When the Government of Israel instituted the day for national remembrance of the Holocaust they established it as Yom Hashoah Vehagevurah, a date on which to ponder both the horror and the might. The reference was of course to the strength, tenacity, bravery, defiance and often sheer hopeless courage of resistance. The 27th of the month of Nissan was chosen to mark the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which began on Pesach 1943 when the Nazis once again entered, to deport thousands more Jews to their deaths.
Courage and might take many forms. There is the extraordinary valour of the fighters in Warsaw who, poorly armed and alone except for what limited support the Polish resistance could offer, fought from house to house and sewer to sewer, keeping the well-equipped troops under Juergen Stroop at bay for weeks and succumbing eventually not to defeat in open combat, but to fire, smoke and poison. It was on May 10, after he learnt of the final crushing of the revolt, that Szmul Zygielbojm committed suicide in London to protest the lack of reaction from the Allied governments:
- I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave. By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.
There are other kinds of courage also. There is the spiritual courage of leaders like Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who lost his only son and many other members of his family in the German bombardment of Warsaw in the first days of the war. Taken to the ghetto, he determined not to descend into the inner silence of grief but to continue to teach so as to maintain his own spirit and inspire others. Until his death in the autumn of 1943 in a camp in Transnistria, from where he refused to be rescued unless his entire group of friends who had made a pact of mutual allegiance could be saved with him, he never allowed hopelessness to penetrate his heart or lost his faith in God:
- Experience has made it evident to me that although a person must every moment hope for God’s salvation, nevertheless he should not hang all his hopes on an expectation of immediate salvation…We have come into this world through God’s will, and our continued existence is through His will…Whatever He wills, is good; we are not permitted to carp at His will.
These words were written on February 28, 1942.
Just a few streets away in the ghetto (though there is no evidence that the two men ever met each other) Janusz Korjak was trying to help the children in the orphanage he ran to maintain faith in the bonds of human contact and love. When offered the promise of personal safety he refused it, walking hand in hand with ‘his’ children to the train which took them all together to Treblinka. These boys and girls had faced sufficient losses and betrayals, he reasoned; he was not going to abandon them now, but rather give his life alongside theirs in the quiet tenacity of loyal love.
Love, too, is a form of courage. One survivor recorded how through all the bitter years of starvation and brutality in camps she repeatedly saw before her the mental image of her parents, exhorting her to live. Only after liberation did she see in her mind’s eye the vision of them departing, although she knew that by all logic they must long earlier have been murdered. Even after their own deaths, their love preserved their child. “‘When you survive’”, said my grandfather to me,’ recalled Roman Halter, ‘not “if’ but “when”, you must tell of what happened to us to the world’. Millions were torn from such staunch family love as parents, children, brother s and sisters were forced apart to different fates. Yet often it remained in the heart, to inspire defiance and hope.
There is the courage, too, of those non-Jews who risked, and often lost, their lives to hide people, children, they often did not know; to give fugitives food, a simple humanitarian act forbidden on pain of death. This summer I shall meet the daughter of the woman who persistently sent parcels to my great-grandmother in Terezin, although she never received confirmation that even a single one of them arrived. The food could not save my great-grandmother, but it did enable others to survive.
We remember all these forms of courage on Yom Hashoah Vehagevurah. The very thought of them humbles us. But they also give us strength, hope and continued faith in humanity so that we can continue in our world the struggle for the values of goodness, kindness and life which they represent.