By Harriet P. Gross
For us, April is more than the “cruelest month,” as the poet says, because we Jews find it filled with celebrations as well as commemorations. Yes, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, followed quickly on Pesach’s happy heels, and next Monday we’ll join Israel in honoring all its fallen soldiers and terrorist victims on Yom HaZikaron. But what a contrast: The day after will be Yom HaAtzmaut, the joyous observance of the nation’s independence.
Our local calendar gives us many opportunities to mark all these special dates as a community. I took part last Sunday, as I do annually, in reading the names at Congregation Beth Torah, where living voices recall aloud those whose own were forever stilled by Nazi evil. But happy frolics also await our gathering together to wave the blue-starred white flag and sing a lusty “Hatikvah.”
I hope you’ll also remember with me another important date that doesn’t always show up on our Jewish calendars: April 19 this year will mark seven decades since the Germans began to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto. They chose Passover eve of 1943 for starting their killing work, but ultimately birthed many heroic legends.
You’re probably already familiar with a few of them: Mordechai Anielewicz, ghetto resistance leader. Janusz Korczak, physician-orphanage director who refused to leave “his” children and accompanied them to death in Treblinka. Emanuel Ringelblum, who left behind a chronicle of the gruesome ghetto experience.
You may also know of Polish-Catholic Irena Sendler, the 2007 Nobel Prize nominee whose story has made it to the big screen. This social worker went undercover in the ghetto and has been credited with smuggling out and saving the lives of well more than 2,000 Jewish infants and children. Of course, she has been enshrined in Yad Vashem among the Righteous Among Nations.
But there are many others who also risked their own lives for those of ghetto Jews without ever becoming as well known as Irena. One of my favorite organizations, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, knows who they were and reminds us that “We should remember both the Jews of Warsaw who stood their ground and fought the Germans and those not of the Jewish faith who chose to save Jewish lives.”
JFR provides us with the names of many other Righteous Gentiles that we may come to recognize as well. Among them: Alexander Roslan, who took three young Jewish brothers from the ghetto into his own home and raised them with his own children. Helen Bakala, who pretended to be a janitor so she could bring food into the ghetto. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who took part in the ghetto uprising and was later made an honorary citizen of Israel.
Jan Peczkis, billed on Amazon’s Listmania as “a scholar and thinker,” emphasizes active resistance even more strongly than the JFR. He reminds us that “Poles fought alongside Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising… also supplied 770 firearms and thousands of grenades and other explosives to the Jews, trained Jewish fighters and mapped the sewers for combat purposes.”
For those of us who prefer to get such information directly from Jewish sources, he suggests reading David Wdowinski, Chaim Lazar Litai, Elaine Landau, Michal Borwicz, and Dawid Moryc Apfelbaum. An ambitious list, indeed.
Three Stars Cinema and the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance screened the HBO documentary “Fifty Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. And Mrs. Kraus” as their joint, pre-Yom HaShoah film offering. In 1939, Philadelphia Jews Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus were another breed of heroes; they used their brains, wealth, influence, friends, and just plain chutzpah to transplant an entire group of Jewish kids from Vienna to their hometown. A happy irony of Judaism is that even as we commemorate, we have brave people and their worthy accomplishments to celebrate.
So enjoy all of April — remember that Lag B’Omer also awaits.