A Matter of Dignity and Righteous Defiance

Coming out of the heart-gripping activities of Holocaust Remembrance Days, the world was greeted by news of the Boston terror bombings.  My head is reeling from the conjunction of these two events… and… there is much irony afoot as I contemplate the words of two individuals: the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the one surviving perpetrator of the Boston bombings. The internationally recognized date of Holocaust Remembrance Day comes from the Hebrew calender and corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on that calendar, which marks the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. [United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), Remembrance Day Calendar]

German soldiers direct artillery against a pocket of resistance during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Warsaw, Poland, April 19-May 16, 1943. — US Holocaust Memorial Museum

German soldiers direct artillery against a pocket of resistance during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Warsaw, Poland, April 19-May 16, 1943.
— US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Some background from the USHMM:

“Between July 22 and September 12, 1942, the German authorities deported or murdered around 300,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. SS and police units deported 265,000 Jews to the Treblinka killing center and 11,580 to forced-labor camps. The Germans and their auxiliaries murdered more than 10,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto during the deportation operations. The German authorities granted only 35,000 Jews permission to remain in the ghetto, while more than 20,000 Jews remained in the ghetto in hiding. For the at least 55,000-60,000 Jews remaining in the Warsaw ghetto, deportation seemed inevitable… In response to the deportations, on July 28, 1942, several Jewish underground organizations created an armed self-defense unit known as the Jewish Combat Organization(Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa; ZOB).”

A young man named Mordechai Anielewicz, born to a poor family in a poor neighborhood, joined the “Hashomer Hatzair” youth movement after he completed his high school studies.

Group portrait of members of the Hashomer Hatzair socialist Zionist youth movement. Pictured in the back row, left to right, are: Tzvi Braun, Shifra Sokolka and Mordechai Anielewicz. Seated in front are Moshe Domb and Rachel Zilberberg ("Sarenka"). Warsaw, Poland, 1938. — USHMM, courtesy of Leah Silverstein Hammerstein

Group portrait of members of the Hashomer Hatzair socialist Zionist youth movement. Pictured in the back row, left to right, are: Tzvi Braun, Shifra Sokolka and Mordechai Anielewicz. Seated in front are Moshe Domb and Rachel Zilberberg (“Sarenka”). Warsaw, Poland, 1938.
— USHMM, courtesy of Leah Silverstein Hammerstein

“Mordechai Anielewicz was born in Wyszkow near Warsaw in 1919, and grew up in a working class Jewish family. After finishing secondary education he joined the Zionist movement Ha-Shomer ha- Tsa’ir where he distinguished himself as an organiser and leader… By mid-1941, Anielewicz began concentrating on transforming the underground youth movements into an armed resistance movement and he also began creating self-defence organisations within the Warsaw ghetto.” [Holocaust Research Project, Mordechai Anielewicz)

As the Holocaust Research Project also notes, Mordechai Anielewicz gave his life in defense of his people, fighting armed combatants under orders to murder thousands [more] innocent Jewish people by way of deportation to Treblinka concentration camp.

“Whether Stroop’s men killed Mordechai Anielewicz, or he took his own life that will probably never be known, at the site of the former bunker on 18 Mila Street there is a monument to the brave ghetto fighters who resisted the Nazis and perished in the struggle.”

The first days of battles Anielewicz commanded the resistance forces. When the street fight ended he moved to the headquarters shelter to Mila 18 street. It is the general consensus of most that on May 8, Anielewicz was killed in the headquarters bunker together with a few colleagues.

As a lasting memorial to this young man and to the brave ghetto fighters who fought against the Nazi oppressors against all odds, here is the last letter of Mordechai Anielewicz, a model of dignity and righteous defiance in the face of evil:

mordechaianielewicz.yadvashem

Mordecai Anielewicz, Commander of the Warsaw Ghetto fighting forces,
Yad Vashem Photograph Archive

 “It is impossible to put into words what we have been through. One thing is clear, what happened exceeded our boldest dreams. The Germans ran twice from the ghetto. One of our companies held out for 40 minutes and another for more than 6 hours. The mine set in the “brushmakers” area exploded. Several of our companies attacked the dispersing Germans. Our losses in manpower are minimal. That is also an achievement. Y. [Yechiel] fell. He fell a hero, at the machine-gun. I feel that great things are happening and what we dared do is of great, enormous importance.

Beginning from today we shall shift over to the partisan tactic. Three battle companies will move out tonight, with two tasks: reconnaissance and obtaining arms. Do you remember, short-range weapons are of no use to us. We use such weapons only rarely. What we need urgently: grenades, rifles, machine-guns and explosives.

 It is impossible to describe the conditions under which the Jews of the ghetto are now living. Only a few will be able to hold out. The remainder will die sooner or later. Their fate is decided. In almost all the hiding places in which thousands are concealing themselves it is not possible to light a candle for lack of air.

 With the aid of our transmitter we heard the marvelous report on our fighting by the “Shavit” radio station. The fact that we are remembered beyond the ghetto walls encourages us in our struggle. Peace go with you, my friend! Perhaps we may still meet again! The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.[1]

M. Anielewicz

Ghetto, April 23, 1943

* Written to Yitzhak Cukierman

May his memory and the memory of all who were lost be blessed.
Next: a look at the “last words” of “Suspect #2,” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for the purpose of comparison.

[1] [M. Kann], Na oczach swiata (“In the Eyes of the World”), Zamosc, 1932 [i.e., Warsaw, 1943], pp. 33-34; Yad Vashem, Documents of the Holocaust, “The Last Letter From Mordecai Anielewicz, Warsaw Ghetto Revolt Commander,” http://www.yadvashem.org/about_holocaust/documents/part2/doc145.html

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5 comments on “A Matter of Dignity and Righteous Defiance

  1. […] the previous post, “A Matter of Dignity and Righteous Defiance,” I provided some personal historical […]

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  2. Wow, thanks for posting this story Dan. he was so young, handsome, and courageous. It’s so striking to me how even mere hours and minutes of successful resistance against that evil was so meaningful to him. Heartbreaking. What dignity, to be sure.

    Btw, have you seen (I’m sure you have) the PBS documentary about Verdi’s Requiem at Terezin called “Defiant Requiem”?

    Very moving and beautiful.

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/december-10-2010/defiant-requiem-verdi-at-terezin/7628/

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    • Dan Hennessy says:

      Hi Ruth… good to hear from you! I showed a mini-documentary of the story of Murray Sindlin in my “Night” classes… but most precious of all, I had the honor of meeting Raphael Schaecter’s roommate, Edgar Krasa, in Boston last June, and heard the entire story first-hand! What a gentle and kind, intelligent and humble, well-spoken man! I have a picture of he and I that I’ll have to post some time. Thanks for the head’s up! I look forward to seeing the final product after “promoting” long before its release! And thanks for the link… I’m dying to see this powerful story brought to life! Even better, to see it performed one day live!

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  3. […] A Matter of Dignity and Righteous Defiance […]

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