Up with the People

Reviewing NBC's Uprising.

By Dave Kopel, research director, Independence Institute, and Glenn Reynolds, InstaPundit.com.

National Review Online, October 10-11, 2001. More by Kopel on Poland and genocide.

It 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.

The Nazis, 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.

The Warsaw 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.

This passivity 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.

Raul Hilberg, a leading scholar of the Nazi military, writes in The Destruction of the European Jews:

The killers 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.

Eventually, 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.

The Nazis, 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.

Mordechai Anielewicz, a 24-year-old schoolteacher who became the Jewish commander of the uprising, is the miniseries' 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:

Dear Yitzhak,

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 of oxygen…

The Brushmakers' 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….Not many people have been taken out of the ghetto…During the 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 and glory.

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.

The Warsaw 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.

Although the 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."

There were 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, Fighting Back: A Memoir of Jewish Resistance in World War II; Yechiel Granatstein, The War of a Jewish Partisan; Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans; and Chaika Grossman, The Underground Army: Fighters of the Bialystok Ghetto.)

The Warsaw 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.

The Warsaw 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 resonance now.

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 professionals.

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."

The heroes 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, Uprisings ends 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 abrogation.

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