The following speech was delivered at Der Shteyn (The Stone), Riverside Park, New York City, on April 19, 2017, the 74th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
It’s been hard for me to focus on the meaning of this year’s geto fayerung. Like many of you, I’ve been brought up short by events of the last few months, by our country’s leaders’ unapologetic meanness, their lack of compassion. Amidst the attacks on immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans and Latinos, women, the LGBT community, African-Americans, Native Americans, we’ve also witnessed an aggressive anti-Semitism of vandalized Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats to Jewish centers, and graffiti with swastikas. Perhaps even more disturbing has been the almost casual anti-Semitism as “slips of the tongue” or “gaffes”: the omission of Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day, references to “Holocaust centers,” and the reaffirmation of German Jews as “other” and non-Germans. I confess to feeling myself drifting toward a panic that I’d assumed had been buried and gone years ago.
But it’s a panic that I want to rebury. I want to be clear with myself that despite the resemblances of 2017 and the 1930s in Europe, they are not the same. I am not wearing a yellow star.
To enforce this difference in my mind, I decided to return to the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April and May 1943 and I’d like to pass on what I rediscovered about the aftermath of the resistance which began 74 years ago this month.
As most of you know, after learning of plans to liquidate the entire population of the Ghetto, the ZOB, the Jewish Fighters Organization of Warsaw Ghetto consisting of various Jewish political parties, decided that on April 19, 1943, it would begin to fight and resist the German occupiers, a resistance which they knew they could never win. By that time, the population of the Ghetto had been reduced from over 400,000 to fewer than 60,000—reduced by hunger, disease, direct murder in the ghetto, and transports to Treblinka. Poorly equipped, they still managed to continue the battle for weeks. On May 8, the Germans surrounded Mila 18, the headquarters of the ZOB. Many were gassed. Many committed suicide, including Commander Mordecai Anilewicz. But it was still not over. Two days later, the Bundist activist and organizer Bernard Goldstein states in The Stars Bear Witness:
On May 10 a group of fighters led by Abrasha Blum, Marek Edelman and Zivia Lubetkin made their way through the sewers to Prosta Street. With the help of guides they negotiated the barbed- wire obstructions and the booby traps.
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