While the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, the date of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. Israel’s annual Holocaust memorial day coincides with the Hebrew date of the Warsaw ghetto uprising highlighting the role it plays in the country’s psyche. Even the day’s official name, “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day” alludes to the image of the Jewish warrior upon which the state was re-established.
The Warsaw ghetto battle contrasts with the image of Jews meekly marching to their deaths. Israel has wrestled with the competing images for decades. After re-establishing their state in 1948, three years after the end of the war, Israelis preferred to emphasize the heroic resistance fighters, though their numbers were relatively small. In recent years they have come around to recognizing the overwhelming tragedy of the murder of millions of Jews and the traumas of the survivors who still live along them.