This year during Yom HaShoah, Jewish people around the world will be remembering the atrocities of the Holocaust. But 2023 also marks the 80th anniversary of one of the most famous acts of Jewish resistance against the Nazi regime: the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest Jewish revolt during World War II and the first significant protest against German occupation.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia, the Warsaw Ghetto was the largest Jewish ghetto in Europe under German occupation. In a revolt protesting the “Great Action,” in which 265,000 Jews were deported from the ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp, approximately 700 Jewish fighters and many Warsaw citizens sought to resist further deportation by assembling in underground bunkers and refusing to cooperate with German forces. Around 7,000 Jews died fighting in the ghetto, with another 7,000 being captured and killed at Treblinka.
While ultimately unsuccessful, the uprising was a historic moment for European Jewish people during the Holocaust and inspired similar uprisings in other ghettos. Today, it is remembered as a display of the strength of the Jewish spirit.
Two different Baltimore-area Yom HaShoah events this year will be telling the stories of those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The Baltimore Jewish Council is holding a community commemoration on April 16 with special guest Judy Batalion, an author and Holocaust historian. Her 2020 book, “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos,” about a largely unknown group of Polish “ghetto girls” who fought Nazis, is an international bestseller that made the New York Times bestseller list.
“We reached out to [Judy] via her website, but the idea was proposed as we were looking for themes and someone suggested her,” explained Emily Braverman Goodman, BJC’s director of Holocaust and countering antisemitism programs. “She writes about women who were involved with anti-Nazi resistances, including women who were involved with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”
BJC’s previous Yom HaShoah events have all followed specific themes, focusing on different Holocaust-related topics. Past subjects have included Holocaust refugees in Israel; the War Refugee Board; and the Final Solution, which was presented by German scholar Dr. Matthias Haas of the House of the Wannsee Conference; among others.
This is BJC’s first in-person Yom HaShoah event since 2019. While the virtual events they held during the pandemic allowed them to have speakers from outside of Maryland, such as the German Dr. Haas, returning to an in-person format will allow the attendees to participate in Yom HaShoah traditions that have been put on hold for several years.
“Every year we invite survivors to join us, and we honor them by having a reception for the survivors and their families before the program,” said Goodman. “Because of COVID, we haven’t been able to do that since 2019, so this is our first in-person survivors’ reception since the pandemic. We’re thrilled to be able to bring survivors together again after all these years.”
Howard County will also be hosting its annual Yom HaShoah commemoration, featuring its own guest speaker. Joel Lichterman, cantor at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, will be speaking about his father’s experience as a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and his participation in it.
Lichterman and his brother were raised in South Africa, where their Holocaust-survivor parents moved after the war ended. His father, Jakub, rarely talked about his experiences during the Holocaust, but he shared some of his story with Lichterman while Lichterman was reading a book about it.
“It was a real watershed moment in my relationship with my father,” recalled Lichterman. “My father drew me a map of the bunkers [in Warsaw] and explained how he and the other resistance fighters were able to communicate during it. It was quite a revelation to me that my father was able to recall exactly what he was doing so much later.”
While he did not speak very often about his experiences, Jakub Lichterman wrote extensively about them. He left many of his writings to his sons in the form of a cantor’s handbook containing music he remembered from before the war, as well as his memoirs. One such memoir can be read online at jewishgen.org.
Jakub Lichterman had served as the last cantor of Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue before the war. He would later return to the ruins of the ghetto long after the conflict had ended, where he found a shofar. He took it back to South Africa, then traveled to Israel to play it at the Western Wall.
“He felt that it was an imperative to make this gesture,” said Joel Lichterman. “I have that shofar today, and it’s a prized possession.”
Joel Lichterman will be bringing that shofar to the commemoration to be displayed along with other Holocaust-era artifacts.
He added that it is important to still discuss acts of resistance like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in accordance with the atrocities of the Holocaust, and it becomes more important to do so as fewer survivors remain.
“We should talk about this for those who cannot speak on their own experiences, and we should never forget,” said Lichterman. “They didn’t have as many psychologists and trauma specialists in those days. My parents had to be their own trauma specialists and figure out what they wanted to make of their lives after what happened to them.”
“There’s a narrative around the Holocaust that the Jews went willingly to the slaughter, and we need to remind people that that is not the case,” said Goodman. “We have always been fighting, and there have always been individuals that resisted what happened to them. It’s important to recognize the courage and strength that was shown in all these acts of resistance.”