By Henry Maitles

SEVENTY-SEVEN years ago this month one of the most inspiring moments of the Second World War – perhaps one of the greatest moments in world history – was taking place. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising had no hope of success, but had at its core a moral and ethical mission. A lesson to us that humans fight back against oppression, even if there is virtually no chance of success. As the Jewish Fighting Organisation (in Polish ZOB) announced to the world: “All of us will probably perish in the fight…it is a fight for our human dignity and honour, as well as yours.”

In November 1940, the German occupation in Poland moved to the ghetto stage of its plans for Jews and the area for Jews, the Warsaw Ghetto, was created and walled in. All Warsaw’s Jews were moved in. At the height there were nearly 300,000 Jews, one-third of Warsaw’s population, forced into 2.5 per cent of its area. The massive overcrowding and drastic shortage of food, sanitation and medicines meant that there was a large death rate from disease and malnutrition. Nonetheless, the Jews were not dying fast enough and Nazis began clearing the residents to Auschwitz from 1942 onwards; by early 1943, there were only 60,000 left in the ghetto. A mixture of disbelief about the death camps allied to starvation meant that the promise of bread led to more Jews turning up at Warsaw railway station for transportation to Auschwitz on some days than the Germans could deal with.

When the Nazis surrounded the ghetto in Spring 1943 for the final round up, ZOB resisted by force. ZOB was a mix of Zionist and socialist organisations, with big differences in politics, their point of unity being that all Jews, regardless of their political outlook, would end in Auschwitz. We mustn’t pretend that any decisions in the catastrophe of the genocide were easy, but the first victims of the uprising were the Jewish police and Judenrat (the Nazi appointed Jewish Council), who, it was argued, collaborated with the Nazis organising the round-ups of Jews.

ZOB were completely outnumbered and outgunned as they only had a few rifles and pistols (smuggled into the ghetto), a few grenades and home-made bombs and Molotov cocktails. The German army, with thousands of troops, machine guns, tanks and some air support, was startled and withdrew, with dozens of casualties and a damaged tank. It was the start of something of great meaning for all observers of the events. In May 1943, Goebbels (the Nazi propaganda chief) fumes in his diary about Jews fighting back and with captured German weapons. What makes it even more important was that Nazi theory held that Jews – men and women fighters – couldn’t fight back like this, that they were incapable of any, let alone armed, resistance, as they were subhuman. At the end of May, the Nazis decided that they couldn’t defeat the uprising without larger loss of life and decided to burn the ghetto to the ground. Some survivors fled through the sewers; most were captured and killed.

The ghetto fighters left us a universal message of humanism and hope in the face of barbarism. It was an inspiration understood by some of the leaders of the Polish resistance, one of whom commented that “the blood of the ghetto fighters was not shed in vain…it gave birth to an intensified struggle against the fascist invader”. It is a message that we need to remember as we confront racism and fascism wherever and whenever it raises its head.

Henry Maitles is Emeritus Professor of Education, University of the West of Scotland