is certain that when NBC decided to produce its miniseries Uprising
about the Warsaw ghetto revolt, no one was thinking about Osama
bin Laden. Yet the airing of this docudrama, which is based on a
true, and truly heroic story, may have a special cultural resonance
because of what America has experienced in the past months.
of course, enjoyed powers far exceeding those of bin Laden and his
Islamo-fascist allies. Nonetheless, they suffered a defeat in the
Warsaw ghetto revolt at the hands of a relative handful of poorly
armed and untrained Jews, much as bin Laden's hijackers on board
United Airlines Flight 93 suffered a defeat at the hands of that
flight's unarmed and untrained passengers.
ghetto was one of many such communities organized at the Nazis'
command in order to facilitate the centralization, starvation, transportation,
and extermination of Jews throughout Europe. Jews went in, but they
did not come out, except to board trains to destinations like Treblinka,
the death camp to which Warsaw's Jews were sent. Though many were
aware that this was the Nazis' goal, most were at first unwilling
to resist, preferring to believe the hollow reassurances of the
Nazi occupation authorities and their collaborationist government.
Surely, they thought, something so monstrous could not really happen.
was not entirely irrational, given pre-Nazi Jewish experience. Nazi
mass murders of Jews began after the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Extermination camps were not set up until late 1941, so mass murder
was at first accomplished by special S.S. units, Einsatzgruppen,
on June 22, 1941. Working closely with regular army units, the Einsatzgruppen
would move swiftly into newly conquered areas to prevent Jews from
fleeing. In some cases, Jews were ordered to register with the authorities,
an act which made them easy to locate for murder shortly thereafter.
Most of the Soviet population including the Soviet Jews who
fell under Nazi control had been disarmed by Lenin and Stalin
or had never possessed arms in the first place.
a leading scholar of the Nazi military, writes in The
Destruction of the European Jews:
were well armed, they knew what to do, and they worked swiftly.
The victims were unarmed, bewildered, and followed orders. . .
. It is significant that the Jews allowed themselves to be shot
without resistance. In all reports of the Einsatzgruppen there
were few references to "incidents." The killing units
never lost a man during a shooting operation. . . . [T]he Jews
remained paralyzed after their first brush with death and in spite
of advance knowledge of their fate.
In the centuries
of pogroms and other oppressions of Jews, the Jews had developed
a culture of passivity. Almost always, the oppressors would destroy
some property, and perhaps kill a few Jews, but then they would
stop, as long as they were not provoked by resistance. Not fighting
back seemed to be the safest course.
however, it became clear to even the most optimistic, or denial-ridden,
that the Nazis were far worse than the Cossacks. The goal was nothing
short of genocide.
like the Taliban, had pursued a policy of complete gun prohibition,
except for persons considered politically reliable. Yet as David
Caplan explains in "The Warsaw Ghetto: 10 Handguns Against
Tyranny" (American Rifleman, Feb. 1988), the Warsaw
Jews had managed to obtain a few guns. And with these few guns,
the course of Jewish history would change.
In 1943, the
Nazis attempted to commence the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.
But as the Nazis moved in, members of the Jewish Fighting Organization
opened fire. The Nazis, shocked, retreated. Goebbels complained
in his diary: "This just shows what you can expect from Jews
if they lay hands on weapons."
The Jews had
built bunkers with underground tunnels, and grew increasingly well
armed with rifles, machine guns, handguns, grenades, and other explosives
supplied by the Polish resistance, smuggled out of Nazi factories,
or taken from dead Nazi soldiers. A major Nazi assault began on
April 19, with the expectation that the ghetto would be cleared
in time for Hitler's birthday on the 20th. The assault was led by
a tank and two armored cars; a Jewish unit set the tank on fire
twice, forcing a Nazi retreat.
The Nazis returned
with artillery, and after April 22, Nazi artillery drove many Jews
into the Jewish tunnel system that connected with the sewers. The
Nazis used poison gasses to attempt to clear the Jews out of the
sewers. Nazi forces could not directly take on the buildings where
the Jews had built hidden bunkers, cellars, and attics; room-to-room
fighting would have inflicted unacceptably high casualties on the
Nazis. So they began to burn down the Warsaw ghetto, one building
at a time. Explosives and artillery were used to smash the buildings
that were not flammable.
a 24-year-old schoolteacher who became the Jewish commander of the
uprising, is the miniseries's main character. He's played by Hank
Azaria, an actor who lends his "voices" to The Simpsons.
On April 23, 1943, Anielewicz wrote a letter from Warsaw, explaining
what was happening:
I don't know what to write you. Let's dispense with personal details
this time. I have only one expression to describe my feelings
and the feelings of my comrades: things have surpassed our boldest
dreams: the Germans ran away from the ghetto twice. One of our
units held out for forty minutes, and the other for more than
six hours. The mine planted in the Brushmakers' area exploded.
So far, we have had only one casualty: Yehiel, who fell as a hero
at the machine gun.
Yesterday, when we got information that the PPR [Polish Resistance]
attacked the Germans and that the radio station Swit broadcast
a wonderful bulletin about our self-defense, I had a feeling of
fulfillment. Even though there's still a lot of work ahead of
us, whatever has been done so far has been done perfectly.
From this evening, we are switching to a system of guerilla action.
At night, three of our units go out on two missions: an armed
reconnaissance patrol and the acquisition of weapons. Know that
the pistol has no value, we practically don't use it. We need
grenades, rifles, machine guns, and explosives.
I can't describe to you the conditions in which the Jews are living.
Only a few individuals will hold out. All the rest will be killed
sooner or later. The die is cast. In all the bunkers where our
comrades are hiding, you can't light a candle at night for lack
workshop has been in flames for three days. I have no contact
with the units. There are many fires in the ghetto. Yesterday,
the hospital burned. Blocks of buildings are in flames
many people have been taken out of the ghetto
day, we sit in hiding places. Be well, my friend. Perhaps we shall
meet again. The main thing is the dream of my life has come true.
I've lived to see a Jewish defense in the ghetto in all its greatness
On April 25,
the Nazi commanding general recorded in his diary, "this evening
one can see a gigantic sea of flames." Even so, the Jewish
will to resist was not broken. Finally, on May 15, the Warsaw synagogue
was blown up, and the battle was over.
Jews died, of course. But that was never at issue the only
question was how they would die. In contrast to the usual
result when the Nazis made an area into a "Jew-free-zone,"
there was nothing of economic value for the Nazis to take; to the
contrary, the Nazis had been forced to pay a price in order to take
Jewish lives. Nazi soldiers and supplies that were needed for the
spring offensive in Russia had to be diverted to Warsaw and
some of them never left that city.
Jews of the Warsaw ghetto were eventually defeated in a tactical
sense, the Warsaw battle was a tremendous strategic victory for
the Jews. According to Raul Hilberg: "In Jewish history, the
battle is literally a revolution, for after two thousand years of
a policy of submission the wheel had been turned and once again
Jews were using force."
other Jewish uprisings. Even in the death camps of Sobibor and Treblinka,
Jews seized arms from the Nazi guards and attempted to escape. A
few succeeded, and, more significantly, the camps were disrupted.
(For more on Jewish resistance in Eastern Europe, see Harold Werner,
Back: A Memoir of Jewish Resistance in World War II; Yechiel
War of a Jewish Partisan; Nechama Tec, Defiance:
The Bielski Partisans; and Chaika Grossman, The
Underground Army: Fighters of the Bialystok Ghetto.)
battle had begun on Passover, and like the first Passover, the Warsaw
resistance led directly to the establishment of a Jewish state.
Without the fighting spirit that was rekindled by the Warsaw ghetto
revolt, it is doubtful that the Jews would have prevailed when Arabs
attacked them the moment the state of Israel was proclaimed.
ghetto revolt is an inspiring and moving story, and almost everyone
who learns of the story feels admiration for the heroism of the
Warsaw ghetto's inhabitants. But, as we said, the story has a special
One might draw
parallels between the Warsaw ghetto and the heroism of Flight 93's
passengers, but the resonance goes beyond that. The Warsaw ghetto
revolt is a reminder that, when push comes to shove, everyone
not just the duly constituted authorities must take responsibility
for the safety and security of the communities in which we live.
It is also a reminder that heroism is not a virtue only for military
But most importantly,
it is a reminder that evil must be resisted when it appears, not
merely when its triumph is inevitable. Dying well is better than
dying badly but it is better still, as General Patton famously
remarked, to let the other side do the dying. The Warsaw ghetto
fighters cannot be faulted for their courage, but the timing was
not ideal. Had such fierce resistance sprung up everywhere in Europe
at the first Nazi efforts at genocide, the entire project would
have been massively obstructed. At the very least, had the German
military been occupied with quelling revolts throughout Europe,
it would have done worse on the battlefield, and the end of the
Nazi regime would have been hastened, saving countless lives. As
the Tennessee constitution reminds us, in a passage written in the
18th century, "the doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary
power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the
good and happiness of mankind."
of Uprising knew this instinctively. From the very beginning
of the first episode, they are the ones who warn of the danger,
and urge Jews to acquire weapons and fight, while the politicians
and "wiser" heads preach prudence and collaboration. And
throughout the series, guns, and the acquisition of guns, are portrayed
in a positive light, as a means of self-defense and a sign of self-respect.
Had this program
appeared in August, it still would have been a break with traditional
network sensibilities, which normally demand that ordinary people
who acquire guns learn some sort of specious "lesson"
about the superiority of nonviolence and the evil of firearms. But
appearing now, after September 11, Uprising sends an even
stronger message: In a civilized society, all citizens must be prepared
to oppose evil, with force of arms if necessary. This has always
been true, but the cultural support for such messages was, until
very recently, quite weak. Uprising reminds us of something
important: Civilization is worth fighting for, and those who preach
accommodation and appeasement represent not civilization, but its