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25 Nissan 5765 - May 4, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
The Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion: Throwing Away One's Life for Three Lines in History

by Rabbi Nosson Zeev Grossman

The rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto is frequently pictured in Israeli society as the heroic effort of a small group of youths determined to commit suicide in order to "die with honor." The "heroism" of the ghetto rebels is contrasted to the "cowardliness" of the six million kedoshim, who are accused of having "gone like lambs to the slaughter," to what is called a "disgraceful and humiliating" death.

Once Al HaMishmar, the extreme leftist daily newspaper of Hashomer Hatzair (no longer publishing), published an interview with researcher and historian Dr. Dinah Porat, in which she explained just what was the motivating the ghetto rebels. "There was certainly an element of personal honor," she said. Dr. Porat quoted a section from the diary of a rebel, who wrote: "We are fighting so that our esteemed brothers in Eretz Yisroel will not say that Polish Jewry died like dogs." The writer expressed the motive driving the rebels in one short sentence: "We are fighting for three lines in history!"

These rebels were confronted by a mythos of "we will take our destiny in our own hands," created by the Zionist movement. They feared that they would not measure up to the expectations of the arrogant Israeli pioneers of their day. Considerations of life and death were not the only issues they weighed, but also considerations of vain pride and empty self-glorification. These appear to have been the deciding factor. The rebels desired "three lines in history," and for that they decided to sacrifice themselves, so as to sanctify the national myth.

Eventually a complete educational system and an extensive literature were built around such "heroism," which was in actuality no more than an act of despair without any hope of real conventional success. The rebels were acclaimed with honor and made into objects of respect and reverence, while parallel to them the six million holy martyrs were presented deridingly and degradingly.

Tom Segev recounts in his book The Seventh Million how the members of Kibbutz Lochamei HaGetta'ot (the Ghetto Fighters) insisted that this name and no other must be given to their kibbutz, and they rejected all other suggestions that a Governmental Committee presented to them.

According to Segev, the campaign to have the kibbutz called "Ghetto Fighters" accurately "portrayed the tendency of the veterans of the organized opposition to separate themselves from the rest of the Holocaust survivors, as if they belonged to an exclusive aristocratic order." Yet, he adds, despite all the noise-making and campaigning, many members of the kibbutz found it more than a little difficult to bear the burden of the myth they had created.

The poet Chaim Guri once told him, for example, that when he visited the kibbutz in its first years he would hear screams of nightmare terror bursting out at night from the windows of the shacks. In plain fact, less than half of the founders of the kibbutz were among those who rebelled against the Nazis. "Many of them were tormented with the fact that they had only been rescued from the horrors of the Holocaust, and were not among the fighters; the myth of heroism was a heavy burden upon them."


In the year 5663 (1903) on the Eighth Day of Pesach, forty years before the Holocaust, a pogrom took place in Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia. This cruel organized assault received hidden backing from the Czar's officials, and wrought havoc among Kishinev's Jewish community. Hundreds were killed and wounded, and thousands of families were left without shelter.

After the pogrom, the Center of Hebrew Enlightenment in Odessa (in the Russian Crimea) set up a "Historical Committee" to investigate the incident in Kishinev in the "enlightened" spirit. The committee appointed the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik to be their representative, to travel to Kishinev and to gather testimony and material for an anthology about the incident.

Bialik carried with him an official letter of authorization from the committee, in which the aims of the investigation were specified. A central paragraph said that the objective of Bialik's appointment was "to transcribe all incidents of self-defense, whether organized or spontaneous." This was the topic that most concerned the leaders of the Haskalah movement. They hoped that Bialik would publish an appeal to preserve "national pride," and harshly criticize those who went to their death like "lambs to the slaughter."

Bialik didn't disappoint them. The voluminous testimony that he compiled in bulky notebooks remained unpublished. Instead he wrote a poem called "The City of Slaughter," in which he sharply denounced those who were murdered, and claimed that they went to their death "like lambs to the slaughter" without defending themselves.

This poem was extensively used in the years that followed to spur Jewish youths throughout Europe and Eretz Yisroel to organize themselves in self-defense units, more for the sake of their "national pride" than to defend their own lives.

Bialik's poem is filled with scorn for the martyrs of Kishinev. His vulgar style of name-calling and derisiveness is of a sort that is difficult to find even in classic antisemitic literature. He wrote, for example, that his fellow-Jews "scampered away like rats, hid themselves like vermin, and died the death of dogs." He labeled the holy martyrs, who died in agonizing pain after undergoing excruciating tortures, as "eternally disgraced," and finally pronounced his verdict: "You died for nothing. Just as your life was meaningless, so too was your death."

The poem shocked the people of Kishinev. One of them recalls: "When we read the poem the first time we were astounded. Each word was like a fiery iron, branding us with bitter mockery, disgrace and condemnation, that seared the depths of our souls like a stream of boiling lead. All this the poet directed — not to our persecutors and those who attacked us - - but to the persecuted and the attacked; and this is a man who only a few weeks before had touched the dried blood and bashed brains of their fallen brothers staining the plastered walls!"

This Jew from Kishinev later attempts to justify Bialik somehow that he "surely had good intentions." Still, he does not hide the fact that this justification is based upon his blind adulation of a man whom he terms the "prophet of the nation," and he openly admits that "if a poet of less stature than Bialik had dared to hurl such harsh and bitter rebuke at the nation, they would have openly showed him their discontent, and would have considered him cruel and hard- hearted to thus rub salt on the people's wounds in the midst of their great tragedy!"

From various accounts that were published after the pogrom it seems that the truth was in fact just the opposite of what Bialik would have liked to think: there were those who tried to protect their lives by force of arms, and those who tried to fight back instead of fleeing, but in many cases their use of arms only hastened their death.

In a "Letter From Kishinev" that was published by the writer Mordechai Spektor (in Yiddishe Folks Tzeitung, Lemberg- 1903, vol. 19), the author writes that he recalls the pogroms that occurred in Podolia twenty years earlier. There the Jews did not defend themselves: "They silently suffered the blows that we received from the attackers; they kept quiet, and therefore were not killed or murdered, only wounded and robbed." However, in Bessarabia ten Jews were killed by the attackers: "Because the Jews of Bessarabia always felt themselves stronger and more robust than the `weak' Jews of Podolia, and they forcefully resisted giving up their small possessions to be stolen and destroyed. The men fought, and therefore many of them were killed."

Moshe Kireh, also an eyewitness of the pogrom in Kishinev, tells in his memoirs (Haolam 6.15.28) about the various attempts at opposition that were brutally suppressed. He sums up: "Once one knows what truly occurred, how is it possible for one to open his mouth and say that `it was a terrible disgrace for the Jews of Kishinev that they hid themselves in cellars,' when at the time anyone who lifted his hand in self- defense was immediately killed like a dog in the street? If they had, back then, obeyed the advice of these present-day advisors, there would not have been 42 murdered, but 1042 murdered in that city of murder.

"Those who demean the holy martyrs of Kishinev are sinning gravely, and they are also causing the public to sin. Who does not know that if Ben Zion Galanter had not shot at the murderers who came to rob him of his possessions and destroy his house, he would be alive today? As it was, he fired, and was immediately surrounded by the murderers, together with soldiers, who put an end to his life . . . And it is easy enough to quote many details like these, which were published in HaMeilitz in a series of articles (`Letters From Kishinev') during the entire summer after the pogrom in Kishinev."


It is reasonable to assume that Bialik, too, knew the truth: that self-defense in such circumstances would be nothing other than hopeless and senseless suicide.

Bialik gathered many accounts from those saved from the pogrom in Kishinev but refrained from publishing them. Many historical researchers have wondered in amazement why Bialik concealed such important information. Seventeen years ago a researcher supplied an astounding answer to these questions. Dr. Yaakov Goren, who spent several years editing the diaries of Kishinev survivors, explained in an interview to Yediot Achronot (14 Nisan, 5748) as follows: "It was apparently soon evident to Bialik that as far as the goal of national awakening — the declared aim of his mission — a poem would be more effective than a book . . . Bialik avoided publishing the report. In the poem he wrote as if there was no self- defense at all, yet the testimony he collected provided ample evidence of self-defense. Bialik reasoned that if he were to report this self-defense, people would discover that even self-defense does not help. . . ."

Dr. Goren was questioned by the interviewer if, as a historian, he agreed with this rewriting of history, and whether he agreed that an ad-hoc patriotic poem was more important than the historical truth? His answer, given at length and with great convolution, boiled down to Yes, "if there is no other choice and nothing else will do the trick. Bialik had a clear patriotic aim. He wanted people to be impressed about what happened in Kishinev. He feared that the historical truth would weaken the impression made by poetic truth."

It should be noted that the cynical use of the Kishinev pogrom to revive the national uprising of the Zionist Movement was carried out blatantly and openly. Chaim Shorrer, a member of the Hechalutz Center in Kishinev and editor of the Labor Movement organ Davar, wrote in the introduction to his book The Kishinev Pogrom:

"The `modest' pogrom in Kishinev does not have to be `ashamed' of its role in the twentieth-century martyrdom of the Jewish people. Its impression was unmistakable and it served as an important link in the chain. . . . It is well known that the Second Aliyah and the Labor settlement in Israel was greatly nourished, and sustained to a great extent, by the atmosphere of the days after the Kishinev pogrom. This is, in fact, a vital and obvious line stretching from that pogrom — via the sea of blood and fire of our generation — until the momentous feat of the great Jewish endeavor of our time . . . ."

Already then, slogans as "lambs to the slaughter" set against "we will take our destiny into our own hands" were being used to spur on the Zionist Movement's wagon. Already then they exhorted the people to acts of despair that would show plenty of empty heroism, even at the cost of life itself. The point that mattered was only that those who commit suicide would merit "three lines in history."


One can see a subtle thread tying Bialik's poem about the pogroms of 1903 to the national outlook towards the Holocaust martyrs some 40 years later. In both incidents an attempt was made to degrade the holy people who sacrificed their lives al kedushas Hashem. Salt was spread upon the wounds of the surviving remnant, the refugees from the slaughter, in order to develop hollow and shallow national values of "heroism" at the price of human life.

The Torah-observant writer R' Moshe Blau zt"l was the first who warned against the myth of the ghetto rebels' heroism. In a daring and penetrating article published in Kol Yisroel (8 Iyar, 5703) he appealed to the masses not to be swept away by the currents of the time and fearlessly to express the stand of Torah-true Jewry against the spirit of the Warsaw ghetto rebellion. (Also printed in The Collected Writings of R' Moshe Blau, (Hebrew) Mashabim Publications.)

"This rebellion was not planned by Torah-observant Jews, and it undoubtedly caused the observant — even without taking into consideration its results — much sorrow and soul- searching. Only despondent people were capable of rebelling in such conditions that offered no chance at all for success. It cannot be denied that conditions then in Poland were enough to make anyone despair, and that they offered a powerful motivation for youth to do deeds that could only bring their own lives to an early end.

"It is nevertheless clear that this was plain suicide! To reach such a decision of suicide was a thing that only the group in question was capable of doing. If these people decided to die a death of heroes just for the sake of dying the death of heroes, that is not a decision based upon our faith. This is so even if their decision did not endanger others.

"Still more so is it against our faith when such an act is liable to endanger others, whose lives — however short they are doomed to be — are dear to them; believing people who even in the most despairing circumstances would not leave off hoping for the salvation of Hashem, Whose ways are miraculous, and Whose salvation comes in the twinkling of an eye.

"Faithful Jews do not seek to end their lives prematurely — still less to end the lives of others — because of difficult circumstances. People in whom faith has disappeared from their heart are, however, capable of doing this. Those who judge each situation according to the laws of nature are capable of such suicide, and are not bothered by the fear that their suicide might bring harm to the lives of others."

In another article (29 Elul, 5704) R' Moshe Blau writes:

"I am positive that the people who championed the rebellion with all of their chimerical heroism did nothing but bring about their own premature death and that of hundreds and thousands of their brothers in the ghetto. It is certain that the rebellion had no logical basis; it was merely an outburst of despair and a lack of spiritual courage to bear life's suffering.

"Therefore it is clear that people believing in G-d, who live and die by His will, do not do deeds that are liable to hasten their death even by one moment. And without a doubt they do not do anything that will hasten the end of the life for tens of thousands of their brothers.

"People who believe in G-d and live only by His will are the true courageous ones, who listen to His voice and do His will, even if that voice speaks harshly to them. They do not despair of their lives, even though their lives become a series of suffering and unbearable tortures, for this is what the Supreme Providence has placed upon them. Heroism in such a condition is not to die a death of fantasy heroes — something that any child can do when in despair. The real heroism in such times is precisely to live the life of heroes within a sea of suffering. In this way we fulfill the heroic fate that the Supreme Providence has placed upon us.

"The highest spiritual bravery is to refuse to relinquish even one moment of life because of external pressure, and such bravery is a thing of which only G-d-fearing Jews are capable. Only Jews who know enough to value each moment of normal life, and even more, of a life covered with suffering and fated to test us, a moment of exalted, glorious life, are capable of such bravery. Such Jews were our brothers in the ghettos.

"Chazal tell us, `One who lowers the eyelids of a dying person is like one who sheds blood.' This is difficult for us to understand. For people like us it is difficult to appreciate the worth of one moment more in life to a person who is headed for a certain and imminent death. However, in the incident that we are referring to, not only do we realize the value of such life, but with a heart aching and bursting with pain we entertain the idea of how the situation developed to a terrible end, and how many Jews would have remained living to this day if not for the rebellion in the ghetto. If they were ten thousand — they are dear to us; if they were a thousand or a hundred — they are dear to us; and if only one person, Chazal have taught us: `Whoever saves one Jewish life is as if he has saved a complete world.' Therefore we can infer that anyone who causes one person's death is as if he caused a complete world to die."


In conclusion, R' Moshe Blau appeals to us to battle against the disgusting accusation of "lambs to the slaughter" by presenting the concept of true Jewish bravery to the public:

"Let the religious writers come and properly present the courageous souls of the ghettos and camps, those who sanctified and sanctify Hashem in their death while the vicious hand deprived them of life against their will. Nor should these writers skip over the spiritual bravery that some secular Jews also attained when the spark of love for Hashem suddenly blazed into a fire in their hearts during those great hours. One should not yearn for that chimerical bravery which, as we see it, does not stem from a Jewish source."


Ludicrous as it may sound, even today, over 100 years after the pogrom in Kishinev and 60 years after the rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Israel national education system has not yet succeeded in creating a mentality of "the proud Israeli," and the complaints about "going as lambs to the slaughter" are again loudly voiced.

One time over a decade ago, at the beginning of the first intifadah, the late Prime Minister Rabin expressed his disappointment with the behavior of the Israeli public in the murderous attacks of the Palestinian terrorists. Rabin was dumbfounded; how could a murderer stab and attack people without being stopped, without anyone preventing him from doing so? He even accused those murdered and the public who act too passively for his taste, and appealed to them to act like "a fighting people."

Rabin's remarks were greeted with scorn and mockery. Even someone who accepted the definition in the school books, that the martyrs "went like lambs to the slaughter," all the same had difficulty accepting the accusations that Rabin aimed at him.

Natan Brown wrote about this in Yediot Acharonot:

"Unexpectedly, like a sudden brainstorm, we became aware of who exactly is to blame for the wave of attacks and terrorist incidents that so furiously befell us. Not the terrorists, not the cutthroats, not the terrorist organizations, not even the leaders of the murderers; none of them is to blame. Whose fault is it, then? All of us, you and I and he: we are all to blame. Why? Because we do not properly meet up to the definition of `a fighting nation.'

"Without any previous warning they found someone to denounce. . . . [from] the explicit denunciations of the Prime Minister, more and more light is being thrown on the subject. Those who are responsible for leading the State and defending its citizens are looking for scapegoats.

"And what is the meaning of the Prime Minister's pronouncement that we have to be `a fighting people'? There is no explanation except this extremely simple and basic one: Listen, says Yitzhak Rabin; the situation is grave, and we are doing all that we can, but we are not exceedingly successful. Therefore, each person had better worry about himself. Start fighting, start defending yourselves. Be a fighting people, just as you were in the years of the thirties and the forties. Go twenty years back in history, and stop sitting around idly. Forward to the battle!

"With little effort one can understand how all these appeals to the public, demanding them to solve the difficult problems of internal security, stem from simple helplessness. The government is not succeeding in controlling the terror, to prevent bloody attacks in the heart of the Jewish settlement, to thwart dangerous and even fatal incidents — but suddenly they have succeeded in one thing, they have found the solution: The public should defend itself, they should blame themselves if they do not succeed, and they should not bother the government.

"But the matter is not so simple. First, it is far from certain that the people want to be a `fighting people.' [Emphasis ours — Y.N.] Look at what went on for so many years with guard service for the schools. Look at what is happening now with the National Guard. . . . the majority prefer to sit quietly at home or enjoy themselves quietly somewhere else — without having to be an eternally fighting people, without having to fear that suddenly they must help overpower an Arab terrorist who is killing their friends with a knife.

"The Prime Minister, however, wants us to . . . walk around armed and constantly ready for battle. He wants us, in short, to have our finger constantly on the trigger. Then, if G-d forbid someone stabs us or attacks us, it will always be possible to say: My good fellow, if you had been a little more of a fighting people, then somehow you would have gotten yourself out of this predicament; but since you're not a fighting people do not blame anyone else.

"I, at any rate, do not want to be part of a fighting people. . . . Now I am going to suffer doubly. I will not only be attacked and wounded, but also rebuked for my negligence and unwillingness to be a fighting people. How did we get involved in such a mess?"

Another writer, Meir Uziel of Ma'ariv, described a present-day Israeli life in which every citizen feels threatened. The State, which once pretended to grant security and peace of mind to the Jewish nation, now demands from its citizens that they close themselves behind gates, fortified walls, and well-protected buildings, as if they days of fear in the ghetto had returned.

Uziel writes:

"In my broadcast covering the latest attack in Jerusalem something was shown that really stirred up a commotion: the police found a kindergarten that had a gap in its fence, and not only that, but the kindergarten's door was left open.

"But that is exactly how it should be! A kindergarten's door should be open, and the kindergarten's fence should just be for show, only good enough to prevent the children from taking an unsupervised walk. It does not have to be a fortified wall. A fighting nation is not a nation that puts up electrified walls around every thirty small children sitting around their teacher to hear a story . . . .

"Really, who would have believed that in the State of Israel, which was intended to create a "new kind of Jew" — a proud, erect Jew — we would still be hearing the echoes of one of the central motives in the national ideology: vigorously blaming the killed and wounded that they went to their terrible death `as lambs to the slaughter'?"


This situation also came up during the course of the first Gulf War. Israel took no action, but hundreds of thousands of frightened citizens closed themselves up in sealed rooms, or decided to escape from the "danger area" in Israel's center. ("They flew away like rats" — as Bialik, their favorite poet, described it.)

Doron Rosenblum published an article in Ha'aretz, reminding the readers of many myths that have been debunked in the last years. Among these were the clumsy attempts of the government, during the first Gulf War, to distract the attention of the people from realizing that one of the principle "faiths" of the Zionist Movement was being shaken. "An example is the ritual of the gas masks and the sealed room during the Gulf War (and especially after the Comptroller's report), which were really only intended to distract the people from the main question: How can it be that after a hundred years of Zionist security we have no protection from a ballistic attack on civilian population areas; and how did Israel turn into the most vulnerable and threatened Jewish community in the entire world?"


But it is difficult to get the Zionist leadership to trouble itself with facts. At ceremonies marking the Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion, the government officials will emphasize the heroism of those who rebelled, and once again will overlook the fact that they really committed suicide for motives that were nothing but meaningless arrogance or momentary insanity. They will temporarily forget, once again, that the State of Israel has turned into "the most vulnerable and threatened Jewish community in the entire world," and that fifty years after the courage of the ghetto rebels, the Israeli Prime Minister accused his citizenry of going off to die "like lambs to the slaughter" and appealing to them to act like a "fighting people."

If, at the end, the ghetto rebels died for "three lines in history," how can we demand of those who organize the official ceremonies that even this prize should be taken from them?

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