Born in 1919, Mordecai Anielewicz joined a Zionist youth group as a boy and by 1940 had begun actively encouraging Polish Jews to defend themselves against oppression. After the Germans invaded Poland, he organized the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto to fight them off. Anielewicz's forces held the Germans at bay from January 1943 until that May when he and many of his comrades were killed.
Mordecai Anielewicz was born into a working-class Jewish family in the small town of Wyszków, Poland in 1919. Long before the threat of Nazism loomed over Europe, Anielewicz learned early in life that being a Jew at that time meant facing many injustices. Constantly targeted by bullies, he also lived in fear of the often large-scale, government-tolerated anti-Semitic pogroms that could mean death for members of his community.
However, rather than intimidating Anielewicz, these experiences built a sense of defiance in him. While still in his teens, he became an avowed Zionist, making the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine his life’s mission and holding firmly to the belief that Jews should actively defend themselves against the rising wave of oppression.
Against the Stream
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west, effectively igniting World War II. A week later, Anielewicz fled to the eastern part of the country and attempted to cross into Romania to establish a route for Jews to escape to Palestine. Unfortunately, he was arrested by Soviet forces who were on the verge of their own invasion of Poland and was briefly detained. Following his release, Anielewicz traveled to Soviet-occupied Lithuania, where he met with other Jewish refugees and tried to convince them to fight the German occupation of Poland.
In January 1940, Anielewicz returned to Warsaw to begin his campaign of resistance. He started the newspaper Neged Hazerem (Against the Stream). Active in cultural and educational activities in the city, he used these outlets to spread his ideologies over the next two years. Anielewicz’s mission had taken him west of Warsaw in the summer of 1942, when the Nazis ordered their first mass deportation of Jews to the death camp at Treblinka. By the time Anielewicz returned to Warsaw, more than 250,000 were gone, leaving only a fraction of the Jewish population confined to the city’s enclosed ghetto.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Against the advice of Jewish elders—who feared that armed resistance would only lead to an intensified retaliation by the Nazis—Anielewicz began to rally support among the ghetto's young resistance groups. Anielewicz stood out as a natural leader, and in November 1942 he was selected to command the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ŻOB, also known as the Jewish Combat Organization). He quickly set about preparing for the ghetto’s defense, helping to stockpile arms, coordinate the building of bunkers and even establishing a radio station to communicate with others about enemy troop movements.
The ŻOB’s first actions were taken against Nazi collaborators within the community, many of whom were targeted for assassination. However, the first true test of its strength came on January 18, 1943, when a small German force entered the ghetto to begin its next round of deportations. At the heart of the ensuing four-day battle were Anielewicz and a dozen armed fighters who mixed in with the group of Jews being readied for the trains. Catching the Germans completely off guard, they managed to free all of the captives, kill 50 soldiers and force a retreat. In the process, however, almost all of the ŻOB fighters except Anielewicz were killed.
The unexpected resistance they encountered kept the Nazis at bay for months. Knowing that respite to be only temporary, Anielewicz oversaw the reinforcement of the ghetto, gathering more guns, ordering the creation of Molotov cocktails and other handmade explosives and getting a system of tunnels and bunkers constructed throughout the ghetto.
On April 19, 1943, the Germans returned to attempt their next deportation. This time, they had far greater numbers and were more heavily armed. Despite their meager supplies, the resistance managed to repel the initial advance; however, the Germans responded by systematically razing the ghetto, taking away the resistance’s ability to effectively wage its guerrilla warfare and forcing them underground. With ammunition running out and its strategic advantages erased, the ŻOB was eventually overwhelmed by the Germans. On May 8, 1943, its bunkers were discovered and gassed, leading to the death of Anielewicz and about 100 other fighters, some of whom killed themselves or one another rather than be captured.
For his part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—the single largest Jewish armed resistance against the Nazis during the Holocaust—Mordecai Anielewicz would later be honored with a monument in his home town in Wyszsków (whose Jewish population was entirely wiped out during the war), a monument on Mila Street in Warsaw where his resistance ended and a bronze statue in the Yad Mordecai kibbutz in Israel.
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