By Michael Handelzalts
On Monday evening, April 20, 2009, we will begin our 24-hour commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, recalling the millions of Jews who perished in Europe between 1933 and 1945 due to the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators. That date also happens to be the 120th birthday of the man who conceived the idea of annihilating the Jewish race: Adolf Hitler.
A lifespan of 120 years is a particularly Jewish idea. It is what we wish our co-religionists on their birthdays, since that was the age reached by four most distinguished Jews: Moses, Hillel, Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Akiva. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, 10 days after his 56th birthday.
In 1948 Israel’s Chief Rabbinate suggested marking the suffering and murder of Jews during the Holocaust on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, which also commemorates the siege of Jerusalem initiated in ancient times by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia – an event that ultimately led to the destruction of the First Temple and Babylonia’s conquest of the Kingdom of Judah. This was also the date proposed for Holocaust remembrance by religious members of a Knesset subcommittee in 1951. However, the Mapam and Ahdut Ha’Avoda members of that subcommittee preferred a date marking the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, which they saw as a symbol of Jewish resistance, rather than focusing on the suffering and annihilation of those dark days.
Thus, there was an ideological conflict on two fronts: One concerned the Jews’ historical image – an effort to distance nascent Israel from its ancient forbears, the European Jews, who went, according to the terrible phrase coined then, “as lambs to the slaughter.” The other conflict involved a desire to highlight the role of the Zionist left (i.e., the Jewish Combat Organization, or ZOB) in organizing the resistance in Warsaw and other ghettos, while playing down the role of Zionist Revisionists activists (the Jewish Military Union, ZZW).
There was therefore a real danger that there would be two commemorative days: one memorializing the Holocaust victims on the 10th of Tevet (when Kaddish is usually recited for all those whose burial places are unknown, and for all other Jewish victims throughout history), and another day honoring the fighters and heroes on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. This would have deepened even further the chasm between European Jews (of whom many, religious and non-Zionist, had perished), and the Zionists, whose members had fought (albeit a losing battle), but died an honorable death.
In 1951 the Knesset suggested a date that would both commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and pay tribute to those who fought in the uprising. As all national holidays are determined in Israel according to the Hebrew calendar, and the date of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising seemed to be the more popular choice for commemorative occasion, the date should have been the same one as in 1943 – the 14th day of the month of Nissan. But since that was Passover eve, the Knesset eventually settled on the 27th day of that month: six days after the end of Passover and a week before Independence Day. Although there were those who still argued in favor of the 10th of Tevet, the 27th of Nissan became anchored in the law establishing the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance authority in 1953, and six years later, by law, became Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day.
Since Hebrew dates and Gregorian dates fluctuate from year to year, the 27th of Nissan and April 20th don’t always fall on the same day: Indeed, the 27th of Nissan 5769 is next Tuesday, April 21. However, since Jews begin to mark their holidays beginning at sundown the preceding day (as per Genesis 1:5: “And the evening and the morning were the first day”), the two dates do coincide this year.
It is widely accepted that Nazi leaders planned the decimation of the Warsaw Ghetto as a birthday present for their Fuhrer. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Web site: “The Germans suspended deportations until April 19, when Himmler launched a special operation to clear the ghetto in honor of Hitler’s birthday, April 20.” However, many accepted truths are not exactly true.
To backtrack, the beginning of the uprising in Warsaw Ghetto was actually in July 1942, when various local movements joined forces to fight the Nazis; already in January 1943, they managed to disrupt efforts to deport 8,000 Jews to concentration camps. Heinrich Himmler visited the ghetto and on February 16 issued a directive: “For reasons of security I herewith order that the Warsaw Ghetto be pulled down … An overall plan for razing the ghetto is to be submitted to me. In any case, we must accomplish the disappearance of the living-space for 500,000 Untermenschen [sub-humans] that has existed up until now, but could never be suitable for Germans, and reduce the size of this city of millions, Warsaw, which has always been a center of corruption and revolt.”
The Germans started the liquidation of the ghetto on April 19, and couldn’t conceivably have planned to finish it in one day. (Says Marek Edelman, a Bundist who lives today in Poland, leader of one of the armed Jewish groups in the ghetto: “We didn’t choose the day – the Germans set it by entering the ghetto.”) At 6 A.M. that morning, Nazi troops were met by armed resistance and had to withdraw temporarily. Under SS General Jurgen Stroop, it took the Nazis more than a month to raze the ghetto. His detailed report on the operation, which is entitled “The Warsaw Ghetto is no more” – and starts: “For the Fuhrer and their country, the following [men] fell in the battle for the destruction of Jews and bandits in the former ghetto of Warsaw” – does not mention Hitler’s birthday.
On April 20, 1943, Hans Frank, the governor general of occupied Poland, wrote the head of the Chancellors bureau: “Today’s session of the administration of the government general, held to mark the Fuhrer’s birthday, was dominated by developments in the security situation. This has indeed developed in a most dangerous fashion as the result of various circumstances. Since yesterday we have a well-organized uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, which has to be fought with the aid of artillery.”
Historian Dr. Havi Ben-Sasson claims there are no German documents from that time that tie the date of the planned destruction of the ghetto and Hitler’s birthday. Furthermore, Holocaust scholar Prof. Yehuda Bauer categorically declares that any connection between the date of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Hitler’s birthday is “pure folklore.”
Whatever the case, one has to admit that when we commemorate terrible events in our past, we cherish the memories of those who suffered, fought and died, but cannot help but raise the ghosts of those who perpetrated the suffering as well. On Holocaust Remembrance Day next week, as every year, the Nazis and Hitler are also on our minds whether we want them to be or not.