By Barry Lando
Thousands of largely unarmed people rise up against a brutal regime. In reaction, military commanders are dispatched to ruthlessly crush the revolt. Men, women and children are cut down in cold blood, houses and apartments destroyed, the streets littered with body parts and piles of the dead. Desperate appeals are made to the world for help, for arms, for medicines, for rescue.
The leaders of the world wring their hands and meet to deal with the horrific situation. Regrettably, there are too many reasons not to act, too many complications, too many subtleties. Sophisticated diplomats and heads of state understand these things. The slaughter continues.
One such meeting just ended in Tunis on Feb. 24, called to deal with the uprising in Syria. The other was held in Bermuda in April 1943, with delegations from the U.S. and Britain, to discuss the terrible predicament of the millions of Jews trapped in Hitler’s Europe.
Two days into the Bermuda Conference, the delegates received word of a transmission from an underground Polish radio operating out of Warsaw. Its desperate message: “The last 35,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto are condemned to death. Warsaw is once again deafened with the bursts of gunfire. People are being murdered. Women and children are defending themselves with their bare hands. Save us ...” At that point the radio went dead.
Of course, the differences between the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto and the current bloody uprising in Syria are huge. But the harrowing stories that have come down to us from the Warsaw Ghetto are eerily similar to the horrific accounts emanating from Homs and other Syrian towns over the past few months.
And, in both cases, the leaders of the world were challenged to react.
The Jews who rose up in Warsaw were the remnants of more than 250,000 Jews originally herded into the Ghetto. They finally refused to follow Nazi diktats when they came to realize that they were being deported not to labor camps but to the death camp at Treblinka.
Against German tanks, artillery and poison gas, the Jews had only a few revolvers, rifles and Molotov cocktails, some of them smuggled into the Ghetto by sympathetic members of the Polish Underground. Via underground radio and smuggled written messages, they attempted to alert the world with desperate appeals for support of any kind.
Meanwhile, by coincidence, reluctant American and British delegations—who for months had been under mounting pressure from domestic Jewish organizations—were meeting in Bermuda to deal with the question of what, if anything, they would do to save Europe’s Jews from Hitler, including large numbers of Jews in areas not yet occupied by the Nazis.
In Bermuda, the British and American delegates talked on and on for days. Jewish groups were not allowed to attend—nor were the media. At the end, the delegates issued a few hand-wringing statements, but did nothing.
In fact, one of their fears was that Hitler might actually open the gates of occupied Europe and allow the Jews to flee. The last thing the American and British governments wanted to deal with was a flood of immigrant Jews. Britain was also particularly unwilling to allow Jews to go to Palestine, then under British rule, for fear of offending the Arabs.
The basic reason for British and American inaction was deep-seated anti-Semitism in both England and the United States. This was particularly pronounced in the British government and the U.S. State Department, but also in the general population. Not even Franklin Roosevelt was willing to make saving the Jews of Europe a major issue until 1944.
Back in Warsaw, after three weeks of desperate struggle, on May 16, 1943, the last resistance in the Ghetto was annihilated.
In solidarity with his fellow Jews, an exile leader living in England, Samuel Zygelboim, committed suicide. For months, he had pleaded with the Allies to retaliate against Hitler for the ongoing slaughter of Polish Jews.
In a BBC broadcast in December 1942, he had warned, “If Polish Jewry’s call for help goes unheeded, Hitler will have achieved one of his war aims—to destroy the Jews of Europe irrespective of the military outcome of the war.”
After the Warsaw Ghetto fell, Zygelboim left behind a suicide note charging the Germans with the murder of Polish Jews, but he also accused the Allied governments, including the Polish government-in-exile, of not having done enough to rescue the Jews from the murderous hands of the Germans. Then he wrote: “By my death I wish to make my final protest against the passivity with which the world has witnessed and permitted the annihilation of the Jewish people.”
One would like to imagine that the outcome of the Bermuda Conference would have been dramatically different if the Internet had been around at the time—if instead of a lonely plea from an underground radio station, or the dry accounts of a few diplomatic cables, there had been YouTube and Twitter and Facebook broadcasting to the world the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust.
Imagine, for instance, if anyone with the Internet had been able to follow minute-by-bloody-minute the massacre of the civilians in the Warsaw Ghetto: the slaughter of men, women and children, the makeshift hospitals, their floors running red with blood. Imagine if the world had seen all that 69 years ago, like the scenes we’ve been witnessing every day from Homs.
Of course, the world would have reacted. How could it have not?
Just look at our diplomats discussing Syria in Tunis this past Friday.
Syrian soldiers who have defected position their rifles as they take cover behind the wall of a damaged house in Homs.