Before Certain Defeat

April 24, 2010
By Daniel Listwa GOLD, East Brunswick, New Jersey
Daniel Listwa GOLD, East Brunswick, New Jersey
14 articles 3 photos 1 comment

Pulling himself up into the boxcar, Marek steeled himself. A hundred faces tried to turn, while bodies, wedged together, nervously squirmed. The stench hit him first–sweat, urine, feces, decay, death– then the silence. Only the rusted creeks of the train broke the quiet as the frightened mass waited for Marek to make his choice. Frozen by a moment of guilt, Marek felt for the bulge in his back pocket, reminding him why he was in the car. By order of the Sturmbannführer, the German Resettlement Officer, the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto were to be removed and taken by train to be resettled in a better place, but by then word of the truth had slipped.

They were headed toward death, heartless and cold, at the Treblinka extermination camp. To continued the illusion, the Nazis continued making a show of pulling the sick and disabled off the trains–only the healthy are worthy of being brought to the better camps. The papers in his back pocket told Marek what he was supposed to be doing, finding the sick, but he had different ideas. As he pushed through the crowd, the pleading eyes turned up to him. A mother grabbed his leg. She tried to hand him her baby, a small bundle wrapped in dirtied gray rags, pleading for him to take it. He kept trudging. one more person, that was all he was permitted to take. Finally, he reached Zosia, a young man, strongly built and quite healthy–a perfect choice for courier for the Jewish resistance.

A few months later, Marek would be pulling Zosia's body out of a building destroyed by the Nazis. Soon after Marek himself would be escaping through the sewer systems to a refuge with a few others who were to become the sole survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In the spring of 1943, a few hundred members of the Jewish Resistance attempted to fight back against the German forces. Armed with a motley collection of smuggled guns, a few hundred homemade incendiary bottles and many improvised explosives, they tried to stand up against a few thousand well trained Nazi soldiers with the resources of an entire army behind them. The odds were not in their favor and, according to Marek Edelson, the Commander of the resistance forces in the Ghetto, they were never fighting with the prospect of victory.

But then why did they fight? Why did they order their own death sentences and those of so many others? It was a question that kept haunting me as my teacher told the class that Dr. Edelson had just passed away at the age of 90. As my teacher described the uprising, the same thing kept floating in my head: more than 13,000 died during the fighting itself and the remaining 50,000 were sent off to the death camps soon after. And for what? The hundred or so Nazis who died?

A went home that day with this question still consuming my thoughts. I tried thinking of Marek, what he must have been thinking about that lead him to lead the revolt. I imagined how it must have felt to watch so many of his friends, family, and neighbors loaded and shipped off each day to their deaths, what he must have felt as the train blew its whistle and pulled out–right on time, like clockwork. I could feel his sense of anger, of resentment, of helplessness.

Uniformed men with pistols strapped to their hips controlled their every movement. The Jews of the ghetto eat, drank, worked, slept, and died by the words of German soldiers. They lived under the pressure of capricious men, who might shoot them in the street or send them all of for liquidation without a moment's notice. I began to sense just why those men and women were willing to sacrifice their lives. For too long, the Germans had controlled every aspect of their lives, had been the deciders of where and when they would die. In 1943, Marek did not help found the Jewish Combat Organization so that he heroically with his gun firing wildly at an undefeatable foe. No. It was a motive much more primal, more instinctive. It was defense: an effort to defend a shred of man's most basic right–his freedom. Stripped of all liberty by the oppression of the Nazi forces, the uprising was an attempt to protect their humanity.

In the book Shielding the Flame, which first appeared in English in 1986, by Hanna Krall, Edelman is quoted as saying that his intention was "to keep the flame flickering, even if only a little while longer..." Greatly outnumbered in both men and arms, Edelman and the resistance forces risked their lives in order to maintain their freedom to control their own lives as human beings, if only for a moment. In the process, they showed that the Nazi forces were not invincible, that they can bleed and die, just as the Jews they were murdering can. Even in this situation, completely devoid of all hope, resistance was possible. When this event is combined with the smaller revolts in the ghettoes of Bialystok, Tarnov , Bendin, Czenstovochow and Borislaw, and the other forms of mass resistance that took place in Sobibor and Treblinka, one cannot help but be moved by the spirit of these men and women. Their willingness to sacrifice it all in defense of humanity is infinitely inspiring.

If teenagers my age could stand before a row of machineguns with at best a small pistol in his hand, then surely I can stand up for injustices when I see them. The efforts of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising show that no excuse is permissible for not fighting in defense of humanity. Even in the face of certain defeat, one must try. It is a message that I have taken to heart. A fear that I have long harbored is that Jewish people of high school age are losing interest in their religion. I worry that many see it as burdensome and superfluous, rather than a way of drawing near God and gaining a confidence in the joys and loves of life that cannot otherwise be felt.

To fight the negative trend the I feel is prevalent, I undertook a number of efforts to instill and reinvigorated appreciation in Judaism and the a belief system, rituals, responsibilities, ethics, tradition, national identity, and culture it entails. To do so I have taken leadership roles in Jewish youth groups in my community and started a committee with my school. Although the idea of changing an entire culture seems daunting and maybe even impossible, the efforts of the Jewish resistance forces during the Warsaw Uprising inspire me to keep trying.

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