FROM THE MAGAZINE
The disturbing enthusiasm for authoritarian ideas among young people is not confined to the Right. The Left, too, is seeing an upsurge in political violence committed in its name, as well as a general rollback of its defense of the liberal ideas it once loved and protected.
Natan Sharansky is equipped as few others are to speak about the horrors of authoritarian politics. He was a legendary human rights activist sentenced to the Gulag in the last decades of the USSR. He emerged unbroken and with the unshakable conviction that democratic values are of crucial, world-historical importance. In this Octavian Report interview, he explains the failure of communal memory on the question of communism and what he sees ahead for Russia and the world.
If you ever needed a reminder about how much worse the world could really be — and what it really means to be a part of the “Resistance” — look no further than January 17, 1943 in Warsaw, Poland. After the siege of Warsaw in 1939, the German army occupied the historic city until 1945. By 1942, roughly 300,000 had been forcefully transported to the Treblinka killing center as one of the darkest moments in human history unfolded across Europe. But not without heroic resistance from Polish Jews across the occupied country seeking to undermine the vicious death apparatus the Third Reich had constructed in Europe.
It was in January 1943 that Jewish rebels living in the Warsaw Ghetto rose up and shot at German troops as they began collecting Jews for a second deportation en masse to extermination centers. The Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, the “Jewish Fighting Organization,” and Żydowski Związek Wojskowy — the “Jewish Military Union,” or Z.W.W. — attacked German soldiers while families hid from the combat. Nazi troops were forced to delay the deportation process as Jewish fighters armed with barebones weaponry steadily took control of the ghetto. Ultimately, the German troops resorted to systematically burning down the ghetto block by block to regain control from the uprising. But the psychological battle had already been won: resistance groups across Europe recognized the staunch and honorable battle carried out by Jews in Warsaw who refused to go into captivity so easily as a source of inspiration and morale for the rest of the war.
“In the first three days [of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising], the Germans didn’t take a single Jew out of the buildings. After their attempts to penetrate the Ghetto had failed, they decided to spare themselves casualties by destroying it from outside with cannon and aerial bombings. A few days later the Ghetto was totally destroyed … The ‘streets’ were nothing but rows of smoldering ruins. It was hard to cross them without stepping on charred bodies.” So writes Simcha Rotem (or Kazik, if you recognize his nom de guerre) in his emotionally fraught Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter.
After the resistance fighters carried on for a month against a foe boasting military superiority in nearly ever possible regard, it was Rotem, the head courier of the uprising, who at only age 19 led the remaining free Jews in Warsaw to freedom outside the city ruins by way of the sewers. It took a lot of false starts and clever thinking; Kazik spent a great deal of the War disguised as an Aryan in order to move freely through Warsaw, support the efforts of the Polish underground. He continued to help the remaining Jews hiding throughout Warsaw with his covert skills even after the ghetto had been burned to the ground. There’s a lot to be said about a story this important, but above all else it shows what the stakes of true resistance look like.
Finally, do take a look at Jon Avnet’s Uprising, an incredibly well-done television miniseries filmed throughout Eastern Europe that chronicles the events of the Warsaw uprising with a special attention to the emotional duress and tensions that the Jewish people of Poland had to suffer as they dealt with the reality of Treblinka and what little resources they had to deal with the very worst deeds of fascism. Brought to life on film, the situation as a historical event becomes even more poignant as the side conflicts come to life: whether the average Polish freedom fighter kept in mind how their actions affected the Jews, how the Jewish community itself decided to resist, and what more could be done beyond just fighting to send a permanent message to the Nazis. As long as your looking into Uprising, do also consider watching some of the real, colorized footage taken by two brothers during the Warsaw Uprising and more recently re-released in 2014 as Warsaw Rising, produced and remastered by the Warsaw Rising Museum in Poland. It is as close as we’ll hopefully ever get to seeing the real thing.