23 April 2021

Songs to remember the heroes
of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Since childhood, I have been haunted by the image of the terrified young boy in the Warsaw Ghetto

Patrick Comerford

Since my early childhood, I have been haunted by the photograph of the terrified young boy with his hands raised in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was one of half a million Jews packed into the Warsaw ghetto, transformed by the Nazis into a walled compound of starvation and death.

During the past week, many people on social media have been marking this week’s anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began 78 years ago on 19 April 1943, the first night of Passover that year. It was the single greatest act of Jewish armed resistance during the Holocaust. They fought the Nazis from inside the ghetto for almost a month before being defeated.

In July 1942, the Germans began deporting 5,000 people a day from Warsaw to the concentration camps. As news of exterminations seeped back, the ghetto residents formed a resistance group.

‘We saw ourselves as a Jewish underground whose fate was a tragic one,’ wrote its young leader Mordecai Anielewicz. ‘For our hour had come without any sign of hope or rescue.’ That hour arrived on 19 April 1943, when Nazi troops came to deport the rest of the Jews from the ghetto.

The partisans were poorly armed as they fought back and were eventually defeated by German tanks and flame-throwers. When the uprising ended on 16 May 1943, the 56,000 survivors faced summary execution or deportation to concentration camps and slave-labour camps.

The Warsaw Ghetto was destroyed after the uprising, and the Nazis deported the remaining 50,000 Jews of the ghetto, most of them to the death camp in Treblinka.

Jürgen Stroop, the SS commander in occupied Poland, put together a 75-page victory album of his role in suppressing the ghetto uprising. The photographs in his album include the now well-known photograph of the unnamed boy with his hands raised high.

Franz Konrad, an Austrian-born SS officer in the Warsaw ghetto, confessed to taking some of the photographs before he was executed by hanging in Warsaw on 6 March 1952.

When the Ghetto Uprising was suppressed, Stroop ordered the destruction of Warsaw’s Great Synagogue on 16 May 1943. He gloated as he later recalled: ‘What a marvellous sight it was. A fantastic piece of theatre. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device which would detonate all the charges simultaneously … and pressed the button. With a thunderous, deafening bang and a rainbow burst of colours, the fiery explosion soared toward the clouds, an unforgettable tribute to our triumph over the Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was no more.’

Stroop’s destruction of the Great Synagogue was the last act of destruction in the Warsaw Ghetto. About 7,000 Jews died in Europe’s first urban anti-Nazi revolt, most of them burned alive. Almost all the survivors were sent to Treblinka.

Stroop’s album with this photograph became key evidence at the Nuremburg war crimes trials. Stroop was convicted at Dachau and later in Warsaw. He was hanged near the Warsaw Ghetto on 6 March 1952.

Poland was once Europe’s Jewish heartland; 90 per cent of the 3.3 million pre-war Jews there had been wiped out by 1945. The Great Synagogue was not rebuilt.

The identity of the boy in the photograph has never been confirmed. He continues to remind me of myself at the same age. He has become one of the well-known faces of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

For my Friday evening reflections on the week of this anniversary, I am listening to Paul Robeson singing the ‘Song of The Warsaw Ghetto,’ Zog nit keyn mol (זאָג ניט קיין מאָל).

The ‘Partisan Song’ is a Yiddish song and one of the chief anthems of Holocaust survivors, and it is sung in memorial services around the world. The lyrics were written in 1943 by Hirsh Glick, a young Jewish inmate of the Vilna Ghetto who was inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The title means ‘Never Say’ and comes from the first line.

This song was adopted by a number of Jewish partisan groups in East Europe, and it became a symbol of resistance to the Nazis persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust:

Never say that you have reached the very end
When leaden skies a bitter future may portend
For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive
And our marching step will thunder ‘We survive!’

For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive
And our marching step will thunder ‘We survive!’

Not lead, but blood inscribed this bitter song we sing
It’s not a caroling of birds upon the wing
But ’twas a people midst the crashing fires of hell
That sang this song and fought courageous till it fell

But ’twas a people midst the crashing fires of hell
That sang this song and fought courageous till it fell

Manus O’Riordan, in one of his many postings on the Warsaw Ghetto anniversary this week, also reminded me of Paul Robeson’s versions of The Kaddish of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev.

Robeson usually called it ‘The Hassidic Chant of Levi Isaac.’ It is a version of the Kaddish or memorial prayer attributed to the Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchok (1740-1809) of Berditchev. It is also known as the Din Toyre mit Got (‘The Lawsuit with God’).

Levi Yizchok is considered by many as the founder of Hasidism in central Poland. According to tradition, he had composed the song spontaneously on Rosh Hashanah as he contemplated the steadfast faith of Jewish people in the face of their ceaseless suffering.

He is said to have stood in the synagogue before the open Ark where the Torah scrolls are kept and issued his complaint directly to God:

A good day to Thee, Lord of the Universe!
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah, from Berditchev,
Bring against you a lawsuit on behalf of your People, Israel.
What do you have against your People, Israel?
Why have your so oppressed your People, Israel?

After this questioning of divine justice, Levi Yitzhak proceeded to chant the Kaddish in attestation to God’s sovereignty and supremacy.

His song, of course, is not not be dismissed as some futile act of protest … it also becomes an affirmation of deep and profound faith in the face of adversity.

Shabbat Shalom

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