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We, the Accused

Holding the Victim to Blame

Whenever there is a terror attack against Israel, the world media finds some way to make Israel the accused, whether for provocation or retaliation, for people dying or failing to die, for killing the terrorists, or failing to kill them.

Yehuda Elberg, with rescued cousin now living in Israel

Yehuda Elberg, with rescued cousin now living in Israel

This is not a new phenomenon.  Two thousand years ago, a significant Jew was murdered by non-Jews, and for two thousand years the Jews have been persecuted for his death.  In the current era, Jews are being blamed by anti-Semites for provoking the holocaust.  They have been blamed for its horrible death toll, with their accusers putting the blame on Jewish passivity, and failure to resist.  It is this latter blame that my father Yehuda Elberg addressed in a lecture approximately forty years ago.  He was a holocaust survivor, a member of the Jewish Underground in Poland, and part of the Ghetto uprising.  Immediately following the war he worked on smuggling Jewish survivors to Israel (then known as Palestine).  Below are excerpts from his lecture We, the Accused.

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On the 35th anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, a great deal was written about this in Jewish newspapers the world over, especially in Israel. The influential Maariv carried an article by Chaim Baltsan entitled: “Yom Ha-Shoah 1978: Is it Different from Previous Years?” Among other things, Baltsan wrote: “Much has already been written and said about the heroism — and under the circumstances it was extraordinary — the heroism displayed by the Ghetto rebels and the organizers of the uprisings in the camps. We are proud of that heroism, we will always be proud of it. But not so with the Shoah, that dark and bitter phenomenon in which it is impossible to find even the tiniest spark of light. Yet we are compelled to couple it with the heroism and to utter words in the same breath. We have linked the Holocaust with the heroic uprising in order to conceal the unacceptability of the pain, more accurately the shame; when we recall how millions were led like sheep to the slaughter…”

the Armenian genocide

the Armenian genocide

In brief, they are ashamed of us, they are ashamed of the survivors as well as the fallen. We are guilty of having put on the yellow badge. Better we had all died than let ourselves be so degraded. We are guilty because we did not revolt against being locked up in ghettos; proud people do not allow themselves to be locked into cages like animals in a zoo.  We are guilty because we let ourselves be herded into cattle-cars and did not counter-attack the Germans with our fists…

I want to tell you about the individuals and let the Chaim Baltsans be ashamed of their own ignorance, their own narrow mindedness, their own heartlessness, their owned blindness to the heroism of the Ghetto even when that the heroism was not as spectacular as in the Hollywood film.

An episode from 1940:

They made gallows just high enough for the feet to nearly touch the ground ... and they burned the Indians alive.'

They made gallows just high enough for the feet to nearly touch the ground … and they burned the Indians alive.’

The Germans had given the Jews out of a shtetl in that part of Poland which had been annexed to the Reich. They packed in Jews into trucks. One young woman with a baby in her arms was having difficulty climbing up into the truck. A German soldier politely took the child from her and helped her into the vehicle.  When she stretched other arms to take the child, he throw it to the ground.  The woman jumped from the truck.  The German pointed his rifle at her.  She didn’t budge.  He raved and raged and threaten to shoot her and the child.  She still didn’t budge. He then raised the muzzle of his gun and threatened to shoot all the Jews in the truck.  The woman dragged herself back into the truck.  When they arrived in Warsaw, she was out of her mind.

Who can evaluate the greatness of that sacrifice?  Who can measure the boundless love for her fellow Jews, that gave her the strength to make such a decision and incredible courage to carry it out?  The knowledge of what was going to happen to her baby burned so fiercely in her brain that consumed it.  Her nerves were strung so tautly that they snapped.  Yet she still managed to weigh and measure.  Her hands — a scale of destiny. In one hand the compulsive desire to remain with the child; in the other the lives of the few score Jews.  She made her decision and even succeeded in carrying it out before her unbearable anguish destroyed her brain.

Babi-Yar original art by Esti Mayer

Babi-Yar
original art by Esti Mayer

Hunger, fear and pain weaken a human being physically, and diminishes his mental strength.  There’s no need here to recount what the Jews went through from the beginning of 1940 until the summer of 1942.  In the proceedings of the Nuremberg trials you can find the testimony of one Herman Graebe, a German who was present during the slaughter of the Jews at Dubno.  A group of naked Jews stood at the edge of a ditch.  Behind them we Germans were loading their rifles.  Among the Jews stood a woman with a child in her arms.  The woman tickled the child, and began singing to it, so the child was laughing merrily when the German bullets cut down the mother and baby, and they both fell into the pit.

Psychologists tell us that when a person stands face to face with death all the emotions are paralyzed.  Terror, hope, anger, love, hate, all disappear at the moment when one looks death in the eye.  Emotionally he is already on the other side of the fight.

Our martyrs, however, demonstrated that it is not necessarily so.  Maybe fear has vanished, maybe all hope has died, maybe anger and hatred have been extinguished.  But one thing in this woman continued to live—love.  The emotion of love remained awake, strong, self-sacrificing.  I do not know any poem more lofty.  I’ve never heard any song more beautiful, never seen any deed more holy than the singing of that mother to her child in Dubno.  The chuckle of her infant, on the edge of the grave, sent out into the world’s void a resounding testimony of Jewish love and self-sacrifice.  The giggle of that child is the most exalted ode ever sung to the Jewish mother…

I come back to the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto and I must begin with a prefatory observation.

Some years ago there was a fire in the movie theater where everyone pushed for the exits.  People stepped on each other.  More people died from the panic than from the fire.  Similarly, on a sinking ship, everyone tries to get to the lifeboats.  People grab the rope ladders out of each other’s hands.  The result: nobody gets to the boats.

ghetto sepiaThe Warsaw Ghetto was a flaming inferno, a sinking ship.  But what happened with the people there?

On the day before the uprising began it was like Yom Kippur Eve in a pious Jewish household.  People spoke quietly, walk softly.  A kind of reverential air spread over the Ghetto streets, a trembling, but not out of fear.  Out of exultation.  A decision had been made, responsibility assumed.  But it did not weigh onerously on the people.  It hovered over their heads like an aura.  A whole community of Jews went forth to meet the inevitable with the purposefulness, with a sense of mission, and one could feel the presence of the wings of history, the duty to future generations.  Some sixty thousand Jews marched forth into greatness within the almost festive tread…

We, the Accused

It burns me when I hear someone say that the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto saved the honor and dignity of the Jewish people. No! Jewish honor stood high even when Jews were expiring with a quiet, unspectacular death. It was the honor of the entire humanity that was in mortal peril. And it was the greatness of the Jews in the ghettos, with their sanctified life and their heroic death that saved the honor of the human species, and gave flesh-end-blood mortals back their image of God.

I said that Jewish heroism did not begin with the uprising; it also did not end with the uprising. I need not describe the terror, the anguish, the scientific dehumanization system in the concentration camps. According to all experience in history, according to all the laws of psychology, the survivors should have emerged from the camps embittered destroyers, venomous killers and incendiaries, filled with hatred for a world that had led to all this and then permitted it to go on. Their physical health was destroyed. Their homes were destroyed. But the image of God within them was not.

Overnight, upon the liberation of the camps, a social life was created, with culture, with ideologies. The skeletal fingers did not yet have the strength to hold a pencil steadily, but they were already writing books, issuing newspapers.

I could tell you a great deal about the wonders and the miracles performed by the brands barely plucked out of the fire. Instead, let me quote from a letter by Professor Zelig Brodestski, the then head of Britain’s Jewish community, written to the survivors in Bergen- Belsen after he attended one at their congresses, immediately after the war.

“It was difficult for me to accept the task of coming here to you.  I did not know what to expect, how beaten or wretched you would look But you presented me with e picture of a proud Jewish life, a picture which I shall use in order to instill more pride and more life into the Jews in England. I had thought that perhaps you had fallen in your own esteem. But I have never experienced a more dignified congress. I had thought you would look with anger upon the Jews from abroad, who were able to do so little to save you from the Nazi murderers: but you welcomed me with love and warmth, and you spoke to me candidly and earnestly.  I was afraid you would only weep and lament but you combined your tears with the smile of the eternal Jew.  I had feared your disillusionment and hopelessness, but you displayed a faith and a resolution which all the .Jews in the world would do well to learn from you.”

There is an old legend about the lack of Jewish faith and determination which has hoisted over the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the victory of the Maccabees.  Two hundred and thirty five years later, when the Romans set fire to the Temple and the flames reached the mast, a whirlwind lifted the flag, the legend tells us, and carried it off to a faraway place to keep it safe for a future generation of Jews will redeem the Maccabean flag with their faith and determination.

To live and see this flag redeemed was my most ardent prayer and cherished dream since my childhood.  My dream came true in a strange and traumatic way. It was decades ago, the Warsaw Ghetto rose to fight a formidable enemy, and I was there when the blue-white flag was hoisted over the tallest building in the Ghetto.  It seemed to me that I had seen this flag before.  The dreamy blue and stark white flag was soon consumed by red flames together with the fighters.  It was then that I recognized the flag of my dreams.

Four years later in the Gulf of Lion, in the the harbor of Sete, over five thousand holocaust survivors boarded an old ship to fight the British blockade of the shore of Palestine, a ship later to be known as Exodus 1947.  Again I was there, watching the lineups of boarding passengers.  When I noticed the rolled-up banner under the arm of one of them, I immediately knew that this was the flag of my dreams.

I was not in the lines of battle during the Israeli War of Liberation and the subsequent wars of defense, but I knew that the Maccabean flag was there.  The legendary heroism, the devotion and self-sacrifice of the fighters are proof positive that the flag of faith and resolution inspired them.

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We shall often be the accused.  But it no longer matters.  The flag that was over the Temple, over the Warsaw Ghetto, over Sete, is over Israel: it’s a flag that shall not fall again.