Opinions | Warsaw Ghetto Uprising reflected in modern communities

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On Passover eve, April 19, 1943, young Jewish men and women — many not even out of their teens — rose up against the Nazi army in Warsaw in the first civilian uprising against German occupation in Europe. When the Warsaw Ghetto residents took their stand, it was highly unlikely Nazi Germany would be defeated. The Jewish people stood on the very brink of destruction. And yet somehow, unfathomably, the Jewish partisans trusted that even if they died in battle, Hitler would someday be stopped in his quest to eradicate the Jewish people.

Jewish partisans also fought with pen and paper. They resolutely documented Nazi cruelty and the oppressive life in the ghetto, up to its final days. Knowing the power of their words, they strategically buried their ghetto evidence so that it might be uncovered and used in tribunals against the Nazis when the day came that the Third Reich was defeated.

Today, we see these Jewish heroes from the vantage point of a post-Holocaust reality, in which the Jewish people have survived and prospered, and the Jewish homeland, Israel, has thrived. But the heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not ancient history for me; it happened in my lifetime. I was fortunate to escape Poland as a young boy, just ahead of the invading Nazi armies.

Captured Jews being marched off to camps during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943 photo/wikipedia

I continue to marvel at the courage of those ghetto fighters — to hope that our communities follow their example. The Jewish renaissance in Poland today is exactly that, as we consciously strive to preserve and celebrate our people’s history and culture. Indeed, the presence today of most Jewish communities — nay, the sheer fact that these communities exist — can be viewed as a living testament to the ghetto fighters’ resolve and bravery.

When I first arrived as a 17-year-old at Stanford, there wasn’t much, if any, Jewish life on campus. From what was essentially a Jewish desert, we now see the bloom of Jewish scholarship and Jewish life at Stanford. Jewish scholars from around the world make regular pilgrimage to study at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and its magnificent 400,000-volume Jewish library. The celebration of Judaism, too, has become a lively part of university life — Hillel at Stanford is celebrating its 50th year with two outstanding facilities to offer Jewish students, Stanford faculty and their guests and families. Stanford Chabad is an important Jewish destination for Shabbat services. Stanford’s Department of Education boasts an endowed Jewish Education Scholar. In the local community, Jewish community centers are offering inclusive religious and educational programs, and San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum boasts world-class exhibits.

These organizations and their varied programs invite Jews of any background to experience home and belonging, and to serve as a bridge to our non-Jewish neighbors both within and beyond the Jewish community. Every Jewish communal story serves to contribute a piece of the future we’re now building. Jews are invariably called upon to have faith in the future, to create and preserve in the present; and yet if we don’t create and preserve and engage in a Jewish present, there cannot be a Jewish future.

There is perhaps no better time to discuss that engagement than during the Passover season, at the seder table — the communal act of remembrance of our people’s liberation and Exodus from Egypt. Just as the Exodus and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising acknowledge that no one can make these kinds of choices for us, if we choose to strive for Jewish consciousness and awareness, then our Jewish People will survive into the next millennium.

Tad Taube, a Bay Area business, philanthropic and community leader, is chairman of Taube Philanthropies, president emeritus of Koret Foundation and honorary consul for the Republic of Poland.