Jewish Journal


November 1, 2001

Courageous Acts

Jon Avent's NBC movie "Uprising" Jews remembers the Warsaw Ghetto who fought back.


Hank Azaria and Radha Mitchell in "Uprising"

Hank Azaria and Radha Mitchell in "Uprising"

On April 18, 1943, as the vaunted German army marched in to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto, a few hundred Jewish resistance fighters, armed with pistols, rifles and homemade Molotov cocktails, confronted the Nazi soldiers and held them at bay for almost a month.

The ghetto fighters "chose to live and die honorably in a dishonorable world and to take control of their own destiny when the world had abandoned them," says filmmaker Jon Avnet.

Avnet, as director, executive producer and co-writer, has been the driving force behind the miniseries "Uprising," which will air in two two-hour segments on Nov. 4 and 5, from 9 to 11 p.m. on NBC.

The completion of "Uprising" wraps up an intensive seven-year campaign by Avnet, a successful commercial filmmaker, against the "canard" that all 6 million Jews went without protest to their deaths during the Holocaust.

The closest current analogy to the ghetto fighters, in Avnet's mind, is represented by the passengers aboard United Airlines flight no. 93 on Sept. 11, who rushed the terrorists of their hijacked plane, in the near certainty that they would all die.

Cleaving closely to the facts, the makers of this docudrama have based their story mainly on the memoirs of the few who survived the destruction of the ghetto.

The film's timeline starts at the beginning of 1943, when the 450,000 Jews once crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto had been reduced to 60,000 by deportations, starvation and disease.

Among this remnant was the nucleus of the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB), the Jewish Fighters Organization.

Except for a handful of "older" leaders in their mid-20s, most of the fighters were between 18 and 21 years old. Their attempts to enlist the help of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council appointed by the Nazis, failed, and the ZOB drew first blood on Jan. 18, attacking German soldiers escorting a column of deportees.

The Nazis returned in force, with tanks and artillery, on April 18, and their commander promised that the entire ghetto would be liquidated by April 20, as a birthday present to Hitler.

During the next few weeks, the surprised Germans were repeatedly beaten back, until they systematically leveled every ghetto building and flushed out holdouts with gas and fire. The last organized stand came at a bunker at Mila Street 18, although some fighters escaped to the "Aryan" side through Warsaw's sewers and lived to fight as partisans and tell their story later.

On May 16, 1943, German Gen. Jurgen Stroop declared Warsaw "Judenrein" (free of Jews), although a few Jewish snipers remained to harass the Nazi soldiers.

The dominant figure in "Uprising" is ZOB commander Mordechai Anielewicz, a 24-year old teacher, who was killed in the final battle at Mila 18. Anielewicz is portrayed by Hank Azaria, known mainly for his comedic roles, who here displays a forcefulness and intensity that is central to the credibility of "Uprising."

Other resistance fighters are played by Leelee Sobieski (Tosia Altman), Stephen Moyer (Simha "Kazik" Rotem), John Ales (Marek Edelman), as well as Sadie Frost, Radha Mitchell and Israeli actress Mili Avital.

Donald Sutherland gives a finely nuanced performance as Adam Czerniakow, the conflicted head of the Judenrat, while Jon Voight commendably avoids playing General Stroop as a one-dimensional villain.

The only miscasting appears to be David Schwimmer of "Friends" fame, who portrays Yitzhak "Antek" Zuckerman. Even with a willing suspension of disbelief, it is difficult to imagine the well-fed and neatly combed Schwimmer as the ZOB's chief operative on the "Aryan" side and the organization's commander after Anielewicz's death.

"Uprising" has moments of sheer elation, as when the ghetto fighters raise a hand-made flag with the Star of David over one building, in the teeth of Nazi artillery. In counterpoint, educator Janus Korczak, head of an orphanage, tells his charges that they are going on a picnic, and they climb into the cattle cars on the way to Treblinka, singing "The Sun Is Shining."

Among the most harrowing scenes are those of German soldiers pumping water into the rat-infested sewers to flush out the remaining fighters.

"Uprising" is likely to raise protests from Polish American organizations for its unsparingly harsh view of the Polish people.

In one particularly damning incident, an Easter Mass is celebrated in a Warsaw cathedral, while the smoke of the ghetto's burning buildings and bodies drift into the church. The priest's response is to close the windows and continue the service.

At other dramatic points, the Polish underground refuses to aid the embattled Jews, and a Polish worker, paid to guide the Jews through the sewers, tries to renege on his bargain.

Avnet remains unfazed by possible negative reactions. "I wasn't nearly as tough on the Poles as I could have," he says. Without Polish collaboration with the Germans, "many thousands of Jews could have been saved, and we can say the same of the Ukrainians and Latvians."

One of his grandfathers was a cantor in the Ukraine, but he was raised in a "traditional Reform" family in Brooklyn and on Long Island.

He filmed "Uprising" in the Slovakian city of Bratislava. It was a 73-day project he describes as "very difficult -- physically, emotionally and financially."

The director praised the dedication of the predominantly gentile cast and crew, who "worked for very little under tough conditions." The shoot has some moments of high emotion, as when Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who served as consultant on the film, led cast and extras in the singing of "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem.

Avnet hopes that "Uprising" will show the world the courage of many Jews during the Holocaust, and he does not hide his anger at those "who have inflicted the final indignity" on the 6 million by drawing a picture of complete Jewish passivity.

"I cannot understand why [historian Hannah] Arendt perpetuated this image, and shame, also, on the journalistic community, which has really blown it," Avnet says. "This film is a clarion call to unblow it."

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