80 years after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, what have we learnt?

80 years after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, what have we learnt?
Apr 2023

80 years after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, what have we learnt?

The Warsaw Ghetto after the uprising was suppressed.(Photo: US National Archives and Records Administration)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

19 April marked the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. My grandmother was there. She was called Regina and her name passed to me. I was heartily mocked at school for this name, with accusations of delusions of grandeur for emulating the Queen. Later this Queen was exterminated at Treblinka...

My Dad was the only one of his family to escape the fate of Europe's Jews at the hands of the German people and their willing assistants all over Europe and beyond. No country permitted entry to those who escaped, and the British especially murdered survivors trying to enter Israel, which at that time was under their Mandate.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Elie Wiesel, was one of many survivors of German barbarism who was barred by the British from entry to Israel and eventually made his way, well post-War, to the USA, which had also barred Jewish entry during the Shoah.

What, if at all, can we learn from this unspeakable event in our history? Eighty years ago, 19 April coincided with Pesach. This day, when we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, was chosen deliberately. Except, in the Biblical case, there was hope of a Promised Land, as laid out in the book of Exodus. Eighty years ago, was there any hope?

The hope in 1943, if at all, was in the knowledge that for the first time in their lives, these Jews, starved, bedraggled and dying on their knees, knew that Jewish teaching does not allow us to be crushed when there is even the glimmer of fighting spirit left in us. The Warsaw Ghetto fighters knew they would all die - some way or other - but the German nation, the most culturally, scientifically, medically and in every other way successful country in Europe was also the most depraved, the most alien to Jewish values. And the Warsaw Ghetto fighters were willing at least to put up a fight for survival.

What is the legacy of my father, Max, the youngest son of Regina? Max was appointed a judge and escaped from Poland to Lithuania at a very young age, making his way through Siberia and Japan to Canada. In Canada, Dad joined the Black Watch regiment, based in Scotland, and fought for the British against the enemy, subsequently working for British Intelligence.

First of all, Dad's legacy taught me a great deal about the importance of law and how essential is the division of powers to any successful country. He taught me about the different roles of the judiciary, executive and legislature. He taught me that the Polish Jewish community was unique, and whole worlds had been lost through aimless hate. He taught me that, in the main, Anglo Jewry was simply not up to the job of safeguarding the Jewish community.

And I never forgot these lessons of childhood. Some years ago, an Israeli university professor, specializing in education, asked me on behalf of a cross-party and cross-religion consortium for advice on the British constitution. The Israeli set-up, he said, definitely needed improving, especially the judiciary, which, in the opinion of many Israelis, was gradually taking on far too many powers for itself. I remembered what my father had taught me so many years ago, and simply repeated it. 'Great', he said. 'We'll definitely bear all that in mind in the Israeli case.' This was in 2006. The debate is ongoing.

It is because of my Dad that I ended up becoming a teacher to thousands, started a number of charities and tried to help refugees whenever I could.

In 1991, aged 40, I was invited to attend the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. There I met Elie Wiesel, who told me that he was very concerned indeed at the alarming plethora of so-called Holocaust monuments and memorials to the period of history which he writes about in his books, about the Shoah, that is. He stated that instead of going on about the past, we have to look outwards and build. We have to build schools, hospitals, universities and most of all communities.

We have to think less of ourselves, and more of others. Going back to the past, he said, only brings on depression, and in the end depression destroys people. That, he said, is the meaning of the Jewish religion, people and culture, and is what was destroyed in the Shoah. How right he was!

At the same time, I met the Dalai Lama, who told me that only Jews could help the Tibetan people, because the Jewish people were unique in having 'learned the secret of survival of exile.' His words, not mine.

I am not sure that the Dalai Lama's words still hold. The amount of discrimination and two-faced behaviour towards the Jewish community, whether living in the West, as in France, Canada, the USA and the UK, to name only those places housing the greatest number of diaspora Jews, not to mention towards the only Jewish State, the State of Israel, now home to more than 7 million Jews as it approaches its 75th birthday next week, is truly dreadful to behold.

Recently, we all witnessed the murders of members of the family of Rabbi Leo Dee, a British rabbi who had officiated both in Hendon and in Radlett, Hertfordshire. For the British media, as well as in the British government reaction, only the Israelis were to blame for this desecration of Jewish life during Pesach. The mainstream press in this country were particularly mendacious in this regard.

Rabbi Dee was visited during the Shiva period by government officials, including both the President and the Prime Minister of Israel. This is only normal in Israel. But again, the BBC and others sent their poisoned darts. Only through the reaction of a number of Jewish journalists stationed in Israel who were there to tell the truth, did attitudes slowly change.

My own family was distraught. I first heard the news late on Saturday night, just after Pesach, from former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I immediately contacted my daughter and son-in-law, a friend and former neighbour of the Dee family. No words.....!

Since then, Arab friends have visited the Dees and joined in tears with them for the murders of their wife, mother, daughters and sisters.

When it comes to Israel, this country (and the USA, Canada and France) are completely blinkered, to the point of libel and slander in my view.

What can we do? What is my father's legacy? What is my grandmother's legacy on this sorrowful day?

I have often wondered why so many synagogues are built in our area. No sooner is one synagogue built, than the younger generation start building another. So, although there are only around 55 'official' synagogues in Greater Manchester, in my area there must be hundreds. There are at least two or three, or four or five synagogues in my own street, housed in non-descript buildings so as not to draw attention.

I think that this is an unconscious wish by those who daily bear the brunt of bullies, both in the street and in the media, to react by performing positive deeds, in emulation of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters.

In a country like Britain, where we aren't even allowed to define ourselves as an ethnicity on pain of prosecution; where to admit to being Jewish in school and university, not to mention in the NHS, the BBC, the mainstream press and to many in Parliament, is to invite abuse; in a country which holds the Coronation on Shabbat, thus preventing observant Jews from tuning in (despite our letter to the King with a request to think again); in a country where fighting back is not an option, what can one actually do?

The only way to react is to keep on building, to keep on educating despite Ofsted, to insist that the Jewish way of life is admirable and will not be given up after 3,500 years of slavery in various diaspora lands. That is the lesson of the Exodus and that is the lesson of the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in my view, as encapsulated in the words of King Solomon:

'Through wisdom is a house built, and it is established by understanding. Through knowledge, the chambers are filled with every kind of treasure rare and beautiful.'

As we sombrely reflect on this 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, may the memory of my grandmother and all those other who perished at the hands of the Western world remain as a blessing forever.