I’m writing this column on a plane to Warsaw from Miami, where I’ll be attending, God willing, the 80th anniversary commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. My principal reason for traveling to a city I’ve visited many times for Holocaust memory is my reverence for the memory of Mordechai Anielewicz.
Just 23 when he led one of the most courageous rebellions against tyranny in the history of the world, he fought SS General Jurgen Strupp — the hand-chosen leader of Heinrich Himmler — for three whole weeks, killing hundreds of SS, before finally blowing himself up, along with some 700 other doomed fighters, on May 8, 1943, in a Masada-like decision to choose death as free men over captivity at the hands of the Nazi monsters.
Three weeks. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But consider that three weeks is how long it took for Hitler to conquer all of France, with its millions of soldiers. A few days is how long Belgium held out before capitulating. And Denmark surrendered in just a matter of hours.
The Warsaw Ghetto fighters had the most meager arms, just a couple of broken pistols and Molotov cocktails, with perhaps a single machine gun thrown into the mix. Arrayed against them was the full might of the strongest army on earth, complete with tanks and heavy artillery.
Before dying, Anielewicz, along with his Beitar counterpart Pawel Frankel, hoisted the Israeli and Polish flags over the ghetto. It was a stunning act of defiance, five years before Israel was even a state. Anielewicz had the means to flee Poland for Palestine, but he chose to stay behind to lead his young, inexperienced fighters against the Nazi beast. His name deserves to be ranked among the greatest Jewish heroes of all time, alongside Samson; David’s general, Yoav; Judah Maccabee; and Yoni Netanyahu.
Instead, his name is quickly being forgotten throughout the world. Yes, Israel has the kibbutz “Yad Mordechai,” built in his memory. But ask the average 20-something Israeli which Mordechai it refers to. They will in all likelihood have no clue. As far as American Jews are concerned, you’re about as likely to have young American Jews identify Mordechai Anielewicz as they are capable of translating hieroglyphs.
Believe me. I tried this out.
When last month our organization, the World Values Network, was, to my knowledge, the only major American Jewish organization to organize a large-scale commemoration for the 80th anniversary of the uprising, I made hundreds of calls to friends to attend. Those 50 and over had a basic idea of whom Anielewicz was. Those younger were clueless.
As the Holocaust recedes from memory, antisemitism continues to rise in a directly proportional algorithm. The more the world forgets the Holocaust, the more it begins to hate the Jews again. And why? Because the world is forgetting where all this Jew-hatred ends. It’s not benign. It’s not neutral. And it’s not ok.
Rather, it’s deadly, barbaric, and ultimately genocidal.
Last week Time magazine listed, as part of its 100 Most Influential People in the World grouping, first, Bella Hadid, Hollywood’s most vocal antisemite, whose infamous blood libel of Israel as a state that “encourages genocide” is as vile as it is fraudulent. Next, there is Sherry Rehman, who said, “Impunity and Israel are interchangeable.” Finally, we get Gustavo Petro, who said that Israel is “like the Nazis.”
Ask yourself if in the first four decades following the Holocaust, the world’s most influential magazine would have dared list any of these antisemites.
But hating Jews is no longer stigmatized. It’s mainstream.
When America’s most famous Black rapper, Kanye West, cursed out Jews as essentially bloodsuckers and parasites, and then went on to express his love of Hitler, few major African-American leaders condemned him. The silence of Senator Cory Booker was deafening. Amidst millions of Jewish constituents in New Jersey and amidst posting on social media hundreds of times a month, Cory did not utter a word to condemn the Hitler-lover.
When Cory came to visit me for shiva over my mother Eleanor’s death two months ago, I felt the need to raise that vital issue with him. His voice was needed. Cory loved my mother, and I was grateful for the respect he showed her by coming, so, rather than take the focus off the sacred memory of my parent, I followed up a few days later.
Cory has yet to break his silence.
Fascinatingly, one of the only African-American leaders to publicly condemn Kanye was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who did so forcefully at a beautiful night of Black-Jewish unity that I organized at Chanukah with Robert Smith, Carnegie Hall’s chairman and the foremost African-American philanthropist in the world. I took a lot of heat for inviting Sharpton to light a menorah, but I’ve known him for some 25 years and I took him, together with Shimon Peres, to Israel in 2001, when Peres was foreign minister.
Sharpton’s speech that night was mesmerizing, as he confessed he would have no credibility condemning racism against Blacks if he did not speak out against antisemitism and attacks on Jews. It would have no moral credibility.
The photo of Sharpton, Mayor Eric Adams, Robert, and me lighting the Chanukah menorah was published throughout the world and showed that it is indeed possible to work with our Black brothers and sisters, and other communities, to combat the scourge of antisemitism.
Indeed, at the 30-day shloshim memorial that I organized for my mother just last month at Carnegie Hall, the former governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, said that somewhere in the heavens right now, “the late great Mario Cuomo is telling the late great Eleanor Esther Elka Paul to let me be your Shabbos goy.” Let me, a non-Jew, be the one who fights antisemitism and Jew-hatred, he said.
Antisemitism, strangely enough, is ultimately not a Jewish but a gentile issue. It’s a cancer that burns in the hearts of many of our non-Jewish brothers and sisters, and it’s ultimately they who must combat it in their own hearts and in their own communities.
It’s Time magazine that should be policing itself against the inclusion of rabid Jew-haters in its list of the world’s most influential people.
It’s Hollywood that should be rejecting grotesque Jew-haters like Mel Gibson.
It’s concert halls in Germany that should be repelled by, rather than invite, haters like Roger Waters.
And it’s great nations like Poland, which already has named a main Warsaw thoroughfare after Mordechai Anielewicz, that should perpetuate the memory of this truly great young man, who flew both the Jewish and the Polish flags right in the face of the Nazi monsters.
The president of Poland’s massive tribute on Wednesday, April 19, the exact 80th anniversary of the uprising, is an important event. Let there be thousands more like it, so the memory of our martyrs and our heroes never fades.
In the meantime, I have a straightforward and easy-to-achieve suggestion. Mayor Eric Adams, a great friend of the Jewish community, should erect a statue to Mordechai Anielewicz in Central Park. Our entire community should get behind the project and push for it to be unveiled on the 81st anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, on April 19, 2024.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “Judaism for Everyone”
and “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter