On April 19, 1943, a photograph was taken of Jewish men, women and children, surrounded by German soldiers, hands aloft to confirm their surrender. They had literally been smoked out of their hiding holes by a German army that had been humiliated by a small, determined band of Jewish fighters resisting the deportation to death camps of any remaining Warsaw ghetto inhabitants.
The image has become iconic; representing – to the extent that it is even possible to do so – the unspeakable Jew-hatred that was the core ideology of the Third Reich.
Leading the ghetto fighters – who understood that they were certain to die – was 23-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz, a young Zionist firebrand who refused to surrender to the Nazi death machine. His heroic leadership and efforts allowed him to die with dignity, as he stated in one of his last written notes:
The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defence 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 [and women] in battle.
This year, Holocaust Remembrance Day (which fell yesterday) in Israel coincides with the day picked to mark the end of the three week long armed Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto; a very powerful convergence.
In 2015, I was serving as Canada’s Ambassador to Israel. A year earlier, I had promised a good friend of my father’s, Martin Baranek, z”l, that I would accompany him and the Canadian delegation on the March of the Living. And so, in April, 2015, I kept my word and had the honor of marching, in Auschwitz, with Marty. He had arrived at the camp as a 14-year-old boy and somehow survived.
Later in life he devoted himself to Holocaust education. Anyone who had the good fortune to learn from him, or speak with him, will remember his generous spirit, warmth and pleasant demeanor. But they will also have been touched deeply by his candor and commitment to honor the incomprehensible tragedy that befell him, personally, and all Jews. Marty told the story. Straight up.
Following the March of the Living, I spent a few days in Warsaw, visiting the newly opened Polin Jewish Museum and attending an annual commemoration in honor of the ghetto uprising. It was a very moving event, made moreso by the presence of an elderly man sitting, blanketed, in a wheelchair, who was a central figure in the ceremony.
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Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, then 93, died a few weeks later. A Polish Catholic, he had paid dearly for his principles - under the Nazis and, in the post-war period, the Soviet-controlled government in Poland. An historian by training, Bartoszewski was an active member of the Polish resistance during WWII and a strong supporter of the Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1940 and by a twist of fate was released in April, 1941, due to Red Cross intervention. His early testimony as to what was occurring in Auschwitz was hugely significant.
Bartoszewski also joined a unit of the Polish resistance devoted to assisting and supporting armed Jewish resistance, known as “Zegota.” In 1965, he was made an honorary citizen of Israel and has also been recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem.
His presence that day was beyond profound.
When it came time to recognize the valor and inspiring leadership of Mordechai Anielewicz, Bartoszewski saluted his fallen comrade, as the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah – The Hope – was played. Those who knew the words, of course – as did I, sang. It felt bold and powerful, all those decades later, to stand in that place and affirm our personal and national existence. The rest of the several hundred gathered in quite frigid temperatures stood, quietly and respectfully.
The exception, unfortunately, were the two individuals with whom I attended the event – the Canadian Ambassador to Poland at the time - accompanied by her husband.
As the anthem concluded, her husband spoke loudly in her ear – loud enough for all around him to hear: “Why the heck are they playing the Israeli anthem? The country didn’t even exist then!”
The insensitivity. The coarseness. Particularly when expressed by someone who had been living in Poland for several years at that point. As the spouse of a diplomat, one would assume that he was, at a minimum, aware of how Polish Jews had been brutalized. And, yet, he could not allow the heroic ghetto warrior the dignity of his chosen identity.
A man standing directly behind us rebuked him, sharply, saying: “Mordechai Anielewicz was a Zionist. That was his anthem.”
I could tell by his accent that he was Israeli and, at that moment, I felt very much like the caricature of the fearful, Diaspora Jew, who keeps quiet and head down. I was silent. But not this man.
And, therein, is as distilled a metaphor as I can conceive of the contrast between the Jew in exile and the Jew in Israel.
Several months later, in June, I attended the bi-annual ceremony hosted by the Israeli Air Force, where cadets receive their “wings”. It is always a very small group – around 40 – of the most exceptional young Israelis, who have been selected from the cream of the country and come through years of rigorous training, during which many are cut from the roster.
It's a huge deal.
Before the event, I was welcomed to the Hatzerim Air Base by then Commander of the IAF, Major General Amir Eshel, who invited me into his office. It was a stifling hot day in the desert, so the respite in the air-conditioned room was a welcome relief. I was drawn immediately to a large framed photograph, hanging on the wall beside his desk. I knew that photo well: showing the famous IAF formation flying over the Auschwitz-Birkenau murder camp in 2003, where I had stood just two months earlier.
The back-story, which Eshel shared with me that day, is a moving reflection of the Israeli ethos and character. Invited to participate in events in Radom – marking the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Polish Air Force – the IAF brass was uneasy. Poland, still, can be a touchy subject in Israel.
What I did not know, but learned that day, is that Major General Amir Eshel had been the catalyst for this dramatic detour. Eshel piloted one of the planes, which dropped to 1,200 meters as they traversed the camp boundaries, from end to end, in combat jets bearing the Star of David on their wings. It was a challenging day on which to make the flight, with very dense, low clouds that required “outside the box” aerial maneouvers to ensure they were in formation before descending above the camp.
Below them, attending a ceremony at the rear of the camp, by the partially destroyed hulk of the crematoria, was an assembly of Israeli dignitaries.
Eshel piloted the lead plane and hand selected the others, ensuring that each one of them had direct family connections to the Holocaust. As well, meaningful personal objects were curated and taken with the pilots on the flight; some which had belonged to those murdered at the site below them.
As the jets roared over Auschwitz, from the notorious “entrance gate” with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, over the train tracks, the ramp where “selections” were made, over the crematoria and those gathered there, it was Eshel who read this statement, which blared through loudspeakers on the ground:
We pilots of the Air Force, flying in the skies above the camp of horrors, arose from the ashes of the millions of victims and shoulder their silent cries, salute their courage and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people and its nation Israel.
And then, the tight formation turned to fly over the sprawling barn-like barracks before flying directly back to Israel. Three minutes in all.
Following my visit with Major General Eshel, I was escorted to my seat in the bleachers. For the next ninety minutes or so, I was enthralled by the aerial show demonstrating the exceptional talent of the Air Force; search and rescue, refueling in the air and all manner of razzle dazzle “Top Gun”-type moves. And, of course, the very moving moment when the newly minted combat pilots have their wings pinned on their uniform by their Commander.
As were other diplomats in the stands, I was representing my country, Canada. But I, by my presence and existence, bore witness, personally, to the extraordinary historical period I had just bridged – concretely and metaphorically; from having walked along the tracks of Auschwitz, walked through the Warsaw Ghetto, to witness the display of real power in Israel, risen.
For me, it’s beyond biblical in scope. It is also beyond words.
When you stand in Auschwitz, it is very difficult to access feeling and expression. There is no right or wrong. And, there cannot be indifference. How to manage such incomprehensible loss and agony becomes a very private matter. Every step, you know, is on the ashes of the murdered. Some comment on how large and overwhelming the place feels. I found it surprisingly small – especially the “ramp.” You stand there, on this nondescript patch of coarse asphalt. Where the tracks end. It’s flat. Not ramp-like at all. And you envision the Hell that never ended. Right there. And you think of the millions who disembarked from sealed cattle cars, onto this miserable concrete yard, condemned to immediate death; or, for the “lucky” ones selected into the camp, a deferred murder.
On this day, chosen to commemorate the valor of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters and civilian resisters, I write this dispatch, in my comfortable living room in central Tel Aviv.
And as I do, every once in a while, I hear the roar of IAF jets directly above me, rehearsing for the big air show that flies across the beaches of Israel on Independence Day.
And I remember, always. Every. Single. Day.
That I am here because of people like Mordechai Anielewicz, and so many others, who are nameless.
I wrote a piece today paying tribute to the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Jewish resistance fighters, and a few other things......Mordechai Anielewicz was the leader of these warriors......a 23-year-old Polish man.....there is a kibbutz in Israel named in his honor - Yad Mordechai - meaning....the hand of Mordechai.....which, kind of heartbreakingly, is very close to the border with the Gaza Strip......and is often hit with rockets and mortars during the frequent volatility along the border. No rest for Mordechai.....
Another kibbutz in the north of the country is named......Lohamei haGetao'ot......Ghetto Warriors.....
Just a couple of interesting tidbits. Thanks for being here. vb