This year the first day of Pesach coincides with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on 19thApril 1943 – Erev Pesach that year. To put the uprising in context: within 18 months of Hitler’s decision to liquidate all the ghettos, more than two million Jews were deported to the death camps. By the end of 1942, approximately 300,000 of this number had been rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto and transported to Treblinka, leaving, between 55,000 and 60,000.
In January 1943, a small group of mostly young Jews, using a stash of smuggled weapons, attacked German troops as they were rounding up more Jews for deportation. Within a few days, the troops retreated. Emboldened by this small victory, led by 23-year-old Mordecai Anielewicz, the ghetto fighters, organised as the Z.O.B. (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa – Jewish Fighting Organization), set about acquiring more weapons and making plans to defend the ghetto. As they prepared for the final deportation, the Germans also made sure that they were ready to meet resistance. And so, on April 18th on the eve of the final deportation to Treblinka, Jurgen Stroop, an SS officer, who had experience of fighting partisans, was put in charge.
Warned of the timing of the final deportation, the ghetto fighters make sure that the Jews who remained in the ghetto went into hiding. When the German troops entered on the morning of April 19th 750 fighters armed with a handful of pistols, rifles, and Molotov cocktails took on more than 2,000 heavily armed and well-trained German troops – and held out against them for 27 days. The first major blow came on May 8th when the Germans captured the headquarters bunker of the ZOB at 18 Mila Street, and Mordecai Anielewicz and a large number of his colleagues were killed in the fighting – although several dozen fighters escaped through the sewers. By May 16th it was all over. Approximately 300 Germans and 7,000 Jews were killed during the uprising, and another 7,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka.
Some of the ghetto fighters who survived, made aliyah to Israel in 1949, and you can still meet a handful of them at the Ghetto Fighters House at Kibbutz Lohamei Ha-gheta’ot, in the Western Galilee. This valiant moment became so important in the collective psyche of the nascent Jewish state that when Jewish scholars began to discuss setting a date for commemoration of the Sho’ah, the Israelis argued for one that coincided with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Since Pesach itself wasn’t possible, in 1951 – sixty years ago – Yom Ha-Sho’ah was fixed for a few days later: 27th Nissan, eight days before Yom Ha-Atzma’ut – Israel Independence day (5th Iyyar).
Since this year, the first day of Pesach coincides with the first day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, it seems appropriate that as we celebrate the ‘Season of our Freedom’ – Z’man Cheiruteinu – we remember that the process of liberation begins, when people take action to liberate themselves. Pesach Samei’ach!
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah