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Remembering the children of the Warsaw Ghetto on the 75th anniversary of the uprising

While the Warsaw Ghetto uprising offers a narrative that has been vibrantly told again and again, mythologized by an American culture that craves happy endings, however feeble they may be, the ghetto’s story also speaks to a different kind of memory: one of lost innocence and mercilessness.

Polish Jews are forcibly removed by German Nazi soldiers during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April 1943. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — Today (April 19) marks the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, that larger-than-life battle when a small group of starving, hopelessly under-armed young Jews rose up against 2,000 heavily armed Nazis, remarkably holding them off for 28 days.

The entire Polish army was not even that successful, falling to the Nazis in a comparable amount of time a few years earlier. Immediately after the partisans’ revolt, and to this day, news accounts have dubbed the uprising “miraculous” and it is widely celebrated as the greatest act of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.

The uprising certainly provides a small salve for the wounds of the Holocaust. Despite the fact that almost all of the ghetto’s defenders died, we are at least slightly soothed by their courage. But often forgotten amid the heroics of the battle against all odds, of the David and Goliath story of the revolt, is that the Warsaw Ghetto was a walled prison, a festering place of despair and loss.

In this place lived a little boy with dark hair, knobby knees and expressive eyes. An ominous black-and-white photograph of him with his hands held up in submission is one of the best-known images from the Holocaust, reproduced on par with Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic photo of the liberation of Buchenwald.

This boy may have lived with his parents and three other families, crowded in a single room. He may have liked running or singing or reading. But we can only conjecture. We know nothing about him except his fate. So many of us have seen the photo of this little boy and are haunted by his image. We don’t know his name, if he had siblings, what games he liked to play. Nor do many people know that a Nazi took that image of him — with his hands held up in surrender — inside the Warsaw Ghetto.

Survivor Elie Wiesel invoked the boy during an address to the German Bundestag on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2000 to make a point about the inhumanity of the Holocaust’s perpetrators. Even he was unsure about the child’s origins:

“There is a picture that shows laughing soldiers surrounding a Jewish boy in a ghetto, I think probably in the Warsaw ghetto. I look at it often. What was it about that sad and frightened Jewish child with his hands up in the air, that amused the German soldiers so? Why was tormenting him so funny? … Ivan Karamazov believed that ‘cruel people are sometimes very fond of children.’ Yes, but not of Jewish children.”

If the boy had survived he would be an old man now, perhaps already passed on peacefully after living a long life, with children and grandchildren to remember his name. Instead, he was ruthlessly murdered in the name of anti-Semitism and unfounded hatred.

The boy was never meant to be a symbol of Nazi depravity. His photograph was one of 49 from SS General Jürgen Stroop’s official victory report, which details the final destruction and liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. Titled “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is No More!,” the elegant leather-bound document was later presented as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. Only three copies of the document were made — one for Heinrich Himmler, one for Friedrich Krüger, and one remained in the proud hands of Stroop. The photograph of the boy was meant to demonstrate Nazi strength and triumph. Rather than serving as a trophy for the Nazis destruction of the ghetto, it will forever symbolize brutality used by those in power against the most fragile and helpless.

There are other crushing stories about other nameless children in the ghetto. In 1942, the SS asked Adam Czerniakow, leader of the Jewish council, to chose who would be deported to Treblinka. He was told to compile a list of 6,000 people, including children. At that time Czerniakow realized his situation, working with the Nazis, was futile and the children’s extermination imminent. He left a suicide note referring to this calamity: “The SS wants me to kill children with my own hands. There is no other way out and I must die.” Czerniakow killed himself by swallowing a cyanide pill.

Two weeks later, the children Czerniakow desperately wanted to protect went to their deaths.

Janusz Korczak, a highly esteemed pediatrician and head of the ghetto’s orphanage, also tried to protect the children. When the Nazis ordered the children in his care to be rounded up, he stayed with them. He dressed approximately 200 orphans in their Sabbath best, and led his charges, all singing in an orderly line, to a freight car. To keep his beloved children calm, Korczak told them they were going on a picnic. Korczak selflessly accompanied them on their walk through the ghetto and journey to Treblinka, and eventually to the very gas chambers where he perished beside them.

The memory of innocent, bewildered and terrified Jewish children during the Holocaust, in Warsaw as well as throughout Europe, and their torture and then brutal extinction obliterated the continuation of generations and can never be numbed. Only 11 percent of pre-war Europe’s Jewish children survived, translating to the murder of an estimated 1.5  million Jewish children, effectively wiping out millions of future Jews.

The remaining survivors are the children of the Holocaust. They will be forefront as the uprising’s 75th anniversary is commemorated. But this will, more likely than not, be the last major anniversary where they will be present. It is their story that I call to mind today: the children of the ghetto and their cruel deaths.

By no means am I diminishing the partisans’ remarkable act of courage. The photograph of the Warsaw Ghetto boy, though, reminds us that the uprising was a tiny blip in a genocide that killed approximately 3 million Polish Jews, in the ghetto and otherwise. That while the Warsaw Ghetto uprising offers a narrative that has been vibrantly told again and again, mythologized by an American culture that craves happy endings, however feeble they may be, the ghetto’s story also speaks to a different kind of memory: one of lost innocence and mercilessness.

The widely circulated photo of the capitulating boy, forever nameless, serves as an icon of children murdered during the Nazi genocide. So too it reminds us of the fragility of life and human rights.

(Samantha Baskind is a professor of art history at Cleveland State University and the author of “The Warsaw Ghetto in American Art and Culture.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)  

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