04/08/2013 03:40 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2013

Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

This Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) is unique as it coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The story is well known: In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, forcing the 350,000 Jews of Warsaw into a Ghetto. In the ensuing years, particularly in 1942, the Nazis deported 300,000 of those Jews from the Ghetto. Most of them met their deaths in German death camps.

In response, several Jewish underground organizations, numbering approximately 750 people, with limited weapons -- pistols and explosives -- fought back. At the outset of 1943 they fired on German troops who were rounding up Jews. The Germans retreated.

For a while the Germans held back, but on April 19, 1943 the first night of Pesach (Passover), they attacked with the intent to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto. Many believe that they attacked that night to send a message that Passover, the Day of Liberation, should be transformed into a Day of Destruction. The fighters, led by Mordechai Anielewicz, stunned the Germans, killing and wounding German soldiers.

Over the next few weeks, they fought heroically. Amid the blazing inferno, the Jewish Fighters declared:

Amid the din of artillery, amid the rattle of the machine guns, amid the smoke of fires and the dust of the murdered of the Warsaw Ghetto ... We know that though we may all perish in battle, we will not surrender. We are gasping for the revenge and punishment of our common enemy. Long live freedom. Death to the Torturers and Tormentors. Long live the battle to the death against the Germans.

And so they fought until the final battle at Mila 18 Street, headquarters of the Ghetto Fighters. The Germans planned to destroy the Ghetto in three days. It held out for a month, much longer than all of Poland did after the Nazi invasion. Even after the Ghetto was obliterated, its buildings burnt down, Jews hid in the ruins ambushing German soldiers.

Some Jews escaped through the sewers, most were killed or deported to death camps. The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt was among the first against German occupied Europe, inspiring other uprisings.

Volumes have been written on "theodicy," where was God during the Shoah? The best answer was offered by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in his Kol Dodi Dofek, written in 1956 when the Jewish People as a collective whole was in its own way still sitting a protracted shiva. Rabbi Soloveitchik's answer was: There is no answer. In his words, it's a "speculative metaphysical question" concerning which there is "no solution, no answer." In effect, he suggested that rather than ask why one should ask what now, that is, given the horror, what can we do about it now?

It's the story of the saintly rabbis in the Haggadah reviewing the horror of the Egyptian bondage even as they faced Roman extermination. In the parallel Tosefta (Pesahim 10:11), ve-hayu oskin be-hilkhot ha-Pessah. Homiletically, turning a phrase from our liturgy on its head, be-hilkhot can be read be-halikhot. They were immersed in the paths, the intrigues, the perplexities, the heartlessness of the bondage. They were consumed, utterly consumed, with questions like, How could this have happened? Where was God?

Until their students came forward and declared: Enough! Enough! Enough bemoaning the horror and asking why. The time has come to ask "what can we do about it," the time has come to take action, the light is breaking through -- higi'ah z'man k'riyat Shema shel shaharit.

This was the story of Mordechai Anielewicz. In the darkness of the Warsaw Ghetto he was declaring, "We can, we will, we must do something," teaching a profound lesson.

When faced with challenges we can do things we never ever thought we could do. The ordinary person can do extraordinary things.

The capacity of people when challenged to do the impossible is testimony to the inner godliness we all possess. As God is of infinite power, so too do we, created in God's image, have the capacity with God's help to reach toward infinity.

When faced with challenges we should ask the "what" question. Not only "what" we will do, but "what" will God do? What does God do? God gives us the will, the stamina, the strength, the spirit to overcome. Ein davar omed bifnei ha-ratzon.

Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the revolt who, together with his wife Zivia (also a fighter in the Ghetto) went on to establish Kibbutz Lohamei Ha-geta'ot, said it well. When asked what military lessons could be learned from the uprising, he responded:

"I don't think there is any need to analyze the Uprising in military terms. This was a war of less than 1,000 people against a mighty army and no one doubted how it was likely to turn out. This isn't a subject for study in military school...

If there is a school to study the human spirit, there it should be a major subject. The important thing was the force shown by Jewish youth after years of degradation to rise up against these destroyers, and determine what death they would choose: Treblinka or Uprising."

Significantly, Zuckerman's granddaughter Roni went on to become the first female fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

Focusing on the "what" question has much to do with the date chosen by the Knesset to observe Yom Hashoah. It wasn't a simple decision. Survivors and fighters insisted it be observed on the first day of Pesach, the anniversary of the uprising. Rabbis were opposed. Led by the Hazon Ish (Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz), they insisted it not be observed in all of Nissan, the month of redemption, or close to it. In 1951, the Knesset reached a compromise. The Shoah would not be commemorated on Passover, but as close to Passover as possible -- the 27th of Nissan.

The Knesset's decision was correct. Had the fighters gotten their way, Yom Hashoah would negate the joy of Pesach. Had the rabbis gotten their way and Yom Hashoah would be pushed well beyond Nissan -- maybe as Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik suggested, to Tisha B'Av (the day commemorating the destruction of the Temples) -- not only would Yom Hashoah have lost its unique importance as it would have been subsumed under Tisha B'Av, but even more critical, there would be no relationship between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel Independence Day).

In fact, none of the biblical or rabbinic holidays or fast days stand on their own. Each can only be fully understood in relationship to another. So, too, Yom Hashoah. Its meaning is only complete when considering its relationship to Yom Ha'atzmaut.

Now, Yom Hashoah falls a week before Yom Ha'atzmaut. This is crucial. Standing alone, Yom Hashoah would be immersed in the unspeakable horror, in the why question. But now it is followed by Yom Ha'atzmaut, which is the fundamental response to the Shoah -- in its own way dealing with the what question: What can we do about it?

As Rabbi Irving Greenberg has written:

"The State of Israel is not a reward or a product or an exchange for the Holocaust -- it is a response. The Jewish people responded to the total assault of death by an incredible outpouring of life. The survivors came and rebuilt their lives. Jewish life was made precious again."

And that's why Yom Hashoah's full title is Yom Hashoah ve-ha'Gevurah. Gevurah means strength. It's the strength of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, of Mordechai Anielewicz, of the Survivors, of Tzahal (the Israeli Defense Forces), of common folks facing everyday challenges, sometimes overwhelming ones, and overcoming.

Perhaps this gevurah is best captured in words attributed to a Ghetto fighter:

"I'm not sure I will survive, but I believe that our shots are the first fired by what will be a Jewish army fighting for a free Jewish people."