Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto
TELEVISION: Uprising! directed and produced by Jon Avnet, starring Hank Azaria, Leelee Sobieski, David Schwimmer and Donald Sutherland. Airs on NBC on November 4 and 5, 9-11 p.m. (EST).
Review by Annie Levin | November 2, 2001 | Page 9
YOU DON'T usually find the hidden history of people's struggles portrayed on major television networks--so when it happens, you don't want to miss it. Uprising! is a beautiful movie about the little-known 1943 revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler's army invaded Poland, which surrendered after less than a month of fighting. The Nazis rounded up 350,000 Jewish citizens and crowded them into the Warsaw Ghetto, where they were persecuted and starved.
In September 1942, the Nazis began mass deportations of Jews from the ghetto to Treblinka--Poland's death camp. By the end of the year, more than two-thirds of the population--men, women and children--had been taken away to the gas chambers.
The movie brilliantly shows the complexity of daily life in the ghetto--the heart-wrenching deportations, the traitorous role played by Jewish police who patrolled their own people in exchange for special treatment, and the small acts of resistance by ordinary people.
Mordechai Anielewicz (played by Hank Azaria) is a leader of the Jewish Resistance--and most likely a socialist, although the movie doesn't spell this out. He argues passionately for armed resistance--the position of the Bund, the Jewish socialist organization in Warsaw.
Anielewicz tries to persuade the head of the Jewish Council, Adam Czerniakow (played by Donald Sutherland) to use the council's funds to smuggle arms into the ghetto. But Czerniakow rejects him, clinging to the illusion that he can make deals with the Nazis.
It quickly becomes clear that Czerniakow is wrong, as Nazis load thousands of Jewish children onto cattle cars for the death camps.
The case for armed revolt is eloquently made several times. In a speech to his comrades, Anielewicz says, "What do we do in the face of this horror? Do we sit on our hands and wait for the next humiliation? Maybe we lift our hands to God and wait for the Messiah to come?...I don't think he's coming. So what do we do? We use our hands and our hearts and our lives and our deaths. If you can't fight, then run. If you can't run, then hide. But you must resist. You must."
The question of the role of the Allied powers is raised when one woman says, "If the Allies don't bomb the railroads or the camps, we don't have a chance." The Allies never did--so the fighters never had that kind of chance.
And in one scene, members of the Polish underground refuse a Bund leader's request for arms and say, "London will not give arms to 'untrained' Jewish fighters."
In January 1943, thousands of Nazi soldiers marched into the ghetto to round up the remaining people for the death camp. Suddenly, the soldiers were attacked by fighters who seemed to come from every window and rooftop--men, women and children armed with dynamite, Molotov cocktails and guns.
Despite their superior numbers and firepower, the Nazis were driven out of the ghetto. They couldn't remove a single Jew to the camps that day. And the Nazis were driven back in their second assault a few days later.
Concerned that news of the revolt would spread and give confidence to the Resistance everywhere, the Nazis decided to "raze it to the ground."
Hundreds of Jewish Resistance fighters and their loved ones took refuge from the firestorm in the maze of sewers beneath the ghetto. But they didn't stop fighting.
All in all, the Warsaw Ghetto fighters held out for longer than the entire country of Poland had in 1939, and the Nazis were unable to send them to the death camps. It was a tremendous victory for Resistance fighters everywhere--and an inspiring story that's told well by this made-for-TV movie.