As you all know, I’m not particularly religious. OK, I’m pretty much an atheist. Not that I would reject the notion of a deity if actual scientific proof was presented, but I don’t do faith.
My parents are a bit different. They were never allowed to practice their religion in the USSR, so when they came to the United States, my dad, especially, absorbed all the faith. He wrote about it a while back in a Russian essay. I don’t remember where it was published – probably some Russian publication in Philly – but it was beautifully written. It was a heartfelt description of a journey from someone not allowed to worship anything but the all-powerful state to someone who genuinely took his God into his heart.
Me? It never took. I did go to synagogue as a kid (read: my parents dragged me there). I was bored out of my mind. I didn’t understand the language, and the singing struck me as so much wailing.
My dad always refers to me as Jewish. He calls on Jewish holidays to wish me well, and no matter how much I protest that I’m an atheist, he reminds me that I was born Jewish.
Jewish is not just faith, my dad patiently explains. It’s history. It’s culture. It’s heredity.
I sigh and quit arguing, because ultimately, it’s not worth fighting about. He has his views, and I have mine.
This past weekend, Sarah and I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This wasn’t our first time. I’ve taken the kids there before – the last time was in 2010, when Danny was 13 and Sarah was 15. It was about time we went again.
One of the things I really love about the museum is that it doesn’t just focus on the plight of the Jews. Sure, the extermination of Jews is the museum’s primary focus, but it does not forget the millions of homosexuals, Roma, political opponents, Poles, freemasons, disabled people, and Jehovah’s Witnesses murdered by the Nazis. The museum is dark and quiet. It is understated. It’s filled with history and tragedy. Photographs, films, names, artifacts, history… The exhibit of hundreds and hundreds of shoes confiscated from prisoners at Majdanek in Poland is particularly powerful.
I have always loved the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. As Jews were getting deported to the Treblinka death camp in 1942 and 1943, the Jews formed an armed resistance and stood up to the thousands of armed German soldiers an police. There were maybe 750 of them, armed with only a few dozen pistols and hand grenades, and yet they stood up and refused to die on their knees. They decided that if they were going to die, they would go down fighting.
“The Germans had planned to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto in three days,” says the plaque in at the Holocaust Museum, “but the fighters held out for more than a month.”
I read an article in the Huffington Post a few years ago that debated the numerous contentions that had Jews not been deprived of their right to keep and bear arms and defend themselves during the Holocaust, they would not have been systematically exterminated.
Guns could not have made the difference, columnist Michael Moynihan wrote in the Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish culture. The Holocaust was a state-sanctioned outpouring of violence from the German public, so the idea that gun control stood in the way of Jewish survival “vastly overstates the effectiveness of a tiny minority resisting a genocidal machine,” he wrote.
Antony Polonsky, a professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, takes issue with a common corollary: that the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — in which about 750 Jews took up arms, killed about 25 Nazis and briefly slowed the deportation of Jews to concentration camps — shows that an armed minority can resist its genocidal oppressors.
The uprising was the largest single Jewish revolt against the Nazis. But the Nazis killed thousands of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, and the 50,000 who survived were sent to concentration camps. “The people who participated in it were killed,” said Polonsky.
The record also shows that the Nazis accelerated the liquidation of remaining Jewish ghettos after the uprising.
The answer, to me, is a bit more complex than just “If Jews had guns during the Holocaust…”
Timing, cultural psychology, the Jews insistence on abiding by the appalling laws passed by the Nazis in the 1930s, barring them from government service, boycotts against Jewish businesses, etc. all contributed to the plight of the Jewish people. Jews subsequently were prevented from participating in the political process. Despite all this, there was little actual resistance. The Jews cowered. They left Germany. Despite mounting abuses, the Central Organizations of Jews in Germany, formed to help Jews during the Nazi era, focused on charitable activities and providing legal defense… in a country where no justice was possible.
I think by the time the Jewish people in Germany realized their very lives were at stake, it was too late to take up arms. They were good little citizens, gave up their rights, and tried to work within the system – a system that aimed to destroy them. Had the Jews not allowed that degradation of their rights from the start, perhaps the Holocaust could have been avoided. Who knows?
But what the Huffington Post misses is the point of an armed resistance. It’s the resistance part that’s critical. The arms are the tool. Resistance is the goal.
Dying on your feet.
Drawing your last breath knowing that you did everything possible to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Perishing as a proud human being, rather than a cowering animal, herded into a cattle car and carted to your death.
The Germans expected to empty the Warsaw ghetto in days. It took them more than a month.
Would the Huffington Post and the cadre of scholars it quoted have preferred that the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto merely boarded the trains to Treblinka like good little lambs?
Would they have preferred that the Jews simply gave up? Died like law-abiding citizens at the hands of an abusive state?
Would they have preferred the Jews surrendered their lives and dignity because, fighting is a lost cause?
It’s not like their general narrative respects freedom, life, or self-worth. It doesn’t.
These are the same people who flog the tired, false narrative that the Second Amendment doesn’t protect the people’s right to take up arms against an oppressive government as the last bulwark against tyranny, but rather exists to protect the rights of a “militia.”
The Jews in the Warsaw ghetto ultimately died when the Germans burned the ghetto block by block, and because they died in the end, the Huffington Post apparently thinks the rebellion wasn’t worth it.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
The Jews in the Warsaw ghetto finally stood up and resisted.
They took up arms and killed several hundred of their oppressors.
They didn’t go gentle into that good night. They went down fighting for their very lives. They didn’t win, but they died like men.
And perhaps had they had more than just a few guns and grenades between them, they would have succeeded and lived.
Now we’ll never know, will we?