There is an anniversary the night of the first Passover Seder, an anniversary that will summon us to awe and to trembling. This year the night of the first Passover Seder is the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was on the first night of Pesach 1943 that the Germans entered the Ghetto and began the liquidation of the Ghetto, and the annihilation of its remaining population. The Germans favored sacred days in the Jewish calendar to assault the Jewish people. There was ample precedent for this. This year the first day of Passover is also the 1,940th anniversary of the Roman Legion's assault on Masada. These two events, Masada and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, are linked. There were two men, Mordechai Anielewicz and Eleazar ben Yair, great Jewish leaders, who left us remarkable testimonies in their last words about the meaning of these Passover events. These two testimonies are connected not just because they were delivered on the same day-Passover-and not just because they commemorate terrible defeats and great Jewish heroism. These two are linked because the men who sent us their last words from the fire and ashes of Masada and the Warsaw Ghetto had the same vision and understanding of the nightmare the Jewish people faced, the tragedy of powerlessness.
Eleazar ben Yair in his last words expressed the fear that he and the defenders of Masada might very well be the last Jews on earth. He knew that with their defeat Jewish powerlessness would begin.
Since we, long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God himself-the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…The Romans reduce us under their power while we are alive. We were the very first that revolted from them, and we are the last that fight against them.
Eleazar ben Yair feared, not without reason, that his Masada Jewish group was the last of the Jewish people. Mordechai Anielewicz, the young frail Shomer HaTzair Zionist who led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, expressed in his last will and testimony the fear that the Jewish people might actually come to an end at the hands of the Germans. Yet he looked forward to the future and declared that he knew he had started a new era of Jewish self-defense and power. Eleazar ben Yair inaugurated the era of Jewish powerlessness. It was to last for 1,870 years. Mordechai Anielewicz knew that he had brought that era to an end. Mordechai Anielewicz understood that with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising he had taught the Jewish people to exercise power, and to defend themselves. His last written words read:
Be well, dear friend. Maybe we will see each other some day. The main thing: the dream of my life was realized. Jewish self-defense in the Warsaw Ghetto became a fact. The armed Jewish struggle and the revenge became a reality. I am a witness to this grand, heroic battle of the Jewish fighters. Where will rescue come from?
The fundamental task of a human being, the most basic to fulfill, before fulfilling all other tasks such as education, the betterment of society, or enrollment in the Wharton School of Finance, is to protect and secure the physical welfare of one's parents, spouse, and children; to secure the safety and health of one's immediate family. For all practical purposes, we the Jewish people were not really able to do that since the fall of Masada. Powerlessness is not just a threat to material existence. Powerlessness is corrosive to the human spirit. If a person cannot protect those most dear to him or herself, he or she is diminished in their very own eyes.
These two men and their words, separated by 1,870 years, stand at the beginning and the end of the era of Jewish powerlessness. The Jewish revolt against Rome, begun in 66, failed. And three years after the Temple was destroyed the last fighters of Judea at Masada took their lives rather than surrender to the Romans. With them, the exercise of Jewish power ended. After the Warsaw Ghetto was emptied of nearly 300,000 Jews between July 23, 1942, and Sept. 12, 1942, Mordechai Anielewicz and his young friends in the Warsaw Ghetto were filled with rage and depression; rage against the Germans and a deep sense of humiliation that the Jewish people had not resisted. Thus, they formed the Jewish Fighting Organization, which launched the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Young Anielewicz was possessed of a deep sense of history. He knew that he had ushered in a new era when he inaugurated Jewish self-defense. That both these men and their communities were assaulted by the Romans and the Germans on Passover is no coincidence. Passover births the Jewish people into freedom. Its enemies will ever and always seek to erase that freedom on the very birthday of freedom itself.
In 1948, as the Egyptian army was moving with determination and success up the Mediterranean Coast, poised to assault Tel Aviv, there was a Kibbutz that stopped them. This Kibbutz had been named Yad Mordechai in memory of Mordechai Anielewicz. Just five years after inaugurating the era of Jewish power and Jewish self-defense, the Kibbutz named in his memory was true to him.
A reading for the first Seder, the 70th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising*
On this night of the Passover Seder, when God redeemed the Jewish people from slavery and oppression in Egypt, we recall that night, 70 years ago, the first night of Passover 1943, when the Germans assaulted the Warsaw Ghetto. On that Seder night the remnants of the Ghetto, the remnants of the Jews of Warsaw, the remnants of the 1,000 year old Polish-Jewish community rose up against evil and enemy. Imbued with the call of Moses, they too declared, "Let my people go!" They took up arms, though no one gave them arms. They fought, though no ally fought with them. On this night of Passover, the Jewish birthday of freedom from oppression and slavery, they restored self-defense and power to the Jewish people. Thus, on this night of Leyl Shimurim when God watched over us millennia ago, we honor the memory of the young men and women of the Jewish Fighting Organization of the Warsaw Ghetto with a pledge that we will never forget the gift of revolt against tyranny that they bequeathed to us and to all humanity.
*Appropriate for use after opening the Door for Elijah
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is the Judaic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.