On April 22, 2022, President Joseph Biden declared April 24 – May 1, 2022, a week of observation of the “Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust.” International Holocaust Remembrance Day itself — called Yom HaShoah in Hebrew — begins at sundown on Wednesday, April 27, and ends at nightfall on Thursday, April 28. Here is one way the Upper West Side remembered.
By Jeff French Segall
The year 1943 was hell on Earth for the Jews of Warsaw, Poland. They had been forced into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 and were now at the point of total annihilation. The date was April 19.
Early in the morning, the Nazis began assembling outside the walls of the Ghetto, armed and ready to slaughter. However, spotted by local “guardian watchers,” the alert went out silently to the Jewish defenders. They emerged from their homes and set up secret hiding places, armed with materials that their own spies (mostly women and teenage girls) had slowly been smuggling in, past careless sentries or through underground sewers, for many months.
By 7 a.m., the Nazis had entered the Ghetto ready to attack and kill everyone in their sleep. Suddenly, from their secret hiding places, the Jews opened fire with Molotov cocktails and shots from their lone machine gun on the unsuspecting Germans. Within a short time, the street was littered with the bodies of Nazis. The battle went on, the Jews fighting with the guns, ammunition and gasoline they had been storing against what they had known would be this final attack upon them. But by May 16, 1943, their fight for survival had been crushed, and the remaining Jewish population had been deported to concentration camps and killing centers.
This story was told by witnesses and the descendants of witnesses who gathered on the chilly afternoon of April 19, 2022 — 79 years later — at “Der Shteyn” (The Stone), a modest granite plaque situated in the center of the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial Plaza, in Riverside Park at 83rd Street.
About 200 attendees sat in a wide circle around the garden defined by The Stone. Well-known writers and singers rose one by one to give personal testimony to that terrible time, and to provide musical expression and solace to all gathered there. The first speaker was Marcel Kshensky who had been a child during the Warsaw Uprising. He ended his speech with the words of Marek Edelman, a leader of the Jewish movement:
“On May 10th, 1943, this period of our bloody history, the history of the Warsaw Jews, came to an end. Those Jews who were killed in action did their duty to the end.”
Kshensky likened their historic struggle to the fight for survival of the Ukrainians in our time. “The Ukrainians are showing that the power of the many is greater than the will of one dictator,” he said. He beseeched the audience to remember that the work of maintaining a free democracy is not easy, but it’s the price we have to pay.
Dr. Steven Meed, the son of child spy and weapons smuggler Vladka Meed, spoke about the work his mother had done to help arm the Ghetto fighters. “Vladka was one of the couriers,” he said, “extraordinarily courageous people, mostly young women, whose daily task was to carry weapons, ammunition, explosives, documents, communication, cash, and the locatIons of hiding places for Jews, and to check on them regularly.”
In short, their task was to do anything necessary to keep alive the remnant of Polish Jewry.
“74 years ago, the 5th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was marked… at this very spot,” Meed said. “The Shteyn was placed here as a promise that we would commemorate the heroism, not only of the fighters, but of all those who have struggled to maintain their mentschlichkeit [humanity], even in the face of certain death. It is still our imperative to complete the task of providing an appropriate memorial here, to tell the world that once there was a time and place and people who struggled and gave their lives to fulfill the promise and the prophesy: “MIR ZEYNEN DO” (WE ARE HERE)!!
At the end of the ceremony, as the final notes of Anthem of the Bund and the Partisan Song faded and the sun began to shine and warm their chilled bodies, the onlookers spread flowers upon the stone’s surface, mingled, reminisced and promised one another that they would gather again next year, the 80th anniversary, and remember to teach the young never to forget what can happen when evil is given space to grow.