The Warsaw UprisingsSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Originally printed as an editorial in the Detroit News on Wednesday, August 4, 2004.
On April 17, 1943, the Jews of Warsaw rose up against Nazi rule, and on August 1, 1944, the city's remaining inhabitants did the same. The fighting was separated by sixteen months and a few city blocks—and an unbreachable chasm filled with misunderstandings and recriminations.
Last weekend, normal life in Warsaw came to a halt for three days of deeply moving ceremonies honoring the surviving veterans of the 1944 Uprising. Dignitaries from around the world, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, joined hundreds of thousands of Varsovians in an emotional display of gratitude and respect for the sacrifices made by those heroic men and women. I was fortunate enough to be invited to Warsaw for this occasion, and as I watched the crowds and listened to the speeches, I could not help wondering how many descendents of Warsaw's once massive Jewish population even noted the anniversary's passing. I felt the same nagging absence in April 2003, when ceremonies were held in Warsaw to mark the 60th anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising, and local residents commemorated the event as if it involved someone else's suffering, someone else's courage, someone else's history. In this sense, the Nazis won: they totally destroyed the Warsaw that people of different faiths could think of as a common home with a common history. Many Americans—thousands right here in Detroit—trace their ancestors to Warsaw, but Jews remember one city while non-Jews remember another. The history of each Warsaw is all too often told as if the other Warsaw hardly existed.
Tensions between Jews and Poles predated the coming of the Germans, and in the decades prior to WWII there had been a steady increase of anti-Semitism in Poland, so the two communities were already separated in many ways. Nonetheless, they still inhabited a single city, and each constituted part of the other's social landscape. Like it or not, they were all Varsovians, and when the city fell to the Germans in 1939 the entire population experienced it as the start of a long nightmare of suffering and oppression. As the Nazis pursued their genocidal annihilation of the Jews, the Poles were kept apart with a potent combination of threats and bribes—they risked execution if they helped the Jews, and they were rewarded with Jewish property if they stood passively by. Some non-Jewish Poles—not many, but any number is too many—went further and actively assisted in the Holocaust. Meanwhile, most Jews were (and remain) oblivious to the level of suffering endured by their non-Jewish neighbors under Nazi occupation. The Germans treated the Jews far worse than any other group under their control, but that means little to those Poles who recall that nearly 200,000 people died during "their" Warsaw Uprising, or that the city was virtually leveled to the ground afterwards. Millions of non-Jewish Poles died during WWII, and for those whose loved ones were murdered it is scant consolation to suggest that matters might have been even worse had they been Jewish.
Nazism was evil for many reasons, but perhaps the worst was the way it transformed ethnic, religious, and national differences into impenetrable walls of exclusion. Humans will always be marked by cultural distinctions, and often those distinctions will often be accompanied by stereotypes, misunderstandings, and even hostility. There was plenty of this in Poland prior to WWII, but the Nazis amplified and exploited these antagonisms to facilitate German domination. The results are still felt today, as each national group in Eastern Europe remembers its own oppression and opposition, but rarely perceives anyone else's.
A city called Warsaw was built from the ashes after WWII, and in recent years it has emerged as a thriving European metropolis, but the uprisings of 1943 and 1944 marked the true end of the glorious Warsaw that could have been. On those two occasions, it was unimaginable that Jews and Poles could possibly rise together. Six decades later it seems equally unimaginable that it might have ever been otherwise. This enduring failure of imagination may be the greatest tragedy of the Warsaw Uprisings.
Brian Porter is associate professor of history at U-M.