Thursday, August 4, 2022

Mordechai Anielewicz: No to Despair by Rachel Hausfater, translated by Alison L. Strayer

Four hundred thousand Jews who had been living in and around Warsaw, Poland were herded into a ghetto created by the Nazis in the autumn of 1940.  Locked up in the overcrowded, unsanitary ghetto, people were cold, hungry, and sick, and death was everywhere. Most knew it was just a matter of time before they were sent to Treblinka and certain death. Feigele was a 12-year-old smuggler who was rescued by a young man one evening whole sneaking food back into the ghetto. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis initiated an Aktion, in which three hundred thousand Jews were rounded up and sent to Treblinka, including Feigele's entire family. Later, when she was 14, Feigele was recruited by her rescuer Mordechai Anielewicz to join his band of resisters and it is Feigele, devoted to Mordechai, who narrates the story of his final days in the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Knowing there was no chance of escaping the deportations that had finally begun to happen, Mordechai decided he would rather choose how he would die and go out with dignity than let the Nazis choose for him. And he wasn't the only one who felt that way. Soon, he had amassed an army of Jewish children between the ages of 13 and 24 who were still left in the ghetto and were willing to fight to the end. They were organized to find weapons outside the ghetto any way they could, and runners who were smuggling letters, provisions and guns into the ghetto. 

Mordechai was only 24 years old when he made his fateful decision on April 18, 1943. Knowing the Nazis were about to enter the ghetto, knowing that they would all die, that their struggle is hopeless, Mordechai refused to give into despair and declared war on the Germans. The next day, armed with tanks, machine guns, and planes overhead, 2,000 Nazi soldiers march into the ghetto and are repelled back by this small band of fighting Jews. No one was more surprised than Mordechai when the Nazis were repelled, and continued to retreat from the ghetto day after day, until the Nazis finally demolished it in May 1943.

Though this is a work of historical fiction, it is based on the real life of revolutionary Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the true hero of the Warsaw Uprising. Mordechai, Feigele tells the reader, had been bullied as a child and learned how to organize his friends and show their local tormentors that Jews can and will stand up for themselves when the need arises. And it was those skills he learned as a young boy that Mordechai called upon when he decided he would not let his Nazi captors choose the time and method of his death. 

Feigele's belief in and support for Mordechai never wavers and it is a testament to his courage that she was such a willing fighter along with the other revolutionaries in the ghetto. Additionally, her narration gives us a detailed picture of life in the ghetto, and the way people were forced to live. The story is well researched and Feigele's voice is quite compelling. I found I could not put the book down and read it in one sitting and even though I knew how the Warsaw Ghetto uprising ended, I found there were som facts I didn't know. 

Mordechai Anielewicx: No to Despair is a fascinating fictional biography that should appeal to anyone interested in the Holocaust, heroes of the Holocaust and Jewish history, as well as WWII. 

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