Opinion |

Ukraine Is Not the Holocaust. But We Can Still Learn Lessons From History

Listening to Ukraine’s valiant president, I think of Mordechai Anielewicz, who led the Warsaw Ghetto uprising: Like Zelenskyy, he pleaded for help and stood ready to die for and with his people. But the parallels end there

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Grafitti depicting Anne Frank burning the Russian symbol for victory "Z", painted on Russian military vehicles employed in the current invasion of Ukraine, by street artist AleXsandro Palumbo in Milan, Italy
Grafitti depicting Anne Frank burning the Russian symbol for victory "Z", painted on Russian military vehicles employed in the current invasion of Ukraine, by street artist AleXsandro Palumbo in MilanCredit: AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Volodymyr Zelenskyy is one of the most heroic, inspirational personalities to burst onto the international arena in decades. The Jewish president of Ukraine has become far more than the leader of his embattled country defiantly fighting for its independence and freedom. Throughout the Russian military onslaught on his country, he has been the symbol of selfless resistance to a military invasion designed to force him – and all Ukrainians – into submission.

Again and again, he has been compared to Winston Churchill during the London Blitz. Like Churchill, he has remained in his nation’s capital throughout weeks of lethal bombing attacks, thereby sharing his compatriots’ fears and anguish. Like Churchill, he has delivered speech after inspiring speech to rally morale and reassure his fellow citizens that he will not abandon them, that he will share their fate, whatever that fate may be.

Listening to Zelenskyy as he reminds us of the cost of freedom, I instinctively think not just of Churchill but of another historical figure of World War II who led his people just as valiantly against a murderous enemy, but on whom the international community turned their collective back.

Mordechai Anielewicz headed the resistance movement in the Warsaw Ghetto that culminated in the May 1943 uprising. Like Zelenskyy, he refused to save himself, as he could certainly have done, and instead remained in Warsaw. Like Zelenskyy, he desperately pleaded for help from somewhere, anywhere. Like Zelenskyy, he stood ready to die for and with his people.

But there the parallels stop, not in the comparison of the two men, but in the diametrically opposite reception accorded to them and their respective causes by their contemporaries. While most of the West has united forcefully in support of Zelenskyy and Ukraine, the leaders of the free world of eight decades ago demonstrated a callous indifference to the plight of the Jews of Warsaw and of European Jewry as a whole.

Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprisingCredit: Wikipedia

"The coming days are likely to see the end of the Jews in Warsaw," Anielewicz appealed to the Polish Underground Movement and to the Polish Government in Exile on March 13, 1943, only weeks before the uprising began.

He continued: "Please inform the authorities in our name that if large-scale help does not arrive immediately, we shall look on it as indifference on the part of the representatives and the authorities to the fate of the Jews of Warsaw...It is not our intention to persuade anybody concerning our willingness and ability to fight. Since January 18, the Jews of Warsaw have been in a state of continuous struggle with the invader and his servants. Anyone who denies this or casts doubt upon it, is nothing but a deliberate antisemite…

"We regret most deeply that it is not possible for us to make direct contact with the Allied governments, with the Polish Government and the Jewish organizations abroad in order to inform them about our situation…"

It's not that the Roosevelt and Churchill administrations were unaware of what was happening. As early as 29 June 1942, based on reports received from London-based Polish Government in Exile, the World Jewish Congress charged that more than one million Jews had already been murdered in "vast slaughterhouses for Jews" in eastern Europe as part of a Hitlerite policy of extermination.

Exhibits at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews show faces from the Warsaw GhettoCredit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

Later that summer, the WJC’s Geneva representative informed the governments in London and Washington, D.C. of the systematic plan to annihilate the Jews of Europe.

In December of 1942, Szmul Zygielbojm, a Jewish member of the Polish Government in Exile, pleaded for help in a BBC broadcast. "It will actually be a shame to go on living, to belong to the human race," he said, "if steps are not taken to halt the greatest crime in human history.

"In the name of millions of helpless, innocent, doomed people in the ghettos, whose unseen hands are stretched out to the world, I beseech you, you whose conscience is still alive: Expunge the raging shame which is being perpetrated against the human race."

Zygielbojm’s words fell on deaf ears. On May 11, 1943, after learning that his wife and son had been killed in the Warsaw Ghetto, he took his life.

"I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered," he wrote in a suicide note. "By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people."

Yellow ribbons on a barbed wire fence near the Warsaw Ghetto honor Szmul Zygielbojm, who committed suicide in 1943 in protest against the world's indifference to the unfolding HolocaustCredit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

Of course, 2022 is not 1943. Of course, there was no technology available during World War II that would have enabled Anielewicz to address audiences outside Warsaw. Of course, the situations are decidedly different. Of course, Ukraine is not the Shoah. Of course, it may appear, at long last, that we have learned at least some lessons from history.

Still, as we watch the international solidarity with Ukraine and the assistance given to millions of refugees from Ukraine, we might spare a thought to the millions of European Jews whom no one wanted during the years of the Holocaust.

And as we continue to listen in awe and with admiration to President Zelenskyy, strengthening our resolve to put an end to this unprovoked humanitarian catastrophe, let us try to imagine for a moment what Mordechai Anielewicz might have told the world, if only…

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. He is the author of "Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen" (Kelsay Books, 2021)

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