- “A Struggle Unparalleled in Human History”: Survivors Remember the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
In Riverside Park in Manhattan, at 83rd Street, an unassuming stone in the ground, surrounded by a modest garden, reads: “This is the site of the American Memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto battle April-May 1943 and to the six million Jews of Europe martyred in the cause of liberty.” It’s a peaceful spot, with only the hum of the West Side Highway providing an atmospheric vibration, and runners silently jogging past, probably oblivious to the memorial stone. The text has a lot packed into a short sentence, a jumble of different aims, attaching two different readings not only of the ghetto fighters, but also of the victims: Jewish heroes, but also heroes of all humankind. It reflects the tension between particularist and universalist interpretations of European Jews’ experiences, and ascribes meaning to the utterly meaningless destruction of European Jewry. It turns all the victims into heroes, and aligns their struggle with the mythological American striving for freedom. This cornerstone, dedicated in 1947, became the site of decades of failed attempts by survivors to establish a permanent memorial to the Warsaw ghetto fighters, and to all Holocaust victims.
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In the world of American Jewish Holocaust survivors in the postwar decades, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising came to be the central symbol around which remembrance of the Holocaust revolved. There were many dates that survivors marked to honor their destroyed civilization. They mourned on the anniversaries that their families were killed, and the dates ghettoes were liquidated, or that concentration and death camps were liberated. Landsmanshaftn (hometown associations) marked the dates on which their communities were deported, or slaughtered. Yet no event bound survivors across geographic, political, and religious lines quite like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a symbol of strength amid weakness, and a moment of defiance in the middle of years of victimhood.
This article examines the ways that survivor organizations in New York City commemorated the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the decades after World War II, placing it at the center of their memorial practices, and helping to ensure that the unlikely story of defiance received recognition within the Jewish world and beyond. Survivors conceptualized the uprising as the central symbol of Jewish suffering, resistance, and rebirth. They were, of course, not alone in these efforts, yet their collective contribution to the formulation of Holocaust memorial ideas and practices has so far been under-examined.1 These few decades, until the late 1970s, were years when a singular notion of the Holocaust had yet to crystallize, and these efforts by survivors helped to cement and popularize particular ways of thinking about European Jews’ wartime suffering. Indeed, survivors collectively began to grapple with the meaning of the [End Page 204] Holocaust even while the war was still continuing. New York City was, of course, not the only place where survivors gathered and negotiated their understandings of the Holocaust; nor was it the only place that they influenced the shape of Holocaust memory. Further study is certainly required to come to terms with how this question played out in other urban settings, large and small, where survivors found themselves after the war. Nevertheless, a focus on New York City from 1946 through the late 1960s helps to draw conclusions concerning the links between survivors’ internal conceptions of the Holocaust and ideas that ultimately took shape beyond the survivor and even Jewish communities.
For many survivors, placing the resistance narrative at the center of their memorial life was not only cathartic, but ideological, even spiritual or religious.2 For others, the Uprising was momentous, but remembering it served a broader purpose, a way to popularize stories of the Holocaust. For the latter, elevating the uprising was not ideological, but instrumental. A focus on the uprising served to emphasize symbolically that the fighters were “martyred in the cause of liberty,” thus providing a pathway through which all survivors, whether or not they were veterans of a partisan movement or Warsaw inhabitants, could find some solace in the utter meaninglessness of their suffering. Emphasizing the...