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A Tale of Two Ghettos

Rembrandt, The Blinding of Sampson (1636)

“Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him / Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves.”—Milton, Sampson Agonistes

1. Warsaw, April 1943

Before the Nazis arrived in 1939, more than 10 percent of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews lived in Warsaw—nearly 370,000 people. It was home to the second-largest Jewish community in the world (the biggest was in New York). Hitler and his acolytes had decided to kill them all.

Once the Nazi forces had occupied the city, a vast ghetto was created, in which its Jews were confined. Those who were able were put to work manufacturing goods for the use of the German military. The remainder were systematically assembled in roundups and shipped by rail to the extermination camp at Treblinka, supposedly to be “resettled”; in fact, to be gassed.[1]

“In the Warsaw ghetto, only after more than 270,000 had already been sent to the Treblinka gas chambers in the summer and fall of 1942, did it finally become clear to those who remained that they were all destined for extermination.”[2] Two resistance movements sprang up among the desperate survivors, the Socialist Zionist Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Organization (ZZW), led by members of Behar, a Zionist-Revisionist organization founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky.[3] The Socialist Zionists regarded the Zionist Revisionists as fascists, and although the ZOB and ZZW both fought the Germans, they did not cooperate.

Hitler’s fifty-fourth birthday fell on April 20, 1943. The German armies had been suffering major reverses in North Africa and in the USSR, and for Hitler’s consolation, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler planned a special birthday present for him: the final liquidation of what remained of the Warsaw ghetto. On April 15, Himmler telephoned the local Nazi commander, SS-Polizeiführer Jürgen Stroop, with instructions. On April 19, the eve of Hitler’s birthday, the SS and its Polish and other auxiliaries moved in. They were astonished to find themselves faced with a furious resistance, which it took them fully ten days to overcome. Artillery and flame throwers had eventually to be brought up, and the entire ghetto was burned to the ground. Countless noncombatants who had been hiding in underground bunkers were systematically flushed out and either summarily shot or shipped off to be gassed.

“The fighters were cut off from the rest of the world, and the uprising went almost unnoticed [by the Allied powers]. . . . During the desperate combat in the streets of the Warsaw ghetto, they were not offered any assistance, nor did they receive any words of encouragement. As far as Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin were concerned, they did not exist.” These young men and women, who knew that they were doomed to defeat and would surely not survive, were nevertheless the first people in Europe to rise up against the Nazis.

All the senior leaders of the ZZW died. Both the ZZW and the ZOB were mostly wiped out. A few men and women managed in the end to escape from the ghetto by way of underground tunnels and the city sewers. Some of them would even reach Palestine.

Stroop’s reports provide most of the information we have about the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Here’s a sample, which offers some significant details (for example, the large number of women involved in the resistance and the inane slur of cowardice, typically leveled against insurgents defined as “bandits” or “terrorists,” despite their obvious willingness to sacrifice their own lives):

Whereas it had been possible during the first days to catch con thesiderable numbers of Jews, who are cowards by nature, it became more and more difficult to capture the bandits and Jews. Over and over again new battle groups consisting of 20 to 30 or more Jewish fellows, 18 to 25 years of age, accompanied by a corresponding number of women, kindled new resistance. . . . the women belonging to the battle groups were equipped the same as the men. . . . It happened time and again that these women had pistols or hand grenades concealed in their bloomers [so all prisoners were made to strip naked].[4]

Stroop noted, too, that “the Polish and Jewish flags were hoisted from time to time on the insurgents’ positions. . . . blue-and-white colors were hoisted, some of them bearing the Star of Zion.”[5]

Stroop was awarded an Iron Cross for the suppression of the uprising and liquidation of the ghetto. Sentenced to death after the war for the execution of captured U.S. airmen, he was then handed over to Poland to stand trial for the crimes against humanity he had committed there. The Poles got to hang him. Stroop faced his own execution imperturbably, it seems. He was a fanatic, who had joined the Nazi party as early as 1932 and no doubt believed he was dying for Hitler and a heroic cause.

When SS Obergruppenführer Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged at Nuremberg in 1946 for crimes against humanity, his last words, standing on the gallows trapdoor, were: “Ich werde dich wiedersehen”: “I’ll see you again.” History would justify them, Nazis of Stroop’s type thought. Their time would come round once more. This needs to be understood if we are to avoid a reappearance of the unspeakable evil they represented and hold on to the small advances the human race has undoubtedly made in the matter of morality since the Hitler era.

2. Gaza, October 2023

More than eighty years after the Warsaw ghetto uprising, there’s no comparison. Compared to the SS, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is, of course, virtually a humanitarian organization. It warns civilians to get out of the way of its bombs and tanks!

Moreover, the fanatical, heavily armed Hamas fighters, backed by the monstrous Iranian regime, are certainly in no way comparable to the doomed young ZZW and ZOB resisters, who harmed no civilians and were mostly armed with pistols (near useless in the context), grenades, and petrol bombs—a group might have a rifle or two if it was lucky.

But there is one thing in which a parallel may indeed be noted, and that should be insisted on: Gaza is also a ghetto, which is to say, a system of civilian confinement created and imposed by an overweening regime for its own purposes and convenience, with scant regard, if any, for the suffering of those trapped in it. Such ghettoization is never justified. Israelis of all people should realize that.

Kettled in Gaza in a space smaller than Philadelphia, blockaded by land, sea, and air, are 2.3 million people—a population much larger than Philadelphia’s. Almost all of them were born there, and they have no escape and little means of supporting themselves. It is likely that many, even most, of them are not supporters of Hamas, which governs its one-party city-state as an Islamic dictatorship. Some of them positively hate Hamas![6] There they are, there they’re stuck. Fintan O’Toole writes of the recent events in Gaza:

In Northern Ireland, a successful peace process was built by drawing Sinn Féin, the political wing of the extremely violent IRA, into democratic politics. The US, having strongly encouraged this process in Ireland, adopted the opposite strategy with Hamas. It was to be kept out of politics and its voters in Gaza were to be similarly isolated by being confined to the strip and kept in limbo. We will never know whether a different strategy might have allowed Hamas to shed its jihadist skin, but this brutal demonstration of the futility of electoral politics surely closed off that possibility.[7]

If the Warsaw ghetto uprising went unnoticed by the outside world, by contrast, today we have almost a surfeit of horrifying information. That both sides are lying may no doubt be taken for granted. But let us discount the propaganda and consider the history that led to the present cataclysm in Palestine, going back to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 (which also, incidentally, involved terrorism, the taking of hostages, and their murder when demands were not met), going back, too, of course, beyond that, to the terrible historical experiences of Jews in Europe in the past millennium—and those of the Palestinians in the past century.

In December 1941, Hans Frank, the Nazi overlord of Poland, said, “I ask nothing of the Jews except that they should disappear.” That is precisely what Israel seems to ask of its dispossessed Palestinians.

“I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed,” the Israeli defense minister has been quoted as saying. “We are fighting human animals.”[8]

Adolf Hitler and Jürgen Stroop must be celebrating in Hell!

[1] To deceive those arriving there, Treblinka was disguised as a transit stop to destinations further east, with a fake ticket window, fake train schedules, and even a fake station clock with hands painted on it (Wikipedia). [2] Moshe Arens, Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto (Jerusalem: Geffen Publishing and the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, 2011/5771), 1. This brief account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is entirely from this source, and everything quoted is drawn from it. [3] The best-known member of this group, Menachem Begin, had left Warsaw when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. He subsequently led the Irgun (Zionist underground paramilitary organization) in Palestine, eventually becoming prime minister of Israel (1977–83). See [4] Ibid., 374–75. [5] Ibid., 380–81. [6] [7] [8]


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