Jews move along a crowded street in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942. (Photo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Jews move along a crowded street in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942. (Photo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

After 80 years, Warsaw Ghetto heroism burns even brighter

When my family fled Poland on the eve of the German invasion in 1939, I passed quickly from living on the verge of disaster to a life of security that would lead to success and fulfillment.

As a boy growing up in the United States, I began to understand how fortunate I had been in my hair’s-breadth escape from likely imprisonment in a Nazi ghetto and then transportation to Treblinka or another death camp.

I marveled at the bravery of the men and women of the Warsaw Ghetto who rose up against their oppressors on April 19, 1943, despite knowing that they had little chance of breaking the Nazi hold.

Eighty years ago, on the eve of Passover, hundreds of men and women in the clandestine Jewish Fighting Organization and the Jewish Military Union in Warsaw began the first major civil uprising in German-occupied Europe and the first major action of Jewish resistance against the Nazis.

We who survived the Nazi genocide, as well as our families, friends and colleagues, affirm our belief that Jews are an essential part of history, in Europe and elsewhere, and will resist any attempt at suppression.

Indeed, the presence today of most Jewish communities is a living testament to the ghetto fighters’ resolve and bravery. There is no better time to discuss that resolve than this week as we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We pay homage to the memory of the ghetto’s heroes, whose acts live in the hearts of Jews everywhere.

On the brink of destruction, these Jews decided that if they had to die, they would do so on their own terms. As the proclamation announcing their intention to take up arms acknowledged, “All of us will probably perish in the fight, but we will never surrender!”

All of us will probably perish in the fight, but we will never surrender!

The uprising took the Nazis by surprise and forced them to import special units to put down the insurgency. Poorly armed Jewish fighters, shooting from apartment blocks and making surprise sorties from basements and other hiding places, kept the German command off balance and forced a slow and bloody campaign of house-to-house combat.

The heroes of the uprising were fighting for all Jews, even those like me who had experienced the miracle of transport to a safer land. “It is a fight for your freedom as well as for ours: for your human dignity as well as for ours!” the Jewish fighters’ opening proclamation declared.

It was a fight that other ghetto residents joined with pen and paper. Knowing the power of the image and the written word to shape history’s verdict, Warsaw’s Jews had been documenting Nazi cruelty by quietly collecting official and personal documents, letters, photos and other materials with the intention of burying them for retrieval once the Nazis regime collapsed. These materials, when recovered after the war, became precious evidence of the terrible ghetto years.

After nearly a month of bloody combat, the Nazi forces ended the revolt, having killed most of the fighters. A few of the survivors escaped to fight again, but the rest, true to their words, did not surrender. They died on their own terms.

The heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto’s residents profoundly changed subsequent Jewish thinking about the survival strategy that had dominated Jewish life since the destruction of the Second Temple almost 2,000 years earlier. The uprising offered an alternative to the traditional response of accommodating oppression with concessions and deference. As one of the uprising’s leaders declared in the insurgency’s final days, “Jewish retaliation and resistance has become a fact. I have been witness to the heroic battle of the Jewish fighters.”

The heroism of the ghetto fighters is admired not only by Jews, who honor the memory of their brave compatriots in a time of great suffering, but by the broader world. Most recently and notably, the U.S. Congress announced its plan to establish the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Congressional Gold Medal to honor uprising participants.

Contrary to the hope of the Nazis to eradicate the Jewish people, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has become a rallying point for the efforts to preserve and cherish its remarkable history.

Tad Taube
Tad Taube

Tad Taube is chairman of Taube Philanthropies and honorary consul of the Republic of Poland in San Francisco.