by John F. Di Leo -
Reflections on the anniversary of Lexington and Warsaw...
By April 19, 1775, the British armed forces had been occupying Boston, Massachusetts for almost seven years. Soldiers demanded room and board from the residents of this religious town, founded over a century before by immigrants seeking a safe and hospitable place to live and work and practice their quiet, respectable, honorable denomination. But the British grew ever more tyrannical in the 1760s, until soldiers were underfoot, on the corner, in the shops, in the Bostonians’ very homes.
Their freedom – the liberty their ancestors had braved the dangers of ocean voyage and wilderness settlement to acquire – was being stolen away by their own distant government. The king of England, a constitutionally limited monarch, was a tyrant. And at 5:00am on April 19, his forces marched into Lexington, under the command of Major John Pitcairn, and the short battle that followed began the American War of Independence.
Across the Atlantic, across the centuries, on April 19, 1943, another group of persecuted souls felt war upon them as well. Much worse, in fact, than most wars, as the Jews of Poland had been gathered together, rounded up through eviction and threats and the orders of uniformed men with government-issued guns. They were gathered into a few big cities, into neighborhoods like the Warsaw Ghetto, under the close watch of their Nazi overlords.
So many similarities … a different religion, but one just as peaceful. Government forces occupying the neighborhoods, guards always stationed within earshot or eyesight. As the British had set out to confiscate the New Englanders’ firearms and other weaponry, on that fateful day on Lexington Common, so too did the Germans set out to collect weapons, and anything else of value, from the Jews in Warsaw. SS officer Jurgen Stroop kept logs of the copious guns, grenades, watches, necklaces, rings, and currency that they captured over the months of their occupation of Warsaw.
In mid-1942, the Nazis had begun sending carloads of residents to Treblinka, a work camp. They told the local community leaders that conditions were too dense in the Warsaw ghetto, too dangerous, too suffocating. Of the half million Jews in Warsaw at the start, thousands died every month from disease and starvation, so some welcomed the idea that some people would be sent off to labor camps; there would be work, but at least there would be food.
By the end of 1942, however, the horrific truth got out. The people of Warsaw learned, first from dim rumors, too awful to contemplate, then with certainty, that Treblinka was not a labor camp, but a killing machine, a place to kill the innocent, a place to bring to life the culture of death that the dictator had hinted at – no, had promised – in his book Mein Kampf and in countless speeches during and after his quest for political supremacy.
A resistance began that winter, and the resistance grew. Week by week, the Jewish resistance captured equipment from the Nazis, and used it on them. They fought bravely and constantly, but failed to repel the Germans. The Germans had everything – money, arms, power, numbers. The Jews were already suffering from poor health, cramped conditions, a largely handmade and low-quality arsenal. The resistance had an impact; it bottled up the Nazis for awhile, but it was ultimately overwhelmed.
Just like at Lexington Common so many years before, the occupying commanders decided to fire back at the rebels on that April 19, on the eve of Passover, 1943. But there the comparisons end.
While Lexington was the beginning of a long victorious war for the people of Massachusetts, Warsaw suffered unspeakable horrors that only grew from then on. The Jewish Resistance continued to fight bravely, but the Nazis quickly wiped them out, once the retaliation began in earnest. By June of 1943, the Jewish Resistance was virtually over in Warsaw, and the movement of people from the ghetto to Treblinka and other concentration camps continued. Thirteen thousand Jews were killed during the spring uprising; tens of thousands more were transported to Treblinka to be murdered. By the end of the larger war, some six million innocent people, mostly Jews, were killed in this Nazi effort at total genocide.
There are many lessons for us today, as we look back on the history of these very different events…
…That when freedom fighters arise to confront tyranny, there is no promise of success, no certainty of result. Both the Founding Fathers of these United States and the Jewish Resistance of the Warsaw ghetto were taking on the most powerful single military force on earth at their respective times. Just as the Nazis were an amazing war machine in the 1940s, so too were the British an unbelievable war machine in 1775. No oddsmaker in either day would have bet on the insurgents. As we shed tears for the valiant rebels of Warsaw, let us also thank Divine Providence for the blood of the valiant rebels of Massachusetts who won a victory under similar odds.
… That any evils are possible at the hand of a lawless and immoral government. The injustices suffered by Bostonians under the British occupation don’t even compare with the evil of Treblinka, not in the least. The Bostonians suffered indignity and loss of freedom, not starvation and mass death. When the Jewish Resistance arose to fight, hundreds of thousands had already been murdered by the Nazi killing machine.
But as the Revolutionary War went on, the British did in fact grow more and more vicious – Hessians slaughtering surrendering colonials by the dozens, the British starving thousands of prisoners of war in the fetid holds of prison ships, or partnering with Indians to scalp the colonists – performing the random atrocity both on the battlefields and outside them. War is hell – all war, not just some – but you can tell the difference between the soldiers of a tyrant and the soldiers of a constitutional government. People fighting for freedom don’t fight the same way as people fighting in support of tyranny. As the war went on, some British commanders grew more and more bloodthirsty; none were so wicked as to be comparable with the Nazis, but year after year, some continued to move in the direction of inhumanity. When you seek the right to dominate, the end justifies any means, at least for some.
Perhaps it has something to do with the head of state. George III was not an evil man, so the most wicked of his occupiers had to keep their vices in check. Hitler was an evil man, leading an evil government, so the most wicked tendencies of their most malicious enforcers were bound to be given full and unchecked opportunity, particularly with unquestioned power, under the cover of war.
…The greatest lesson, however, is that freedom is always in jeopardy, that there are always villains around, from the petty tyrant in the bureaucracy to the megalomaniac head of state. We must watch for them all, because when enough little villains band together to do evil, the total destruction may be far greater than the sum of its parts.
How fortunate we are today that there have been fighters throughout the years, in many a society, who have fought back against the tyrants, whatever the odds. Too often the rebels have been defeated: the Nazis killed some six million before the world defeated them; the Soviets killed some seventy million before collapsing under their own weight. Thank Heaven that these villains are no longer around to do their evil.
But evil remains in the world, and always shall. And thank Heaven that every time it arises, whether in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, the home of the Ten Booms in Holland or the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, in the middle east or eastern Europe or Rwanda… there will always be some brave souls to stand up for the innocent, to protect the weak, to fight against the tyrants. Even when they have failed in the face of insurmountable odds, their valiant efforts are the stuff of legend, setting an example for the ages.
To the memory of our own Founding Fathers who risked and gave their lives on Lexington green, and to the many who fell with valor in Poland, in Germany, in Russia, and so many other sites of tyranny too sadly numerous to recount, we give our thanks. Mankind’s record glows with the memory of their honorable sacrifice. We are better people for having known of their courage, and of their devotion to the causes of justice and liberty.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included. Follow me on LinkedIn or Facebook!