No Holds Barred: The rise of the non-complacent Jew

Did hundreds of thousands of Jews suffer death through gas when they were barely guarded? What could have persuaded them to listen to a tiny minority of monsters, albeit with machine guns, who wished to annihilate their children?

Artwork by Holocaust survivor Yehuda Bacon depicting a scene from a concentration camp (photo credit: NAOMI GRANT)
Artwork by Holocaust survivor Yehuda Bacon depicting a scene from a concentration camp
(photo credit: NAOMI GRANT)
A few years ago, after spending Passover in Israel with my family, I brought my eldest son close to me and struggled to place my hands on his head (he’s taller than me). We had traveled to Israel to spend the holiday with him because the IDF, where he was a special forces combat soldier, would not let him leave the country during training. It was amazing for our family to spend a full week with him when most of the time we got no more than 10 minutes a week to speak him from the field.
Knowing he was returning to the Golan Heights where he was just across the border from the Iranian-funded monsters of Hezbollah, I invoked God’s blessing upon him: May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord shine his light toward you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift his countenance toward you and grant you peace.”
As he left, I told him that there are three stages in devotion to a cause. The first, God forbid, may it never happen, is to die for a cause – martyrdom. The Jewish people have had way too much of that. The second, much higher, is to live for a cause. But the third and highest is to fight for a cause. You, Mendy, have the privilege of being in the first Jewish army since Bar Kochva eviscerated the Roman armies of Hadrian and Julius Severus some 2,000 years ago. But this time the Jewish people’s efforts will end in victory.
I can only imagine that it was much harder for his mother to say goodbye to her son and see him off in his olive green uniform.
On my last day in Israel on that trip, I visited Yad Vashem in anticipation of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
There my eyes popped as I read the statistics at the exhibit on the death camps. How many guards were there in the death camps?
In Sobibor, where 225,000, where murdered, there were 24 SS Guards watching the camp.
In Treblinka, where 900,000 were murdered, there were 15 SS guards.
In Chelmno, where 800,000 were murdered, there were 25 SS guards securing the camp.
Could this be right? Did hundreds of thousands of Jews suffer death through gas when they were barely guarded? What could have persuaded them to listen to a tiny minority of monsters, albeit with machine guns, who wished to annihilate their children?
Yes, I’m well aware of the extreme and highly successful propaganda efforts on the part of Joseph Goebbels, who convinced the Jews that they were merely being deported to the East and that if they cooperated they would be safe. But there was also significant evidence that Jews were being gassed in the East. That the showerheads brought forth not water but poison gas. That the selection processes at the camp train terminals was a quick and perfunctory decision between life and death.
Many fought and resisted. There were numerous uprisings by the Jews against their oppressors. But why weren’t there more?
One school of thought is that the six million Jews, starving, emaciated, and riddled with disease, went to their deaths with only act of defiance left to them: to die proudly as Jews, neither beaten nor bowed. They were history’s proudest martyrs, with death forced upon them not for something they chose but for something they were. We shudder in the face of the enormity of their sacrifice and the sanctity of their martyrdom. Those who say that European Jews went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter are guilty of a horrible calumny. Animals are not capable of dying al kiddush Hashem, for the sanctity of God’s name. The Jews of the Holocaust laid down their lives in an act of spiritual defiance to give their existence to their Creator.
But we Jews have had too many martyrs, and today we must honor God not with our deaths but with our lives.
On Passover eve in 1943, a mysterious man about whom little is known inspired the broken and decimated remainder of the Warsaw Ghetto to rise up against the SS who were attempting the last liquidation of the ghetto. He gathered his fighters together and essentially told them, “This battle is not between life and death. We have no chance of prevailing. We cannot defeat the Nazis. We will surely die. Rather, this battle is about the choice of how we will die. Will we die as free men, laden with the dignity of our choice, or will we die as beasts led to the slaughter?”
For two weeks, his starving and diseased fighters, armed only with a few pistols and improvised Molotov cocktails, held off the most powerful army in Europe. They beat back German artillery and, in one of the most heroic acts of defiance in the long annals of human history, flew the Magen David flag, which would become that of the State of Israel just five short years later. The man’s name was Mordechai Anielewicz. Rank: commander. Field of battle: the Warsaw Ghetto.
When they could fight no longer, he and hundreds of fighters, like at Masada before them, detonated grenades at their bunker headquarters of Mila 18 so as not to be captured by the Nazi beast.
A few years earlier, in the dead of winter, after accompanying the Israeli Knesset to Auschwitz for the 69th anniversary of its liberation, I traveled, alone and freezing, in search of Mila 18. I found the lone stone marker buried under three feet of snow and uncovered it with my bare hand.
Anielewicz is one of the greatest modern heroes in Jewish history and the father of modern Jewish resistance. What persuaded them to fight when others had no choice but to embrace Nazi lies and false hope? How did he know that “this, too, shall not pass” and the people had to go to battle, even if it meant certain death?
This question most affects American Jewry today. Not “to be or not to be,” but “to fight or not to fight.” There are those who continue to believe that Jewish existence is one of ideas, a cognitive process. “I think, therefore I am.” But we know better. We are Am Yisrael. “I fight, therefore I am. I struggle, therefore I will be.”
Will we fight for Israel on campus against the dark forces of antisemitism? Will we resist the boycotters of Israel like musician Roger Waters? Will we fight assimilation and the gradual disappearance of millions of Jews into identity-less oblivion?
Just here in the United States, BDS is making significant headway. Take New York University, where numbers are startling.
NYU hosts more Jewish undergraduates than any other private university in America, about 6,000. It’s located in the heart of a city that’s home to more Jews than any other – 2.5 million. Yet the students of Students for Justice in Palestine two years ago passed two BDS resolutions. They are estimated to be not more than 100 students, which makes them outnumbered by 60 to 1. Yet we could not stop an antisemitic resolution sworn to Israel’s destruction.
How could this happen?
BDS has no interest in helping the Palestinian people. Their only mission is to destroy the Jewish State.
So why did we lose so decidedly?
There are those who as Jews wish for a life of peace, who believe that Jewish existence is maintained by allowing the storm to pass. Don’t make waves. Don’t fight back. Don’t antagonize.
It’s time to stop excusing, once and for all, any attacks against the Jewish nation and adopt a policy of permanent resistance. Jewish life is sacred; it must be protected.