On 70th anniversary of Warsaw ghetto uprising, survivor in Israel recounts experience

By Aron Heller

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 6 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Thursday, April 4, 2013 photo, Warsaw ghetto Holocaust survivor Aliza Vitis-Shomron holds a photograph of herself when she was about 17 years old as she sits in her living room in Kibbutz Givat Oz, Israel.

Ariel Schalit, Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Two days before her comrades embarked on an uprising that came to symbolize Jewish resistance against the Nazis in World War II, 14-year-old Aliza Mendel got her orders: Escape from the Warsaw Ghetto.

The end was near. Nazi troops had encircled the ghetto, and the remaining Jewish rebels inside were prepared to die fighting. They had few weapons, and they felt there was no point in giving one of them to a teenage girl whose main task to that point had been distributing leaflets.

"They told me I was too young to fight," said the survivor, now 84, who uses her married name, Aliza Vitis-Shomron. "They said, 'You have to leave and tell the world how we died fighting the Nazis. That is your job now.'"

She's been doing that ever since, publishing a memoir about life in the ghetto and lecturing about the revolt and its legendary leader, Mordechai Anielewicz. While nearly all her friends perished, she survived the ghetto and a later period in a Nazi concentration camp. She made it to Israel, married and has three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

On Sunday night, 70 years after the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Vitis-Shomron is set to speak on behalf of Holocaust survivors at the official ceremony marking Israel's annual Holocaust memorial day.

"It's a day of deep sorrow for me, because I remember all my friends in the (resistance) movement who gave their lives," said Vitis-Shomron. "But it was also a wonderful act of sacrifice by those who gave up their lives without even trying to save themselves. The goal was to show that we would not go down without a response."

Six million Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust of World War II, wiping out a third of world Jewry.

The 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising was the first large-scale rebellion against the Nazis in Europe and the single greatest act of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Though guaranteed to fail, it became a symbol of struggle against impossible conditions, illustrated a refusal to succumb to Nazi atrocities and inspired other acts of uprising and underground resistance by Jews and non-Jews alike.

While the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, the date of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, Israel's annual Holocaust memorial day coincides with the Hebrew date of the Warsaw ghetto uprising — highlighting the role it plays in the country's psyche. Even the day's official name — "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day" — alludes to the image of the Jewish warrior upon which the state was founded. The ghetto battle contrasts with the image of Jews meekly marching to their deaths.

Israel has wrestled with the competing images for decades. After setting up their state in 1948, just three years after the end of the war, Israelis preferred to emphasize the heroic resistance fighters, though their numbers were relatively small. In recent years they have come around to recognizing the overwhelming tragedy of the murder of millions of Jews and the traumas of the survivors who still live along them.

Before the war, Warsaw had a vibrant Jewish community, and a third of the city's population was Jewish. The Nazis built the Warsaw ghetto in 1940, a year after occupying Poland, and began herding Jews into it.

The ghetto initially held some 380,000 Jews who were cramped into tight living spaces. At its peak, the ghetto housed about a half a million Jews, said Havi Dreifuss, a researcher at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial who has studied the ghetto.

Life in the ghetto included random raids, confiscations and abductions by Nazi soldiers. Disease and starvation were rampant, and bodies often appeared on the streets.

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