Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Memorial Day

The month of Nisan, the month of the holiday of freedom, is when Jews fought for their liberty and lives throughout history. The story of four periods of tenacity and courage.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Warsaw Ghetto Uprising statue at Yad Vashem
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising statue at Yad Vashem

Part 1

The 10th of Nissan, 2448 (1312 B.C.E.). For generations, the Jews have been enslaved 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! (Following Exodus 12:1-10; and Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Parashat ha-Chodesh s.v. דברו and Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 191).

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” (Exodus 14:8).

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” (Exodus 12:42).

This is the night which is fore-ordained for Israel to fight mightily against its future oppressors (see 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).

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 (Berachot 9b and Rashi ad loc.; Pesachim 119a; Rashi to Genesis 45:18).

Part 2

Almost a millennium later: the 13th of Nissan 3404 (356 B.C.E.). The Land of 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” (Esther 3:12-13). 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” (Esther 9:1).

Part 3

Almost half-a-millennium later: The 18th of Nissan 3808 (48 C.E.), the fourth day of Pesach, and the Land of Israel is under Roman occupation.

The Romans abolished the last vestige of the Jewish monarchy when King Agrippas died four years earlier, and now the Land of Israel is ruled by Roman procurators. The third of these is Ventidius Cumanus, who is in his first year of rule.

He has decreed that Roman soldiers are to be stationed in and around the Holy Temple in Jerusalem whenever more than 6 Jews gather there (which in practice means almost constantly). And this day, a Roman soldier (whose name has been forever lost to history) decides to have a little sport.

As the Jews are worshipping Hashem, bringing the Festival Sacrifices, he turns his back on them, lifts his tunic, and “moons” them, making the sort of noises through his lips that most of us grew out of by the time we were ten.

The Jews are outraged at this desecration of our most holy Shrine, and spontaneously attack the Roman garrison. This swiftly escalates into a country-wide uprising, the first-ever major Jewish revolt against Roman occupation – indescribably brave, but ultimately hopeless.

Josephus Flavius (Antiquities of the Jews, XX:5:3 and Wars of the Jews, II:12:3-7) estimates 20,000 Jews killed in the initial melee, while Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, Book 20 chapter 5) puts their number at 30,000.

This is the first in a long, long line of Jewish uprisings, mini-revolts, major revolts, and revolutions against Rome: it will take the Roman Empire a century to finally defeat the Jews in their ancestral homeland. (And even then, Jewish life will continue under increasingly oppressive Roman occupation.)

No one will ever know just how many Jews died fighting for freedom in the Land of Israel against Roman oppression.

But this century of desperate, tenacious fight for freedom – the most determined that the Roman Empire would even experience – began during Pesach, the Festival of our Freedom.


Part 4

Almost twenty centuries later: a bright sunlit Spring morning, the day before Pesach, the 14th of Nissan 5703 (19th 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 Führer’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 official 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 parachuted materiel to 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 (petrol bombs) 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 (Report of Jürgen Stroop y”sh, SS and Police leader in the Warsaw District, commander of the operation of liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto).

With their heavy machine-guns, tanks, aircraft, artillery, and other machines of modern warfare, they were confident that the operation would be over by that evening.

In fact, it would be almost a month before the commander of the operation, SS Bigadeführer (Major General) and Generalmajor der Polizei (Major General of the Police) Jürgen Stroop y”sh could report on Sunday, the 11th of Iyyar (16th May): “The Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no more! The grand operation terminated at 2015 hours when the Warsaw synagogue was blown up” (Stroop Report ibid.).

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 (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).

(A brief postscript for the record: Stroop y”sh was executed in Warsaw’s Central Prison on 9th Adar 5712/6th March 1952.)

In 5711 (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 5719 (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-Częstochowa, 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 August) 1943, the Jews of Treblinka death camp revolted. On the first day of Succot, 14th 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.

And three years after the Nazis y”sh were defeated, Israel once again became independent in its ancestral homeland, two weeks precisely after the last day of Pesach.

Immediately, the seven Arab states which were independent at the time (Trans-Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) attacked the fledgling state, their stated war-aim being to exterminate it and all the Jews therein.

They failed, and they made other attempts during the decades that followed – but that is another story for next week, when we will commemorate the Jews murdered in Arab terrorist attacks and who fell as soldiers in the battlefields, and the day after that we will celebrate 72 years of independence in our ancestral homeland.

But today, in independent Israel, we memorialize the Holocaust, on the day of the fiercest battle of the most determined civilian resistance that the Nazi regime even encountered.