Saturday, July 06, 2013

A Story & Two Questions

I wrote and first published this post in March of 2009.

Photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943:

There is a story I was told by a Jewish (Reform) Rabbi while I was in seminary. The story takes place in the Warsaw ghetto in the final days of the Jews uprising against the Nazis, just prior to its complete destruction by German troops.

As the story goes, literally every Jew in the ghetto was in some way involved in the uprising except a group of extremely Orthodox Jews and their students who, rather than taking up arms, making or throwing Molotov cocktails, or tending to the wounded, continually prayed.

When the freedom fighters begged for their arms and legs to fight the Nazis, their leader responded, “God will save us.” This continued until approximately 16,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis in the ghetto and most the remaining 50,000 residents were captured and shipped to German concentration and extermination camps. Among these were the Orthodox rabbis and their students.

When I first heard this story, I was furious—furious with God for abandoning the people to the evil of Nazi Germany; furious with the Orthodox rabbis and the students for not taking up arms. As the Reform Rabbi continued the story, I began to see what happened in a different frame of reference. The freedom fighters had been abandoned by literally everyone: their fellow Poles, who did nothing to assist them in their insurrection; the Allies, who had the potential of offering some aid but didn’t; the Christian churches, including the Vatican, who turned a blind eye on what was happening. Two days after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish Labor Union leader, Szmul Zygielbojm, who was a member of the National Council of the Polish government in exile, committed suicide in London in protest, citing a lack of assistance for the insurgents on the part of Western governments:
I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave. 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.
This story raised—and continues to raise—two ethical and moral questions:

  • As a peacemaker, I have claimed that I would rather die than kill another human being. Is that always a valid ethic, even when the others are taking the lives of numerous innocent human beings?
  • As a Christian, especially as an ordained clergyperson, I believe in the power of pray. Is their a time when prayer must be replaced by action in order to promote the greatest good?

I have no unconditional answer for either question. So, I ask you these two above questions and look forward to your comments.

  • Peace has to be created, in order to be maintained. It is the product of Faith, Strength, Energy, Will, Sympathy, Justice, Imagination, and the triumph of principle. It will never be achieved by passivity and quietism. ~ Dorothy Thompson
  • We make war that we may live in peace. ~ Aristotle
  • Everyone's a pacifist between wars. It's like being a vegetarian between meals. ~ Colman McCarthy
  • I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not just for oneself, one's own family or nation, but for the benefit of all humankind. Universal responsibility is the key to human survival. It is the best foundation for world peace. ~ H. H. Dalai Lama
  • You can't shake hands with a clenched fist. ~ Indira Gandhi
  • A just man, even a peace-loving one, will find it impossible to live in peace with injustice, oppression, and undeniable evil. ~ Author Unknown
  • We tend to think the problem is human beings have this natural tendency to kill, and yet in the middle of a hot war, WWII, a "good war," as it were, the US army was astonished to learn that at least three out of every four riflemen who were trained to kill and commanded to kill, could not bring themselves to pull the trigger when they could see the person they were ordered to kill. And that inner resistance to violence is a well kept secret. ~ William Ury


  1. Horrible story, difficult questions. Thank you, sir.

    1. Yes, Colonel, horrendous. My heart cries out just thinking about it.

  2. Sad. And the killing-the genocide-still goes on.

    1. Yes, Andi, genocide continues. We humans ain't learned a damned thing!

  3. The problem is generally just a few well-placed psychopaths at the top and hundreds of thousands of meek fools at the bottom who are too gutless to say "No!" They've been indoctrinated since childhood to be cogs in a machine, and they'd literally rather die than change their minds.

    I still think nonviolent resistance is the best. I don't think we have to change hearts, just minds; most people have good souls, we just have to get the ring out of their nose.

    1. I agree about the psychopath leaders, Thomas, but I don’t think individual crazies are absolutely necessary. The Islamists who just killed the Nigerian students evidently have more than just crazy leaders: I think that they themselves are psychopathic. As for robotic followers, WWII teaches us that there must also be many enablers to allow such horrible events as a Holocaust. For example, the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto received no external help: the Polish Christian community, the Roman Catholic Church, the Communists, the partisans, and even the Allies turned their back on the Jews in the ghetto.

      Since World War II, genocides have taken place in Zanzibar, Pakistan, Burundi, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, and Rwanda, just to name a few. For the most part these have been enabled because the rest of the world has either looked the other way or waited much too long to intervene. Sad.

      Sorry, my friend, I didn’t intend to write another post. I sincerely appreciate your comment and thank you from the bottom of my heart for responding to my posts.