Seventy years ago a band of badly outnumbered Jews living in the Warsaw Ghetto took up arms against the Nazis, valiantly fighting against impossible odds and inspiring other such revolts.
To commemorate the landmark anniversary of the uprising, which took place April 19-May 10, 1943, the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County evoked the heroic stand through photos, song, and prayer in its annual Yom Hashoa Holocaust memorial program. The April 7 event drew 200 people to the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.
“As we all know we have to remember so that we never forget,” said Peter Schild, federation Holocaust and heroism commemoration committee chair.
Holding memorial candles, survivors solemnly marched at the ceremony, which included the Anshe Segulah Men’s Chorus of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. Speakers recited the names of some who perished in the ghetto, and led Mourner’s Kaddish for the Six Million.
“Seventy years is like the biblical span of a lifetime,” said HPCT-CAE Rabbi Eliot Malomet, who reflected on “the spiritual and cultural resistance” displayed by the Jewish ghetto fighters.
Before the ceremony, people viewed the stories, artwork, and displays created by sixth- to 12th-grade youngsters from all over the county.
One of those students, Nicholas Malgioglio, an eighth-grader at South River Middle School, was so moved by the assignment that he insisted on coming to the program; he was accompanied by his parents and teacher Mary Ann Corsaro.
Dr. Agi Legutko, assistant visiting professor at the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland and a specialist in Yiddish language, literature, and culture, was the keynote speaker.
Raised Catholic in Cracow, Poland, Legutko learned at age 22 from her father that her deep affinity for Yiddish and Jewish culture and history may have come through his Jewish grandmother. Genealogical research proved she also had Jewish roots on her mother’s side.
Legutko said by the time members of the Jewish Fighting Organization, or ZOB, launched their offensive against the Germans in Warsaw, many of the ghetto’s almost 300,000 remaining Jews had been rounded up and transported to their deaths at Treblinka.
Approximately 750 fighters, led by Mordechai Anielewicz — who would later commit suicide with 120 others as the Nazis advanced on them — displayed a “spirit of defiance in fighting against the Nazi death machine.”
The fighters were armed with a handful of pistols, 17 rifles, and Molotov cocktails. More than 2,000 heavily armed and well-trained German troops with tanks and flamethrowers were initially repelled.
Many of the Jews realized the odds were overwhelming, but “deep down they believed they would survive,” Legutko said.
There were only about a dozen survivors of a clash that lasted a surprising three weeks, but the uprising spawned revolts in other ghettos and concentration camps.
Legutko said the lone surviving uprising commander, Marek Edelman, remained in Poland after the war. Every year to mark the anniversary of the uprising someone would anonymously send him yellow flowers “to say that the memory will never die.”
Edelman, who died in 2009, also laid yellow flowers, often daffodils, at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes.
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews and Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Museum this year has recruited volunteers to distribute paper daffodils throughout Warsaw during the anniversary weeks to keep that tradition and the memories of those brave Jews alive.
The event was cosponsored by the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission, Middlesex County Board of Freeholders, NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, and Edith and Martin Stein Endowment at federation in honor of Beatrice Zucker.