October 29, 2001
Dear Ms. Zapalski:
Mr. Alexander Danel asked me to express my opinion as to the accuracy and
appropriateness of the publicity that the National Broadcating Company has
placed on its website and presumably also on the air to advertise its
upcoming mini-series entitled "Uprising." I am the director of Columbia
University’s East Central European Center and Executive Director of its
Institute for the Study of Europe. I received my Ph.D. in modern East
Central European history at Columbia and am a specialist in the modern
history and politics of that region.
The particular phrase to which Mr. Danel drew my attention is as follows:
Against impossible odds, they held off the German army
longer than the entire country of Poland, determined to live with honor
- and if need be, die with honor - while lighting the torch for resistance
in the occupied territories.
It seems to me that the Ghetto fighters are poorly served by advertising
that is simply inaccurate. To be sure, the odds were impossible, and the
Jewish Fighting Organization members did live and die with honor.
However, they did not hold off the German army army longer than the entire
country of Poland. This is factually wrong. I assume that the NBC
publicists are referring to the September Campaign, which lasted from the
German onslaught on September 1 to the surrender of the last organized
Polish army units on October 5, 1939.
That, however, takes nothing away from the Ghetto fighters, whose struggle
lasted an impossibly long and tragically short four weeks and ended with the
deaths, or deportation and extermination, of some 56,000 Jews. The Warsaw
Uprising that took place a year later lasted nine weeks, cost the lives of
nearly 250,000 civilians who, like the Jews in the Ghetto a year earlier,
lived and died with honor. Both risings were part of a struggle waged by
the citizens of Poland against Nazi aggression that lasted from September 1,
1939 until the end of the war in Europe. Citing Professor Joseph
Rothschild, my late colleague here at Columbia and a leading political
historian of the region, during that time
the achievements of the Polish resistance movement were indeed prodigious.
It tied down approximately 500,000 German occupation troops and, according
to official German figures, prevented one out of every eight Wehrmacht
transports headed for the Russian front from reaching its destination. The
climax of the Polish resistance movement was the heroic but abortive Warsaw
insurrections of August 1 to October 2, 1994. Jewish uprisings had also
been launched and repressed earlier in the ghettos of Warsaw (April 19-May
16, 1943), and of Bialystok and Wilno (September 1943). Abroad, substantial
Polish military units fought against the Germans on most Allied fronts:
Norway, France, the Battle of Britain, North Africa, Italy, Normandy, the
Lower Rhine, and the Soviet Union.
In this context, the Ghetto Uprising was part of a larger anti-Nazi Polish
effort. Comparing the Ghetto Uprising to that larger effort seems pointless
and ultimately demeaning to the Ghetto fighters. And it counters a more
insidious and erroneous impression that all Jews in the various ghettos
reacted passively to their annihilation. Perhaps a more accurate and fitting
way to put it might be
Against impossible odds, they held off the German army with little hope for
rescue, determined to live with honor - and if need be, die with honor -
while passing the torch for resistance in the occupied territories.
NBC has little to gain from alienating the veterans and descendents of the
survivors of those dark days in these dark days. Better to stick to the
facts, which the facts really do speak for themselves.
Dr. John S. Micgiel