April 8, 1999
When We Must Fight Back
"Hit him back!" my husband Larry and I occasionally advise our sons.
"Really? Can I?" each answer, incredulously.
Yes. We do advocate that they fight back: When neither words nor whining, bribes nor threats, deter a brother, buddy or teammate's aggressive behavior. When passivity and playing the victim are unacceptable. And when a solid kick in the shins, used judiciously and appropriately, is the perfect response.
I am not a fan of violence and bullying. My husband and I do not hit our children, and, for years, I didn't allow even a squirt gun in our house. Plus, with four sons, aged 8, 10, 12 and 15, we don't want to encourage superfluous trips to the emergency room.
But sometimes -- in the face of childhood obstinacy or in the face of horrific evil -- a show of strength is warranted. And, on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, which this year falls on April 13, we honor not only those martyrs who perished tragically and brutally but also those heroes who fought back with courage, determination and meager resources -- and often with their lives.
In 1951, the Israeli Knesset established the commemoration of Yom HaShoah on the 15th of Nisan, which occurs between Pesach and Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. Furthermore, it is no accident that Yom HaShoah falls near the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on the first night of Passover in 1943 -- April 19 on the secular calendar.
The Warsaw Ghetto, one of the Holocaust's most horrendous legacies, was established in April 1940 in one of the city's poorer sections. By the fall of 1940, an imposing brick wall, 11 miles long, imprisoned approximately 400,000 to 500,000 Jews in crowded, inhumane and inhabitable living conditions.
In July 1942, the Germans began to systematically liquidate the ghetto by intensifying daily deportations to the nearby death camp of Treblinka. At the same time, in the face of desperation and despair, younger Jewish men and women began resisting, forming the Jewish Fighting Organization under the command of 24-year-old Mordecai Anielewicz. The poorly trained, pitifully armed but courageously determined group concentrated its efforts on procuring guns and explosives and building a series of fortified bunkers and secret passages. Its goal was summed up in the words of resistance fighter Arieh Wilner. "We do not wish to save our lives. None of us will come out of this alive," he wrote. "We want to save the honor of mankind."
The first bloody skirmish took place between the Germans and the Jewish Fighting Organization on Jan. 18, 1943, after SS and Gestapo head Heinrich Himmler ordered a large-scale eradication of the estimated 50,000 remaining residents. A two-day battle ensued, ending with the Germans' temporary withdrawal.
By April, however, Himmler had mobilized troops to completely evacuate the ghetto. On April 19, two columns of Nazi soldiers, expecting to round up the remaining Jews, were blindsided by volleys of bullets, grenades and home-made bombs. Surprise worked in the Jews' favor, but they were soon pitted against 2,000 SS soldiers who were fortified with tanks, heavy artillery and the ability to firebomb buildings.
But remarkably and miraculously, the resistance fighters held out for 28 days in an unequal but valiant struggle. This marked not only the first large-scale, organized uprising against the Nazis, but also the first time that Jews joined together to fight a common enemy since Eleazer ben Yair and his band of zealots defended Masada against the Romans in 73 C.E., killing themselves rather than surrendering.
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, like the stand on Masada, signified a change in Jewish consciousness; it proved that Jews could indeed be brave fighters, choosing honorable death over inevitable capture.
The Jews continued to prove themselves worthy warriors, as they fought for the establishment of the State of Israel and engaged in the War of Independence in 1948. And their heroism and military superiority triumphed in the 1967 Six-Day War, when 3 million Israelis faced more than 80 million Arabs and soundly defeated them in less than a week.
As Jews, we have faced enemies and the threat of eradication throughout our history. But the lesson we learn from the Warsaw Ghetto heroes is "fight back." Because not every battle can be won at the negotiation table. Because Arab children, on television programs sponsored by the Palestinian Ministry of Education, chant, "I will become a suicide fighter." Because Saddam Hussein has an arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons pointed at Tel Aviv.
My husband and I hope our sons will solve their arguments with words and wisdom, compromise and kindness. But we also hope that they will know when a swift left jab or a well-aimed airstrike on a guerrilla stronghold is the right response.
As Jewish writer Israel Zangwill presciently said at the 1903 Zionist Congress, "In Jewish blood and muscle, not in Jewish weeping and wailing, lies the strength of the Jewish people."