From Warsaw to the West Bank
by Sherri Muzher
March 12, 2002
Women throw hand grenades. Children fight like soldiers. Occupying soldiers prevent food and medicine from the civilian population. Buildings and homes are destroyed. Arms are smuggled. A relatively unarmed civilian population fights one of the most powerful armies in the world.
Welcome to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April, 1943. Under the leadership of Mordecai Anielewicz, Warsaw Ghetto Jews staged the first urban uprising in Occupied Europe. Jewish fighters held out against heavy German attack for 27 days. Their arsenal consisted of nine rifles, 59 pistols, and several hundred grenades, explosives, and mines.
Clearly, Jews faced overwhelmingly superior forces. Consider the results of the Nazi’s military victory: Of the Jews captured, 7,000 were shot, 7,000 were transported to the death camp of Treblinka, and 15,000 were shipped to Lublin. Among the Nazis and their collaborators, the losses were 16 dead and 85 wounded.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was truly a turning point in Jewish and European history. The significance and symbolism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising represented more than just who beat who or how many casualties were inflicted on either side. Anielewicz wrote to his colleague, Yitzhak Zuckerman, “…what really matters is that the dream of my life has become true. Jewish self-defense in the Warsaw ghetto has become a fact. Jewish armed resistance and retaliation have become a reality. I have been witness to the magnificent heroic struggle of the Jewish fighters.”
For Anielewicz and other Jews, the Uprising represented fighting for honor. The Jews knew the awful fate that the Nazis had in store for them. And they knew they would lose militarily. But a conflict is not just won on military might, as the Jews in Warsaw proved.
On April 19, 1993, the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave a speech before the Central Memorial Assembly in Warsaw on the 50th Anniversary of the Uprising. “They fought from the rooftops of houses and from the sewers, the cellars and courtyards, behind collapsing walls and rooms engulfed in flames. They had no chance, yet they were victorious. In human history, the rebels of the ghetto will be remembered as those who kept alive the embers of honor. Their honor was the last asset of one thousand years of Polish Jewry, which were consumed by fire but their honor did not perish.”
Fast forward nine years. Women pull pins on hand grenades. Children fight like soldiers. Occupying soldiers prevent food and medicine from the civilian population. Buildings and homes are destroyed. Arms to resist an army are allegedly smuggled. A relatively unarmed civilian population fights one of the most powerful armies in the world.
Welcome to the West Bank, where one Palestinian recently resorted to using a single shot Carbine rifle from WWII to attack soldiers. Yes, the arms can be that elementary. More than 1,100 Palestinians have been killed in this Uprising and nearly 20,000 injured. The numbers increase each day. The comparisons may be disturbing to some but realities are realities. And when a human being’s honor is the only thing he or she has left to lose, it is very likely that many Palestinians will share Mordecai Anielewicz’s dream, as well as the late Yitzhak Rabin’s pride.
Scenes of lining up blind-folded Palestinian prisoners with identification numbers on their bodies should rile the majority of the Israeli population, besides Peace Now members. Unfortunately, fellow right-wing comrades of the Sharon government are pressing for even more force in achieving a crushing victory over the Palestinians. It seems they have forgotten their own history and Jewish heroes, like Mordecai Anielewicz.
But Israelis say they are fighting a war against “terror.” Clever, given our sensitivity to terrorism since 9-11. But others see it differently. From Secretary of State Colin Powell to normally silent nations in the European Union, questions are being raised at the motives of the Israeli government policy of destroying refugee shanties and killing civilians. Even the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano argued, “[A]t first it seemed designed to humiliate a people, now it appears designed to destroy them.”
Certainly, everyday Palestinians themselves will tell you that. A friend from the West Bank town of Beit Jala put it in the simplest terms as to why Palestinians remain strong in the face of such adversity. “Everyone expects to die . . .”
True, the awful gas chambers are missing. But the techniques of resistance and motivation in both uprisings are similar: fighting against a powerful force to keep the embers of honor alive.
Sherri Muzher is a Palestinian-American lawyer, writer and activist based in Michigan