A Hello to Arms: In NBC's 'Uprising,' a Jewish Hero Defends His People to the Death. But Is Warsaw's Mordechai Anielewicz a Model for Today?
Article from: Forward Article date: November 2, 2001 Author: Eden, Ami
A Hello to Arms: In NBC's `Uprising,' a Jewish Hero Defends His People to
the Death. But Is Warsaw's Mordechai Anielewicz a Model for Today?
Having been brought up in a Jewish world that glorified the strength of the
Israeli army and the slogan "Never again," I have always found it strange
that the most celebrated Holocaust movie of all time, Steven Spielberg's
Oscar-winning "Schindler's List," was not about Jews who perished, or even
about Jews who survived, but about a non-Jew who saved Jews.
Of course, given Hollywood's historic aversion to all things too Jewish,
it's not surprising that the hero of the definitive Holocaust film would be
a righteous gentile, or that the signal instance of Jewish military heroism
during the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, would hardly figure as a
subject of drama. Until now, one of the better-known accounts of life and
death in the Warsaw Ghetto was Rod Serling's "In the Presence of Mine
Enemies." A ground-breaking telemovie aired in 1960 and remade recently for
Showtime, the film centers not on Jewish resistance, but on the tragic tale
of a Jewish father who must kill his own son so that his daughter can
escape with the help of the enemy soldier who loves her. Other Hollywood
portrayals of the Holocaust also offer up gentile protagonists or themes of
Jewish passivity. "Sophie's Choice," for example, is a Holocaust movie told
through recollections of a gentile woman forced to choose between saving
her son and saving her daughter. Even the stage and film versions of "The
Diary of Anne Frank" are a bit out of step with the modern Jewish
consciousness. That story is, after all, the account of a girl who hides on
the way to the death camps.
But now comes NBC's "Uprising," director Jon Avnet's account of the Warsaw
Ghetto resistance led by Mordechai Anielewicz. The two-part miniseries,
scheduled to air November 4 and November 5, focuses on Jewish characters
and paints an unabashedly heroic picture of Anielewicz (played by Hank
Azaria) and his band of fighters. It makes no bones about Anielewicz's
cause being not only the preservation of Jewish lives, but also the
annihilation of Jewish passivity.
It tells the story, as one German officer in the film notes, of how a band
of about 200 Jewish men and women fended off a series of Nazi incursions
into the ghetto, holding out longer than did all of Poland against the
German army. It provides plenty of images of Jews beating, shooting and
blowing up Nazis, which alone makes the movie worth watching.
As they prepare for what could be their final battle, Anielewicz declares:
"Perhaps we can save some lives. Perhaps we can remove a few Germans from
the face of the earth. This much I promise you, we will live with honor and
we will die with honor -- Jewish honor."
In another speech, he insists to his comrades in arms, "The spirit of our
death will shape the soul of a new generation, a new generation of Jews."
Given the genre and the film's reliance on comic actors such as Mr. Azaria
(the voice of a number of characters on "The Simpsons") and "Friends" star
David Schwimmer, one might expect the work to be a creative flop. But
"Uprising" is surprisingly inspirational. It manages to evoke evenhandedly
the tension between militants such as Anielewicz and those who thought that
the Jews would survive if they simply hunkered down and passively took
Although there is no doubt that the movie belongs to those who chose to
fight, Donald Sutherland supplies a sympathetic portrayal of Adam
Czerniakow, head of the Jewish council charged by the Nazis with managing
the ghetto. When he and Anielewicz debate the merits of each approach, it
is the respected communal leader who seems most interested in saving as
many Jewish lives as possible, as opposed to defending abstract notions of
Historical precedent at the time was on the side of Czerniakow and others
who thought the storm could be weathered. Through centuries of crusades,
pogroms and inquisitions in Europe, the Jewish people had never encountered
an enemy with the means of exterminating every last Jew. It's also
important to note that, while many of the fighters may have avoided dying
in the death chambers at Treblinka, the fate of many of the 350,000 Jews in
the Warsaw Ghetto, Anielewicz and his fellow fighters also ended up being
gassed, albeit in an underground bunker with guns in their hands.
In the end, death with honor seems to be the noble course, but only because
it turns out that surviving was not a viable option for most of those in
the ghetto. Today, in a world in which Jews have unprecedented security and
power, the trick facing the Jewish people is to figure out how to navigate
between the examples of Mordechai Anielewicz and Adam Czerniakow.
"Uprising" may not help much in that regard, but it is a fitting tribute to
those Socialist Zionists, Bundists, communists and other Jewish partisans
who came together to battle the Nazis, and to help remind a nation that
fighting back is also a Jewish option