Judaism: A Line Stretches From Egypt to Warsaw
in Egyptian exile, conditioned to accept the Egyptians as their immutable masters, they suffer slavery, humiliation, torture, the murder of their sons, in mute despair. And now, after centuries of this conditioning, Moshe arose and commanded them: Take a lamb – the god of your Egyptian masters; tie it to your bed-post for four days; at the end of that time, slaughter it in public; roast it whole, ensuring that the Egyptians will see it and smell it and identify it! Defy Egypt, the mightiest power in the world! (1)
Four days later, the 14th of Nissan, 2448. The Jews, smashing the conditioning of centuries, indeed slaughtered the lambs, the god of the Egyptians, in public. The next day, the 15th of Nissan, they leave Egypt with a high hand. (2)
It was “a night when Hashem Himself guarded them, bringing them out from the land of Egypt; and that same night Hashem Himself will guard all the Children of Israel throughout their generations”. This is the night which is fore-ordained for Israel to fight mightily against its future oppressors. (3)
This nation of slaves left the world’s undisputed superpower ravaged and depleted and defeated, like a fish-pond without fish, like a bird-trap without grain – useless without its bait.(4)
2: Eclipse of a nation
Almost a millennium later: the 13th of Nissan 3404 (356 B.C.E.). Israel lies desolate under Persian occupation. In the Persian capital, Shushan, the second most powerful man in the world, Haman, sends out directives throughout the mighty Persian Empire “to exterminate, to kill, and to destroy all the Jews, from youngest to oldest, in a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, and to plunder all their possessions”. (5) The situation for the Jews looks hopeless: the mightiest empire in the world has calmly and legally decided to exterminate them – and how can a defeated nation, scattered in exile, with no unified leadership and no army, even hope to resist?
The next day, the 14th of Nissan, Queen Esther – who until now had hidden her Jewish identity even from her own husband – begins her scheme to save her fellow- Jews. That night was the night of the 15th of Nissan – the night when Hashem Himself stood guard over all the Children of Israel. Three days later, on the 17th of Nissan, Haman was hanged; and eleven months later, on the day that Haman had schemed to exterminate all the Jews, “everything was overturned, that the Jews overpowered their enemies” (6).
3: Forging the nation’s destiny
Almost twenty-three centuries later: a bright sunlit morning of Erev Pesach, the 14th of Nissan 5703, 19th of April 1943. At 3:00 in the morning, Nazi forces had surrounded and sealed the Warsaw Ghetto, preparing to annihilate the Ghetto and all the Jews in it – almost half a million in all – in time for the Fuehrer’s birthday the following day, 20th of April.
To the Jews trapped there, the situation was hopeless: they were untrained in warfare, and the Armia Krajowa, the Home Army (the Polish resistance) refused to aid the Jews or even to recognise them as part of the Underground. Consequently, the Allies (primarily Britain) refused to supply the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto with weapons or ammunition (as they armed other underground resistance and partisan forces across occupied Europe).
Months and years of Nazi brutality have left the vast majority of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Jews desperately weakened, often without even the physical strength to stand, let alone fight: the official food ration allowed was 300 calories per person per day – perhaps one-seventh of what an adult needs to survive.
Yet in spite of all, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto managed to cobble together a ragtag army of sorts – without uniforms, almost without weapons. They mustered some 750 fighters and another 750 non-combatants; the fighters were armed with 1 revolver, 5 grenades, and 5 Molotov cocktails each. Additionally, there were 3 rifles in each area, as well as 2 mines and 1 machine pistol in the whole Ghetto.
Attacking them was a force of well over 2,000 Nazi soldiers – highly trained, heavily armed. These included over 850 officers and men of the Waffen-SS – one of the most elite military forces in the history of warfare.
The attack on the Warsaw Ghetto began at 6:00 on the morning of 19th of April, with a force of 16 officers and 850 men of the Waffen-SS (7). With their heavy machine-guns, tanks, aircraft, artillery, and other machines of modern warfare, they expected the operation to be over in a day or two.
In fact, it would be almost a month before the commander of the operation, SS Bigadefuehrer (Major General) and Generalmajor der Polizei (Major General of the Police) Juergen Stroop y”sh could report on the 16th of May, “The Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no more! The grand operation terminated at 2015 hours when the Warsaw synagogue was blown up” (8).
Stroop’s report concludes with an almost pathetic account of the arms captured from the Jews: 9 rifles, 59 pistols, several hundred Polish and home-made hand grenades, a few hundred incendiary bottles (petrol bombs or Molotov cocktails), home-made explosives, and ammunition.
Yet with these few weapons, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto held the Nazis off for as long as Poland had done in September 1939, longer than Greece (which was reinforced with British Commonwealth forces).
On April 12, 1951, the Knesset proclaimed the 27th of Nisan as “Yom ha-Shoah U’Mered HaGeta’ot” (Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Memorial Day). This was enshrined in law in 1959, when it was officially called “Yom haZikaron le-Shoah ve-liG’vurah” (Memorial Day for the Holocaust and Heroism). The 27th of Nisan has twin significance: first, it is a week before the Memorial Day for fallen Israeli soldiers, which is itself the day before Israel Independence Day. But more than this: from the start, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was to be the focus of memorializing the Holocaust; and 27th of Nisan was the date of one of the fiercest battles of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – the battle of 2nd of May, commanded by Marek Edelman, the commander of the bunker at Franciszkanska 30.
(A week later, when Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the Jewish Combat Organisation, died, Edelman became commander in his place. Edelman survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and participated in the Polish resistance Home Army-led city-wide Warsaw Uprising against Nazi occupation in spring 1944. He remained in Warsaw after the Second World War, became a cardiologist there, and later politically resisted the Soviet-backed Communist regime. He died on 2nd October 2009, the last survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. By a curious twist of history, the revolt that Edelman led began the day before Passover, and the day he died was the day before Succot.)
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was fought so tenaciously, so bravely, that it inspired Jews (and others) throughout the Reich to take up arms against the seemingly invincible Nazi war machine. Over the next year, the Nazis faced uprisings in the Jewish ghettos of Brody, Lvov, Vilna, Kletzk, Cracow, Tarnow Czehstochowa, Bendin, Bialystok…the list went on.
And these inspired even Jews already in extermination camps with the determination to fight. On Rosh Chodesh Av (2nd of August) 1943, the Jews of Treblinka death camp revolted. On the first day of Succot, 14th of October 1943, it was the turn of Sobibor. The flame of rebellion was spreading: on 19th May 1944 the Jews of Ponary death camp fought, on 7th October the Jews of Auschwitz rebelled.
All these uprisings were arguably inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – the Jewish fight against impossible odds which began the same day that, 3,255 years earlier, the Jews of Egypt had shaken off their fear of their erstwhile slave-masters – the day that was ordained all those millennia ago as the day when Hashem Himself would infuse them with the courage to fight mightily against their oppressors.
This is the day on which, in independent Israel, we remember the Holocaust.
(1) Exodus 12:1-10; Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Parashat ha-Chodesh s.v. dabru; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 191
(2) Exodus 14:8.
(3) Exodus 12:42, and Targum Yonatan, Targum Yerushalmi, Ba’al ha-Turim, and S’forno ad. loc.; Rosh ha-Shanah 11a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 12:42; Tanhuma, Bo 9; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 210; Aruch ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim, Laws of Passover 480:1.
(4) Berachot 9b and Rashi ad. loc.; Pesachim 119a; Rashi to Genesis 45:18.
(5) Esther 3:12-13.
(6) Esther 9:1.
(7) Report of Juergen Stroop y”sh, SS and Police leader in the Warsaw District, commander of the operation of liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto.
(8) ibid. Stroop was executed in Warsaw’s Central Prison on 6th March 1952.