Posted Under: Jewishness,London,Minorities,Racism/Fascism
Twenty people gathered in London’s East End on April 19th for a typically low key but poignant memorial ceremony. The Friends of Yiddish were marking the 66th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – the vastly unequal battle that began on that day in 1943. Led by the youth, Jewish resistance forces in the ghetto had resolved to win “a beautiful death” as the Nazi military machine entered to unleash a final act of destruction. Fighting a guerrilla battle for three weeks as the ghetto burnt to a cinder around them, many of the fighters opted for suicide rather than be captured by the Nazis. Incredibly a few escaped through sewers.
It has become commonplace for many Israeli and ultra orthodox commentators to describe Poland as merely “a Jewish graveyard” allowing what happened there under Nazi occupation to obliterate hundreds of years of coexistence by Jews and non-Jews and centuries of Yiddish cultural creativity.
Still less are they interested that some 500 Warsaw Jews saw out the rest of the war in Warsaw itself hidden by non-Jews who risked death at the hands of the Nazi occupiers to hide them. And the sole remaining leader of the ghetto fighters, Marek Edelman, is persona-non-grata in Israel for choosing to continue to live in is homeland, Poland, after the war, and maintaining his pre-war ideological opposition to Zionism.
Mainstream commemorations by conservative Jewish institutions emphasise suffering and heroism but are replete with references to the “miracle” of modern Israel as if it is some sort of compensation for the suffering that occurred. Warmongering politicians hypocritically intone “never again”, while the Chief Rabbi and assorted worthies regularly seek to draw lessons, which usually amount to “the whole world let the Jews down. Antisemitism is still everywhere. Israel must be strong.
The Friends of Yiddish ceremony is remarkable and unique for several reasons. The contributions – songs, poems, reflections, with some English translations, are delivered in Yiddish, the daily language of the vast majority of Hitler’s Jewish victims but a language still looked down upon with contempt in Tel-Aviv. The emphasis is on resistance. Wlodka, a 77-year-old survivor of the ghetto recalls being helped over the ghetto wall a few weeks before the uprising with her twin sister – they were 11 at the time – to be hidden in a flat belonging to a Catholic family. She talks mostly about the man who bribed the guards and helped her escape, who stayed in the same flat. He was Mikhal Klepfisz a 30-year-old engineer who repeatedly smuggled weapons into the ghetto, choosing to make his last delivery as the fighting started, knowing that by going in that time he would not survive. There is no Israeli flag-waving at this ceremony. Quite the opposite. The chair of the Friends of Yiddish invokes an imaginary conversation with the victims of the Nazis as they ask those who remember them today “What have you learned from our experience?” He reminds the audience that “Resistance to occupation is not a crime” and talks about how nationalism continues to breath life into today’s hatreds.
The event concludes with participants standing not for any national anthem, Israeli or English, but to sing a defiant paean to the continuation of diaspora – Mir Zaynen Doh (We are Here), penned in the war years by Hirsh Glik, a partisan who had been incarcerated in the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania.
The Warsaw ghetto has been in the headlines many times this year – but not in its own right – rather as a point of comparison for the horrors suffered in Gaza. Politics by analogy often fails to do justice to the detail either of the situations it aims to highlight or of those which it opportunistically calls into service. Perhaps more apposite is a reflection by a critical Israeli thinker, Boaz Evron a few years back, who observed that two tragedies had befallen the Jewish people in the 20th century – the Holocaust and the interpretation of the Holocaust. Many Jewish leaders had drawn the conclusion after the Nazis that “never again must this happen to the Jews”, while many Jewish and non-Jewish humanists, anti-racist and anti-fascists understood that this must never again happen to anybody. The Friends of Yiddish memorial was far more in tune with the latter.
Wlodka Blit-Robertson, Warsaw ghetto survivor will be reflecting on her experiences at a meeting of the Jewish Socialists’ Group on Sunday May 10th at 7.30pm at the Indian YMCA, 41 Fitzroy Square, London W1.