Mordechai Anielewicz was the young commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the largest Jewish insurrection during World War II.
Born in Poland in 1919, Mordechai grew up in grinding poverty. After high school, he joined Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist youth movement. With his strong personality and exceptional athletic ability, Mordechai quickly became a leader and organizer. He attended a pre-military Polish training camp to learn fighting skills.
After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Mordechai and many other Jewish refugees fled to Vilna, in Lithuania, then under Soviet control. In Vilna, Mordechai tried to convince others to return to occupied Poland to fight the Germans. Most people were concerned only with getting to safety, but Mordechai wanted to fight back against the Nazis. He returned to Warsaw, and organized violent resistance groups in cities all over Poland. He also founded an influential underground newspaper.
The construction of the Warsaw ghetto began in April 1940. It was a squalid slum surrounded by a high barbed wire wall. By mid-November Mordechai and all the other Jews of Warsaw had been forced into the ghetto, a total of over 400,000 people. Thirty percent of Warsaw’s population was crammed into an area 2.4% of the city’s size.
Extreme overcrowding and a persistent lack of food, clean water, and medical treatment led to thousands of deaths. Then, the deportations began. Tens of thousands of Jews were arrested and sent to “labor camps.” In 1941, news reached the ghetto that Jews were not being forced into hard labor as they’d been told, but they were being exterminated in massive numbers.
Mordechai was determined to fight back. He became commander in chief of the Warsaw ghetto armed resistance. Mordechai trained Jewish fighters in guerrilla warfare, provided them with smuggled weapons, and taught them to build bomb shelters and bunkers.
The Germans started the final destruction and liquidation of the ghetto in April 1943. They were attacked by Mordechai's resistance fighters lurking on roofs, balconies, and alleys. The Germans had far greater military might and resources, but the Jews knew the environment so well that they were able to force the Germans to retreat. When the Germans returned the next day, 750 Jewish fighters resisted fiercely. The Germans responded with artillery and flame throwers.
Many resistance fighters were killed in the first few days, but others used a maze of tunnels and roofs to continue their guerrilla warfare. Mordechai and his girlfriend Mira Fuchrer were part of a large group of over 300 Jews hiding in a bunker. The Germans discovered the bunker on May 8, 1943. Everybody hiding in the bunker died that day, some committed suicide and others were burned alive. Because there were no survivors, we don’t know the details of Mordechai’s final hours. He was 24 years old when he died.
In his last letter to his friend Yitzchak Zuckerman, Mordechai wrote, “Be well, my friend. Perhaps we shall meet again. The main thing is the dream of my life has come true. I’ve lived to see a Jewish defense in the ghetto in all its greatness and glory.”
For fighting back against his Nazi oppressors and inspiring others to do the same, we honor Mordechai Anielewicz as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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