Tag Archives: Warsaw Ghetto

Jew of the Week: Mordechai Anielewicz

Commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the Jewish Combat Organization

Mordechai Anielewicz (1919-1943) was born near Warsaw to a traditional Polish-Jewish family. After completing Hebrew school, he joined the Betar Zionist youth movement, and later Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Anielewicz participated in a Polish military training camp. When Germany invaded Poland, he joined a group of youths who fled east in the hopes of organizing an armed resistance. However, the Soviets invaded the eastern half of Poland, and Anielewicz was eventually arrested and thrown in jail for helping Jewish refugees flee across Romania to Israel. Released from prison shortly after, Anielewicz returned to Warsaw and began organizing a resistance movement. He started a secret newspaper called Neged HaZerem, “Against the Current”. By the end of 1940, Anielewicz was among 400,000 Jews (a third of Warsaw’s total population) forcibly crammed and imprisoned inside the tiny Warsaw Ghetto. Less than a year later, the Nazis started “evacuating” Jews from the Ghetto and when Anielewicz heard reports of mass murder, he called up his resistance fighters. The group attempted to join the Polish underground resistance, but was rebuffed. They risked their lives trying to smuggle and build up a weapons arsenal inside the Ghetto. By September 1942, three quarters of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Jews were deported, and 265,000 of them murdered. Anielewicz and his team started building bunkers and tunnels, and stockpiling their homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails. Shortly after, they were able to acquire several rifles and mines, and one machine gun from the Polish underground. They staged their first attack in January of 1943, and managed to free a handful of Jews. This convinced the Polish underground that the Jews could fight, and they smuggled more weapons to the group (with help from the Jewish Military Union, made up of former officers in the Polish army) now calling itself the Jewish Combat Organization. The resistance continued to make serious trouble for the Nazis. When word came that the Warsaw Ghetto would soon be liquidated, Anielewicz wrote a letter to all of its residents to join the fight, writing that “We are slaves, and when slaves are no longer profitable, they are killed.” The Nazis began the final deportation on April 19, the morning before Passover. They sent in 821 SS troops, who were met by 750 Jewish fighters under the command of Anielewicz. The Jews inflicted serious damage, and the Nazis retreated. They returned with over 2000 soldiers and heavier weapons. The Jewish resistance had the upper hand for nearly a week – and at one point even raised up their flag – but were eventually overpowered. More than 56,000 Jews were captured. The Nazis continued to search for bunkers and slaughter anyone hiding inside. They reached the command bunk on Mila Street on May 7th, where nearly three hundred Jews, including Anielewicz, were shot to death, died by suffocation from gas grenades, or committed suicide. The surviving fighters continued to resist until May 16. While the vast majority of Jews perished, a handful of survivors known as the “Ghetto Fighters” later settled in Israel and established a kibbutz. The actions of Anielewicz gave Jews a sense of hope and strength. He inspired countless others both in his day, and in the present day, and became a symbol of bravery and self-sacrifice. The Polish Army posthumously awarded Anielewicz the Cross of Valour and the Cross of Grunwald. This year, the eve of Passover is once again on April 19, as it was in 1943 when Anielewicz and his courageous warriors launched the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

11 Common Passover Misconceptions

Words of the Week

Regarding the custom of opening the door for Eliyahu on Passover night – don’t think Eliyahu really enters through the physical door of your house. Instead he enters through the doors of your heart and mind.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe

Flag of the Jewish Combat Organization Flag

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Menachem Ziemba

Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto

Rabbi Menachem Ziemba

Rabbi Menachem Ziemba

Menachem Ziemba (1883-1943) was born in a Warsaw suburb in Poland, and raised by his grandfather, a Hasidic rabbi. As a young man, Ziemba quickly proved himself as a genius Torah scholar and Hasidic master. By 18, he was already married, and for the next few decades was wholly dedicated to Jewish studies, writing over 10,000 pages of his Torah-related thoughts, and teaching at the Mesivta Yeshiva. Out of both humility and devotion to Torah, he refused to take on more prestigious roles of rabbinic leadership, including an offer at being Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. However, in 1935, at the request of his own rabbi, Ziemba started taking on community roles and obligations. He soon became world-renowned for his wisdom and took up a key position with Agudas Yisroel, the central organization of Ashkenazi-Orthodox Jews. Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, Ziemba was quarantined in the Warsaw Ghetto along with 400,000 Jews, in an area less than one and a half square miles. Despite the fact that he lost his wife in the Ghetto, Rabbi Ziemba constantly worked towards inspiring hope and optimism among the Jews. He laboured tirelessly to ensure that Jews could continue observing Torah law in the Ghetto, smuggling in provisions (including Kosher for Passover goods) and religious articles, secretly setting up areas of Torah study, and continuing to teach Judaism quietly. He even broke through his own apartment roof so that he could build a proper sukkah for the community. Rabbi Ziemba was given multiple opportunities to leave the Ghetto (including one by the Catholic Church) but refused to abandon his people. Though initially favouring passive resistance, after the 1942 deportations that killed hundreds of thousands of Jews, Rabbi Ziemba was convinced that the Jews had to fight back. He was an important supporter of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and was himself the first to donate funds in order to purchase weapons. To quell the uprising, the Nazis began destroying the Ghetto and burning it down. Rabbi Ziemba was caught in one of these fires, and shot by SS troops while trying to escape. To great shock and sadness, he was killed on the 19th of Nisan, 72 years ago today. Following the uprising, the rest of his family was rounded up and taken to Treblinka, where they were also killed. The vast majority of his writings and teachings were burned in the Warsaw Ghetto, though three books survived, and are still studied today. In 1958, Rabbi Ziemba’s body was exhumed and brought to Israel, where he was finally laid to rest.

Words of the Week

In the past, during religious persecution, we were required by the law ‘to give up our lives even for the least essential practice.’ In the present, however, when we are faced with an arch-enemy whose unparalleled ruthlessness and program of total annihilation know no bounds, Halakha [Jewish law] demands that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of the Divine Name.
– Rabbi Menachem Ziemba

Jews of the Week: Vladka Meed & Viktor Frankl

Feigele Peltel (1921-2012) was born in Warsaw, Poland. At 21 she joined the Jewish Combat Organization. Using her “Aryan” looks and fluency in Polish, she was able to pose as a Pole and come in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Through this, she smuggled weapons and supplies in, while saving countless children (and adults) by bringing them out of the ghetto. Her code name was ‘Vladka’, which she later adopted as her legal name. She also worked as a recruiting agent to bring more people into the resistance. One of these was Benjamin Meed, whom she would later marry in the U.S. Together they were among the key organizers of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Vladka wrote a popular book about her experiences, and along with her husband, continued to work in Holocaust education for the rest of her life.

Meanwhile, Viktor Emil Frankl (1905-1997) was a distinguished psychiatrist and neurologist in Austria. He showed a talent for psychology at an early age, and provided psychoanalysis for high school students free of charge while in med school. He later worked in the dreaded “Suicide Pavilion” where he treated over 30,000 women at risk for suicide. After the Nazi takeover, Frankl was first demoted, then imprisoned, and spent three years in concentration camps. He used these experiences to develop a new philosophy of psychology, described in his world-famous book Man’s Search for Meaning (originally titled Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything). Frankl founded logotherapy, based on the belief that the central motivating force in humans is to find meaning in life, and most problems stem from this deficiency. Frankl revolutionized the field of psychology, wrote several highly-acclaimed books, and won multiple prestigious awards. Interestingly, he proposed that just as there is a Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, there should be a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. Plans are now in the works to build such a statue.


Words of the Week

Don’t argue with an idiot – they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.
– Mark Twain