Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Saturday 22nd July 2017 | Manchester, UK

Undiscovered Heroes of History: Mordechai Anielewicz

Mordechai Anielewicz, nicknamed ‘Little Angel’, was the chief commander of the Jewish Combat Association who authored the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from January to May 1943. The uprising was the largest single revolt by Jews during WWII and was a response to Nazi Germany’s efforts to transport the remaining Ghetto population to Treblinka extermination camp in German-occupied Poland. Previously a major deportation to the Treblinka had left only 60,000 of the previous 350,000 Jews in the ghetto.

Anielewicz was born to a poor family in a poor neighbourhood, and a week after WWII broke him and his Youth Movement friends escaped from Warsaw to the east regions, assuming that the Polish army would be able to stop the German advance. As Poland became a battle ground for territory, as the Soviet Union advanced, occupying eastern Poland. Anielewicz was subsequently arrested by Soviet authorities as he attempted to pass the border into Romania, where he wished to open a route for young Jews to get to Israel. After a short spell in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, Anielewicz returned to the Ghetto to organise self-defence groups after word got around of what was happening to those deported.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 1943

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 1943

Before WWII, Warsaw had the largest and most dynamic Jewish community in Europe. In October 1939, Nazi Special Forces, the SS began to deport Jews living in Austria and Czechoslovakia to ghettos in Poland. Warsaw became the largest ghetto in Europe, with 400,000 Jews living within it at its peak. In Warsaw, all 22 Ghetto entrances were sealed, and between 22nd July and 3rd October 1942, 310,322 Jews were deported to extermination camps. In January 1943,Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s right-hand man, gave instruction for Warsaw to be ‘Jew free’ by Hitler’s birthday on 20th April.

Many of those who were left were young and able bodied, their families had already been murdered, they were responsible only for themselves and it would transpire, for Jewish history. On 18th January 1943, Anielewiczplayed an instrumental role in organising the first act in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which prevented the majority of a second wave of Jews from being deported to concentration camps. Connections were made with the Polish government in London and weapons were supplied from the Polish side of Warsaw. The resistance was twofold: Anielewicz commanded the battle in the main street whilst others attacked the vehicle escort, allowing the Jews to escape. The deportation ended in a matter of days. Those who remained fortified bunkers and hideouts, obtaining additional weaponry from a few young resistance leaders such as VladkaMeed, who were active on the Aryan side of the ghetto wall.

Three months later- 19th April 1943- the last deportation was planned and uprising broke out. The Germans had planned to liquidate the ghetto within just three days, but although the Nazis greatly outnumbered the rebels, they did not surrender: for 27 days they opened fire on the SS soldiers, attacking them with grenades and petrol bombs. They resisted longer than many countries. Eventually, the Nazi forces were forced to burn down house-by-house and go through every shelter in the Ghetto until General JurgenStroop reported that ‘there is no more Jewish suburb in Warsaw’.

In July 1944, Anielewicz was posthumously awarded the Cross of Valour by the Polish Government and the Cross of Grunwald by the Polish People’s Army as well as numerous streets renamed in his honour and memorials. He is considered a hero amongst Polish Jews worldwide, not least of the manner of his death. It is believed that on 8th May, the Nazis began to use poison gas on the last insurgents, in a fortified bunker; about a hundred men and women escaped into the sewers, but the rest were killed, including Mordecai Anielewicz.

The Jews knew that their chances of survival were minimal, but they chose to fight for the honour of the Jewish people. Just days before his death, he wrote to a unit commander:

The dream of my life has become a reality. I have lived to see Jewish resistance in the Ghetto in all its greatness and glory.’

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