The 1943 armed uprising by the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto against the Nazis remains seared in Israel’s collective memory and played a key role in its observance of Holocaust Day this month.
“We do not have scientific tools to assess the importance of remembrance, but there is a real quest for identity, especially among young people who have questions about values and seek inspiration from the ghetto fighters,” Holocaust historian Moshe Shner told AFP.
On April 19, 1943, when Poland’s German occupiers decided to liquidate the remaining Jews penned into Warsaw’s ghetto, Jewish groups launched a desperate battle against the Nazis.
The uprising lasted a month before it was brutally put down and the ghetto razed.
The majority of the 50,000 Jews who lived there at the beginning of the uprising were killed. More than 300,000 Jews from the ghetto had already been sent to the extermination camp at Treblinka.
Apart from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, which devotes a large part of its space to the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto, two sites in Israel are dedicated to the memory of the fighters: kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot in northern Israel and kibbutz Yad Mordechai in the south, close to the Gaza border.
Lohamei Hagetaot (ghetto fighters), near the Lebanese frontier, was founded in 1949 by Holocaust survivors from Poland, among them surviving Warsaw Ghetto insurgents.
It houses a museum dedicated to the Holocaust, but focused on revolts of the Jews in Warsaw and smaller European ghettos, which receives over 120,000 visitors each year, according to Shner who recently organised a seminar on the impact of the uprising on Israeli society.
“Certainly, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is present in Israeli educational programmes, but the kibbutz museum also tells the story of the ghetto before the revolt,” said the academic, whose father is one of the museum’s founders.
“What is most important in my eyes is to pass on the educational, social and cultural aspects of the ghetto, whose revolt is a result of a way of life from which Israeli society today should learn lessons,” referring to the ideals and socialist groups that fuelled the ghetto resistance.
Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, founded in 1943 by members of the socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, was named after the first leader of the Warsaw revolt, Mordechai Anielewitz, who was killed in the fighting.
Each year on Holocaust remembrance day, a ceremony takes place in front of a statue of Anielewitz at the entrance of the kibbutz museum, which houses a model of the ghetto and a reproduction of the bunker in which Mordechai and his comrades died.
In addition, each year, tens of thousands of Israeli schoolchildren travel to Poland to retrace the footsteps of vanished Jewish communities in Warsaw.
There, these young Israelis attend a ceremony honouring the ghetto fighters at a monument to them by Polish-born Jewish sculptor Nathan Rapoport, who also carved Yad Mordechai’s Anielewitz statue.
“These trips help keep intact the memory of the fighters for future generations,” says Shner, who said he did not like “tours to the death camps.”
“I think that above all we need to remember what these people experienced in life, not only the manner in which they were killed,” he said.