A Personal Reflection on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
I present this as an introduction to some excellent articles on the long life of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, an event of April 1943 which has continued to resonate in Jewish history and memory. The articles could easily stand on their own and do not need my excursions into my personal past. But I do hope that these personal words will enrich the deep scholarship which undergirds these pieces of historical writing and that it will somehow be of benefit to the theme at hand, namely how the events of Warsaw in 1943 galvanized the Jewish world at the time, became a matter of disagreement and conflict despite its emerging iconic status, and how American Jews, including women and men who had survived the Holocaust, played an early role in ensuring its centrality in the ways Jews and other Americans remembered the "catastrophe," a term American Jews often used to refer to the Holocaust in the late 1940s and 1950s.
As typically happens in memory retrieval, I cannot remember not knowing these three words--Warsaw, ghetto, and uprising--particularly as articulated in Yiddish, my first language, the one that shaped the domestic space of my post-World War II American childhood. Those three words--varshe, getto, and oyfshtand--went together in a seemingly organic way, and essentially hovered in the air with no need to explain. They existed as a spoken and heard verbal triumvirate that resonated in the spaces of our apartment and in the Jewish world around me. No doubt, I had no idea what they meant and never asked. But I did know they had something to do with back there, with Europe, with Hitler, with the place and events that my stepmother had just endured and which had shaped her, frankly, into a terrifying and terrified presence.
But the three words and the solemn, sacred meaning of the event became manifest sometime in the early 1950s, a time before which I do not think I can remember, when my father introduced a new tradition to our family seder, a reading about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which I would come to know very well, and which many decades later started my thinking as a scholar about how American Jews in the postwar era wove the Holocaust into their communal culture.
First, let me say a bit about the text, as I knew it then and as it has taken a place in my scholarly understanding of American Jewry in the years immediately following the war and into the 1950s and 1960s. Three paragraphs, Hebrew and English on opposite sides of a folded piece of paper, it began with an invocation, "On this Seder night we remember with reverence and love the six million of our brothers who died at the hands of a tyrant, more wicked than the Pharaoh who enslaved our fathers in the land of Egypt." That paragraph went on to mention poison, gas, and fire, as well as the murder of men, women and children by Hitler's "minions," a word I probably did not understand for years. The second paragraph focused on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the deeds of the few which redeemed Jewish honor, just as Judah Maccabee--whom I knew from the Hanukkah narrative--had done "in days of old." By their omission, I understood that those who did not join in this or the other uprisings, mentioned but not named, did not bring glory to the people. Finally, a third paragraph which ended with the singing of "Ani Ma'amin" (I Believe), the words drawn from Maimonides's Thirteen Principles of Faith, envisioned a future messianic age, and proclaimed hope in some eventual day when, as it said in English, "justice and brotherhood would reign among men." The "martyrs" with whom the text ended, raised their voices with these words in the ghettos and in the camps of "annihilation," again a word that took me a while to figure out, although I knew it was not good.
What I remember about these three paragraphs, from their initial appearance in our home and lives, was, first, that we had to stand up rather than remain comfortably reclining. This immediately differentiated this passage from all the other parts of the seder except the Kiddush, the blessing over the wine which inaugurated the night's activities. Hearing the words about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, recited just before the opening of the door for Elijah's visit, we did not act, as it were, as free people, and my sister and I received stern warnings about behaving ourselves. I certainly remember that the text did not appear in the Haggadah, which also heightened its solemnity, in as much as we celebrated the seder from a mismatched potpourri of many different books, each with its own pagination, with different midrasbim, causing momentary chaos every year as to where in the ceremony we were and, from a child's perspective, how much longer this would go on. Rather, the text to commemorate the uprising came from four pages on one very small piece of paper, which my father held in his hand as he read the Hebrew, and from which, once my sister and I could read with facility, one of us read the English, the only liturgical use of that language. Over the years, that little piece of paper got stained with wine, and became wrinkled and creased, but still appeared in his hands. Finally, I think I can still hear my stepmother's keening as he read the text. She sobbed, shouted out names, with her body shaking as the words of the Warsaw Ghetto memorial reading resounded around our table. Despite the fact that her Holocaust years had not been spent in Warsaw, and indeed she had never been to Warsaw, this short reading brought to the surface her own personal traumas. Chilling at the time, these memories have persisted, indelibly etched in my idea of what constitutes a seder.
I recall how my dread built up, each year, as the evening progressed--after the dishes had been cleared, the afikomen distributed and eaten, and as we plunged into the second half of the seder. I can feel even today a gut-twisting sensation that the high intensity of the Warsaw Ghetto memorial reading would replay itself, and that once again I would be subjected to the keening and the tears, and to the linkage between the historic events which I could barely understand and the powerful displays of emotion which I could hardly respond to.
The text I heard at home went public as well during my childhood, and its public rendition also ended up shaping my scholarly work. Yearly, my father, a Hebrew teacher who had emigrated from Ukraine decades earlier, along with a few of his fellow members of Milwaukee's Labor Zionist movement, would stage a communal gathering during Passover to mark the passage of yet one more year since the remnant of the ghetto had decided to take up arms as the Nazis proceeded with the final liquidation of the Jews trapped behind the walls. At some point, maybe when I was ten or so years old, I was recruited to be the child orator to read the text in both Hebrew and English from the stage of the Beth Am, a very modest Labor Zionist community building, and then at the Jewish Community Center, which seemed to me a palace on the shores of Lake Michigan. As I remember it, I did this into my teens and could not get out of it until I finished high school, by which time I probably resented having to play this role.
The event itself, by definition, took place with great solemnity. Sometimes the children of our Hebrew school sang the "Partisan's Hymn" and "Ani Ma'amin." A cantor intoned the "El Male Rahamim," a prayer for the departed, and all rose to recite Kaddish. A survivor spoke, usually the parent of one of my friends, as a substantial percentage of the Jewish children in my class had been born in Displaced Persons camps. Some of their parents had numbers on their arms. I recall some literary offerings, poetry probably, as well as the lighting of six candles, one for each million, it was explained. My father often gave some kind of lecture or speech and while probably someone else did so as well some years, in my memory, for reasons so obvious as to need no probe, my recollection of the event and of him merged. His organizing of the event and speaking from the stage transformed him, a short and quite meek individual, into a public hero in my eyes, maybe making him akin to the heroes of the uprising.
Attending the event every year and sitting on the stage facing what seemed to me a sea of Jews, including both Holocaust survivors and plain old American Milwaukee Jews, happened to be three of the city's top elected officials. Our mayor, Frank Zeidler, or later Henry Maier, sat there. So did the city's two congressional representatives, Henry Reuss, elected by our district, and Clement Zablocki, from the south side. The Polishness of his name marked Zablocki, and also the fact that the Jews I interacted with always referred to his ethnicity (assuming he had to be an antisemite because of his Polishness). Every year one or more of these three greeted me, shook my hand, asked me what grade I was in now, and engaged in whatever superficial chit-chat an important adult always on the look-out for votes might have felt obliged to carry on with a youngster.
The gathering took place in the name of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, whose name appeared on the posters and flyers, and supplied the ostensible reason for the prayers, songs, readings, and tears. But in fact, the uprising functioned as a synecdoche, a small part that represents the whole, a convenient and recognized metaphor for a phenomenon that at that point lacked a single name. Although I would learn decades later that the word Holocaust, with or without a capital letter, did in fact resonate in these postwar years, it did not reign supreme as the sole designation for the annihilation of European Jewry until later.
I would also learn years later that such events took place all over the United States. They differed little from the one I knew. While larger cities sponsored multiple Warsaw Ghetto memorial programs, differing a bit from each other in terms of the political ideology of the sponsors, they tended to all have the candles, the dirges, the speeches by survivors, the silent presence of elected officials, and often the child who read the same text that I did.
I also came to learn that that text had a name: "The Seder of Remembrance." It had a history, having been composed in 1952 by a small committee brought together by the American Jewish Congress for the explicit purpose of providing American Jews with a script to use, in their homes and in their gathering places, by which to perform the Holocaust, to remember it, and to make it part of their common culture. The American Jewish Congress and the authors of the Seder of Remembrance recognized the power of the image of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to stand for the Holocaust, as both a matter of deep pathos and of liberal optimism. It provided American Jews, they decided, with a set of words by which to mourn the devastating communal loss and to celebrate the power of human beings, Jews, to stand up and defend their humanity.
I never forgot the program, my yearly stint on center stage reading the Seder of Remembrance, and my handshakes with the mayor, among the other elements of this part of my growing up. Neither did I ever forget the annual, highly charged, if in retrospect macabre, reading of the text at our Milwaukee family sedarim. Indeed, when I became an adult and ran my own sedarim for my children and friends I continued to use it, however stilted and odd the language of 1952. seemed in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. It just felt, despite all sorts of flaws and ideological problems, the right text because of its mnemonic value.
This text, moreover, launched me into a scholarly project, a development that prevents this essay from being just an indulgent ego document, and instead allows it to plot an intellectual trend. Sometime in the 1980s, I confronted the assertion of a number of historians that in the postwar years, amid the conflicting signals of suburbanization and growing affluence on the one side and hysterical anti-communism on the other, American Jews affirmatively chose to ignore the devastations visited upon their people under the Hitler regime. Into the 1990s, the chorus of voices that made this claim got larger and the idea of American Jewry's Holocaust avoidance after the end of World War II became an accepted truth. It emerged as the dominant intellectual paradigm and achieved its apogee in Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1999).
In fact, Novick's editor at Houghton-Mifflin had approached me at a meeting of the Organization of American Historians and asked me to write the blurb for the forthcoming book. Thrilled at first that a publisher like Houghton-Mifflin would ask me to do this and that somehow my name would be, however tangentially, linked to Novick's, I saw this momentarily as a great career moment. I so admired his earlier book, That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) and assumed that this one would be equally engaging and convincing. That
Noble Dream deeply influenced my understanding of the history of the historical profession and helped me see how calls for objectivity existed, historically, in part, as covers for ethnic and racial exclusion, antisemitism, and elitism in the academy. With great expectations, I therefore agreed to read the manuscript on the Holocaust's role in American public culture, assuming that I would be impressed by it and would offer my endorsement of it, for whatever that might have been worth.
There is no need here to go into all of my objections to Novick's book and the reasons why I had to inform the editor that I could not lend my name to it. Suffice it to say, his fundamental historical contention about American Jewry's decision to not make the Holocaust an element in its public culture until the late 1960s when it suited their political agenda did not rest on a solid base of facts. His research appeared to me shoddy and limited, buttressed by not reading the sources rather than by a deep immersion in them.
I found myself particularly intrigued by the statement in the book that American Jews made no effort to weave the Holocaust into religious ritual and liturgy. That statement seemed to me particularly problematic because I realized that in order to make such an assertion a historian would need to look, for example, at every prayer book issued in those years, every baggadab, as well as in the reports of the deliberations of the various movements in which rabbis in fact discussed among themselves liturgical changes related to the Holocaust. Proving a statement like the one Novick made, claiming that they never had done so, it seemed to me as a historian, required an intensive immersion in the sources.
His definitive assertion also grabbed me because I remembered the Warsaw Ghetto reading at our seder, clearly a religious event, and I knew for sure that no one in my family had written it. It had had to have emanated from some communal institution. Some organization had to have decided that American Jews needed this text. Someone or some organized body had to have prepared and distributed this sacred text. So too its recitation--by me, at a ceremony at which kaddish and El Mole Rabamim were also chanted--struck me as a public, religious, and front-and-center engagement with the Holocaust. The presence of the mayors and congressional representatives also demonstrated to me how such presentations of the Holocaust extended beyond the private, inner world of American Jews, or at least Milwaukee Jews.
Shortly after the book came out, but before I decided to embark on my own counter-project, I had the opportunity to chair a panel at a New York synagogue about The Holocaust in American Life, at which Novick spoke, with a number of eminent Judaic Studies scholars, mostly all literary in background, responding to his book. They, for the most part, disagreed with his conclusions about late twentieth century uses of the Holocaust in the Jewish public arena, but they agreed with him on his premise that before the 1960s, with the Eichmann trial and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, American Jews for the most part had brushed aside the horrendous history of the 1930s and 1940s. They concurred with Novick that the war in 1967, amid other developments, brought the Holocaust out of obscurity as American Jewry began to use it for their multifarious and, according to Novick, nefarious purposes.
From my lofty perch as chair of the program, I decided to inject myself into the discussion. Looking directly at Novick, I asked him specifically to prove his historical contentions, and rattled off a number of examples of texts, projects, programs, and political acts from before 1967, which had given a prominent place to the Holocaust. I drew all of them from that highly unreliable source--my memory. I asked him to think about them as examples of American Jewish efforts to remember the Holocaust, to talk about it among themselves publicly, to educate youngsters about it, and share it with the wider American public.
The first of the examples that sprang to mind when I confronted Novick happened to be that Passover reading about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I still did not know it had a name. Nor did I know anything about its origins or how widely families or communities had used it, but I knew that it existed. I also knew that its performance went beyond the confines of our apartment and that at the public gathering that I knew, the audience included the three public officials, all non-Jews, who had to have been invited by someone from the organizing committee made up of local Jewish activists who wanted the three politicians to know about the Holocaust and how much Jews cared about it.
Novick essentially dismissed my question with a comment that went something like, "We all read it differently." I took his statement and the acclaim his book garnered to be the academic equivalent of fighting words. Unsatisfied with his answer, my scholarly antennae buzzed. I now wanted to know more about the reading, as well as about the broader history of what American Jewry in the aftermath did vis-a-vis the Holocaust.
I also wanted to know if my memories fell far from the mark, or if my experiences represented an idiosyncratic oddity. I felt particularly called upon to think about the latter. I am in fact not the most ardent admirer of oral histories, memoirs, and personal recollections as the stuff of history. They provide excellent evidence about how individuals remember the past in the present, but constitute problematic sources from which to reconstruct what actually happened. Perhaps Novick had been justified in dismissing my memories. But I could only know that by immersing myself in the primary materials.
From that moment on, in the waning days of the last millennium, I started digging. I initially assumed I would write an article, but my efforts expanded into a book of which I am quite proud: We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust (New York: New York University Press, 2009). The title gave pride of place to that Passover reading which so shaped, both positively and negatively, my childhood recollections of my family, our sedarim, and the overwhelming power of the Holocaust to shape at least one postwar Jewish family and community in America.
In the course of my research, the memorialization of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising kept surfacing as a theme and as a focal point of Jewish community programming when it came to the Holocaust. I unearthed in the archives not only the programs for the Milwaukee Warsaw Ghetto memorial events (sometimes they obliterated my name and referred to me as a "little girl"), but I also saw programs just like it from many other cities and read accounts of such ceremonies in the Jewish and general press from around the country.
In so many places around the country, I learned from archives and community newspapers, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising served as the ideal moment for Jewish community activists to focus attention on the devastation wrought by the German Nazis and their allies. It did not serve that purpose alone, but it provided a steady, reliable and recognizable time on the calendar, and a convenient rhetorical peg, upon which to hang their deep feelings about the Holocaust. It allowed the activists to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, a phrase heard throughout that era. Programs in fact did not always speak specifically about the events in Warsaw, April 1943. The survivor-speakers may have been in Warsaw but escaped before the revolt. They may have spent years in hiding or been imprisoned in Theresienstadt or Bergen-Belsen, but the ceremonies always used the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising label. It served them as no other appellation could.
Several boxes in the American Jewish Historical Society's archives contained the meeting notes of the committee that drafted the "Seder of Remembrance." The members of that committee discussed among themselves all sorts of matters of style, phraseology, and tone. The Orthodox rabbis who participated declared that from their perspective the text could never be published in the haggadah itself, but had to be used as my father used it, from a sheet of paper, perhaps tucked in between the haggadah's pages. The boxes also contained eloquent testimonies from rabbis from around the country who described to the committee
H. Diner: A Personal Reflection on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 123 their uses of the Seder of Remembrance in such disparate places as an air force base interfaith seder and on educational television. Some correspondents wrote to the committee about the intense and positive reaction of survivors, whom they often referred to as "New Americans," to the text, a few of whom told one rabbi that as they had no idea when their parents had been killed and therefore had no date on which to say kaddisb. Hearing the words, "We remember with reverence and love," made them feel that they had fulfilled their memorial obligations. The boxes tracked how many copies of the text the committee sent out yearly, who requested how many, and which Jewish newspapers published it, so that readers could just cut it out of the paper and have access to it on seder night.
I had no doubt that Novick and many others from a variety of political and ideological positions had erred. American Jews experimented with multiple ways, places, and times to make the Holocaust part of their community life, using it for internal purposes and as they faced the larger American public. In their experimentations with language, phraseology, and modes of presentation about the catastrophe of European Jewry, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took center stage. It provided these women and men from around the United States, whether creating texts, programs, pageants, or political acts, for their own purposes or to share with the American public, a way to embody the Holocaust. It gave them a visible symbol that they believed worked, combining as it did the depths of the destruction with an example of human, and Jewish, agency.
Whatever lessons they derived from their thinking about and presenting the Holocaust, postwar American Jews found in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising a powerful symbol and in that gave the uprising a long life.
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2019|
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