In Memoriam: Boruch Spiegel

Would that we had more like him:

Boruch Spiegel, one of the last surviving fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, in which a vastly outgunned band of 750 young Jews held off German soldiers for more than a month with crude arms and firebombs, died on May 9 in Montreal. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his son, Julius, a retired parks commissioner of Brooklyn. Mr. Spiegel lived in Montreal.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising has been regarded as the signal episode of resistance to the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calls it the first armed urban rebellion in German-occupied Europe.

As a young man, Mr. Spiegel was active in the leftist Jewish Labor Bund, and when it became clear that the Germans were not just deporting Jews but systematically killing them in death camps like Treblinka, the Bundists joined with other left-wing groups to form the Jewish Combat Organization, known by its Polish acronym ZOB.

In January 1943, when German soldiers entered the ghetto for another deportation — 300,000 Jews had already been sent to Treblinka or otherwise murdered in the summer of 1942 — ZOB fighters fought back for three days and killed or wounded several dozen Germans, seized weapons and forced the stunned Germans to retreat.

“We didn’t have enough weapons; we didn’t have enough bullets,” Mr. Spiegel 
once told an interviewer. “It was like fighting a well-equipped army with firecrackers.”

In the early morning of April 19, the eve of 
Passover, a German force equipped with tanks and artillery tried again, surrounding the ghetto walls. Mr. Spiegel was on guard duty and, according to his son-in-law, Eugene Orenstein, a retired professor of Jewish history at McGill University, gave the signal to launch the uprising.

The scattered ZOB fighters, joined by a right-wing Zionist counterpart, peppered the Germans from attics and underground bunkers, sending them into retreat once more. Changing tactics, the Germans began using flamethrowers to burn down the ghetto house by house and smoke out those in hiding. On May 8, ZOB’s headquarters, at 18 Mila Street, was destroyed. The group’s commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, is believed to have taken his own life, but scattered resistance continued for several more weeks in what was now rubble.

By then, Mr. Spiegel and 60 or so other fighters had spirited their way out of the ghetto through sewers. One was 
Chaike Belchatowska, whom he would marry. They joined up with Polish partisans in a forest.

“He was very modest, a reluctant hero,” his son said. “He was given an opportunity, and he took it. I don’t think he was braver or more resourceful than anyone else.”

Oh, but he was plenty brave. The righteous do not always have material advantages over their enemies. But they have courage and goodness in abundance and for that alone, they will be remembered kindly by history.

And of course, the memory of the righteous is a blessing. Requiescat in pace.