This coming Sunday is Yom Hashoah, the day we in the Jewish community observe our Holocaust Remembrance Day. And this year it will coincide with the seventieth anniversary of one of the most remarkable moments of that long dark night: the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The Nazis deliberately timed some of their worst programmes of mass murder to take place on Jewish festivals, as a way of killing not only Jews but also Jewish faith. So they planned to liquidate the ghetto and murder all its inhabitants on Passover 1943, to prove on the Jewish festival of freedom that the God of freedom did not exist.
Somehow Jews within the ghetto heard about this in advance, and though they were weakened by starvation and disease, and had only a handful of weapons, they determined on a collective act of defiance. They knew that, surrounded by the German army, they couldn’t win, but they held out for a month, and sporadic fighting continued for another three weeks. It was a turning point in Jewish history.
Great rabbis in the ghetto supported the Uprising. They said: this persecution is different from any other in Jewish history. In the past, Jews were persecuted by people who wanted them to convert. So Jews were willing to go to their deaths as martyrs rather than betray their faith. But the Nazis did not want Jews to convert. They wanted them to die. So, said the rabbis, we must defy them by refusing to die, by fighting for the right to live.
They knew that almost all of them would die anyway, but they wanted to make a protest in the name of life, and they did so with immense courage.
After the Holocaust, Jews, and much of the world, vowed, “Never again.” Yet in the last few years antisemitism has returned to Europe, from Greece in the south to Norway in the north, from France in the west to Russia in the east. Nothing like what it was in the past, yet enough to make Jews fear what the future may bring.
Antisemitism matters not because it is an assault on Jews but because it’s an assault on humanity. Jews were hated because they were a minority and because they were different. But we’re all different, and any group may one day find itself a minority. It wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Hitler.
Which is why we must learn to fight hate together. We owe the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto no less.
(First broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day)