Passover is the celebration of our Freedom, our Exodus from slavery. Here in Israel it is followed almost immediately by what in English is called "Holocaust Memorial Day." But that's not the correct translation....the full translation (loosely) is "The Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day" because it is not only about genocide....it is also about human heroism.
Yad VaShem, the site dedicated to this remembrance, has a new wing that aptly demonstrates this dual remembrance. The communities of Jews who were wiped out are commemorated, as well as our "fellow-travelers" among the gypsy, homosexual and politically incorrect populations. This memorial reminds us that while Jews were the primary focus of Nazi hate, we were not the only victims. Yet amid these heart-rending remembrances of our dead are also paens to the heroes who fought back.
Contrary to what some think, the resistance to annihilation was fierce. This is not a uniquely Jewish trait, but rather a human trait -- we will not go quietly into the night at the business end of a machine gun, given a chance.
Typically, the resistance was found among the young, the idealistic, the first to recognize the Big Lie of "Relocation to the East" (a euphemism for transport to the death camps). The Bielski brothers, one of my favorite resistance groups, hid thousands of Jews in a mobile camp deep in a Russian forest, keeping the very young and very old encamped while everyone else foraged and killed Germans and sabotaged Nazi supply lines.
Death camp inmates themselves revolted at camps such as Treblinka and Sobibor--camps whose sole purpose was the mass extermination of human beings deemed unworthy of living by the Nazi machine.
The Jews of eastern Europe were herded into ghettoes and used as forced labor. Forced labor was considered fortunate--it allowed the inmates to go out of the ghetto and scrounge for food, since everyone was living on starvation rations. The biggest risk in leaving the ghetto was discovering upon your return that your spouse, or your parents, or your brother, or your children had been "selected" in your absence, and were already gone, transported on a train to a death camp in the east. The Nazis deliberately did their "selections" of children while the parents were working to minimize the chances of revolt.
In the best-known of these, the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish resistance movement initially decided not to fight despite the transport of over 300,000 people because they believed the lie that their neighbors and family members were being sent to labor camps. Young people from the ghetto escaped to follow the train tracks and found not a labor camp, but Treblinka and its extermination factory. By the end of 1942, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto began preparing for their revolt against the Nazis.
On the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. The Jewish Festival of Freedom was the trigger for the Jewish revolt against the Nazi's extermination juggernaut. The organized uprising wasn't put down until May 16th, by a the combined forces of the German Army and other military forces under their direction.
The Germans eventually committed 6 battalions of Waffen SS Panzergrenadier troops, and assorted other troops of Ukranian, Lituanian and German military or police origin. Their support weapons included armoured fighting vehicles, combat gasses, flamethrowers, aircraft, tanks and artillery.
The Jewish Resistance held out with small caliber guns, grenades, Molotov cocktails and other home-made devices until May 16th against these odds. Different divisions of the fighters were eradicated one by one, some escaping, some taken captive, some committing suicide rather than becoming Nazi prisoners. One of these was Mordecai Anielewicz, the young leader of the Uprising, who died when the Nazis discovered and captured Mila 18, the command post of the Resistance.
The undermanned and under-armed kibbutz just north of the Gaza Strip, which halted the Egyptian advance in 1948, is named Yad Mordechai (the Hand of Mordechai) after young Anielewicz.
The Borg are wrong.....Resistance is NOT futile. It echoes down human history and sets an example that, however deadly, however tragic at the time, says to other human beings that the spark of freedom will not easily be extinguished. "Better to die on your feet than live on your knees, " La Passionara is famed for saying.
Yad VaShem is also a tribute to humanity's finest moments. The Rescuers, those gentiles who risked not only their own lives but also those of their families to save the lives of the Jews among them, have an avenue dedicated to them -- the Avenue of the Righteous. It is one thing to be brave when mounting a desperate, but armed resistance. It takes an even greater degree of courage to put yourself and your family in harm's way for the sake of strangers, simply because it is the moral thing to do.
I have a very difficult time at Yad VaShem. This is a period of history I studied intensively, and few of the photographs or statistics or histories are unknown to me. The new hall emphasizes the most human aspects of this horrendous history, and somehow that makes a day at Yad VaShem very personal, as if I am walking through a graveyard of people I know. Because that's really, in one sense, what Yad VaShem is -- so many of our dead are unburied, cremated beyond recognition; or killed in a ditch like Babi Yar; or shot in a forest. They have no remembrance, no headstones, no proper gravesites in hallowed ground. So they are remembered here, at Yad VaShem, whose Hebrew means "a monument and a name," in order that they can be honored and remembered here.
"I will give them, in my house and in my walls, a monument and a name....that shall never be cut off..." (Isaiah 56:5)