Eighty years after a few hundred sparsely armed Jews fended off thousands of Nazi troops for over a month during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum, Yad Vashem, is making “Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust” the theme of this year’s Yom HaShoah, Israel’s annual Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day.
Citizens of the Jewish state mark Yom HaShoah, one of the most solemn days on Israel’s national calendar, on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan — the day on which the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. This year, the day of commemoration commences in the evening of April 17 and goes through April 18.
Neither the fighters in the uprising nor the civilian ghetto residents who aided them had any delusions about their odds of success or even survival; they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the well-supplied German soldiers. Their resistance was as much about standing up to oppression as it was trying to defeat it.
But the uprising, which was the largest such revolt by the Jews during World War II, is considered by many to be a seminal moment in Jewish history, and was described by former prime minister Naftali Bennett as “the pinnacle of Jewish heroism.”
This year’s official opening ceremony for Yom HaShoah will take place on April 17 at 8 p.m. at Yad Vashem’s Warsaw Ghetto Square on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. Shoshana Weis will speak on behalf of her fellow survivors, and Holocaust survivor Efraim Mol will recite the El Maleh Rahamim prayer for the souls of the martyrs. President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver remarks.
Yad Vashem will broadcast the ceremony live with simultaneous translation into English, French, Spanish, German, Hebrew and Russian via its websites in their respective languages. Additionally, Yad Vashem will offer simultaneous translation in Arabic on the Yad Vashem Arabic YouTube Channel. The live feed will be accessible in English and Hebrew via Facebook.
During the ceremony, Holocaust survivors will light six torches in commemoration of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazi killing machine.
Tova Gutstein will light the first torch. Born in Warsaw in 1933, Gutstein witnessed the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto from a young age. With the ghetto’s establishment in 1940, her father was sent to forced labor, and Gutstein helped her family survive by sneaking out of the ghetto to beg food from local Poles or collect produce from fields.
Gutstein was out foraging for food when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out. She returned home to find her house destroyed and her family gone. Fleeing the fighting, she ran between corpses lying in the street and found refuge in the forest, where she was taken in by partisans.
After the war, she spent 18 months in an orphanage before finally being reunited with her mother, sisters and brother at a displaced persons camp in the German city of Ulm. She moved to Israel in 1948 and became a hospital nurse. Today she is active in helping Holocaust survivors.
Ben-Zion Raisch, born in 1932 in Cernauti, Romania, now Chernivtsi, Ukraine, will light the second torch.
Raisch’s father emigrated to British Mandate Palestine in 1938 due to rising antisemitism, leaving Raisch and his younger brother in their mother’s care.
The city was occupied by the Soviets in 1940, then by the Romanians and Germans in 1941. Raisch’s family was sent to the Mărculești concentration camp, then marched to a number of ghettos as fellow prisoners died around them of cold, hunger and disease, including Raisch’s 3-year-old brother, Poldy.
Raisch and his mother managed to survive until the Soviets reoccupied the area in 1944, then reunited with his father in Israel in 1946. Raisch became a wireless technician in the IDF, and after his military service he studied electronic engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. He worked for the Rafael defense technology company for many years and helped develop electronic warfare as part of a team that received two Israel Defense Prizes.
The third torch will be lit by Judith Sohlberg, who was born in Amsterdam in 1935. Sohlberg grew up wearing a yellow star after Germany occupied the Netherlands in 1940.
In 1943, Sohlberg and her family were deported to the Westerbork transit camp, then were sent to Bergen-Belsen. There, at her father’s urging, she would walk among the sick inmates trying to cheer them up and encourage them to stand, because as her father said, whoever could not stand up would not remain alive.
In April of 1945, the family was packed onto a train with the other prisoners, traveling without a destination between the adjacent Eastern and Western fronts. Many prisoners died on the train before it was liberated two weeks later by the Red Army near the town of Tröbitz.
After traveling to Switzerland and meeting her former classmate, Saul, who had survived the war in hiding with Christian farmers, she married him and the two immigrated to Israel in 1959.
Robert Bonfil will light the fourth torch. Bonfil is an only child, born in 1937 in Karditsa, in the Thessaly region of Greece.
Thessaly was occupied by Italy in 1941, and in 1943 the Germans arrived in Karditsa. Bonfil escaped with his parents in a donkey cart in torrential rain, hiding in a series of ever more remote mountain villages in a game of cat-and-mouse with the Nazis.
After Germany’s retreat, the family returned home to Karditsa and found that members of his mother’s family had been deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
Bonfil married a Holocaust survivor from Germany and immigrated with his family to Israel in 1968. He is professor emeritus of Medieval and Renaissance Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Efim Gimelshtein will light the fifth torch. Born into a traditional Yiddish-speaking family in Belarus in 1935, Gimelshtein lost his father in 1941 when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and he was recruited into the Red Army, where he was killed in battle.
Between 1941 and 1943, Gimelshtein and his family were imprisoned in the Minsk Ghetto, where he survived the brutal police force and several round-ups while bearing witness to the violence, murder, public executions and even gassing of Jews that took place there.
In 1943, Gimelshtein and his family hid along with dozens of others in an underground bunker built to hold seven people. They lived in the bunker for nine months. When Minsk was liberated by the Soviets in 1944, 13 of the 26 people hiding in the bunker had died. The survivors, who could barely walk and suffered vision impairments due to hiding underground for so long, spent months recovering in the hospital.
In 1992, Gimelshtein and his wife immigrated to Israel, where he volunteers at Yad Vashem and tells his story to groups of Russian-speaking students.
The sixth torch will be lit by Malka Rendel, who was born in Nagyecsed, Hungary, the youngest in an Orthodox family of eight. Her father was killed in an accident prior to her birth.
When the Nazis entered Nagyecsed in 1944, they closed Jewish businesses and forced Jews to wear the yellow star. In May of that year, the family was sent to the ghetto in the neighboring town of Mateszalka, where the entire extended family lived in one apartment. Three weeks later, they were deported to Auschwitz.
Upon arrival, Rendel and two of her sisters were sent to one side, while the rest of her immediate family were sent to the other. The three sisters were the only members of the family to survive the selections.
They would spend the rest of the war at hard labor, first in a rock quarry near the Płaszów concentration camp, then at a parachute factory in Neustadt. As the Red Army approached, the sisters were sent on a forced death march to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. They were then sent to Bergen-Belsen, where Rendel’s two sisters died. She is still haunted by the memory of watching their bodies being thrown from a window onto a pile of corpses.
After liberation, Rendel was brought to Sweden, where she was hospitalized. After her release, she boarded a refugee ship to pre-state Israel, but was caught and imprisoned in a British detention camp in Cyprus. She eventually went on to immigrate to Israel, where she became a teacher. After her retirement, she taught Hebrew to new immigrants.
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